In the early 1970s, Leon Vitali’s face, cherubic but with a hint of insolence, was forever popping up on British TV series like The Fenn Street Gang and Crown Court. Then he fell into Stanley Kubrick’s orbit and everything changed. Not his prospects or his level of celebrity or his skillset (though they changed too) but his entire existence — his purpose in life.
Kubrick cast Vitali in his 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon as Lord Bullingdon, the justifiably enraged stepson of the 18th century cad and chancer played by Ryan O’Neal. Though Vitali was 26 when he played the role, he looks in many scenes like an overgrown child: plump-lipped and babyish. His performance is explosive and thrilling. Once shooting was finished, the actor told Kubrick he wanted to get more involved behind the scenes. Be careful what you wish for and all that.
In the new documentary Filmworker, which is screening this week in the London Film Festival, Vitali is interviewed at length. His worn-out face, skeletal frame, jangling jewellery and array of bandanas give him the look of a fairground fortune-teller, though he doesn’t always see what is right under his nose.
He is only glancingly ambivalent about the post-Barry Lyndon years, when he served as assistant, archivist, casting director, talent scout, attack-dog, dogsbody and mouthpiece for the obsessive and reclusive director once described by the critic Quentin Curtis as “an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an anorak”.
Sometimes it becomes impossible to tell where Kubrick ends and Vitali begins. If Vitali was having trouble finalising an agreement or nailing down a print, Kubrick instructed him to tell the uncooperative voice on the other end of the phone: “What you say to me, you say to Stanley.” Sometimes Vitali would discover angry or demanding letters that Kubrick had sent out, signed not with his own name but with Vitali’s. Long before the director died in 1999, Vitali was his earthly representative.
And just look at what he did: he found Danny Lloyd, the boy cast as Danny in The Shining, coaxing him out of his shyness at the audition and helping to put him at ease on set, resulting in one of the great eerie child performances of all time. He also brought to Kubrick’s attention the girls who played twins in the same film, adroitly identifying in their appearance echoes of Diane Arbus’s unnerving portrait of twin sisters.
He monitored the exhibition and preservation of the director’s work, and attended to those minuscule details during the making of The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut that would on any other production have been the responsibility of an entire team of assistants. Kubrick could be raging and demanding and impossible to satisfy. But he wasn’t all bad – he gave Vitali the morning off on Christmas Day.
The interviewees in Filmworker are lit unflatteringly and not always asked the most pertinent of questions. (The sections involving Stellan Skarsgård are especially odd. It’s as though, having secured access to him, the director Tony Zierra thought he may as well get his opinion on topics unrelated to the subject in hand.) But some of them offer telling glimpses of how this relationship looked from the outside. Matthew Modine, for instance, recalls that he and his fellow cast members on Full Metal Jacket were reluctant to accept Vitali’s offer of help with their lines, because they wondered if he would go back and tell tales on them to Kubrick. In fact, he simply wanted to help, knowing what a punishing perfectionist the boss could be.
We hear from Vitali’s three adult children, which the film excludes until quite late in the day, mirroring perhaps the extent to which they were elbowed aside and overruled in real life. Their father always had time and energy for other people, they recall, but rarely for them.
Only once in the film does Vitali confront his own torment, when he recalls undergoing two 36-hour shifts of watching prints of Eyes Wide Shut from start to finish to check for irregularities; he interrupted this vigil only occasionally to bolt from the screening room and throw up. “I don’t think I want to talk about this,” he says, his voice cracking. No matter: the documentary speaks for him.
Vitali had his own reasons for staying at the director’s side, just as Kubrick had his reasons for keeping him there. He sounds like a jealous partner when he frets that Vitali might leave him to work for Warner Bros, reinforcing the sense that Filmworker is depicting nothing less than an abusive relationship. Vitali may have had the king’s ear but he also had the king’s hand around his throat.
Filmworker screens at the London Film Festival on 4 and 5 October