Leon Vitali worked 16 hour days, seven days a week and was instrumental in helping execute the director’s vision
Every Stanley Kubrick fan needs to know about Leon Vitali. To some, he’s just some guy with a supporting role in Barry Lyndon. The truth is that Vitali was Kubrick’s right-hand man from the mid-70s onwards, and it’s an injustice that he’s been written out of history. Until now, that is. In Tony Zierra’s insightful, unexpectedly moving documentary Filmworker, we learn that Vitali abandoned a blossoming acting career in order to become Kubrick’s full-time personal assistant. As you can imagine, it’s a punishing, arguably exploitative job, and it makes our own Kubrick fandoms seem miniscule in comparison.
But how did the pair hook up in a pre-LinkedIn era? Like all unhealthy relationships, it started in a cinema. When Vitali saw A Clockwork Orange, he turned to his friend and said, “I want to work for that guy.” A few years later, Vitali successfully auditioned to play the stepson in Barry Lyndon, and soon afterwards he was dedicating every day of his life to fulfilling Kubrick’s behind-the-scenes wishes. Vitali was, among other things, a casting director, an acting coach, and personally responsible for the most chilling moment in The Shining. And what credit does he get? Well, look at it this way: more people believe that Kubrick faked the moon landing than are aware of Vitali’s existence.
Though we like to romanticise Kubrick as a one-man movie-making auteur, Vitali was an essential artistic collaborator, and Filmworker is a testament to the many underdogs of cinema whose stories are rarely told. Ahead of the documentary’s two screenings at the London Film Festival, we’ve selected a few highlights and facts about Kubrick’s secret weapon and loyal assistant. As Matthew Modine puts it: “Leon is a moth and Stanley is the light and he got burnt”.
LEON VITALI IMPRESSED KUBRICK BY VOMITING DURING BARRY LYNDON
Let’s face it, the duel scene in the barn is Barry Lyndon’s best moment. In part, it’s down to Vitali, who was so desperate to impress Kubrick that he agreed to go method for his vomit acting. For lunch, he ate semi-raw chicken and tomatoes, all mashed together, but there was a hiccup – he couldn’t barf. So Kubrick handed him a raw egg to swallow, and the authentic spew that followed still plays on gorgeous 35mm to this day. A friendship was born on that set: Vitali would later receive, from Kubrick, a copy of Stephen King’s The Shining and an offer to work with him full-time.
HE CAME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR THE TWINS IN THE SHINING
Not only did Vitali videotape and interview 5,000 kids to find Jack Nicholson’s son, Danny, he was also responsible for discovering the creepy twin sisters on the final day of auditions. The pair, in fact, weren’t twins in Kubrick’s script, and it was Vitali who immediately suggested Diane Arbus’ infamous photo of two identical twin sisters as a point of reference. Kubrick loved the idea, and now resentful twin siblings around the world know who actually deserves their ire. Bonus trivia: it was also Vitali who handed Kubrick a tape of R. Lee Ermey, who went on to play the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.
LEON VITALI WAS MORE THAN AN ASSISTANT
“You could say I spent half my time, with Stanley, writing down things,” Vitali says. That may be the case, but his responsibilities went far beyond admin. For instance, Vitali did the foley work (including the Vietnamese prostitute’s footsteps) in Full Metal Jacket, he personally taught young Danny how to act in The Shining, and he would – while throwing oranges – train R. Lee Ermey to speed up his dialogue. On the less sexy side, he managed inventories, checked prints, did the colour timing, and was even sent around England to take photos of in-store displays and store windows to monitor marketing campaigns.
HE REFUSED TO KILL KUBRICK’S CAT
That said, there was one task Vitali wouldn’t do. When Kubrick’s 16-year-old cat, Jessica, fell ill, Vitali had to install a video monitor into every room of Kubrick’s house so that the pet could be watched at all times. Then Kubrick suggested Vitali put the cat in the sack, so that the director could shoot her. Leon refused and they took the cat to a vet be put down.
VITALI WORKED 16-HOUR SHIFTS, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK
In Filmworker, the talking heads, including Ryan O’Neal and Stellan Skarsgård, wonder if Vitali ever slept. When you do the maths, it gets worse: Vitali admits his 16-hour days didn’t include the work he would do at home, and his family noticed a detrimental effect on his health. On Christmas Day, Kubrick would still phone him up (with requests, not well wishes) and Vitali would turn to whiskey to numb the pain of an abscess in his tooth. “I love Leon, but he makes me sad,” Matthew Modine wrote in his Full Metal Jacket diary. “I want to help him, but I don’t know how. He’s chosen his path.”
“On Christmas Day, Kubrick would still phone him up (with requests, not well wishes) and Vitali would turn to whiskey to numb the pain of an abscess in his tooth”
HE PLAYS EIGHT DIFFERENT PEOPLE IN EYES WIDE SHUT
Even though Vitali auditioned “really well-known actors” to play the masked emcee who demands the password from Tom Cruise, he ended up being cast by Kubrick in the role instead. It’s a neat thank you, perhaps, to Vitali, who’s also name checked in one of the film’s fictional newspaper clippings (“London fashion designer Leon Vitali…), but he also plays seven other people at the masked ball. It meant that Vitali would run to position in between shots, while also performing assistant duties and fiddling with costumes. At the very least, it trumps Eddie Murphy who, to his shame, only managed a pathetic seven people in The Nutty Professor.
“This is because I love Stanley. That’s why I do it. Because I love him” – Leon Vitali
When Kubrick died, it became Vitali’s responsibility to oversee restorations and ensure the films are presented properly. One thing, though: he’s now working for free. “This is because I love Stanley,” he says. “That’s why I do it. Because I love him.” That’s the crux of Filmworker. Vitali doesn’t regret anything, and it’s actually quite touching, albeit a bit morbid, when he adds, “It’s the best way I can think of leaving this world.” And when you watch Eyes Wide Shut for the 10th time, who can blame him? Ultimately, here’s a documentary about what it means to truly love movies. Vitali wasn’t in it for the fame, but with Filmworker, he finally receives the spotlight he deserves.