‘Filmworker’ tells story of passion, dedication in balanced documentary on Leon Vitali

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

On the screen: a man in a bandana, long stringy blonde and gray hair peeking out, framing his face. He dons aviator sunglasses and a rusty smile — a scruffy man, sleeves rolled up, the expression of a war veteran. And, in a sense, he is a vet. His war was fought with cameras instead of guns and his battles were fought on film sets instead of battlefields.

This soldier is Leon Vitali, right-hand man to famous director Stanley Kubrick. “Filmworker,” directed, shot and edited by Tony Zierra, looks at the behind-the-scenes world of Vitali as he left the world of acting to work with Kubrick

After Vitali’s first role as Lord Bullingdon in “Barry Lyndon,” he became entranced with Kubrick’s directing and storytelling. This initial exposure to the director’s process and the pristine technical side of Kubrick’s filmmaking changed the trajectory of Vitali’s life, transforming him from actor to filmworker.

In an interview, actor Brian Capron discusses how amazing it was that such a good actor would give up that acting career to move behind the camera, something he could never see himself doing. Capron’s surprise demonstrates the uniqueness of Vitali’s story. He didn’t just transition from acting to directing or producing as many actors do today. He left acting completely to follow Kubrick on every one of his sets, doing the brutal grunt work for the sake of Kubrick’s art.

“Filmworker” captures this tale in a raw and dynamic manner. The diverse interviews from actors in “Full Metal Jacket” — Matthew Modine calling Vitali the Igor to Kubrick’s Dr. Frankenstein — to Danny Lloyd’s stories of how Vitali discovered him to play Danny in “The Shining” and how he served as his protector throughout the film’s production depict Vitali’s eclectic set of skills and his vast roles on Kubrick’s sets. Clips of Kubrick and Vitali on set together, Vitali working diligently, or stills of their work strung together give a full image of how the set worked.

This collection of techniques used to tell Vitali’s story demonstrates the main theme of the documentary; Vitali was overworked, doing thankless jobs and working day and night to help make the groundbreaking films that Kubrick received praise for. This is a testament to how important Vitali thought Kubrick’s work and his process were and how much he believed the stories they were working on needed to be told.

While this is Vitali’s story, it survived off of the success of Kubrick’s practically divine filmmaking.

What makes “Filmworker” so successful is the balance of its commentary in regard to Kubrick. Vitali had job after job only because Kubrick’s films were sought after and always monumental, and the documentary highlights that grand success. But it also comments on the notorious temperament and questionable morals of Kubrick that came with his process. Within minutes of the film’s start, Zierra’s narrative delves into Kubrick’s monomaniacal, often problematic directing.

In “Barry Lyndon,” actor Ryan O’Neal’s title character was supposed to beat Vitali’s character. According to O’Neal’s emotional interview in the documentary, Kubrick kept telling him that he wasn’t “hitting him hard enough.”

Yet Vitali followed Kubrick all the same. Because, like it or not, Kubrick was undeniably a cinematic genius.

Zierra doesn’t isolate one side of Kubrick from the other but discusses everything about the director in conjunction. “Filmworker” paints the picture of Kubrick’s obsessive and majestic filming process alongside the story of his private and controversial behavior. That harmonious, observant narrative balance is missing from most documentaries about controversial figures.

This immaculate and honest narrative is foreshadowed by the documentary’s perfectly emblematic title. This film tells of a man who isn’t a director, an actor, a producer or an editor. He played every role on set, offered his life and his hands to help create Kubrick’s work. “Filmworker” sheds a light on the people behind the scenes, the names in the credits that don’t get widespread recognition but contribute to the artwork all the same.

In this film, Vitali is finally the protagonist of his own story.

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].