It’s well know that working for Stanley Kubrick will take a lot out of an actor. Filmworker, the new documentary by Tony Zierra about the actor who became Kubrick’s right-hand man, reveals both the toll and the love that this involves. Leon Vitali is the film’s subject. As Lord Bullingdon, he played a key supporting role in Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975). He later gave up acting to become Kubrick’s assistant until the director’s passing in 1999. To this day, Vitali continues to supervise the projection of Kubrick’s movies and tend to the details of the late filmmaker’s estate. This writer had the honor of meeting Vitali when he visited Miami for the first time in his life for the Florida premiere of Filmworker at the Miami Jewish Film Festival. Ahead of our Q&A following the documentary, we met via phone, where he indulged me in a no holds barred 45-minute conversation.
Filmworker features interviews with key actors from Kubrick’s movies, including Matthew Modine and R. Lee Ermey, who both got to know Vitali on the set of Full Metal Jacket (1987). The two actors particularly express a sort of pity about Vitali’s decision to quit acting to become Kubrick’s assistant. Speaking via phone from his home in Culvert City, California, Vitali says of the switch in careers, “When I made that decision it wasn’t an easy decision. It’s just that I couldn’t shake this feeling when I was working on Barry Lyndon.”
Vitali said that feeling was falling in love with the filmmaking process while watching Kubrick at work on the sets and locations for Barry Lyndon. He says it was like nothing he had ever experienced before in his acting career. Because Kubrick spent so much time making the movie, Vitali found himself appreciating the craft of filmmaking as he watched the director spend time with things like lighting. The film is well known for only relying on natural light, including amazingly staged candlelit interiors, in order to reflect the era where the story took place: 18th-century England.
“It was such a huge, long project,” says Vitali. “It just went on and on and on, and it was a lot of time of just hanging around and sort of waiting for the actual performing at the time, and the more I saw him setting up and working his lighting and stuff like that, stuff that I’d never given any conscious thought to whatsoever, it just began to be so interesting to me.”
His appreciation of Kubrick’s work ethic so impressed Vitali, he found himself with an urge to learn more about the craftsmanship behind making movies. “I just kind of thought, well, wouldn’t it be great — it must be fantastic to be on a project like this from the very beginning to the very, very end, and so I talked to Stanley about it, and he let me sit in on the sets, which is something he never really allowed.”
Vitali says this was a rare move for Kubrick because he wouldn’t want anyone on set that didn’t need to be there. Vitali recalls while shooting The Shining (1980), Stephen King, the author of the book on which the film was based, continually asked to visit the set, but Kubrick did not want him around. When he finally permitted him to check it out, it was during the shooting of inserts, like close-ups of the typewriter. Not even the actors were around. Vitali was tasked with giving King the tour, and he says it was the most uncomfortable experience of his life. “He was so angry,” says Vitali of King.
”If you had nothing to do on the set, you shouldn’t be there,” says Vitali of Kubrick’s perspective. However, Vitali found a comfortable rapport with Kubrick, and he eventually gained the access to the Lyndon set even if he wasn’t on call as an actor. “We had such a wonderful communication that just felt so natural and so easy, from the very first time we met. It just became a wonderful fascination for me, and so after thinking about it for some time — and he had said to me, ‘If you really do feel that way, you do something concrete about it, then let me know,’ and so I did.”
Vitali went on to play the lead role in Terror of Frankenstein. He asked to work in the cutting room after shooting the film to learn something about filmmaking. He worked for free and uncredited alongside the film’s editor, Susanne Linnman. “So I did that, and I let Stanley know that I had done that, and that’s kind of how we kind of got into The Shining, which was his next project.”
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In part 2 of this interview, We will share more about Vitali’s work on The Shining, including what he observed about Kubrick’s infamous interactions with Shelley Duvall, plus who the studio wanted to play her role, a suggestion Kubrick balked at. For more on my conversation with Vitali, jump through the Miami New Times headline below for a preview piece that ran ahead of Vitali’s appearance alongside myself in Miami during the Miami Jewish Film Festival:
Filmworker runs 94 minutes and is not rated. It opens Friday, June 8, exclusively in our Miami area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link and select “Playdates.” Kino Lorber sent us an online screener ahead of the film’s Florida premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.