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Doc Star of the Month: Leon Vitali, Tony Zierra's''Filmworker'

By Lauren Wissot

Leon Vitali, from Tony Zierra's 'Filmworker.' Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Leon Vitali has spent his entire working life devoted to a single cause: the cinematic vision of Stanley Kubrick. After landing the role of Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, the well-known British TV star stepped out of the spotlight to become what he terms a "filmworker," doing whatever was necessary to ensure Kubrick’s next masterwork would come to fruition. From casting (he found Danny Lloyd for The Shining), coaching actors and scouting locations in pre-production, to color-correcting and sound-engineering in post, to marketing and promotion, and now restoration, there was no job too big or too small for Vitali to tackle. (Once, he even set up surveillance cameras to keep an eye on Kubrick's beloved dying cat.)

And now, through a combination of unvarnished interviews and archival footage, documentarian Tony Zierra has created a thorough portrait of this beyond-the-call-of-duty man, while also exposing the blood, sweat, tears and creative exhilaration that make up a life behind the scenes.

Documentary had the honor of speaking with the unconventional Vitali a week prior to the US release of Zierra's Filmworker (May 11 at NYC’s Metrograph, May 18 at LA's Nuart, and with a national rollout to follow, through Kino Lorber).

I believe you met the film's director, Tony Zierra, when he was pursuing a documentary about Eyes Wide Shut. Why did you agree to let him do a film about you?

Leon Vitali: Well, he came to see me the first time, and we videoed. He was recording this, filming this, and it went on for about three hours. And then some weeks later he came back again. He probably did another two or three hours. And I think when he and Elizabeth Yoffe, his wife, looked at the material, they suddenly thought, Well, there's a lot of stuff about Stanley and his motivations at that time.

They suddenly thought they could get another side of that particular story but also something in general about the film industry, about the people who serve and work. I'll just put it like this: I'm one of about five people who stay for the end credits at any movie that I go to see. I don't think it'll make any difference or anything like that, but it's my kind of tribute to those who have also served. I think they just saw the story, the idea from that angle. I wasn't sure at first. I kind of thought, I don't know if I want to do that. It's a bit of a giant, public therapy session when you come down to it, you know?

I thought of my children, because they were the ones I was worried about. And they were perfectly—I say "children"; they're all grown adults—

They're still your kids.

Yeah, they are still your kids, exactly. And I still worry about them. And they thought it was quite a good idea; they had no problem with it whatsoever. So I said, "Okay, let's see where it takes us." And that was the thing. The filmwork had morphed from being a narrow kind of focus to spreading out to look at all these people who do work on a project. It's not about a star, a director or filmmaker or producer. This is about the sharp end of it, really. It was a process, like in everything else, you know?

The crew that are there to serve Kubrick's vision are the unsung heroes.

Yeah, and there is an addendum to that. When you've worked with someone like Stanley, you realize that he worked to serve the picture, too. There was nobody working harder. And that makes you care more about wanting to be there and to be a part of that experience. And it opens up all sorts of avenues in your brain about possibilities. You could start off with a script, but by the end of the movie, it had sort of developed and worked and went into different areas that were never in the script.

And there were always adventures, a kind of discovery…I used to be an actor, so what I used to love is the fact that if you did character studies and all that kind of work, things were never as you first thought. They could be much more, it could be richer, and it was a voyage of discovery for yourself, too, if you did research and stuff like that. You came out all the time saying, "Oh, I didn't know that." That's what I love about life. For all its highs or lows, it changes if you want it to. It's never the same, never standing still.

Leon Vitali (left) on the set of Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining.' Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Did you almost see your work as another acting role, or a chance to live vicariously through Kubrick in some way?

Well, I suppose if you work with someone like Stanley, a lot of it's got to rub off. It was a dream come true to work for a filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick. We hit it off pretty quickly; there was a kind of synergy. We could talk about anything; we often did. While he was setting up the lights for another shot, which sometimes took forever, we'd just sit and talk about politics, about actors we liked, movies we liked, or sport, or anything at all.

It was so freewheeling. And at the same time, you're doing your work. You're 100 percent there. You're not allowing yourself to be distracted. And when you're on the floor actually being directed by Stanley, it was like there was no one else. Even if you're surrounded by other actors, if he was focused on you, there was nobody else. It was just quiet words: "I liked what you did just then; push it a little bit more." He never showed you how to act; he didn't say, "Do this and do that on that line." It was just a beautiful voyage, a kind of discovery.

I guess a lot of that rubbed off and stayed with me—including that feeling that you've got to get to the bottom of everything, otherwise you're not going to be able to do the best informed work that you can. So yeah, there are working similarities. But to get back to your question…

I asked if you approached film work as an actor because I actually started out as an actor—and when I turned to filmmaking and writing, I still approached both as an actor. Like, "I'm just going to act as if I'm a filmmaker and a writer and see if it works."

You pretend hard enough, you get there. It's an actor's saying, isn't it? If you think it long enough, you'll make it. And a little bit of that comes into it, too. You just keep persisting and persisting and persisting…

Watching the film, it just seemed to me that you approached every new technical film role in the same way that you approached a new character.

Yeah, very much. But instead of keeping it internal and to yourself, you're having to spread yourself out. That was one of the things that hooked me. As an actor you went on, whether it's a film or television or stage, and you did your part and you go; that's it. And you have no involvement with it, before or after. It's just what you've done at that point. And what I've found, what really hooked me, was reaching around and suddenly understanding that, my God, what goes into actually creating a shot? I mean, the lighting and all the preproduction work to create the atmosphere, and the postproduction work. It's a zoo and it's a conundrum, and there are dozens of them, but you have to work it out. And I just found that so intriguing and interesting; it feeds your curiosity somewhat.

It's like you're looking under the "hood" of the film.

Yes. That's a good way of looking at it.

Since you’re an actor, was it natural being in front of Tony's lens? Or was it a different experience, since Filmworker is focused on your life, and not some character's?

For quite a while it was very, very difficult because there is a certain self-consciousness. When you're an actor, there's a certain self-consciousness. We sort of marked a breakthrough when we went up to the attic and I looked at the notebooks. I started going through my notebooks, of which there were thousands. And then that suddenly freed me. I realized, My God, look at everything that one had to do just to solve one problem.

It's absolutely amazing. And you only understand it after it's all calmed down a little bit. It's when you string things together, even if they've been personal experiences, you tend to think, Wow, this wasn't quite as I felt it when I was doing it. But it's something that has helped me understand a little bit more about myself, too. I wouldn't say it's exactly therapeutic, but that's not far off.

You sometimes learn things about yourself from characters you play, and maybe even in the case of being a documentary subject as well. How involved were you behind the scenes of the documentary, though? Did Tony totally control the editing process?

Yes, that was just Tony—Tony and Liz Yoffe, who generally gets forgotten. It was just a two-man crew. I think one of the miraculous things about it is, they've made this film, just the two of them.

Were there any scenes you didn't want in the film, though? Would you have done anything differently?

No. I mean, I think you could ask that of everybody about anything, right? But what I did is, I told Tony and Liz that I'm not going to interfere with anything. When people talk, I'm not going to censor them. I am not going to say, Well, you shouldn't let people get the wrong impression, or anything like that. I just absolutely laid myself wide open. So I didn't have any kind of influence at all during the shooting or during the editing.

We had a wonderful program in England when I was a kid, about 14, and it was called Who Are You Really?. They got a celebrity to sit with a psychologist, and then they'd talk about their lives. And the psychologist would say, "Well, we have somebody here who was a part of your circle at that time you're talking about." And then they'd go to that person, and they'd say what their impressions were of this celebrity when they knew him back then. And it was so remarkable how with so many people, not a single one of them matched each other in their assessments of this person.

And sometimes a celebrity was sitting there going, "What? Huh? That's not me." It was astonishing. So I kind of laid myself open for that, too. Warts and all.

Since you came up in the '60s, I'm curious to know how that might have affected your life choices. I mean, it was a risk-taking time, in which fame and fortune kind of took a backseat to the "experience," the "journey." In a sense, did that era allow you the confidence to toss aside your acting career in pursuit of your true dream of studying with a master artist like Kubrick? I'm not sure a lot of working actors would do that in this day and age.

Well, I think it would be harder today. I'm so glad you pointed that out, because I grew up in a very small town—not just in size, but in mentality. Small towns tend to have a much stronger, basic character-driven population than, say, a sprawling place like London. I actually started out life studying retail management. Can you believe it?

It was probably more acceptable.

Well, yeah, exactly. But I had always loved film, and had been in all the school plays. There was obviously something I enjoyed about it, which was a kind of mental freedom, for want of a better word. Because what I found was, if you immersed yourself in the school plays or whatever, there was nothing else. You were just in the moment so often. I only understood it as being in the moment years later, after I'd gone through drama school in London, and I understood what the moment meant.

There’s that turn of phrase: "In every avenue we've got to find a moment." That was the beautiful part about it for me. But I think it's very hard for young people now—or even for adults who want to change. It's probably more difficult in many ways. There's such a price to it, you know? And the more people watch television and look at media and stuff like that, it is much more of a breakneck…You've got to make it or you’re broken. I'm not really a competitive person in many ways, but I used to play a lot of sports. And because you're in the moment, that's what you want to do: you want to win.

But generally, I accept more than I used to just because of the life lessons I've had. I'm not so ready to pounce on something and declare it right or wrong, because it's more complicated than that in life. It's just a conundrum, very often.

I just think that that kind of experiential attitude is very ’60s. You aren't out to try to prove anything.

Yeah, exactly. And that was another thing about working with Stanley, all of the jobs and the tasks. It wasn't that you started working with him and there was a list of things that you were responsible for. They grew and grew and grew over the years. I worked for him for three decades. You get to know each other, and there’s a shorthand. For instance, when I first had to do a layout for something, he said, "Have a go at that." And I said to him, "I can't do layouts; I've never done layouts." And he just said, "Sure you can. Just try it." That happened very often; it was how Stanley did it. He just said, "Try it, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't matter. You'll find another way to do it." He was very open, in general, in finding out about people and about things.

That sounds both exhausting and creatively exhilarating.

Yeah, entirely day and night. I understand when people talk about workaholics, because it's not that you run around thinking, I've got to work, I've got to work, I've got to work. It's just that what happens is, Things come along that need your attention. And Stanley had a very limited crew. When we weren't shooting, there was basically me and two or three other people who handled all the film and the video side, and all the technologies and the lampwork. I even went into marketing and all that stuff. It was like a home industry for Stanley, you know? It was a very centered working environment.

It almost sounds like a family.

Yeah, of course.

And you can't walk away from family.

The work environment was actually beautiful. It was almost bucolic because it was on this estate (Childwickbury Manor), and it was right between the busy metropolis of London and St. Albans, which was a small, conservative kind of city. Five minutes out, you could be right in the middle of the countryside, beautiful and tranquil. And on the other side, 20 minutes away on that fast train, was the center of London. It was the best of both worlds when it came to these surroundings and environment and what have you.

Do you find yourself a different person now that you’re in LA? How has your life evolved in the last 20 years, since Kubrick’s death?

I have to say that when he died, it was a shock because there was so much to do to finish Eyes Wide Shut. He died in March, and I can honestly say that I didn't really feel it until October, when I finally kicked the last print out for a release in Turkey. 

My life’s evolved, but then it always has. My childhood had been so distinct and so peculiar and strange in many ways since I'd had a working childhood. That wouldn't be allowed today. Changes are often so radical that it takes a little while for them to actually take root. They either develop or they don't. So that's really how I've understood where I am today. When I think of myself as I was 50 or 60 years ago, I'm much more open and I'm much more understanding of differences. I appreciate the fact that, thank God we have individuals populating this world, because it would be terrible if we lived in some kind of false utopia.

On the set of Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut.' Courtesy of Kino Lorber

You do have a Zen quality—which I think was what allowed you to stay so long with Kubrick.

I think you're right.

Otherwise you would have walked away like so many other actors did once they got through shooting. I think Matthew Modine noted in the film that he never could have dedicated his life like you did—that he was too selfish.

There were some people for whom it was too intense for them and they couldn't cope with it. But the trouble is, if you start talking in "Zen" terms, it becomes hippie-dippy. And it's not. It's very practical.

I don't mean it as a hippie thing at all.

I know you don't. I'm just saying that so many people would jump on that as a hippie-dippy kind of logic. But I was born and raised a Catholic. It was a strict kind of upbringing that I never liked. When I was 14, I took a real conscious decision that I didn't want any more of it. And I refused to go to church—which sounds a little trite now, but for me it was quite a brave decision because everyone else was going to church.

Also, I found out very early on that you can be bored in any situation, but if you're patient, you break through that boredom barrier and you've got a new garden in front of you with all sorts of possibilities. That’s something that I've carried with me all my life, all my working life. I've been in rehearsals where, as an actor, you think, I just want to shoot it now. I just want to do this play and get it done and everything.

But once you break through that, it's a kind of release. To me it means you are letting all your preconceptions and possibly prejudices slip away. And that was one of the wonderful things about working with Stanley as an actor; you went through it so many times, you weren't remembering dialogue anymore. It was just there, like another muscle in any scene that you were playing. So you weren't acting, so to speak. You weren't doing the grand performance.

Matthew had an interesting story in Filmworker where he said he didn't know what he was doing on Full Metal Jacket. And Stanley said to him, "What's bothering you?" And he said, "I don't know what you want." And Stanley replied, "I don't want anything. I want you to be you." And that's why he cast him in the first place: Matthew was a different kind of person, and a lovely person. At the same time Stanley could wake him up now and then by just letting Matthew find it, by encouraging him to find it himself. Stanley would always say, "Do a little more of this, do a little more of that." With this encouraging, you knew he was with you.


Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Documentary and Filmmaker magazine. Her work can also be regularly read at SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail. Currently, she serves as the international features programmer at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.