Below the Line and Above it All – Filmworker

Like I said in my last review, there are a ton of single-subject biographical documentaries so far this year, but this one is the best yet. Some 50 years on from 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Tony Zierra brings us Filmworker, about the magnificent journey of Leon Vitali, the man behind the curtain of Stanley Kubrick’s mystique for over 20 years.

In the 1970s, Leon Vitali was a promising young British actor. He showed a wide range of acting talent, doing everything from TV drama to sketch comedy. A fan of Kubrick’s, he considered it a goal to be able to work for him on a film someday. He soon got his wish, being cast as the villainous Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon. Taking an interest in Kubrick’s exacting standards and quest for perfection, he began learning some skills behind the camera, and soon enough he was hired by Kubrick to essentially be his right-hand man. Before long he was doing everything from taking notes on set to casting actors, serving as the foley artist, scouting locations, and just about everything else you can imagine.

As a director, Kubrick had a dual reputation of being the nicest guy imaginable at first, and then being a driving hard-ass once you got to know him. One of the reasons I’ve admired his work all my life is because of the stark sense of realism he was able to weave into all of his films, regardless of genre or subject matter. Filmworker shows, through interview, archive footage, and a treasure trove of notes and artifacts, that this defining element was almost made entirely possible because of Vitali from about 1977 on. He cast Danny Lloyd in The Shining. He’s the reason the late great R. Lee Ermey (who for some reason didn’t get a dedication in the credits) got cast as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, essentially paving the way for Ermey’s entire career. He’s the reason studio execs weren’t banging down doors to wrest creative control away from Kubrick.

The man truly invested himself in the work, which is amazing because he voluntarily stepped away from acting to do all this. He’s lauded by contemporaries and fellow actors like Matthew Modine and Ryan O’Neal, friendships that were forged with his nose to every grindstone in the film industry.

But this film isn’t about celebrating Kubrick, it’s about acknowledging the yeoman’s work of every below-the-line worker in the entertainment industry. Vitali (and all by extension, including yours truly) worked countless hours for no glory, all in service of the final product. He made enemies along the way (there’s a wonderful sequence about the actor who was originally cast as Hartman being relegated to the Door Gunner scene, and how much it broke his heart to lose the role, and for Vitali to have to deal with the blowback after Kubrick recasts him via letter), and the work kept him away from his children for years (there are several photos and home movies where Kubrick plays with the kids while Leon works in the background, his hairline rapidly receding). He even had to cater to some of Kubrick’s madder tendencies, like setting up an entire CCTV feed in Kubrick’s house so that the filmmaker could monitor his sick cat. The work aged Vitali horribly as well. I was struck by how much he looked like a blonde Mick Jagger in his youth, and now he’s a withered Keith Richards.

And yet, there’s no bitterness at all. That’s the cloth he and all of us in this business are cut from. Even after Kubrick died, there was still work to be done, restoring the films and converting them to new formats, and properly marketing them. In Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shot, Vitali played no less than eight masked attendees at the orgy, including the Red Cloak, all while handling technical matters in between takes.

But that’s what the job is, and he did it with aplomb. He wanted to learn, and he wanted to be close to a cinematic genius. He became a jack of all trades, then a master of all and an indispensable companion to Kubrick. By the end it would have been like severing a limb for Kubrick to do a film without him, and it’s a wonderful testament to the work put in on even the worst projects.

One of the things studios like to do these days is put a message at the end of the credits declaring that the making and distribution of the film created however many thousands of jobs. It’s mostly a cynical guilt trip to get people to stop pirating films, a tacit threat that every time you illegally download or bootleg you’re costing these people their jobs (because God forbid the studio execs take a pay cut). But this film provides a retroactive positive context to that disingenuous sentiment. Leon Vitali gets his moment in the spotlight (it creates a glare on his bald spots) to show just how much hard work goes into making a motion picture, and how it’s so much more than the cast or the auteur director. It’s a needed perspective, and one I’d wholeheartedly endorse, even if didn’t work in this industry or idolize Stanley Kubrick.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Kubrick film? Anyone know where the bird mask people meet up? Asking for a friend.

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