Some time in the 1990s, I received a phone call – on an unlisted number – from Leon Vitali, who introduced himself as Stanley Kubrick’s assistant and seemed rather taken aback that I remembered him acting in the title role of the 1976 Swedish-Irish movie Victor Frankenstein. Kubrick had read a piece of mine in Empire about the anime Akira and wanted to look at the film as background material while he was working on the script that would become Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Vitali had got in touch to ask how it was possible to see such an obscure work. I told him it was out on VHS and he could probably buy a copy in Woolworth’s. He thanked me very much, and we both got on with all the other things we had to do that day.
This documentary feature by Tony Zierra looks at the life and career of Leon Vitali, who was a familiar film/TV face in the early 1970s – with a regular role in the sit-com The Fenn Street Gang (a spin-off from Please Sir!) and guest spots on pretty much every crime drama airing on British TV. His debut was as a charismatic skinhead in a memorable 1970 episode of Softly Softly Task Force – out on DVD – which looks a little like a rough draft for This is England. Cast as Barry Lyndon’s stepson in the 1976 film, he eased out of acting – after making Victor Frankenstein – and became, as Matthew Modine notes, Kubrick’s version of Igor, doing many, many jobs on the Master’s subsequent films, including several involving things the travel-phobic director wouldn’t do like going to America to test prospects for the role of Danny in The Shining or going up in a helicopter to run lines with the door gunner (Tim Colceri). It was also his job to give Colceri the letter telling him he’d been demoted from the plum role of Sgt Hartman to make room for R. Lee Ermey’s career-making turn. Between films, Vitali carried out the chores of communicating with distributors on the finer points of grading prints and helped rig up a video surveillance system so Stanley could keep tabs on a dying pet cat.
By the time we get to the work phone calls on Christmas Day, it’s hard not to see Vitali’s complete surrender to Kubrick as martyr-like … it’s even a surprise when the second half of the film touches a bit on the subject’s home life to find that he had time to have children, who come across in interviews as accepting but wary of the sacrifice made but can also be seen crawling around in home video footage of Vitali at work. Zierra sets out to highlight not just Vitali’s contribution but that of all the other filmworkers whose toil – often ill-paid and working insane hours at the expense of mental and physical health – enables high-profile, temperamental geniuses who gift the world with the likes of 2001 A Space Odyssey or The Shining. Besides various admiring backroom boys and execs, Zierra brings in Ryan O’Neal – whose briefly glimpsed reuinion with Vitali is touching – and Danny Lloyd – not a talking head who pops up in many other documentaries. Stellan Skarsgaard and Pernilla August flit through, not quite explaining their connection with Vitali – who worked in Swedish theatre. Most of the heavy lifting comes from Vitali himself, who is – obviously – a modest, but determined man and candid up to the point when he quite rightly says ‘I don’t think I want to talk about that.’ Filmworker might seem a niche documentary – a footnote to the ever-expanding field of Kubrick studies – but it’s a fascinating picture of a stratum of cinema that’s rarely chronicled. It’s also surprisingly moving.