Filmworker: Obsessed with the Obsessed

B+ Documentary
Directed by Tony Zierra

Like many great artists, Stanley Kubrick was an obsessive perfectionist. You already know that. What you probably don’t know was that he had an equally obsessive assistant – a man who gave up a promising acting career to stand in the shadows, on call 24/7, to help Kubrick create and sustain his vision.

Leon Vitali was already a Kubrick fan when he was cast in a supporting role in Barry Lyndon. By the time the shoot was over, Vitali knew what he wanted to do with his life, and that was to help Kubrick, who gladly accepted this fawning but hard-working enthusiast. He interviewed child actors and photographed hotels for The Shining. He prepared extras for Full Metal Jacket. He returned to acting in Eyes Wide Shut. And in all of these films, he was Kubrick’s in between with designers, Warner executives, and the film labs that could ruin a release print or, much worse, the camera negative.

Kubrick made only three films in the 24 years between Barry Lyndon and his untimely death, but he kept Vitali busy – working out deals, overseeing marketing, and making sure that television transfers were properly panned and scanned. He even set up a video system in his boss’s home so that Kubrick could watch a sick cat.

Kubrick was obsessive about the quality of his film prints, and required Vitali to view a large section of the many prints made for theatrical release. And of course, if a film had a rerelease, Vitali would examine the prints again.

After Columbia Pictures lost the Dr. Strangelove negative, Kubrick took on the responsibility of preserving and archiving his own films, as well. And, of course, Vitali did most of the work. Nearly 20 years after the director’s death, that’s still a major part of Vitali’s job.

It’s surprising to realize how little Vitali is known. He was not asked to talk at the opening of a Kubrick museum exhibit in Los Angeles. His name appears on only seven pages of John Baxter’s Kubrick biography.

Tony Zierra’s documentary provides a sympathetic look at a man who set his own life aside to follow his master. While Vitali is, appropriately, the most-interviewed person in the film, his children give their own views of their obsessive father. You get the feeling that their childhoods were tough. Of course, any documentary on Kubrick will include great clips and stills from his life.

Vitali, who knows how every frame of every Kubrick film, now works on preserving these motion pictures. At the end of the film, a title tells us that he’s currently working on a 4K restoration of 2001. I would love to know what he thinks of Christopher Nolan’s unrestored version.