Film review: Filmworker is a fascinating new documentary

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In the opening to Tony Zierra’s new documentary, Filmworker, Leon Vitali is described as a moth that flies towards the light and burns off its wings. Director Stanley Kubrick is that light, writes Natalie Stendall.

At the height of his acting career, Leon Vitali left life in front of the camera to become Kubrick’s right-hand man. Vitali became involved in all aspects of the production and distribution processes, ensuring Kubrick’s films continue to be seen today in the standard the great director would have wished.

Filmworker revisits Kubrick’s notorious perfectionism and “vitriolic” temper. In a mark of the documentary’s sense of humour, he’s even likened to Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen. Utterly dedicated to his craft, Kubrick demanded the exceptional from his cast and crew.

But while the insights into his method and complex personality are engrossing, the real star of Filmworker is Vitali himself. Zierra explores how, finding it difficult to relinquish control, Kubrick came to trust Vitali with everything from casting and overseeing lab work to archiving and publicity.

With talking heads and archive footage, Zierra traces the fascinating relationship back to Vitali’s first impressions watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Later, after drama school and a screening of A Clockwork Orange (1971), Vitali declared “I want to work for that man”.

His first encounter with the director would not be long in coming. It arrived on the set of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) when he was cast in the in the remarkable role of Lord Bullingdon. Inspired by the sheer effort that went into creating the director’s vision, Vitali began turning down roles at the RSC and The National Theatre to work in the cutting room.

What follows is a beautiful portrait of the dedicated and loyal Vitali who worked day and night, often without sleep, to help Kubrick deliver his vision. His efforts are described as a “selfless act” and “a crucifixion” by Kubrick’s former casts and crew.

Involved in so many aspects of the filmmaking process, Vitali had no single title, instead preferring to call himself simply a ‘filmworker’. But giving himself over to Kubrick’s demands did not come without sacrifice. Footage of Vitali’s children playing amidst the film cans while he slaves away, oblivious, at his desk is Filmworker at its most poignant.

Zierra takes us from anecdotes about Vitali’s casting of child actor Danny Lloyd in The Shining and R. Lee Ermey in The Full Metal Jacket, to the exhaustion that came with juggling all aspects of Kubrick’s empire. Earning a difficult reputation at Warner Brothers as a result of Kubrick’s meticulous demands and fastidious commitment to the quality of film prints and promotional materials, Vitali’s career since Kubrick’s death in 1999 forms a fascinating final act.

Ultimately, Vitali’s Kubrick is not only formidable but soft, gentle and a great nurturer. While the personal side of their friendship remains somewhat elusive, Filmworker is a testament to Vitali’s passion for Kubrick’s work and love for the man himself. It stands out both as a poignant character study and a beautiful, too long withheld acknowledgement by the film industry of Leon Vitali’s incredible, unsung role in the Kubrick oeuvre.