'Filmworker': Meet the Secret Hero Behind Stanley Kubrick's Movies
After getting to know Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man Leon Vitali, you'll never look at assistants the same way again.
As the saying goes, “Behind every great or successful man, there stands a woman.” Though society views the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of genius as singular, it is, in fact, a team effort; no country is ruled, no invention created, no masterpiece written, and no iconic movie made without the blood, sweat, and tears of a partner in crime (in history, oftentimes a woman). Leo Tolstoy's wife famously copied War and Peace eight times by hand as his devoted secretary. Vladimir Nabokov's wife was her husband's literary agent, typist, and editor.
Behind Stanley Kubrick stood not his wife, but his devoted lifetime assistant, Leon Vitali.
And devoted is an understatement. Tony Zierra's documentary Filmworker, which premiered at Cannes this year, shines a light on Vitali, the man to whom Kubrick owes a significant portion of his oeuvre. For nearly 30 years, Vitali dedicated himself to facilitating and elevating the quality of Kubrick's films. Vitali's title of "assistant" is an egregious misnomer: he was Kubrick's casting director, secretary, film restoration artist, editor, translator, on-set assistant, foley artist, script supervisor, film archivist, driver, license negotiator, color-corrector, and more.
Among his countless contributions to the Kubrick legacy, Vitali cast Danny Lloyd, who played Danny Torrance in The Shining, and served as the four-year-old's acting teacher. (In the film, Lloyd credits Vitali as being largely responsible for his iconic performance.) Vitali also discovered The Shining's "Arbus twins" and Lee Ermey, the unforgettable foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, from a real military barracks.
Without him, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut would be decidedly lesser movies.
Vitali was resolved to work for Kubrick after seeing A Clockwork Orange. When the lights came on again in the theater, Vitali turned to his friend and said, "I will work for that man." The classically-trained actor got himself in front of Kubrick's casting director on Barry Lyndon and nabbed the co-starring role of Lord Bullingdon. On set, Vitali's commitment to the part didn't go unnoticed by Kubrick; Vitali endured 30 takes of a real onscreen beating from fellow actor Ryan O'Neal. So when Vitali asked the director if he could be his assistant on the next project—despite the fact that Vitali's acting career was poised to take off dramatically—Kubrick said yes.
As it turned out, supporting one of the most notoriously demanding directors of all time was a tall order. The monomaniacal Kubrick was utterly dependent on Vitali—and, as Filmworker suggests, borderline exploitative. "Stanley Kubrick was a bright light, and Leon was a moth who burned at the flame," a colleague notes in the documentary. Vitali's self-effacing nature and reverence for Kubrick made for an all-consuming career. The so-called assistant subordinated himself to the perfectionistic director, oftentimes at the expense of his own dignity and personal life. Rather than spend time with his kids or pursuing his own artistic ambitions, Vitali was tasked with rehearsing dialogue with Kubrick's actors ad nauseum, obsessively writing down everything that happened on set, and completing any task Kubrick threw his way.
Despite the fact that Kubrick's exacting methods drove many crew members to quit, have a nervous breakdown, or both, Vitali weathered the director's vitriolic temper and proclivity for manipulation in the service of his art. He even appeared in bit parts where necessary: underneath the Red Cloak in Eyes Wide Shut is the dutiful Vitali.
"I'd work 14 or 16-hour shifts, seven days a week," Vitali recalls in the documentary. "And that wasn't just some of the time. That was normal...Stanley ate you up."
Call Vitali's lifelong sacrifice what you will—martyrdom, self-erasure, or, as Matthew Modine described in the documentary, an Igor-like servitude—but without him, Kubrick's legacy would have suffered. Without him, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut would be decidedly lesser movies. Without him, Kubrick's movies might have been lost to history (Vitali preserved and restored his films, whose negatives he knew inside and out). "I was at the service of Stanley because he was at the service of his movies," Vitali says in the film.
Vitali is what happens when one decides his life is best spent in service of a genius. No Film School caught up with Zierra and Vitale at Cannes 2017 to discuss what made Kubrick one of the most impressive directors in cinema history, the extent of Vitali's sacrifices, the fate of below-the-line crew today, and more.
"For almost 30 years, he was used to just talking about Stanley Kubrick. It's almost as if he himself didn't exist."
No Film School: Tony, how did you and Leon initially become acquainted? When did you know there was a story here?
Tony Zierra: I was doing the first Kubrick documentary, which I haven't edited yet. I contacted Leon and we filmed together in L.A. and we just hit it off. I was like, "Are you kidding?" Here’s this film treasure right there down the street from me. What a great story.
I approached him and I said, "I really would like to tell your story." I got a no. It took a while. I just pushed and pushed. I realized later on that for almost 30 years, he was used to just talking about Stanley [Kubrick]. It's almost as if he himself was gone or didn't exist. He had put himself away, and he was really uncomfortable talking about it.
Zierra: He finally said yes. For the first four weeks, it was impossible to get him to engage. To really give me stuff. But I knew that it was all about being patient: pushing for three hours, four hours, and then you'll get that one minute [of good material from him]. It became a form of therapy.
Also, Leon has all this stuff in boxes. It was just a lot of books and pictures and notes, and it was overwhelming for him to go through it all. So I thought if we could organize all his stuff, label it, re-box, and bring it back up in the attic…as he opens stuff, he could tell me what he remembered. He would smile and laugh as he remembered a story from whatever is in the box. Once, it was binoculars that Stanley gave him as a gift. Sometimes he would get very irritated or get taken back in the moment of how intense his work with Stanley was, and get into the mode of, “Everything is gonna collapse if you don't get this done.”
Of course, I ended up with almost 200 hours of footage.
NFS: Leon, what were you afraid of?
Leon Vitali: Well, it felt really big and immodest. You know? Talking about yourself…it just feels a little self-centered.
NFS: Even if everyone is interested in your story?
Vitali: To be honest with you, the more people want to know, the more I kind of felt distant. But my children wanted me to [do it].
Zierra: It's true. [His children] said, "You really got to do it. Why not do it?" But it was all about convincing Leon.
Vitali: Well, I got divorced, and I thought about not being with my children every day as they grew and not getting to see what the changes were. I would have to go to work. [My kids] made peace with it, but you know, when the divorce came through, I realized they missed a lot of what I did early on in their lives.
"The 'assistant' title is really a joke when it comes to Leon, and that's why I loved it when he told me that he called himself a 'filmworker.'"
Sometimes, they would come to work and Stanley would talk to them. I'd pick them up at lunchtime from where they were staying, bring them in, and then Stanley would come down and say, "Hi, want to come in and see some tea with us?" And we'd be sitting there for ages. Stanley was genuinely engaged.
But it’s not the same as being in the same orbit every day with your kids, getting to know everything in their life and in my life. So, when we saw the film on Friday, I think it shocked my children as much as it shocked me. I don’t think they understood the way I was doing things with Stanley. Because I hadn't talked about it.
Zierra: Yeah, it's one thing to know that your father is Stanley’s sort of assistant. It's another thing to know the details. And in Leon's case, what’s unusual about the story is that people go by titles. So, Leon’s an assistant. What does that mean? Leon had a conversation with Stanley about a scene in a movie?
But the "assistant" title is really a joke when it comes to Leon, and that's why I loved it when you told me that you called yourself a "filmworker."
NFS: So, Leon, as a "filmworker", you've played nearly every role on a production, I imagine. Over the years of being a jack-of-all-trades, what's some general wisdom that you've picked up about the way film sets work? About how good movies are made?
Vitali: Well, in Stanley's case, it was having the idea and then persevering with that idea. I mean, you can't give up that big thing—the idea of the movie in the first place.
It also comes down to how he works with the scene. No detail is too small. Also, when we cast roles, we never sent out character descriptions.
NFS: You didn't want to box yourselves in?
Vitali: We didn't want to box ourselves in. And that's, sometimes, how we found some very original people. You would never have thought of casting them, but by the time the film finished, you couldn't think of anyone else for the role!
NFS: What's an example of one of those people?
Vitali: Oh, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket. We went to him originally for military advice. We were looking for people that made the recruits—extras, you know. I went around all the barracks and asked if anyone was interested. Then we found him. It was astonishing. I mean, it really was. In the end, we put 800 pages on paper of all this stuff that he said in his days as a drill sergeant, and then we sort of shrunk it all down to the very best. That's how we had those barrack scenes. They are so authentic.
"Genius is the idea. The rest of it is just hard work."
NFS: Do you think this meticulousness that Stanley was known for is part of what made him so successful?
Vitali: I think that's part of it. He always said that genius is actually 90 percent sweat. Genius is the idea. The rest of it is just hard work.
It was also in his nature. He was a chess player. He was very sharp-minded. We looked at lots of research, thousands of photographs for every film. It was endless. This made for nuances in his movies that some people wouldn't notice until the third time they saw them. It was always a lot of detail. It drove a lot of people nuts.
Stanley wasn't afraid to let the script change rapidly. You know how a writer says, the book writes me, not I write the book? Well, in a way, once we started filming, the film directed Stanley. He was open to that. He wasn't afraid to say, “Well, I thought that was a good idea, but we can't use it.” However hard we worked at it—however far down the road we went pursuing it—he was not afraid to cut it if it didn’t work.
Zierra: The genius in Stanley, I think, was allowing the change and being open. A lot of people think if somebody else makes a suggestion, because it wasn't yours, then you're not a genius. I think the genius is actually facilitating that openness and allowing the [suggested change]. At the end, you're just going to have it a really solid project for it.
NFS: Film is a collaborative art by nature.
Vitali: Exactly. We always say that. The joke was that people talked about Stanley as if he lived on a desert island. But you can't make a movie without collaborating, you know? There are hundreds of people in the process.
Zierra: But they were the right people, too. From my research on Stanley, I learned he still controlled things; you can only bring so many people in, and they all have ideas, but it comes down to knowing who you have and who you're working with.
I think Stanley’s genius was finding someone like Leon. If you bring somebody else who’s kind of shallow, or doesn't have the depth to train an actor, or to work with an actor, then you'll end up with also a shallow performance. But to have someone that is a Shakespearian-trained actor...Leon was always reading about the meaning of certain words, where they came from. With Leon, there was a huge accumulation of knowledge. Leon could take things to the next level.
"The joke was that people talked about Stanley as if he lived on a desert island. But you can't make a movie without collaborating."
NFS: It was amazing to see how Leon cast Danny Lloyd in The Shining and developed his performance. It’s a big testament to how you helped shape Stanley’s legacy. You’d never know you were the invisible hand there.
Vitali: You know, it was important not to leave a fingerprint. And he was an amazing kid. He was four years old. He wasn’t precocious in any way. In fact, he was very shy. But once we got over the first barrier of getting to know each other, he just got better and better and better and he opened up. I kept calling him back for longer and longer auditions, like half an hour, then an hour, and then two hours. Then, in the end, we had seen 4,000 children and Stanley said Danny was the only one.
NFS: In the sheer number of hours that it takes to do a project, you can begin to lose sight of your original intention. It's easy for the art to get lost in the details of the material. How did you find that you, Tony, as a documentarian, and you, Leon, as a filmmaker working with Stanley, kept that vision intact?
Zierra: I created a script about everything I shot. I was creating an imaginary arc—building a story. A lot of prep went into calculating, like even if Leon mentioned a story or a name, not repeating it again unless it was necessary. Staying with the beat and the emotion.
Throughout Leon's career, he was always learning. Stanley was always learning, too. Nobody stopped. We wanted to leave room for that.
Zierra: For example, with Leon's childhood, that was a tough one. Where do you start with that? Do you end with it? It helped to see his father, who was very strict but also an artist. He wanted to express himself and he died young. From a young age, Leon was gravitating toward creativity, and he would watch his father sing to him. You start to see that there is a little connection between his father and Stanley. Leon was paying attention to all their little details.
So, you work, and later you go, "Oh, no, I was an idiot." And you start all over again. I've done that a lot with this movie.
No matter how many times you see Stanley Kubrick's movies, they always change because they are so layered. Movies come and go every day. Sometimes we love a movie so much at the time, and a year later, we can't even watch it again. But there is something magical about Stanley's movies. Our love for them does not end.
Why is this? Well, I learned from talking to Leon that it was a lot of research, a lot of details, a lot of work. A lot of prep. With Danny Lloyd, searching through 4,000 kids to cast him wasn't even the end of it. Then, they had to take that kid and work with him tirelessly. In one scene, the kid just stands there for literally a split second, and you haven't seen anything like it in your life. It's this iconic image.
"At the end of the movie, I'm one of the few of people who watches the credits all the way through. I know it's not going to make a difference to anybody. It's just my respect for them."
NFS: Do you think directors, nowadays, should be adopting that more meticulous process?
Zierra: Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. If they aren't, maybe that's why you don't have this long shelf life of the longevity of a film. We are at a point now where a movie comes out for two days in the theater and it's gone. It's like a factory.
NFS: Do below-the-line crew get the short end of the stick when it comes to not just recognition, but also quality of life and compensation? Are they getting treated fairly?
Vitali: It's hard to say now because everything has changed so quickly because of digital. But I think it depends on the film and the production company you are working for. Some of them are appreciated, and directors will try and use the same people whenever they can. I know Stanley would ask for people back—you know, carpenters and stage hands. If he liked somebody, they were with us for a very long time.
But the hard thing is, it's taken for granted that if below-the-line people work hard, the reward is they'll get another job. You know, you rise up to supervisor or production designer. I think production companies themselves should think about that.
Zierra: That's why you want to honor below-the-line crew, I think. For me, it was really where the story clicked. From talking to people, I found that you either had two groups: the ones that, as Leon mentioned, just work. They don't care. They just love what they do. But in the other group, a lot of people are always waiting and hoping that they will move up.
As a society, because we're such a celebrity world, the whole point that we wanted the movie to make is that, whatever your job is on the set, the world or your children or your friends should look at you like you have value. Some people go, “Oh, you're just an assistant.” Or you look at yourself and go, “I’m just an assistant. I really never made it.” There's this sadness inside, or disrespect, in a sense. People want to be appreciated. There are a lot of people who are depressed: "I never made it, I'm nothing." Or, their kids look at them like, you just bring the director coffee.
Zierra: We really wanted people to say: "Without you, this movie wouldn't happen." That's one. And two, you should be admired and respected because you do an integral part in the movie that is really needed. It's a craft. It can't always be, "Oh, here's the director, here's the star." A movie is a machine. Without your crew, you can't run it!
It's like when we were talking about when Leon wasn’t invited to Stanley’s big LACMA exhibit. I pushing to find out why. It wasn't like someone said, "Oh, I don't want him there." They just didn’t think about it. It's like, they want the actors to come in and the celebrities to come in. But why would they want the assistant? None of us would be even having this discussion if it wasn't for below-the-line people.
NFS: Exactly. They’re the foundation.
Zierra: If you watched 20 Feet From Stardom, there are four people in the background singing and making good money. They didn't really become the big singer or the big star. But with film, if you're an assistant, or the caterer, or the carpenter, you're not even on the stage. You should be respected regardless.
Vitali: I’m over-enthusiastic. At the end of the movie, I'm one of the few of people who watches the credits all the way through. I know it's not going to make a difference to anybody. It's just my respect for them. I think of them.
I know a family of people where the father is property master and they all became property masters. They have sons and daughters who became property masters. They realize what a privilege it is. Those jobs that are never advertised.
Zierra: When you look at Stanley and Leon, you start to realize that they would do anything for their movie. It didn't matter. As long as it had to do with the movie, they'd sit until 5 o'clock in the morning and just keep moving chairs around, putting the light here, moving it there. People really need to learn that that's how you come up [in the film industry]. The craft is so immaculate. You only get good stuff when it's handmade with hard work.