What Was It Like to Be Stanley Kubrick’s Right-Hand Man?

A new documentary about Leon Vitali, the director’s longtime assistant, reveals some hard truths


Among hardcore Stanley Kubrick fans, the name Leon Vitali holds a kind of magic. He was the young British actor who made such an impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon and then turned around and became Kubrick’s assistant for the rest of the director’s career — the kind of job that would be considered a demotion on most other film sets. But as you can see in Filmworker, Tony Zierra’s new documentary about Vitali, he did everything for the filmmaker: He scoured the United States looking for a young child to play Danny in The Shining and coached the boy he eventually found, Danny Lloyd, during the shoot. He scouted and rehearsed actors, and conducted extensive research for Full Metal Jacket. He served as a liaison to studios. He oversaw restorations and home-video releases. He played bit parts, including the red-cloaked ritual leader in Eyes Wide Shut. He did production inventories. And my favorite: Nearly all of the foleyed-in footsteps in Full Metal Jacket are his footsteps.

Vitali allowed his life and work to be consumed by Kubrick. A remarkable choice, when you think about it: The young actor was at the height of his career during Barry Lyndon, and yet he abandoned the spotlight to join the armies of uncelebrated “filmworkers” behind the camera. Zierra’s entertaining and informative documentary playfully uses scenes from Vitali’s many film and TV appearances to tell the story of Vitali’s career with Kubrick. But Filmworker also makes clear the enormous personal toll his work took on the actor-turned-assistant: Halfway through the movie, we’re introduced to Vitali’s now-grown children, and it’s a genuine shock to realize that he had a family the whole time he was on-call for Kubrick — and was often unable to give attention to them.

Filmworker walks a fine line tonally, as it reflects both Vitali’s admiration and awe of Kubrick, while also calling into question the way the director allowed his many projects to devour the lives of those who worked for him as well. (There was a similar tension at work in last year’s S Is for Stanley, Alex Infascelli’s documentary about Emilio D’Alessandro, Kubrick’s longtime driver.) But in many ways, this dilemma is at the heart of Kubrick’s cinema: The director’s obsessions not only consumed those around him but also leapt off the screen and consumed his fans. And perhaps if Kubrick himself wasn’t obsessed, if his films weren’t so thoroughly overwhelming in real life, then they wouldn’t have exploded in our minds the way they did. Filmworker is both a cautionary tale and a tribute to this kind of compulsion. And Vitali, for his part, is still devoted to Kubrick’s work. Last year, I spoke to him about this documentary, and about his years working with the director.

What went through your mind when you first got approached about doing this documentary?

It started off as a request from Tony to meet and talk, because he was at the time trying to make a film about Stanley. He came and interviewed me, and we just got along very well. I don’t know what it was in particular that prompted them, but he and his wife, Elizabeth Yoffe, came and said, “Well, we’ve decided we’d like to make the film about you, and the interesting path you took to work with Stanley and be with him for such a long time.” I really wasn’t very sure about it at all. I didn’t want to start glorifying myself. But my children said, “Well, yeah, you should do it!” because they themselves probably knew so little of what I did when they were young.

And as we got into it more, we connected it back to below-the-line people — who get very little credit for what they do. They’re only really briefly acknowledged in the very fast-moving roll of text at the end of a film. I know there are some topliners in set design and cameras and what have you, but there’s thousands who aren’t. And a lot of people struggling, just like anybody else, to get work.

Was it a culture shock for you to go from being an actor in front of the camera to being someone working behind it, as part of the crew? It’s almost a different world back there.

It is. And you know, Stanley was one of those directors who’d say that I had to be ready in full costume and makeup and everything for three o’clock or two o’clock, and then I’d be sitting in a chair just off set, waiting to be called on. That happened often in the early days, day after day. And I started to look around, and I’d see all these people who I didn’t personally know, but who’d become like a kind of family — everybody was on nodding terms with each other. I’d done movies before, but I’d never seen anything like this.

Then I started looking at all the equipment that Stanley was using, and I had a fascination with how he used the brute lights. I’d never actually been on a set with a brute before. And we got along well. We’d sit and just talk about anything, anything at all. It could be about film, or it could be about soccer. He finally asked me, “Are you so interested in this side of it?” And I said, “Yes, I am, really interested.” And he just said, “Well, if you want to do something about it, let me know and we’ll see what we can do.”

What was your first day as an actor on the set of Barry Lyndon like? Do you remember?

Oh yeah. I do. It was actually a scene that was never used, because the film grew and changed directions. Stanley was somebody who used to let things happen. He’d push it, push it, push it, and if it seemed like it would lead somewhere — it didn’t matter if it was anything close to what had been written in the script — he just followed that path. So the very first day on set, I was going to be filming a scene with Marisa Berenson [who played Lady Lyndon], where Bullingdon is in a snooty, sarcastic kind of way reading a passage from Hamlet — one which alludes to the situation that she is in with Barry Lyndon. It’s a scene where Hamlet is chastising Gertrude for having married her brother-in-law. And at the end of our scene, [Lady Lyndon] gets really upset and runs crying from the room. And [Barry Lyndon] comes in the room, for the purpose of caning me, punishing me.

I don’t know how to describe it other than I felt so relaxed and at home, because I knew that Stanley wouldn’t go, “Oh, that’s close enough,” or, “We’re not gonna get much more out of it.” He just wasn’t like that. He’d say, “Yeah, that’s good,” and, “Do that a little more.” And he’d be encouraging in a very positive way, pushing and pushing in that way. I felt very comfortable with it. And if he said, “We’ll do it again,” I thought, “Great, wonderful, yeah, let’s do it again.” I know there are all sorts of stories about him, but sometimes I think he was misunderstood. Malcolm [McDowell] said that Stanley didn’t direct him in his scenes, and I know what he means in a way. But what Stanley did was let Malcolm be Malcolm, which is why he cast Malcolm in the first place. Some actors think if the director’s not saying, “You move over there, and you go over there, and you move over there,” that they’re not being directed.

It’s amazing how this image of Kubrick as a dictatorial perfectionist has persisted, because from everything I’ve heard from people who worked with him, it sounds like he was quite the opposite — open to changes, open to letting things take their course.

It is strange. And he actually said to me once that it was probably a little bit his fault, because he wasn’t very communicative with the press outside of the release of his films. He just wanted to bury his head in what we were working on. And because he didn’t have to talk to the daily press, it didn’t really matter what it was they were saying about him. So we just got on with stuff. I remember in England, the press seemed pretty obsessed with him, so they took an aerial photograph of the Stanley Kubrick estate, and they published it big in the paper and said, “This is Stanley Kubrick’s house.” And it was the wrong house! [Laughs.]

Your performance in Barry Lyndon epitomizes the Kubrick style of acting for me. I was intrigued to learn how important a role you played in subsequent films when it came to working with the actors — auditioning them, running through their lines, even helping them come up with lines. I wonder if in some senses a little bit of you rubbed off on those performances, because there really is a kind of compelling, intense theatricality to them. It starts with Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, but it really comes after Barry Lyndon, with The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. They all have big performances that fill the room, like Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining, and Lee Ermey’s in Full Metal Jacket.

You know, to be absolutely honest, I think part of his feeling was that he cut out all that need for [explanatory] dialogue. Barry Lyndon ironically is just about the only one of his films where you actually see the background to the character, and you follow him from a very young man all the way through. When you look at the other films, you get a little bit of explanation about the character, but it isn’t much. You really join them halfway into this journey. So I think injecting that kind of theatricality into a performance fixes that character in the mind of the viewer. “Oh right, he’s really timid, and his mother is directing every move that he does,” you know.

When I was dialogue coaching, I did the old, “Do it again, do it again, do it again,” so people didn’t have to remember their lines — they seriously knew them. Then we sort of found the attitude inside that milieu. “This is how you would deliver it,” you know. In Barry Lyndon, there’s always this sort of terribly hypocritical courtesy among the elites and the upper classes, and there’s also that thirst of people who want to be a part of it, who would do anything to be part of it.

Some critics knocked Kubrick for making impersonal movies, and I think that’s completely, completely wrong.

Yeah, I know. It is. You know, I’ve never seen his very first film, Fear and Desire. I never saw it because he hated it. He hated it. And I found a copy of it in the projection booth in our offices, and I said, “You know you’ve got a copy of Fear and Desire up there, a print,” and he said, “No.” And I said, “Yeah, you got a print there.” He said, “Leon, promise me you’ll never look at this.” [Laughs.] So I’ve never seen that one. But the very first film I remember seeing of his was Lolita, because it caused such a stir in England. It was really kind of lambasted for being disgusting and degrading. And a couple of us used to get in through the back door of the theater, while the previous audience was coming out, and we’d sneak in that way. And what I saw there was people. Shelley Winters — I could not get her performance out of my head. When she discovers [Humbert Humbert’s] diaries, it’s raw. I’ve seen that film hundreds of times, and I feel the same even now. That’s real pain. That’s real pain that you see, when she’s standing by the window and, you know, holding the diary out of the window. And I started finding that with every one of Stanley’s films.

After you started working for Stanley, were there ever roles that came up where you thought, “I wish I had the freedom to go off and play this part for this filmmaker”?

Yes. I felt it a couple of times. And not only films, because I was still living in London and Stockholm, and they’re very theater-centric societies. So when I saw a great stage play, I felt bad. And when Jack was walking up the stairs threatening Shelley [Duvall in The Shining], you know, “Give me the bat, give me the bat,” I thought, “Wow, I’d love to do that.” [Laughs.] I missed theater more than anything else, I suppose. But Stanley built his films the way theater’s built: You focus very deeply on one area, until you feel you’ve got it right, before you move on. No wonder it took him so long to finish these films!

Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel), was something he was trying to lick for many years. How privy were you to the previous iterations of that idea?

It came as a surprise, I have to be honest, because we were well into what would have been A.I. Really, everything was geared toward that. I was looking at actors every day on tape and god knows what else. And then suddenly Stanley went quite dark, quite silent — even to me in the office. And then I remember Tom Cruise came to see Stanley for lunch, and I kind of understood that it didn’t look like A.I. was gonna make it. And the reason for that was simply because he did not believe he could get the visual effects he needed. So it really came as a complete surprise to most of us when we heard that Eyes Wide Shut was gonna be the next movie.

Were you surprised when you found out that he had thought about having Steven Spielberg direct A.I.?

Before we finished Eyes Wide Shut, he said to me, “Well, you know, you better get used to a lot of indoor work now,” because A.I. would have been like 2001 where there’s just that one cut of the bone in the open air. That was it; I don’t think there were ever any other exterior shots at all in 2001 apart from the stills [used as backdrops] at the very beginning.

Stanley could be very generous. I’m sure he would’ve said to Steven, “It’d probably be better you made the film rather than I.” But he would say things like that. [After Eyes Wide Shut wrapped] he never made any indication to us at all that we were not looking for actors for A.I. Because we were. He wanted to do another science fiction.

What would The Aryan Papers — the Holocaust film based on Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies that Kubrick considered making in 1993 — have been like?

It’s hard to say. Kubrickian, definitely, but then what’s that? It had all the elements of suspense and danger. And it was quite brutal. It would’ve looked authentic, I can tell you that. We actually had military equipment booked, and countless books earmarked. I was looking at actors all the time. That’s where I first saw Ralph Fiennes. And I think his first breakthrough in movies was when he did Schindler’s List. That was the other thing, you know. Schindler’s List was so successful. I think it sort of made Stanley feel, “Well, you know, maybe we’re in the wrong cycle. We’ll wait for another cycle.” He really wanted to make Wartime Lies. But I’d say it was also a huge relief on his part because it is a very depressing subject to deal with. I understand his decision.

I think with filmmakers, generally they’re very delicate. They’re so sensitive that anything can knock [a project] off balance. When you think about it, we were hard at work on what would’ve been two major productions in a row that were canceled because Stanley stopped, before we found Eyes Wide Shut. It’s hard sometimes for a filmmaker to actually find the next film. It’s probably the most difficult job he has.

Directed by Tony Zierra
Kino-Lorber Films
Opens May 11, Metrograph