Stanley Kubrick had a reputation as a demanding perfectionist, to put it lightly. Of all the people who worked with him over the decades, perhaps none experienced the true extent of the filmmaker’s obsessive compulsions more fully than Kubrick’s longtime personal assistant, Leon Vitali – the subject of the 2017 documentary Filmworker, now available on Netflix streaming.
Stories of the exhausting 15-month production on Kubrick’s last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, are the stuff of legend in the film industry. Allegedly, the director shot almost 200 takes of a simple dialogue exchange between Tom Cruise and Sydney Pollack because he kept restaging the scene until it played exactly as he wanted it. When Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Lee couldn’t come back for reshoots after already filming for months, Kubrick recast their roles and started over from scratch on their storylines.
He didn’t relax his standards off the film set, either. Even during the long gaps between projects, he’d restlessly archive huge volumes of notes and drawings and research materials, and insisted that all prints of his old movies be carefully inspected and approved before he’d allow them to be shipped off to a theater for a festival or repertory screening. His reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers of his time allowed him unprecedented control over his works, which he exercised to the fullest and never relinquished. According to Vitali, Kubrick was always working, never settled for less than perfection, and demanded that everyone in his company work at that same level. Being his assistant was, at times, literally a 24/7 job that left no time for rest or personal relationships.
Vitali started his career as an actor. He came into Stanley Kubrick’s orbit when the latter cast him in the key role of Lord Bullingdon in the 1975 period epic Barry Lyndon. During his time on set, Vitali became fascinated with all aspects of moviemaking and latched onto Kubrick as a mentor. Recognizing Kubrick as an artist far beyond any abilities he’d ever have himself, Vitali worked his way into a position as his assistant, giving up his own acting career and personal ambitions, and devoting himself to being a sort of majordomo. If Stanley wanted something done, Leon was the guy who’d make sure it got done, and got done correctly. He remained at Kubrick’s side for the next 30 years, doing whatever he could to help the master achieve his visions, often without credit or recognition. And when Kubrick died, Vitali felt an obligation to protect his works and ensure that they’d be preserved as Kubrick wanted them, which turned into a series of battles between competing interests.
Stanley Kubrick was a very private man during his life. The Filmworker documentary allows fans a rare behind-the-scenes look at a notoriously mercurial artist. In doing so, however, it almost can’t help but paint him as a monster. The movie makes a couple of brief acknowledgements that Kubrick also had a warm and friendly side to his personality, but most of its 94-minute runtime tells one horror story after another about Kubrick’s impossibly high standards and the abuse he dished out to his casts and crews, with Vitali always stuck in the middle. It feels very one-sided and, I suspect, unfair.
Vitali himself comes across as a bit of a martyr, who sacrificed his career and personal life in order to devote himself fully to the service of a man he admired and loved, frequently to the detriment of his own health and mental well-being. I genuinely feel sympathy for the man. The toll Kubrick’s treatment took on him is evident just by looking at him, even 20 years later.
On the other hand, I’m still not sure I buy into the portrayal of Leon Vitali as a technical expert on all aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s filmmaking, or the most reliable gatekeeper of his legacy. Over the years, Vitali has supervised the home video transfers for many of Kubrick’s films, too often with sub-par results. It was Leon Vitali who insisted that the first DVD editions of Kubrick’s movies be sourced from ancient full-screen VHS masters, and who later messed up the aspect ratio on the initial Barry Lyndon Blu-ray. Both of those controversies are dismissively mentioned in the documentary, with Vitali continuing to insist that he was right and only he knows best, even though his own story on the matter has changed several times. I’m sorry, but I just can’t let that go. Aside from the imminent new restoration of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Criterion remaster of Lyndon, many of Kubrick’s films are still not ideally represented on Blu-ray.
In many ways, Filmworker is a fascinating glimpse at an important artist, viewed through the lens of the man who was closest to him for almost three decades, but the documentary can also be self-aggrandizing and leaves me wanting another perspective and a little more objectivity.
Thank you to reader Mrak for alerting me that this movie is available on Netflix.