Kubrick 'Could Mind-Fuck You Quite Easily' Says One of His Oldest Friends
Ahead of the new documentary 'Filmworker,' which shines a light on their relationship, we sat down with the master director's longtime confidante Leon Vitali.
A scene from Filmworker, courtesy Kino Lorber
Would you forfeit your career to advance someone else’s? What if that someone else was a bonafide genius—the type of rarified talent that would later be regarded as one of the best filmmakers ever? This has been the central question of Leon Vitali’s life. Formerly an actor (both for stage and screen), Vitali met Kubrick after being cast as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon. During the production, the two men bonded. They contained a similar “work ethic,” according to Vitali. One day on set, Kubrick approached Vitali and said, “I’ve seen how you focus and concentrate, so I’ve decided to write an extra bunch of scenes for you, and keep you here to the end.” From then on, the two were inseparable.
Vitali seamlessly went from being in front of the camera to being behind it. He wasn’t merely Kubrick’s personal assistant from 1975 onward—he was a central confidant, a man Kubrick used as a sounding board. For over 20 years Vitali and Kubrick worked side by side, plugging away at what would be Kubrick's final three films: The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut.
Vitali recounts all of this and more in Tony Zierra's new documentary entitled Filmworker, now out in theaters in limited release. The film is a thoughtful deep-dive into Kubrick’s labyrinthine mind, but it’s also a moving story about Vitali's unusual path to being an artist. When we sat down for a chat in Los Angeles, Vitali, 69, told a Kubrick story not in the documentary, how Stanley’s “mind-fuckery” wore down some actors, and why he didn’t see his work with Stanley Kubrick as a sacrifice.
VICE: The reclusiveness of Stanley Kubrick is something that was constantly discussed throughout his career. Did he ever talk to you about why he felt the need to be as reclusive as he was?
Leon Vitali: I think it’s called workload. I’ve got to tell you, you know, every single one of Stanley’s movies was out somewhere in the world. And in some cases, re-releases in quite big numbers, you know, 400 prints of A Clockwork Orange in Paris, for instance, in France, and that kind of work. And then video came along, and he re-did everything. We checked every translation, for instance. We checked all the timing for every translation once it had been applied to video, and if they weren’t bang on cue, you know, they had to go back and do it again, and then we had to look at it again. And also, the hangover from release lasts a very long time if you’re that involved with it, which he was. There was never nothing to do, you know? There was always something to do, and also of course trying to get your next one off the ground. Negotiations and God knows what. I don’t think he had a spare minute, to be honest. Let me tell you something… We had a helicopter flying over Stanley’s house, taking photographs. It happened so regularly. And we opened up the pages of his newspaper of choice, the Telegraph, which was a bit of a Tory Holy Bible, we thought. There was a huge, double-page spread of this arial photograph of these houses on the estate. It said, “Stanley Kubrick’s estate in St. Aubin’s.” And we just fell about laughing because they got the wrong house. They got the wrong house, the wrong area, everything.
Is there a story about Stanley that you really love that didn’t make it into the movie?
We were on Full Metal Jacket, and the main exterior set was in West Ham in London, and it was an abandoned gasworks, about an hour from where we did our work from his house. He called me. It was about half past 7 or 8, and he said, “Leon, I’ve just arrived, come and see me.” So I went to see him, and he said he got this piece of paper, and he said it was an agreement for all of the extras, you know? And at the bottom, just before the signature it said, “This agreement is binding, not just now but in perpetuity,” which is a contract I signed when I was an actor. So in other words, you can’t come back for more [money], even if it’s for a video format or any other yet to be invented technology.
Anyway, he said, "What does it mean?" And I said, "Well, it means what it says—in perpetuity." He says, "Yeah, I know, but does it really mean that? Does it really mean that?" And he said, "Check it out with [Jan] Harlan," Stanley’s brother-in-law. He said, "Don’t call him. I want you to go there, go to his office, and stand there while he calls Warner Brothers legal to find out if perpetuity does actually mean forever," you know? And I went, “Oh, Jesus, OK,” so I drive an hour and a quarter back, and we’re into rush hour now, you know, morning rush hour. I go to the office, and I walk in, and I give Jan the piece of paper and [tell him], "He says he wants to know what perpetuity really means." And Jan says "Well, it means forever." And I said, "You know, but he wants you to ring Warner Brothers legal and ask them to say, hand-on-heart, basically, that’s what it means."
And so he did, and he called, and then I drove back an hour and a half, however long it took to go back. We were shooting a scene where the sniper was shooting all these Marines, you know? They were on the ground, and the sniper was just firing on them, and I had to park my car and walk down this corridor. Stanley saw me getting out of the car, and he saw me walking towards him, and it was about 30, 40 yards away, and he shouted, “Did you speak with Jan Harlan?" And I said, "Yeah, of course I did." And he said, "Did he ring Warner Brothers?" And I said "Yeah, of course he did.” I was walking towards him, and he’s shouting, and he said, "What did he say?" I said, "You know, they said what I said—that 'in perpetuity' means forever." Forever, you know? No question about it. And he says, "They said that, or are you just saying that?" Stanley is shouting in front of the whole crew. And I said, "Why would I just say it?" And he said, "Because you’re a cunt!"
I just start laughing because it was so funny because the whole crew—suddenly their mouths were open, and when I got up to him, he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and said, “Hey, Leon, look what I wrote last night.” And it was a wonderful, simple solution to a problem we’d been having about finding an ending to a scene. That was it, you know? I’ve never, ever forgotten that of course, but it tells you a little bit about Stanley. He could mind-fuck you quite easily, to be honest.
Given that you knew him for as long as you did, was his mind-fuckery malicious, or did it possess a purpose?
For the most part, it had a purpose. It was a way to keep people on track or to keep them working at the speed we needed to work. A film crew is like herding cats, you know? It really is. Stanley was the one who could smell bullshit from about 100 miles. And sometimes, like when he sent me on a trek to go find out information, I think he thought it was really, really funny at the end of it, although those kinds of things, contractual things, he took very, very seriously. When I think of him, I think of the most complete picture of humanity in one single person. Because, you know, if you think you can get mad, he got mad, but to the power of 1,000 that we normal people can get mad. If he was being generous, he could be embarrassingly generous. You’d say, "No, just stop that, please. Stop it now," you know? Whatever he did, whatever anybody was or is, he was all those things, just to the power of a gazillion, I’d say.
Did you ever see an actor have a hard time with his temperament?
Let me say that first of all he would never have called anyone else a cunt in front of the crew. That was a privilege I had—that he could do that to me.
Your privilege is that he could call you a cunt freely.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. To your question, sometimes actors came across really well on the video, but when they came on set—not very often, but it happened from time to time—they froze, and there was no way to free them up. If you take someone like Scatman Crothers in The Shining, that scene in the kitchen with Danny, that whole monologue that he does, he sort of fluffed his lines because Stanley wanted him to do it in just one take. He was 68 years old by this time, so you know, it wasn’t surprising that it became difficult for him. We got quite high up in the take stakes I would say, and the assistant directors were saying we should send him home because he’s starting to feel terrible. And Stanley said, “No, he’ll feel even more terrible if he goes home and understands that we started something and didn’t finish it.” So he kept him there, and we did dozens and dozens and dozens of takes, and I think when you look at the finished movie, Scatman has these little inflections and moments where you think he’s Laurence Olivier in black makeup. It was so natural and so beautifully done and timed. But some actors could never get past that.
Speaking of actors that worked with you and Stanley, in Filmworker, Matthew Modine says something like, “[Leon] underwent the crucifixion of himself for the sake of Stanley.” Do you buy that line?
No, no. I’ll tell you something, my whole childhood was one of working. My father died when I was eight years old. He was a teacher at a small school, and we were also caretakers. So when he died, we stayed there. I’d been working since basically eight years old, because we had to clean the school out every night. It’s been something that I don’t even think of. It’s just what I’ve always, always done. Everything is tough sometimes, depending on what the circumstances are, but I never felt I was being crucified or even crucifying myself. If you’re that kind of person, I guess you just go with it. You don’t think about things in that way, you know? You don’t even think about the money—you really don’t. I mean, I really don’t, I should say. You’re just doing, and that’s the beautiful thing about it.
Before we go, what’s one of the most, as you mentioned, “embarrassingly generous gestures” Stanley made in your friendship?
I had a period of quite serious illness. And it was, I mean, it was serious, it put me in the hospital for quite a while, and he never stopped calling to find out if I was OK. He would drive them nuts because he’d ask to speak to me, and they’d come in with the phone. We’d finish talking and about half an hour later he’d ring again just to make sure I was alright. He was just as rabid in the positive side of the relationship as he was, you know, giving you a bollocking because you didn’t do something on time. It was just huge. He really [was] one of those people who you can’t say, Is he good, is he bad? He’s just Stanley, you know? It’s a conundrum. That’s why I say it’s so hard—you can’t pin him down. Put it that way: You can’t pin him down.
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