You might not know the face but will definitely recognise the work.

Of course, we all know the story of Leon Vitali. The man who walked away from an acting career at its peak to work with one of cinema’s greatest directors for the last 25 years of his career. The man behind the man who sacrificed not only his own profession but much of his health and personal life too. The man who became so immersed in the director’s oeuvre that without his relentless dedication, the vast majority of us today would never have seen the films the way they were intended. Come to think of it, you probably haven’t heard this story. Many people in the screening hadn’t either and it reads like one of cinema’s best kept secrets. Meet Leon Vitali, devoted assistant, and much more, to Stanley Kubrick.

Shortly after starting work with Kubrick on The Shining, Vitali had to fill out the occupation section of his visa form. He was no longer an actor and the word filmworker seemed like the perfect way to describe what he did. He worked on each film without a single, definable role and so it stuck over time. Upon meeting Leon on the set of Full Metal Jacket, Matthew Modine at first thought he was an Igor-type figure, bowing in subservience to the every whim of master Kubrick. But Modine soon learned there was much more to the assistant than that. Vitali was available to do whatever was needed to meet Kubrick’s insanely detailed vision. Throw in a bit of tailoring, colour coding, editing, production work, actor coaching, sound engineering, driving, cat killing (well almost, but it’s one of the few Kubrick requests he refused) and more and you start to get the idea.

Tony Zierra’s no frills documentary, Filmworker, allows the viewer to live vicariously through Vitali’s eyes, imagining a life spent by the side of a cinematic master. They met on the set of Barry Lydon after Kubrick handed Vitali the role of his career as Lord Bullingdon. It was there that the actor became curious about the production process. After approaching Kubrick to ask if he could work for him behind the camera, it wasn’t long until he was heading over to America to find the young actor who would play Danny in The Shining.

Leon’s willingness to commit so much to Kubrick makes for a fascinating watch. Visually the film is flat, with the camera strangely positioned a little too close to its subjects and relies heavily on behind the scenes photos and videos from the shoots, but the strength of the content more than compensates. Leon himself recalls his memories in a matter of fact and grounded manner, much like the grafter persona his career has defined him as. He is a warm and passionate man whose health suffered as a result of the continuous 16 hour days spent overseeing the full Kubrick catalogue. Countless times he was on the receiving end of Stanley’s ferocious temper and yet took the stance that the anger wasn’t directed at him but at Kubrick’s determination to achieve perfection.

Despite comparing Kubrick to a cinematic version of Gordon Ramsey, there is no bitterness or resentment, only admiration and love for the man. Even now, despite not being invited to the landmark LACMA Kubrick exhibition that was the first of its kind in America, he continues to work on the restoration and transfer of the filmmaker’s catalogue for free. The film also serves as acknowledgement of the tireless work offered by the faceless men and women on set. That endless list of names below the line who make the work above it possible. Leon Vitali was one such worker. A filmworker whose own legacy has guaranteed the preservation of another’s.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: May 18, 2018

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