Documentary Releases: Filmworker (2017) - Reviewed

After a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, then up-and-coming British actor Leon Vitali turned to the patron sitting next to him and remarked ‘I want to work for that man’.  Little did Mr. Vitali know that in a very short time, he would sacrifice his prolific acting career to spend the next thirty or so years of his life to do just that!  Initially cast as Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s period drama Barry Lyndon, Vitali approached Kubrick about satisfying his curiosity about the behind-the-scenes machinations working towards editing, color timing, casting, directing, and virtually every aspect that went into a Stanley Kubrick film production.  

Gradually Vitali, over the next thirty years, would become known in the industry and among cinephiles as Kubrick’s personal assistant who worked tirelessly 24/7 to cater to, maintain, and provide every need the legendarily demanding film director requested.  Whether it be seeking out and coaching child actor Danny Lloyd for The Shining, overseeing every aspect of the theatrical and home video releases of Kubrick’s films, and helping to troubleshoot the many obstacles befalling Full Metal Jacket, Vitali went above and beyond the call of duty for Mr. Kubrick and then some.  All the while friends, family and fellow industry colleagues couldn’t help but ask themselves just how someone with such promise in the acting field would completely give up his career, personal life and arguably personal identity in service to the creative vision of another man. 

In the retrospective biographical documentary Filmworker, filmmaker Tony Zierra and Mr. Vitali himself attempt to answer that still mystifying question.  Comprised of interviews with actors Ryan O’Neal, Danny Lloyd, Matthew Modine, Lee Ermey and many more including key Warner Brothers executives as well as compiling snapshots, behind-the-scenes dailies and written notes jotted down by Vitali over the years, the film is arguably the most eye opening keys to the ever beguiling Kubrick filmography yet released.  Arguably far more intimate than Jan Harlan’s own biopic Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures and far more engaging than S is for Stanley, Filmworker joins Vitali’s personal reflection on his experiences with the master filmmaker with all the good, bad, happy and sad in full view. 

One of the wonders of the film and the subject himself is Vitali’s seemingly indefatigable, Sisyphus-like drive onward and upward to meet the nearly impossible-to-meet demands of the Herculean film director.  Fulfilling a task few if any would be willing to take on with some cast and crew members having had their own stories to tell about the fastidious and meticulous filmmaker, Vitali immerses himself fully into the vortex that is working for Stanley Kubrick without looking back.  By the film’s end, one can’t help but share a modicum of concern the toll must have taken on the man, yet the ever resilient Leon Vitali continues to press on and now represents the sole figure in restoring and preserving Kubrick’s works for a whole new generation to be able to experience. 

In addition to being Kubrick’s right-hand man for decades, after the director’s passing in 1999 Vitali stepped up to the podium and has since become known as the key figure in managing the filmmaker’s extensive body of work for the new millennia.  In other words, Kubrick’s films have survived decades of wear and tear, botched prints, damaged negatives and the prospect of studio meddling thanks to the studious and dedicated efforts of the filmmaker’s closest and most trusted confidant.  With Filmworker, no other documentary gets as close to what it meant to work for Stanley Kubrick as this and no other film evokes the passion and perseverance of the man who helped the legendary filmmaker fulfill his cinematic visions quite like this one.  By the end of Mr. Vitali’s arduous journey with Mr. Kubrick, one comes away with a renewed understanding of what it truly means to take part in a lifelong labor of love.

- Andrew Kotwicki