by Steven Prokopy
Documentarian Tony Zierra has been fascinated with those who have been so close to fame, they could almost taste it. His first doc, 2001’s acclaimed CARVING OUT OUR NAME, profiled four unknown actors desperate to make it in Hollywood. In 2009, he released the doc MY BIG BREAK, a dark examination of the price of celebrity has on five friends sharing a house. And just when he thought he was moving in a more cultured direction in terms of his next subject, he met a man who achieved his dream of working for his hero and paid a steep price in the process.
Zierra was beginning work on a documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s filmmaking process—using a great deal of behind-the-scenes footage from Kubrick’s final film, EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)—when he first met Leon Vitali, and after hearing his story, Zierra knew that he had to temporarily set aside one documentary (he has only now begun work editing that film, SK13) and tell Vitali’s story first (partly because Vitali was in ill health at the time).
FILMWORKER is the story of British actor Vitali, who was on the verge of becoming one of the most respected and popular young actors of his generation, when he was cast in Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975). Vitali and Kubrick got along so well, that Kubrick eventually took on Vitali as an apprentice of sorts. The filmmaker didn’t so much teach Vitali the ins and outs of filmmaking; he taught the young man the daunting, detail-oriented task of how to make a Stanley Kubrick feature.
Vitali gave up his career as an actor and dedicated himself 24/7 to being Kubrick’s jack-of-all-trades collaborator, which included everything from finding a young actor to play Danny in THE SHINING to supervising the subtitling/dubbing of all of Kubrick’s films into a countless languages. The pair were virtually inseparable beginning with THE SHINING, and continuing into FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT, with Vitali tasked with much of the post-production of Kubrick’s final work after the filmmaker’s sudden death. Vitali never complained because, to be this close to an artist he considered a genius was reward unto itself. FILMWORKER is a testament to thousands of faceless people in the movie-making business who thanklessly go above and beyond mere job titles, making sure the work gets done correctly and carrying out the near-impossible task of anticipating the director’s every need.
In addition to FILMWORKER, the Music Box Theatre is also featuring 35mm screenings of the four films that Kubrick and Vitali worked on together—BARRY LYNDON, THE SHINING, FULL METAL JACKET, and EYES WIDE SHUT—as part of its “Stanley Kubrick: The Filmworker Series,” running from Friday, June 1 to Thursday, June 7.
I spoke to Tony Zierra recently to discuss letting the process of making a documentary guide him down the path to Leon Vitali, and what he learned about Kubrick’s work ethic that surprised even him.
Question: When I first heard about FILMWORKER, I remember reading that you were originally working on another documentary about EYES WIDE SHUT. Is that when you first crossed paths with Leon?
Tony Zierra: Yes. And it was a tough transition from one film to another, because when you’re super-independent and on your own, and you find a great subject like that, you’re like “Oh god, I can’t even finish one, and now I’m going to start on another one.” [laughs] Leon was on my list [of people to talk to], and I kept him until last because. I should say first, no one knew about FILMWORKER being made. I was very quiet about it because I didn’t want to get shut down; I wanted to have the freedom to say what I had to say and release the film and hopefully get some press. But Leon was on my must-find people to interview, and I finally found him and we talked.
The other film is really about Stanley’s creative process—how he thinks, how he comes up with his ideas—so it really covers all of his films, but it lands specifically on EYES WIDE SHUT and why he would go for a project like that and uncovering some of the mysteries behind it. But when I met Leon, I was struck by his story. So we shot the first day, and I started to listen to him and wondered how could this guy be living alone in this house in Hollywood—it was like finding a treasure of film that is sitting there in Culver City, practically no one knew who he was. We all knew he was around with Stanley, and I knew that he was the closest to Stanley when it came to understanding his creativity.
He was up with him until five in the morning, he was there every single day, he was the one who Kubrick would bounce ideas off of, he would get him to cast actors, he would train the actors, get them to memorize their lines. He also went to the lab and color-corrected EYES WIDE SHUT and was restoring all of Kubrick’s films. But I didn’t know the level of his involvement until I met him. And I just couldn’t let it go. I knew I had to do this. It was a bit of a struggle within myself: “Do I really start another movie?” But I ended up putting the Kubrick film aside. I should also mention too, I was worried about [Leon’s] health, because he was in terrible shape when we first met. So I wanted to finish it as fast as possible, so he’d be in the world to enjoy the acknowledgement. That was the dream, and thank god it happened and is happening. But during the shoot, he was practically dying, and I think when the movie came out, it really lifted his spirits and pumped him up, and he’s a little better now.
I was going ask if you thought being a part of this film revitalized him in some way.
Yeah, in so many ways, with his children, who didn’t know much about what he did. It’s like anyone in the industry, if you’re a gaffer or grip or camera operator. They just thought he was an assistant and that all he did was get coffee and run around and get yelled at. They didn’t know the extent of his work, so when they saw the film at Cannes [in 2017], they were practically in tears, hugging him, proud of him. He had a five-minute standing ovation at Cannes. It was beautiful. We didn’t even have tuxedos at Cannes, and you’ll like this—he had Tom Cruise’s tux from EYES WIDE SHUT at home, and that’s what he wore to the premiere; they were the same size.
I love these stories about documentary filmmakers who start out making one film and allow the story that unfolds to drive the action, rather than simply staying on the original course. Was there a specific encounter with or story from Leon that made you decide that you needed to start this second film?
Especially Kubrick fans, we all learn about that. If it takes you left, go left. If it’s interesting, follow it. That really is one of the biggest lessons learned from this amazing genius. Because I’ve lived in L.A. for 20 years and I had so many friends who work in the industry, and when you talk to people about what they do for work, they always use the word “just.” “I’m just a grip or gaffer.” And you start to understanding status and how the industry treats people; they don’t get the respect and they do so much. In Leon’s neighborhood, he’s surrounded by men and women who have retired and never felt appreciated in whatever work they did in the industry.
So when Leon started to tell me about all of his jobs, I was like “Shit, if he wasn’t there, I don’t think these movies would have been the same.” That’s what appealed to me. I wanted to hear the day to day of what happens, and do you regret any of it. And he didn’t have to do it; he was an actor. He did it by choice. It was beautiful to dig in and hear how much goes into making Kubrick’s films. All good films are about the details, and those are the soldiers when it comes to details. Where else are you going to get all of this information? You need an assistant and a whole crew behind you to make these things happen. But we live in a celebrity society, and only the actors and directors get the acclaim, and these other people are completely forgotten.
There were two things in this movie that I was blessed to have. I don’t think it would have worked if it were a differently guy than Stanley. To me, Kubrick is the ultimate taskmaster, and he represents cinema at its ultimate, at its most intense. And Leon really represented this amazing devotion. So to have both in one project, I would have been an idiot not to do it, and I did! It took about three-and-a-half years.
You interview Stellan Skarsgård [who acted on stage with Leon in the 1970s], and I love what he says about people like Leon. It’s more than just being an assistant; it has to do with synching-up with a genius that you admire and are working with. That’s as good an explanation as any as to why someone would put themselves through this experience. That’s a great testament to filmworkers.
Stellan said something else beautiful too: “You learn to see in his eyes.” You’re one of the few people who really looked at Stellan that way. You’re never supposed to tell people “I put this in there for this reason…,” but you’re absolutely correct. Stellan had the exact same opportunity as Leon, but he switched gears and became and extremely successful actor, always working, but he also experienced the job of being an assistant, and he’s still fond of the memory of it.
Though making this, did you get a sense that there were many other filmmakers, living or dead, that had someone in their lives like Leon?
Absolutely, but we don’t know about them because they either went crazy or they died or they are exhausted, or they’re out there but we don’t know. We keep meeting people that say, “I’ve done these things, maybe not on that level, but I used to do this and that.” For sure, I think they’re out there, but I think Leon is a fine example of it. Again, I doubt other directors than Kubrick would dare to let their assistants to learn how to color correct their films or to trust them with casting or actors. I think Stanley is brilliant because he saw the level of Leon’s artistic sensibility and say “I have a Shakespearean-trained actor, I like his acting, and his sensibility is right on and he understands nuance. And if I could take him and teach him bit by bit the stuff that he doesn’t know, I have a goldmine.” He could assign all of this to Leon and focus on everything else he needed to do.
We know from the history of Kubrick that he did a lot of things on his films. He was involved in every tiny detail, and that’s what I learned about him now. I knew but I didn’t know the extreme level of it. For example, I interviewed Edward Tise, who recorded sound for Kubrick, and the last project he did with Kubrick was EYES WIDE SHUT. He said he was over 70 and it was two in the morning, and he was listening to every audio take to pick which one really worked. Ed said “Stanley, it’s past two in the morning. I’ll listen to the sounds and pick the good ones. Go rest.” And Kubrick looked at him and said, “Why? I like doing it.” [laughs] I think Leon gravitated toward that, and I really believe Leon is a creative junkie, just like Kubrick. Maybe some people see that as a negative thing, but I’d rather be obsessed or hooked on creativity than crack or cocaine. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s like a child sees Disneyland, the way it was for Leon to be around this man, 25/7. And when Leon says at the end that he has no regrets, I was really thrown off; I was surprised.
You do dig a little bit into his youth, his childhood, especially his past with his father, with only a little bit of psychoanalysis, but you don’t dwell on it. You’re respecting the fact that ultimately, he may have just truly loved the process with that filmmaker.
Absolutely. And if anyone asks Leon, and they do ask him that question, about his father and their relationship, he insists that it has nothing to do with [his relationship with Kubrick]. But I’m a believer that it does, but that he’ll never say it and he’ll never see it that way. He says that what he learned from his father was that when daddy goes crazy, he pulls back and lets him scream, because it probably has nothing to do with him personally. If you live or work with Kubrick, every day there was a problem. It’s in the film. You saw the [original] 70mm of 2001 [from the lab]; it looked like shit. It was shocking that you would send Stanley Kubrick a print that looks like that, especially that movie, and have the lab insist it won’t look like that on the screen is insane. There was always tension, according to Leon. Everything was a fight.
That was the other think I learned from these two projects. I just assumed that Kubrick picked up the phone and got whatever he wanted. I discovered that that wasn’t the case at all. They treated him like he was Stanley Kubrick to the public and he had his respect, but he was always fighting for everything he did, and Leon was there with him. Leon said in a line I took out of the movie, “I’m sure people will say there might a connection between my father and co-dependency and Stanley. Not at all.” I took it out because maybe it’s true. Let people decide that.
My jaw almost hit the floor at the one-hour mark of your film, when we find out Leon had a family. You held that back deliberately, but it really adds to his dilemma. Why did you wait to introduce that piece of information?
To me, it was very simple, because that was the truth. Those people in his life, he loved—I can’t tell you how much he loves his children. But I sat with Leon, and when it comes to creativity, he doesn’t even realize they’re next to him. For half of his life, they didn’t exist at a certain level, because he gets so…you saw it, he slept on a doormat when they were shooting FULL METAL JACKET. There were there, but when he was working and they were around him, it’s like they weren’t there. They spent their summers with him, and when they were with them, half of the time, he wasn’t listening. His mind is always somewhere else. And I thought there was no reason to introduce this earlier on like this was a big thing in his life because Kubrick ate you up. He took everything out of him.
Some people say this relationship [between Kubrick and Leon] might have been abusive, but I believe that Stanley did the same thing to himself. He never went to the doctor; he wasn’t one of those directors that sits in his chair and yells action and has a big cigar in his hand; he was a hard-working man. He died working. The two of them were very alike in so many ways.. That doesn’t mean that they don’t love their families, but their priority is their creativity and their work. Plus, Leon will tell you, his children are fine. They’re grown up, they’re happy, and they’re fine.
As a part of this process, you had a great deal of access to materials about Kubrick that film scholars would love to get their hands on. What did you learn about Kubrick’s process that surprised you the most?
I understood why he was so detail oriented, because magic happen in the moment. There are people who work hard for a month or two and then take a rest for a while. That didn’t exist for him. It was continuous, almost like a train that doesn’t stop until it runs out of fuel. Everyone says, “This film I just worked on was so hard,” but it was another level with Kubrick that you can’t comprehend. It meant good-bye to your health, to your life, nothing matters. But you leave something behind with a shelf life and layers of meaning.
It’s been 20 years now that Kubrick has been dead, but his old movies feel like they just came out. New generations are discovering them, and people still see new things in them. And there are only 13 movies; some people have a body of work of 100 films. But he packed so much into his movies, but he also knew when to pull back. And Leon’s story really is a testament to that, of how much detail went into it. Leon was telling me that when they would do translations for another country, if the film was going, say, to Russia, he would send the movie to get translated into Russian, then take the translated film and take it somewhere else where they didn’t know what it was about and have them translate it back to English. Then he would compare the translation to the script, and if they went too far…[laughs]…you understand film so well. There’s a huge difference between the line at the end of EYES WIDE SHUT when she says, “Let’s go home and fuck” and the translated “Let’s go home and make love.” You’ve lost the point! That’s how he was. Everything mattered at an intense level.
The theater that’s playing FILMWORKER in Chicago is also playing the four films that Kubrick and Leon worked on together. What do you want people to look for when watching or re-watching these particular titles?
When people watching FILMWORKER, they really see how much went into things, like whether it is about finding the twins in THE SHINING, and how much that meant to Stanley. Or how far R. Lee Ermey went to get that role [FILMWORKER features one of Ermey’s last onscreen interview]. It really makes you appreciate it more when you go to watch FULL METAL JACKET. I like that idea of people’s appreciation going up another level. When people watch it, people always say, “I can’t wait to go back and watch those movies.” It almost turns on the light and how things were thought of and how much went into every decision. Four thousand kids just to find Danny? It makes you appreciate Danny [Lloyd] because there was something unique about him.
You mentioned R. Lee Ermey. You couldn’t have known that he wouldn’t be with us when this film was released. Give me you best story about talking to him, aside from what we learn about Leon’s role in Lee getting that drill sergeant role.
I shot a lot with him. As far as him talking about his career from the heart, he’s gotten sick of talking about the sergeant, but once he heard the film was about Leon, within two minutes, I got a response. He said there were three people that he admires and was grateful to have in his life: his sergeant in the Marines, Stanley Kubrick, and Leon Vitali. You should have seen his house; it was like a war bunker. Every gun and every grenade and every rifle.
It was a little startling to see all of those weapons lined up behind him.
That was a fraction, that was only what was in the frame. When we were done, he said, “When you’re done, just lock up because I’ve got to go.” And I said, “You’re not leaving me in this place. I can’t take that responsibility.” Really what fascinated me were the tears in his eyes when he talks about what a great life it’s been for him. He’s such a sensitive man; I didn’t know that, because you think he’s this tough asshole drill sergeant. What struck me the most about Lee, when we were talking about EYES WIDE SHUT, he claims that Stanley talked to him a week before he died and said that Tom and Nicole basically destroyed the film for him, and that the press was going to have him for lunch.
Now that comment stirred a lot of controversy, and when I asked him about it, he said it was true. But I’ve talked to other people, they said they were dressed every morning, ready to go, they never said no, they did whatever Stanley wanted them to do. I’m not sure what this is, but I kind of believe him. But knowing Kubrick through Leon, I’m guessing Stanley was having a bad day or bad moment, and maybe they didn’t turn in a shot the way he wanted. He cared about every tiny little thing, but I don’t think he really believed they ruined the movie. He was just worried about his work.
So is your EYES WIDE SHUT documentary still happening?
Oh yeah. I’m going to start editing now. My ultimate dream was to finish this, see that man at a screening standing there with people knowing how much he has done, and that happened last year at Cannes. In New York here, he was surrounded for two hours by fans after the screening. So I’m going to do these couple of openings, then shut the fuck up and get back to work—I learned that from Kubrick too. I got sucked into this thing, and it eats your time, but I really can’t wait to get back to work.
I was devastated when EYES WIDE SHUT got attacked and was misunderstood. I really want to honor Leon, tell his story, and also show what Kubrick was going for in EYES WIDE SHUT. This is just an impassioned mission. He was too brilliant to have EYES WIDE SHUT be just a movie about jealousy. It isn’t.
It’s definitely the one of the four they are playing again that I’m the most interested in revisiting.
Oh my god, it’s packed and it blew my mind. The stuff I found out, it’s really mind blowing. He wasn’t a stupid man. He wasn’t someone that didn’t know that those street scenes didn’t look like New York. But that’s what the press did to him.
Is there a filmmaker, living or dead, who you would work in this capacity for?
Probably Andrei Tarkovsky. He’s another one who literally died working. If you think about STALKER, he shot it twice and had a heart attack the second time. And I found out that Kubrick really liked Tarkovsky, but Tarkovsky had a problem with 2001. But you have to remember, he’s coming from this hardcore, Russian sensibility. They both had completely different styles, but both are masters. But how long would I last? I don’t know. I’d just keep going and see what happens. [laughs]
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker & actor interviews under the name “Capone.”