KRWG

'Filmworker' Documents The Price Of Being Stanley Kubrick's Right-Hand Man

May 13, 2018
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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

We take you now behind the scenes - the set, the mind of one of cinema's most highly-regarded directors of the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY")

KEIR DULLEA: (As Dr. Dave Bowman) Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

DOUGLAS RAIN: (As HAL 9000) I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

DULLEA: (As Dr. Dave Bowman) What's the problem?

RAIN: (As HAL 9000) I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

SINGH: That, of course, is a clip from "2001: A Space Odyssey" directed by Stanley Kubrick and celebrating 50 years since its 1968 release date. Kubrick's films are well-known, but one person you may not be as familiar with is his right-hand man who was instrumental in bringing many of Kubrick's cinematic visions to life on screen. This man is Leon Vitali, a successful British actor in the 1970s who was cast in a crucial role in Kubrick's film "Barry Lyndon."

Vitali was at the height of his career. And then, to the surprise of many of his fellow actors, Vitali did something unusual at the time. He gave up that often-coveted place in front of the camera to take on far less glamorous roles behind the camera if it meant working with Kubrick. Well, that partnership would yield some of Kubrick's most notable films such as "The Shining" and "Full Metal Jacket." A new documentary called "Filmworker" by director Tony Zierra explores the collaboration between Leon Vitali and Stanley Kubrick. And Leon Vitali is with us now from our New York studio. Leon, thanks for being with us today.

LEON VITALI: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

SINGH: In several articles, several profiles, even by some in the film, you're given a number of different labels. You're given the label of personal assistant, sounding board, foley man, acting coach, punching bag, Igor. Which do you feel best describes your relationship with Mr. Kubrick, Leon?

L. VITALI: (Laughter) Not Igor for a start.

SINGH: (Laughter) OK. Not Igor, but which of these?

L. VITALI: I really don't know because I had the license to kind of stream, wander and work in just about every area you can imagine. But personal assistant, you know, that's a little misleading because most people, I think, when they think personal assistants think about, you know, the drycleaning, booking the tickets for travel and making the coffee and all those sort of things. Well, that wasn't part of my world at all. So I don't know. I'm still trying to kind of figure it out today.

SINGH: That's fair enough. You wore a lot of hats. I would like to play a clip from the film where you say that you first realized your desire to work with Stanley Kubrick. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FILMWORKER")

L. VITALI: I went to see "A Clockwork Orange" because it was Stanley Kubrick. When that film finished, I turned to the person I was actually watching it with, and I said, I want to work for that man. That's exactly what I said. I want to work for that man.

SINGH: And then you were casting Kubrick's 1975 film "Barry Lyndon." What did it mean to you to first work with Kubrick in an actor-director relationship?

L. VITALI: It was just more beautiful than I ever imagined it would be because he worked with actors very much like, you know, they work in the theater. It was a very sort of one-on-one kind of experience no matter what was going on around you. And I found him to be so sensitive. You know, he never told you how to do something. He never showed you how to do something. What he would do is say, do it the way you want to do it, you think you're going to do it, and we'll go from there. And you never got stuck in one way of thinking about it. And that was what I thought was so wonderful to work for him as an actor. You know, it was just a beautiful experience.

SINGH: A lot of people knew that you could be working with Stanley Kubrick. And then one day, you're there, the next day, you're not. Tell me about that. Tell me what it was like to know that you were not axed.

L. VITALI: We were just breaking from a scene, and the crew were going to have lunch and everything. And he just said, Leon, just hang on. I want to talk to you. And I thought, this is it. He's going to say, you know, I like what you did, but it didn't quite work. And you shouldn't feel bad about it and blah, blah, blah. But he didn't. He said, you know, I like what you do. And I like the way you focus and just keep working in a focused way on whatever we're doing. So I'm going to write a whole bunch more scenes for you and keep you here until the end of the movie. And, you know, I'm no angel. I've certainly smoked some good stuff in my life but nothing compared to the feeling I got when he told me that. I was just so high, it was unbelievable. I mean, it was the most beautiful thing that anybody ever said to me.

SINGH: So we hear in the film that there were moments when you were hungry, you were sleep-deprived, you were stressed to a breaking point. And we also hear from your children about the toll this took on you after a while. Here's a clip from your daughter Vera talking about your relationship with Kubrick.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FILMWORKER")

VERA VITALI: If they had a good day, then it became a good day for me. If it was a bad day for Stanley, it became a bad day for Leon. And that would be a bad day for me.

SINGH: I feel so bad for Vera.

L. VITALI: (Laughter).

SINGH: Would you say there was a price that you had paid, not only a price on your own personal health, a price that your family paid as well?

L. VITALI: Yes. I mean, I can't deny it, of course. But I'm not unique in that. I mean, when people talk about doing - pulling all-nighters, I mean, just about anybody who works in the film industry experienced that. I don't think there's any one walking planet Earth that hasn't made a big decision and hasn't had to understand probably in hindsight what it costs, you know, in, you know, for other people like children, for example. And the thing about the film industry or, you know, the part I was of it, you know, is you either love it so much you can't help it or else you're a steaming idiot. And I think for most people, you know, it's a little bit of both. And that's the only way I can think about it.

SINGH: Your relationship, all those years of collaboration with this genius that was Stanley Kubrick was, of course, all-encompassing, all-consuming in the service to and the service of the craft. And then in 1999, your mentor, your friend passed away. Leon, what has life been like for you since his death?

L. VITALI: Well, the strange thing was he died in March. And there was so much still to do, you know, with "Eyes Wide Shut."

SINGH: "Eyes Wide Shut" was the last film...

L. VITALI: He made, yeah. And he'd made his final cut. But, of course, there's a lot of post-production. You have to build the soundtrack. And you have to, I mean, there's a thousand things that have to be done. And it was only in October when I finished actually releasing the theatrical around the world. And that's the first time it really hit me what had happened and that Stanley wasn't physically there anymore. But believe me, he was very, very mentally there, I mean, still is in some ways. But, of course, you know, there are frustrations because sometimes, you know, there's this thing Stanley was so strict when he was alive about how things should be done that sometimes you realize that some people think, well, he's not there anymore, so does it matter so much? And my answer to that is yes, it's even more important. And that's the battle. It's just that I just had his sort of standards that were with me and were with a lot of other people too. I was lucky that way.

SINGH: That was Leon Vitali, former actor and now a consultant to the Kubrick Estate. He is the subject of the documentary "Filmworker," which premiered Friday in New York City. Leon, thank you for joining us.

L. VITALI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.