Everyone has visions of becoming one of the greatest of all time, no matter what it takes. If you consider Stanley Kubrick to be one of the GOATs, then Filmworker is the documentary for you.
Filmworker tells the tale of Leon Vitali, who gave up acting at the height of his career, coming off his performance as Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, to work with Kubrick on the other side of the camera. Vitali toiled in obscurity for more than two decades as Kubrick’s right-hand-man, sacrificing himself to Kubrick’s notoriously meticulous artistic vision.
If you are aware of how far Kubrick pushed his actors to get a performance he liked — and if you’re watching this movie, then you certainly are— most of the interviews crew members give for Filmworker don’t come as much of a surprise. But it was heartwarming to see so many other filmworkers praise Vitali for his contributions. (The off-putting animations that break up footage of interviews, iconic scenes and behind-the-scenes photos were not.)
“At first you’re like, ‘Oh my God, Stanley Kubrick!'” said Lisa Leone, a crew member on Eyes Wide Shut. “And then you’re like, ‘I don’t know man.’ Because you’re pushed to a point where you’re like, ‘I have no more.'”
The long and short of it is Kubrick was so demanding, so intense, so focused, most people could barely handle working under Kubrick for just one movie —Vitali mentions an art director on Full Metal Jacket who suffered a mental breakdown from the stress. Even R. Lee Ermey, who said he wanted to act in Full Metal Jacket so badly he agreed to be the movie’s technical advisor only so he could work his way up to playing Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, said he couldn’t imagine working with Kubrick as long as Vitali did.
Kubrick cared about every single detail in his films, and Vitali had to become a jack-of-all-trades to work so closely with the director. Vitali was a dialogue coach for The Shining’s Danny Lloyd and Ermey, designed the layouts for physical releases, handled international trailers, performed foley work, acted, cleaned couches and more — all for Kubrick. Vitali ignored his family life and personal health — all for Kubrick.
Director Tony Zierra told me Vitali was so involved in Kubrick’s filmmaking process that Kubrick would’ve died “way before Eyes Wide Shut” if he didn’t have Vitali to help him out.
“If he bent down on the floor to pick something up, then I had to bend down and pick Stanley up,” Vitali said of Kubrick shortly before his death during production of Eyes Wide Shut.
Although Vitali was heavily involved during the production of The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, his most direct contribution was restoring Kubrick’s filmography for future generations (a topic that was not transitioned into well in Filmworker). After Kubrick’s death, Vitali was the only one with enough knowledge of Kubrick’s filmmaking process to make sure re-releases of the late director’s movies were faithful to how he originally made them.
Restoring Kubrick’s filmography was a Herculean effort, ruining Vitali both mentally and physically more than working with Kubrick ever did. During the movie, you can see Vitali squirm in his chair when recounting everything he did so the restoration was as perfect as Kubrick would’ve wanted. He then tells the camera that he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.
Throughout Filmworker, Vitali makes it clear that he gave up so much for Kubrick entirely of his own volition. Zierra told me he tried to push Vitali to say he regretted what he did for Kubrick in interviews, but Vitali never would.
“I’m a filmworker. I’m a worker. It’s what I do,” Vitali said.
The movie ends by paying tribute to all the unsung heroes of the film industry like Vitali who make movies what they are because they love movies and don’t care about any of the fame or fortune. While touching, this seemed out of place in a movie that kept telling the audience that Vitali was unique in his willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of moviemaking.
“You will get opportunities,” Zierra told me, “The thing is that it should never be about the big score in the end, it should be about that rich journey that you have and the fact that you are part of something that makes an impact in life.”