'Filmworker': Film Review | Cannes 2017

A fascinating portrait of Stanley Kubrick's devoted aide de camp.

Stanley Kubrick's assistant for the last 25 years of the director's life is front and center in this intriguing doc.

Anyone who has had any contact with Hollywood celebrities has probably encountered the loyal factotum who lives in the shadow of these stars and serves them loyally for years or even decades with very minimal recognition. Of course such acolytes can also be found in royal palaces, business boardrooms and even the White House. But the phenomenon is probably more familiar in the entertainment world, which is the reason that the new documentary, Filmworker, premiering in Cannes, seems so revealing.

In this case, the celebrity being worshiped is not an actor but director Stanley Kubrick, still one of the most revered auteurs in film history. And his devoted follower, Leon Vitali, receives arresting treatment in director Tony Zierra’s film. Those who worked with Kubrick are familiar with Vitali, but his name is unknown to the general public. In a way this is surprising because, unlike some other celebrities’ assistants, Vitali had his own brief but notable career as an actor.  He appeared on stage in England and in a few films, most notably in Kubrick’s 1975 Oscar winner, Barry Lyndon, where he had a juicy supporting role as the hero’s bitter stepson, the character who is ultimately responsible for Lyndon’s downfall.

Vitali, interviewed extensively in the film, says that he was a huge admirer of Kubrick after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, so he was ecstatic when he was cast in Barry Lyndon. The experience was not entirely pleasurable. One of the memorable scenes in the film comes when Ryan O’Neal’s Barry beats Vitali’s character savagely after an argument.  According to O’Neal, who gives a candid interview in the doc, that beating was not fake. Kubrick pressed him to hit Vitali harder and harder. “We did it 30 times,” O’Neal says, wincing slightly.

Was it masochism, then, that led Vitali to continue and deepen his collaboration with Kubrick after filming on Barry Lyndon ended? That would obviously be too simplistic an explanation. Vitali clearly revered Kubrick, and physical abuse ended after that first collaboration. Vitali worked on all of the director’s subsequent films and helped to cement the director’s legacy by working closely on the DVD restorations of all Kubrick’s movies after the director’s death in 1999. On The Shining Kubrick sent Vitali to America to search for a child to play the endangered son of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. (Danny Lloyd, who was eventually cast in the role, is also interviewed in the film.) On Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali also served as assistant and confidant to Kubrick throughout filming and post-production. (On Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali even resumed his acting career to portray one of the cloaked and hooded degenerates in the film’s controversial orgy scenes.)  It is well known that Kubrick oversaw not just every detail of these productions but of their marketing campaigns as well, and Vitali often played a crucial role in executing the director’s wishes.

What were the costs of this devotion on Vitali himself? That is one of the most provocative questions posed by the film, though there is no definitive answer. Vitali’s three children acknowledge that they often felt that they played second fiddle to the master filmmaker.  But there are frustrating gaps in this section of the film. We never learn anything about Vitali’s marital history, probably because his wives declined to participate in the film. And the film may shortchange Vitali’s subsequent career. He had fairly prominent positions on two Todd Field movies — In the Bedroom and Little Children — so the impression conveyed by the film that he had no professional life after Kubrick is probably inaccurate or incomplete.

Nevertheless, Filmworker conveys some of the consequences of subordinating oneself to a master. Kubrick was clearly a ruthless taskmaster; some of the people who worked on Full Metal Jacket confirm that judgment. On the whole, Zierra has assembled an impressive group of interviewees that also includes Matthew Modine and R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket and many of the Warner Bros. executives who worked closely with both Kubrick and Vitali. (Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are not among the interviewees, but would anyone reasonably have expected them to participate?) The interviews with Vitali himself are extended but sometimes seem a bit guarded. Nevertheless, the film honors the hard-working, often unacknowledged craftsmen in the film industry and stirs provocative questions about the fine line between legitimate devotion to an artist and dangerous hero worship.

Interviewees: Leon Vitali, Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Danny Lloyd, Stellan Skarsgard, Warren Lieberfarb, Max Vitali, Vera Vitali, Masha Vitali
Director-director of photography-editor: Tony Zierra
Producers: Tony Zierra, Elizabeth Yoffe
Venue: Cannes Film Festival

90 minutes