Leon Vitali, Stanley Kubrick’s longtime assistant, has heard all of the fans’ conspiracy theories about his boss’ films, from the notion the Apollo moon landing was faked and shot by Kubrick to minutiae like the poster of a downhill skier in The Shining (1980) representing the devil. But the one theory that truly frustrates him the most is hardly as creative as these. “In a way it’s really when the blowhards come at you with the aspect ratio questions,” says Vitali speaking via phone from his home in Culvert City. “It’s definitely the one that really rears its head more than anything else.”
To understand why something like this bothers Vitali means you have to understand the work both he and Kubrick did to make sure any and all of his films were projected right on the big screen. Anytime a film print went out for a screening, Kubrick would make sure someone watched the print to make sure it was in quality and complete condition before it went out. This task would often fall on Vitali. The same would go for the authoring of home video media. If Kubrick’s films were inaccurately transferred to video in the wrong aspect ratio it would have meant Vitali would have failed Kubrick, a notion Vitali does not take lightly and one he often finds hard to debunk.
“It’s really a conspiracy kind of thing,” he says of the believers that Kubrick’s films on home video were not transferred according to the director’s vision. “It takes on that. If someone who sets themselves up as an authority says, ‘No, it was this aspect ratio or that aspect ratio,’ you realize that, well, they’re gonna believe it whether they want to or not. They just do. Some people are very hard to change their minds about something if they’re convinced about it.”
Even beyond Kubrick’s grave, Vitali continues to work to preserve the director’s vision. For the current re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Vitali color timed the 70mm print that’s being screened in theaters. He also worked on the color timing of the 4K transfer which will be coming to home video soon. We hope to share more about Vitali’s thoughts on that classic Kubrick film’s 50th anniversary re-release ahead of a theatrical run at the Coral Gables Art Cinema next month. I will also be participating in a discussion ahead of the July 11 screening, based on my Master’s thesis on the film (How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 1 of 4).
Though the restoration of 2001 is Vitali’s latest job for the Kubrick estate, his first real job as the director’s assistant was as acting coach to Danny Lloyd on the set of The Shining. Based on Vitali’s acting experience, Kubrick’s first major task for him was to help cast the role of Danny Torrance. Vitali recalls seeing thousands of child actors. “Some of them weren’t even 4 that I auditioned, up to 6 and 7 and 8 years old,” he remembers. He found an unequivocal authenticity in Lloyd, however.
Less known about Vitali’s work on The Shining is that he worked on dialogue with actress Shelley Duvall, who played Danny’s mother in the film. Vitali attests to well-known reports of Kubrick pushing the actress’ performance by not treating her nicely. “I have to be honest and say there were times when it was so that he was kind of mean because it sort of opened up something inside her,” he admits.
Vitali says Kubrick was convinced she would be suited for the role of Danny’s nervous and harried mother by her performance in the 1977 Robert Altman film 3 Women. “He just thought it was absolutely perfect,” says Vitali on Kubrick’s opinion of the Altman film. However, the studio wanted a much more glamorous actress in the role. “The studio wanted him to use somebody like Jane Fonda. In fact, I think her name was constantly being urged on Stanley, and even I, at that time, I kind of thought I couldn’t see someone like Jane Fonda taking this kind of crap from Jack Nicholson, from her husband [in the film]. She wouldn’t be submissive or compliant in any way, not in a way that Shelley seemed to be in 3 Women.”
Though mother and son prevail over the father turned psychotic by the ghosts of The Shining, it was key that Duvall transmit a sense of distress during their struggle. Vitali notes that it is a performance easy to overlook in the face of a strong performance by a child with no previous acting credit and Nicholson, a star actor at the height of his career. “I always say she’s been totally under appreciated in The Shining because I think she had to spend, long, long hours being in that sort of mode, and of course over a period of time there are just some days when you don’t want to be like that,” he says.
Vitali feels great sympathy for what Duvall went through on the set, recalling how Kubrick treated her. “It’s hard,” he says. “It’s really difficult to sort of be in that mode without actually sort of being in touch with it, which she needed to be, so of course he could be a bit snappy, but he could be that with everybody, of course, but she seemed to respond to it more than anyone else, and he kind of built it from there with her.”
Kubrick knew what he was doing with actors, up until his final movie, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut (From the Archives: Illuminating Eyes Wide Shut with a Lacanian analysis), a film for which Kubrick was very conscious of casting then real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Vitali says the director knew when to turn it on with the actors, noting that it wasn’t until the actual shooting of the movie that he seemed to begin riling up Duvall. “It really started when it really needed to start happening in the movie,” he says. “Before all that there wasn’t any problem at all because Shelley was playing a very naive kind of person, who carried these things inside her without really saying anything. She was very accepting that [Nicholson’s character] used to drink, and he broke Danny’s arm and what have you … and then of course when he becomes totally manic it becomes a completely different thing. The changes that she makes from beginning to end of that movie, I think is quite astonishing. It’s just I guess people kind of take it for granted. I don’t know how to explain it because it was an amazing transformation, really.”
As he reflects on the harsh treatment of Duvall during The Shining, it’s hard not to consider the work horse he became for Kubrick, as captured in the new documentary about that relationship, Filmworker. In the documentary several actors, including Lloyd, reflect on watching Vitali commit to Kubrick’s demands. Some even express a similar pity Vitali felt for Duvall. Having seen the documentary, Vitali understands the perspectives, but it no less diminishes the love he had and continues to have for Kubrick. “I think in a way, you know when somebody in a group, friends or family they know them well, and they have an opinion of what it is that makes them do something — the thing is they probably all have a point but that point is probably only part of the whole sort of question of it, for want of a better word. It’s like trying to analyze somebody who is really angry, badly raises a child or whatever it is, but there are other small influences, which are also part of the whole picture of what somebody is and why they are that way.”
Vitali reflects back to his youth, when he and his siblings were forced to rise to the task of working at a very young age following the untimely passing of their father. He says to understand his devotion to working for Kubrick means understanding how early a work ethic was instilled in him, which was way before he knew the filmmaker. “I grew up with a very different kind of work ethic simply because my upbringing did involve manual working by the time I was 8 years old. It’s something that had to be done every single day. You would never be allowed to do that now. It couldn’t happen. It would be child abuse,” he says with a laugh. “It never felt like that. It just felt like one of the lots of things we had to do. My mom was widowed, and she had three of us to raise, and she didn’t want us to be split up in any way, so you just go ahead and do it. You don’t think of it as suffering or having a hard time. In fact, when you’re kids you get into in a different way.”
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Part 1 of this interview can be found by jumping through the headline below:
Filmworker’s Leon Vitali on what drew him to give up acting and work as Kubrick’s assistant – part 1
For even more on my conversation with Vitali, jump through the “Miami New Times” headline below, which was a preview piece that ran ahead of Vitali’s appearance alongside myself in Miami during the Florida premiere of Filmworker at the Miami Jewish Film Festival:
Filmworker runs 94 minutes and is not rated. It opened 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.