Nineteen years after he died just days after screening a final cut of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick is making a comeback. Actually, don’t call it a comeback. After all, films like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining are already the bread and butter of art-house theaters (so much so that the Alamo Drafthouse’s carpeting is a reproduction of the Overlook Hotel’s). But Kubrick looms especially large these days.
The photos he took for Look magazine as a Bronx teenager comprise an exhibit opening today at the Museum of the City of New York. Later this month, Christopher Nolan will shepherd a 70mm rerelease of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in September the New York Philharmonic will accompany a screening of the film at Lincoln Center. (Oh, and let’s not forget the 2001 selfie room at the National Air and Space Museum.) Meanwhile, starting May 11, Metrograph will show eight Kubrick classics alongside Filmworker, a new documentary about his longtime assistant, Leon Vitali.
Maybe you’re asking: Wait a minute, wasn’t there already a documentary about one of Kubrick’s long-suffering assistants? That would be S Is For Stanley, the 2015 film about his loyal driver, Emilio D’Alessandro, who also penned a memoir, Stanley Kubrick and Me. If you read that book, you know Kubrick put D’Alessandro through something akin to the basic training scenes in Full Metal Jacket. The young Italian gave up his dream of being a Formula One driver in order to be at Kubrick’s round-the-clock beck and call, for everything from cat emergencies to driving Jack Nicholson around as the actor smoked pot and ogled women. D’Alessandro’s family life suffered dearly. In the end, he was rewarded with a cameo in Eyes Wide Shut, as a newsstand attendant.
All of that could also be said of Vitali, who made an even bigger sacrifice to be Kubrick’s right-hand man. When the director tapped him for the role of Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, Vitali was a working actor with Mick Jagger-esque good looks and charisma. He regularly landed roles in British sit coms, police dramas, and movies; one clip shows him in a courtroom scene with Philip Stone, the British character actor who went on to play the caretaker in The Shining and Alex’s pa in A Clockwork Orange.
Vitali abandoned his budding career behind the camera because he wanted to learn Kubrick’s craft, and he immersed himself in all aspects of the production process, from casting to rehearsing to editing to foley art. You wouldn’t know it, but he played no less than eight of the robed, masked orgy participants in Eyes Wide Shut, and he was responsible for the high-heel clicks you hear shortly before the streetwalker in Full Metal Jacket delivers her infamous “me so horny” line. (By the way, Vitali isn’t the only Kubrick actor who was fully obscured during his most iconic role. David Prowse, the bodybuilder who played the wheelchair-bound writer’s home attendant in A Clockwork Orange, went on to physically portray Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi.)
So, is Filmworker worth watching when there’s so much other Kubrick stuff going on? Fans will definitely dork out on the behind-the-scenes footage and archival shots. And Vitali has some fun stories about casting the Shining sisters, even though the script didn’t call for twins, because they reminded him of the iconic Diane Arbus photo. He screen-tested over 4,000 child actors for the role of Danny before he settled on Danny Lloyd, and then served as the six-year-old’s companion and acting coach throughout the shoot. (Lloyd, who is interviewed for the documentary, went on to become a biology professor at a Kentucky community college. Here’s a typical Rate My Professor entry: “Pretty chill dude and what not, plus he was Danny in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining so why would you not take his class?”)
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Kubrick documentary without the requisite stories of the director’s hard-driving perfectionism and his penchant for subjecting actors to take after take. Vitali shows off the “Book of Lies” he kept during The Shining, a fraudulent time sheet to show that Kubrick wasn’t violating child labor laws. And he tells the story of having to repeatedly swallow raw eggs for a vomiting scene in Barry Lyndon.
Aside from the war stories, however, there’s the question of why someone would abandon a promising acting career to become “a slave to Kubrick,” as Matthew Modine called him. Vitali says that at one point stress caused his weight to drop to 65 pounds; he shows off a notebook in which he wrote dozens of times “I, Leon Vitali, am healing myself.” It looks a lot like Jack Torrance’s litany of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
We’re led to believe that Vitali was so loyal to Kubrick in part because an abusive father built up his tolerance for moody geniuses. And then there’s the idea of the “filmworker,” the mostly anonymous individuals who toil behind the scenes, working 20-hour days with little reward, to make sure the director’s vision is perfectly realized. Vitali calls his career a “vicarious experience,” and he continued working on Kubrick films as a restorer long after the master’s death, to little appreciation. Next week, however, he’ll get to bask in the spotlight. He and director Tony Zierra will be at Metrograph to present the 7pm screenings of Filmworker on May 11 and 12. You can get tickets here.