Nick Mastrini reviews the documentary revealing the fascinating career of Kubrick’s right-hand-man.
Tony Zierra’s Filmworker is a documentary that celebrates the hidden craftspeople of filmmaking by exhibiting the career of Leon Vitali, the actor-turned-right-hand-man for Stanley Kubrick, who relinquished a burgeoning career in front of the camera to work behind it.
A filmmaker as creatively independent as Stanley Kubrick can’t be defined by a genre, movement or single film. For Kubrick, the opposite is true: his work came to define the second half of the 20th century. As if by cosmic coincidence, the director’s career fits exactly into those five decades; Kubrick produced his first film, a boxing documentary short titled Day of the Fight, in 1950, and screened the final cut of Eyes Wide Shut six days before his death in 1999.
Vitali enters this timeline exactly halfway through, playing Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon in 1975. It becomes clear Kubrick wanted his actors to live as their characters, to learn every piece of dialogue by heart. While this caused issues for some cast members, Vitali prospered, and connected with Kubrick as a collaborator. Vitali coins the film’s title as a catch-all term to describe the breadth of tasks he would complete in service of Kubrick. What the documentary reveals is that – by sheer dedication to a laborious career – he ultimately became an understated cinematic polymath.
Filmworker does well to exhibit the two sides of the Kubrick-dedication coin. One voice notes that ‘he always had the energy for other people,’ confirming Vitali’s sincerity and selflessness. The late R. Lee Ermey (whose defining role in Full Metal Jacket was developed with Vitali’s support) and Matthew Modine highlight that they, or anyone else, would be “too selfish” to take on the role the filmworker did. And through a number of intimate interviews Zierra reveals the toll this took on the man who “became the arms and legs” of an iconic director.
From acting through editing and printing to casting and foley design, Filmworker takes us on a journey through cinematic departments and showcases Vitali’s expertise in each one. As this path unfolds, the weight of Kubrick’s career takes its toll. “Stanley kind of ate you up,” remarks one voice, and eventually, it is the global span of the director’s appeal that forces Vitali to live and breathe not a single role but a number of films. Every print inspected, every frame and every trailer, every marketing move and shopfront window concerns him. Filmmaking is a business above all, which makes Vitali stand out even more. He recalls asking “Stanley… do I look corporate?”
Filmworker is a great watch for the cinephile, especially one more interested in the human impact of filmmaking as a lifestyle than intense analysis of the films themselves, as in the Kubrick doc Room 237. Conspiracy theories and subliminal messages aren’t to be found here. Instead, this is the remarkable story of a craftsman whose curiosity led to mastery, and whose legacy deserves to be printed on film.
Filmworker was released May 18 and is now showing in UK cinemas. Trailer: