Leon Vitali, Filmworker
Tony Zierra’s documentary ”Filmworker” has received a lot of attention this autumn, and in spite of the fact that the film premiered at the Cannes film Festival well over a year ago, it still keeps making headlines. The film has received a number of accolades, and on November 4th 2018 the very person on whom the documentary centers, actor Leon Vitali, visited The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm to present the film and participate in a Q&A session.
The interview is moderated by Per Perstrand from The Swedish Film Institute, and members of the audience are also encouraged to chime in with their own questions, which Mr. Vitali answers obligingly and at length. A lot more facts and anecdotes on certain subjects are brought into the light this way than the documentary itself can convey in it’s limited running time. The conversation focuses equally as much on Mr. Vitali’s own career, as it does on his lengthy collaboration with Stanley Kubrick. Those who have only a fleeting knowledge of who Leon Vitali is, may not be aware that he was in the middle of highly successful acting career, when he suddenly decided to work full-time -in the truest sense of the word- as Stanley Kubrick’s assistant.
And there are many nice recollections from Mr. Vitali’s acting career which he shares with the audience. For instance, he worked on the feature film ”Catholics” (1973) which featured Martin Sheen, Cyril Cusack and Trevor Howard among others in a stellar cast, and was shot in Ireland. During this shoot, Mr. Vitali was highly impressed with the way his acting colleagues could hit the bars until the wee hours in the morning -and still show up at 8 o’clock on set, letter-perfect. And he realized that the key ingredient here was their ability to focus 100% when they had to.
In fact, the ability to well and truly focus becomes a reoccurring Leitmotif throughout the continued conversation.
In 1974, Mr. Vitali was hand-picked for the role of Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s ”Barry Lyndon” (1975) and the two got along so famously, that Leon Vitali asked if he could stay on after principal photography wrapped, purely out of curiosity and in order to learn more about filmmaking. Two years later Mr. Vitali played the lead in ”Terror of Frankenstein” (1977) which was shot in Sweden, and on that production he met his future wife Kersti Vitali with whom he had two children. Leon Vitali would now spend the following nine years dividing his time between Great Britain and Sweden.
Of course it wasn’t long before Stanley Kubrick persuaded Leon Vitali to once again work on another one of his films. Mr. Vitali made invaluable contributions to ”The Shining” (1980), as it became his task to literally interview thousands of children in order to find the right one to portray Jack Nicholson’s son in the movie. Again, Mr. Vitali searched for the ability to focus in these children, and Danny Lloyd -who was merely 4 years old at the time- had it in spades, and subsequently got the part.
Having by now worked over a decade for Mr. Kubrick, unfortunately nothing had prepared him for the ordeal which the next production, ”Full Metal Jacket” (1987) proved to be! Besides having to find the leads through a casting session involving thousands of unknown young men, and working as acting coach to virtually half the cast during production, there was now also the added challenge of authentic vintage marine helicopters and tanks on the set, and trying to make them work properly and on cue. ”Full Metal Jacket” turned out to be an extremely challenging production. “The hirings and firings on ”Full Metal Jacket” were amazing”, Mr. Vitali remembers, ”we lost people all the time”.
But to the viewer who makes an effort to “read between the lines” when watching the documentary ”Filmworker”, a more nuanced image of Stanley Kubrick as a filmmaker emerges, especially in combination with Mr. Vitali’s reminiscing during the Q&A session. We have here a director who could ask for 140 takes during the shooting of one scene and who could be a complete control freak when he had to -but who could also settle for just three takes when shooting another scene, and who would happily listen to a suggestion from one of the on-set carpenters when shooting yet another scene. And that Tom Cruise, at a point in his career when he could easily have starred in four different features a year, bringing in $20 million each, instead chose to spend more than a year working with Stanley Kubrick on ”Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), Mr. Vitali found nothing short of touching. Leon Vitali remembers Tom Cruise being enormously committed and focused during the production of that film.
”Dedication” seems almost an inadequate word when trying to understand the commitment and loyalty with which Leon Vitali served as Stanley Kubrick’s right hand during a quarter of a century. Today Mr. Vitali works full-time for the Stanley Kubrick estate, as there is practically no one today better qualified to judge the colour correction, soundtracks, and various other aspects of the motion pictures in Stanley Kubrick’s legacy. He admits having seen ”A Clockwork Orange” (1971) well over 1000 times, and the other titles at least 100 times each, ”and I never get tired of them”, Leon Vitali concludes with a gentle smile.