“Filmworker” (2017) Review

Filmworker (2017)

Dir. Tony Zierra; Leon Vitali, Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey
[3 out of 4 stars]

There are hundreds of documentaries and biopics of film directors and actors, but remarkably little attention is paid to the tireless workers who aid these stars behind the scenes. Film directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Anderson have devoted, worshiping audiences. A whole mythology is built around these directors: he (and it is almost always a he) is seen by the media as a tyrannical genius; a god in the act of creation. Stanley Kubrick is one such director: in the popular conscious, he is a mysterious, demanding, angry god, but one who gives us films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He is widely known for his meticulousness and anger, filming for months on end, requiring hundreds of takes of a single shot, and driving those around him mad. But if Kubrick is an Olympian god, then the subject of Filmworker (2017) is a demigod whose Sisyphean task never quite ends.

Filmworker, a documentary told largely through interviews, brings Leon Vitali to the screen. Vitali is a British actor and personal assistant to Kubrick, whose devotion to the director verges on martyrdom. When we first see Vitali, it takes a moment to remember where we have seen him before. He has the look of an ageing rockstar; a Mick-Jaggery figure in overlarge sunglasses, bandanna, denim vest with no undershirt, and a freckled tan. He’s skinny, jittery, and you can hear the smoke rattling in his lungs when he laughs. And like those ancient rockers, he’s still totally obsessed with what he does–although this is a little unclear at first, and the film unravels his myriad tasks slowly.

Through a series of interviews, with Vitali as well as those who knew him and Kubrick best, Filmworker presents Vitali’s story. He began as an actor in England, where he was on his way to success before seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which blew him away. Vitali decided that more than anything, he wanted to act in a Kubrick film. In Barry Lyndon (1975), Vitali achieved this goal by playing the role of Barry’s adopted son, Lord Bullingdon. But as Barry Lyndon was finishing, Vitali did the unthinkable: he gave up the spotlight and switched to the other side of the camera, becoming Kubrick’s personal assistant–for the rest of the director’s life, and beyond. Vitali’s justification is simple, but not always convincing: he recognised Kubrick’s genius, and wanted nothing more than to be near him. The opening voiceover aptly compares Kubrick to a light, and Vitali to the moth who burns his wings off to get just a little closer.

Vitali quickly became Kubrick’s right-hand man, catering to his every need, working all hours of the day. Matthew Modine, who played Pvt. Joker in Full Metal Jacket (1987) describes how big of a sacrifice this was: “What Leon did was a selfless act…kind of a crucifixion of himself.” Whereas actors are paid well and enjoy seeing their names in lights, film crews remain largely forgotten and overworked. As the film progresses, we get a better and better sense of just how much Vitali was doing for Kubrick. At one point, Vitali starts listing every type of work he did for Kubrick: “I was dialogue coaching and casting. I was also in charge of shipping. Television. Sales.…Licensing. Doing layout. Video transfers….” The segment goes into a voiceover montage just to have room to discuss every type of work he did.

Vital was tasked with the job of representing Kubrick after his death in 1999, balancing financial success with cinematographic perfection. Vitali was the only one who knew what the films were supposed to look like and how Kubrick would have wanted them finished. It was a monumental amount of work, and the effects on Vitali proved dangerous. After two 36-hour shifts of film editing, Vitali collapsed. While discussing this in Filmworker, Vitali suddenly stops talking and tells the camera that he doesn’t feel like discussing this anymore. It’s a sad breakthrough: despite Vitali’s love for his job, it has clearly burdened him. A similar moment comes at the end of the film, when we realise that when Kubrick was celebrated by the LACMA art museum in 2013, Vitali was neither consulted nor invited.

Vitali’s relationship with Kubrick is almost frightening at times. When asked why he still works for free on every aspect of Kubrick’s films, Vitali responds: “This is because I love Stanley. That’s why I do it. Because I love him.” Vitali’s devotion to Kubrick makes him sound like a member of a cult who has recently been let out and still cannot quite distance himself from his idol. “I never ‘handled’ Stanley…I handled myself so I could exist in Stanley’s world,” he says at one point. At other points, their relationship seems to be that of lovers: they quarrelled and disagreed but were loyal to the end, trusting only each other with the most important decisions in their lives. During one of the interview segments, Vitali suddenly stops talking and starts pulling notebooks out of a box from his attic. Hundreds of notebooks filled with notes from Kubrick, who would call Vitali in the middle of the night and talk for three hours, insisting that Vitali keep detailed notes of the conversations. Once, Vitali compares working with Stanley Kubrick to being on one of Gordon Ramsay’s cooking shows: he would scream and berate, demand perfection, and then expect complete loyalty.

Filmworker is an emotional film. Despite Vitali’s assurances that he is doing what he loves, there seems to always be a tinge of sadness. Maybe this is just that he’s lost his best friend. But Vitali has also struggled emotionally, and financially. In an interview with one of his sons, we learn that after moving to LA, Vitali relied on his children for support. Other interviews, add a personal, emotional complexity to the film, one often lacking from the “objective” camera of documentary films. The interviews with Vitali’s children were the most affecting for me; all three recalled that Kubrick’s bad days were Vitali’s bad days.

Although  interviews with other actors––including Ryan O’Neal (Barry in Barry Lyndon), R. Lee Ermey (Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket) and Danny Lloyd (Danny in The Shining)––provide interesting perspectives into the working and personal relationship between Vitali and Kubrick, there is always one aspect missing. Aside from one short soundbite, we never hear Kubrick’s voice. As he’s been dead nearly two decades, an interview with him would be impossible, but it’s striking that the film lacks any journal entries, older interviews, or anything that would give us a sense of how Kubrick saw their relationship. As Julian Senior, who worked for Warner Bros., says: “You have to understand Stanley Kubrick before you could even begin to understand what Leon Vitali did, does, went through, what’s imprinted on his soul and mind.” The dearth of Kubrick’s personal touch is thus one of the film’s weaknesses.

Paradoxically, the film seems unable to pick a subject. At times, it’s hard to tell whether this is really a film about Vitali, or another documentary about Kubrick with extensive interviews with his personal assistant. Although the film alleges to be about Vitali, the interviewees spend so much time talking about themselves, Kubrick, and the filmmaking industry in general that it’s easy to get lost in anecdotes. There also appears to be little editing for content: the interviews with Vitali are sometimes rather uninteresting, as he drones on about the details of who called whom and whose car he was driving on a certain night. Perhaps an overarching voiceover would have tied these loose ends together a little better.

When watching documentaries, viewers should pay attention to the narrative and ideological thrust. What does Kubrick’s absence do for the film, and whose perspective is really being shown? Structurally, Filmworker seems one-sided. It’s striking that we’re constantly hearing about Vitali’s impression of Kubrick, but we never hear from Kubrick’s family or from his archives. The portrayal of Vitali as a martyr is also questionable, since he never really uses that rhetoric himself. The film seems to suggest that we pity him–the interviews with other actors certainly reinforce this–but Vitali himself never really plays into that feeling. Vitali’s own message seems to be not one of self-sacrifice, but of self-understanding. Leaving the limelight and the wealth may be unthinkable to the greedy actors, but if we consider Vitali’s humility, it actually makes sense.

Vitali’s story does not end when the film does. As the ending title cards suggest, Vitali is now working for Kubrick’s estate, helping preserve and redistribute his films. He is Kubrick’s most devoted disciple, helping continue his legacy after his death. Filmworker is thus a step toward recognising Vitali’s work–his thankless years spent making Kubrick who he is. Vitali has clearly accepted this role. He is no longer an actor, nor will he be recognised as an auteur himself. In the end, as he says himself: “I’m a filmworker. I’m a worker. That’s what I do.” The strength of Filmworker is that the viewer is filled with a sort of melancholy: on the one hand, we recognise that Vitali is doing what he loves. He has chosen to spend his life working with and for Kubrick, his closest friend. But on the other hand, we realise that this is his fate. Vitali has no other option; he is doomed to push the boulder of Kubrick’s legacy up the hill, forever.


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