Filmworker: Stanley Kubrick’s Unsung Assistant Blu-ray Review

4.5 Stars Incredible documentary about Leon Vitali, assistant to Stanley Kubrick, arrives at last on Blu-ray.

Filmworker is an extraordinarily candid documentary about Leon Vitali, the assistant to legendary film director Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s genius was only matched by his penchant for secrecy, resulting a great deal of mystery surrounding his films. This documentary lovingly plays tribute to Vitali, while shedding some light on Kubrick’s methods.

Filmworker (2017)
Released: 03 Oct 2017
Rated: N/A
Runtime: 94 min
Director: Tony Zierra
Genre: Documentary
Cast: Leon Vitali, Ryan O'Neal, Danny Lloyd, Matthew Modine
Writer(s): N/A
Plot: It's a rare person who would give up fame and fortune to toil in obscurity for someone else's creative vision. Yet, that's exactly what Leon Vitali did after his acclaimed performance as '...
IMDB rating: 7.7
MetaScore: 73

Disc Information
Studio: Kino
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA, English 5.1 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 34 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Keep Case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 02/16/2021
MSRP: $24.95

The Production: 4.5/5

“You either love it so much you can’t help it, or you’re a fucking idiot, or you’re a mixture of both.” – Leon Vitali

Filmworker tells the story of Leon Vitali, who walked away from a promising acting career to devote his professional life to director Stanley Kubrick. Vitali’s star was on the rise in the early 1970s when he was cast in a supporting role in the director’s Barry Lyndon. After observing Kubrick on the set, Vitali went up to the director, said that he wanted to work for him, and that was pretty much that. Kubrick suggested that Vitali work behind the scenes on another film to gain an understanding on the process; Vitali took a part in a television movie to get that chance, and after completing that work, came back into Kubrick’s orbit and never left.

Stanley Kubrick was a once-in-a-lifetime genius, and the stories told about him over the years tend to obscure the director’s humanity in favor of a portrait of an ill-tempered perfectionist. As first an actor and then general assistant, Vitali had a front row seat, and is of the few people best qualified to tell the stories behind Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, as well as more general anecdotes. Vitali has, understandably, a much more nuanced view of Kubrick. The two men clearly shared a deep bond, with Vitali serving as a jack-of-all-trades for Kubrick who could fulfill just about any role the director needed. As Vitali sees it, Kubrick was a man who devoted everything to his films, and if Kubrick was giving so much of himself, it naturally followed that Vitali should do the same.

The other perspective that one could take is that Kubrick took advantage of Vitali, asking Vitali to sacrifice his personal and professional life, using him to fulfill so many different roles that would normally be handled by a small army of people working for any other filmmaker. But Vitali himself rejects this interpretation; he emphasizes repeatedly that he wanted to be there. And so it went, for years, with Vitali assisting on every aspect of Kubrick’s work, from the scripting to the casting to production and post-production, while also supervising the preservation and care of the director’s older films. From Vitali’s point of view, he got to work with one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, on some of the greatest films ever made. To be part of that process was both the journey and the reward for Vitali.

“I’m at the service of him, because he’s at the service of his movie. And the thing was, that I wanted, I wanted to be with Stanley, work with Stanley” – Leon Vitali

Though Leon Vitali’s interviews and voiceover make him the primary star of the documentary, he doesn’t have to tell his story alone. There are interviews here with stars of Kubrick films like Ryan O’Neal and Matthew Modine, friends like Stellan Skarsgard, and former studio employees who worked with Kubrick like Brian Jamieson and Nick Redman. The interviews are wonderfully insightful, and shed light on both Kubrick’s process and Leon’s role in that process. At one point, Kubrick is compared to Gordon Ramsay’s television personality: someone who was extraordinary devoted to detail, who cared deeply about his work, but who could be prone to an eruption of temper if those around him failed to maintain his standards. If the portrait of Kubrick can seem occasionally unflattering, it feels fair, and ultimately suggests that both the overall experience and the final product made it all worth it.

For longtime Kubrick fans, much of this ground which has been hinted at elsewhere, though not in as great detail as presented here. But what makes this documentary especially worthwhile for Kubrick devotees are the interviews with actors R. Lee Ermey and Danny Lloyd. Ermey passed away before the release of the film; it’s a great gift to have one of his best on-camera discussions of Full Metal Jacket incorporated here. Lloyd rarely gives interviews about his work on The Shining, and he’s a wonderful presence here. Through these two unexpected and magnificent interviews, it becomes even more obvious how great Vitali’s contributions were to the finished films.

After Kubrick’s passing, the Herculean effort to properly preserve and master Kubrick’s films for future generations fell on Vitali’s shoulders. But once his work was completed for the last round of DVD editions, it seems that Vitali started to be left out of the picture. He no longer had an official role on the Kubrick estate, his time with Warner had wound down, and he wasn’t even consulted for the traveling exhibit of Kubrick’s archive. Thanks to Filmworker, Vitali’s role has been properly memorialized, and since production on the documentary concluded, he has also been rehired in a more official capacity to represent Kubrick’s estate in relation to the films.

Filmworker is an outstanding documentary that serves as both an illuminating portrait of Leon Vitali as well as an essential look into the career of Stanley Kubrick. The documentary’s director, Tony Zierra, has done the film world a tremendous service by capturing this story.

Video: 4.5/5

3D Rating: NA

Filmworker is presented on Blu-ray in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio transfer. New footage shot for the documentary looks clean, crisp and pristine, while the archival clips contained within are of varying quality. Despite the variety of sources used, it’s never a distraction when the film switches from new to old footage and back again. Ironically, the new interview footage often looks better than the clips from the films, which was also the case during theatrical screenings of the documentary. (The disc as a whole is a very faithful reproduction of how the documentary appeared in theaters.) While Kino’s previous DVD was a fine representation of the film, the added clarity the Blu-ray offers does come through.  Not only does the added detail benefit the excerpts from Kubrick’s films, but it also is appreciated during closeups of the many mementos shown from Vitali’s personal collection.

Audio: 5/5

The disc presents two audio options, both in the lossless DTS-HD MA format: a 5.1 surround track and a 2.0 stereo track. The 5.1 track offers a bit more separation but is still more oriented towards the front speakers, making both options fairly similar. The interview subjects are well-recorded, making dialogue easy to understand.  While the audio presentations on the prior DVD release were perfectly satisfactory, the extra clarity afforded by the Blu-ray’s lossless encoding gives the track a bit more life.

Special Features: 3/5

Q&A with Leon Vitali and director Tony Zierra (11:00) – Vitali and Zierra answer questions following a screening of the film. Zierra’s comments about how the film came to be are particularly insightful.

Trailer (2:28) – The original theatrical trailer highlights some of the more memorable moments from the documentary.

Overall: 4.5/5

Filmworker is a remarkable documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s assistant, Leon Vitali. Vitali is a warm and outgoing presence with an encyclopedic knowledge of the director’s films, and this documentary reveals just how big of a part Vitali played in bringing Kubrick’s films to the screen. The documentary’s director, Tony Zierra, has done a tremendous service for Kubrick fans everywhere by creating what is perhaps the single most insightful piece of work to date on what it was like to be in the trenches with one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. With this documentary, Leon Vitali’s contributions to this amazing body of work can now be understood by fans and scholars for generations to come. Kino’s Blu-ray release is wholly accurate to the theatrical presentation, and the bonus Q&A session is a welcome inclusion. This documentary is well worth seeing for film fans in general, and absolutely essential for Kubrick fans.  While Kino’s new Blu-ray does not include any new material beyond what was included in their earlier DVD release, the original documentary footage and film clips do benefit from the HD upgrade.

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titch

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Since most of Kubrick's oeuvre are being released on pristine 4K UHD, the release of this excellent 2017 documentary, (R.Lee Emery had not passed away when the film was released) in high-definition, is long-overdue. I've had the UK PAL DVD and will definitely replace it with this blu-ray. When watching the DVD, I was most struck by how incredibly Leon Vitali had aged beyond recognition, from his cherubic Barry Lyndon days. Granted, all of us are going to sustain considerable wear and tear after 40 years, but it looked like Stanley Kubrick had sucked out all his lifeblood!

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Josh Steinberg

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I recall hearing that the documentary was made in part because Vitali had fallen into ill health, but in the time that passed between the making of the documentary and it’s release, that he had recovered. I certainly want to wish him good health and a long and happy life.
 

Carl David

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I was amazed at his devotion since deciding to work with Stanley.

The relationship that existed between them does perplex me somewhat.

Very bizarre!

A fascinating documentary that left me wanting more.
 

JoeStemme

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Bump in honor of the passing of LEON VITALI. R.I.P

I am posting my review of that Documentary below in his honor.

FILMWORKER (2018). Available for Streaming Rental at all the usual sites. It also on DVD and Blu Ray.
Stanley Kubrick was known as one of the most fanatically detailed Directors in cinema. But, even the most detailed of filmmakers could not possibly attend to each and every facet of the process. It required many co-workers. One of those collaborators was Leon Vitali. But, Vitali wasn't just an assistant, he literally became Kubrick's jack of all trades for much of the last quarter century of his life. One of the ironies is that Kubrick was so picky with his projects that he completed only three films (THE SHINING, FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT) from the time that Vitali became his assistant to his death (and even then, post-production had to completed on EYES posthumously).
FILMWORKER is Director Tony Zierra's effective, and sometimes confounding, portrait of Vitali. Vitali first became enthralled by Kubrick when he went to see 2001 as a young man. By the time that CLOCKWORK ORANGE came out, Vitali had begun a career as an actor, largely on British television. His fascination with Kubrick continued so the opportunity to score even a small role in Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON was literally the chance of a lifetime. As fate would have it, Kubrick took a liking to Vitali's performance as Lord Bullingdon and re-wrote the script in order to increase the part. This gave Vitali an opportunity to not only observe the Director at work, but, to put a bug in his ear that he might like to work for him on his future films. That opportunity came with work with THE SHINING.
What follows is a fascinating portrait of Kubrick as a combination of kindly Maestro and toxic Vampire. He could cajole Vitali and the cast and crew of a picture on one hand, and, then demand effort (and frankly, ability) above and beyond on the other. Not just Vitali, but others describe how exhausting Kubrick's demands were (more than one person is mentioned as having a form of a nervous breakdown on his sets!). Through it all, Vitali's importance to Kubrick grew and grew. From being a fairly defined purely Director's Assistant on THE SHINING to what would become an all-consuming full-time job as his boss' virtual alter-ego (Kubrick would even sign Vitali's name on some of his missives).
Director Zierra's documentary is densely packed for it's 94 minutes. A good assortment of clips illustrate both Kubrick's films, but, also Vitali's early career as an actor. Plus, there's a smattering of behind the scenes footage. Most of it is well chosen, even if, occasionally, they became the equivalent of visual wallpaper in order to have stuff to cut away from the talking heads. Vitali is the main interviewee, but, we also get other Kubrick collaborators both in front of, and behind the camera, and extending to techs in charge of post-production, distribution and home video. Zierra managed to get lead actor Ryan O'Neil to speak about BARRY LYNDON, but, was unable to secure Jack Nicholson or Shelly Duvall from THE SHINING (Danny Lloyd, who was all of 6, represents). Disappointingly, neither Tom Cruise nor Nicole Kidman co-operated either (17th billed Marie Richardson is the lone cast member other than Vitali). Matthew Modine and the late R. Lee Ermey (who's death came after FILMWORKER was completed) speak about FULL METAL JACKET. The interviews are informative and well-edited (Although it must be noted that Kubrick himself would have been aghast at the chalky HD camera-work in them! In one amusing scene we see Kubrick 'direct' a brief video-taped acceptance speech that Vitali recorded. Yes, he was THAT detail oriented).
What emerges is a compelling portrait of one artist (Vitali) essentially giving his life over to facilitate another's (Kubrick). As mentioned, Kubrick only made three movies during the nearly 25 year tenure of Vitali as his assistant. What was he doing in between films? FILMWORKER shows that Kubrick's attention to minutiae extended to attending to each and every painstaking detail of how his completed films were preserved, distributed and promoted. Kubrick would cut special trailers for each major country his films got released in (sometimes differing by only a frame or two). We see Vitali standing in pile after pile of boxes full of old files, VHS tapes, clippings etc.. It became, by his account, a 24-7 position (including holidays) -- even during the 'off' years between films (a full dozen between JACKET and EYES alone).
Zierra thoughtfully dedicates his Doc to all 'Filmworkers' - not just Vitali, but, one can't help but feel he never quite addresses the elephant in the room - why did Vitali give up a promising career as an actor to become a glorified gofer? Other than his professional work, we are given precious little insight to Vitali, the man. We see his three children briefly interviewed, but, his wives (supposedly three) aren't discussed. Perhaps appropriately, the only old footage we see of his kids is with Vitali steeped in work with the children playing in those boxes of Kubrick world. Vitali addresses the camera directly and says it was all worth it, but you can't help but wonder. Yes, it was all done voluntarily, but, at a certain point one has to ask if it wasn't some deranged form of Stockholm Syndrome. While Vitali may never have become a great actor, his resume was adding up. You would think he had some creative bones still in him, that, at some juncture he would have asked Kubrick for a more creative role (or, to even strike out on his own). It's somewhat consoling that Vitali feels he played a role in a great filmmaker's oeuvre, but, one can't escape a mild feeling of depression slipping in. The thought of the dozen years between METAL and EYES being taken up not by artistic input, but instead slaving over the box art for the Japanese VHS tape of 2001 or re-re-re-cutting a trailer for the French re-release of THE SHINING does cast a pall on FILMWORKER.
Zierra has made a fine documentary. The fact that not every question is answered may be unknowable. Just like Kubrick. And, just like Vitali, perhaps.
 

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titch

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Shame - I was waiting for his supervision on Eyes Wide Shut, the remaining Warner Bros. Kubrick needing a 4K scan and mastering. Vitali's efforts and inputs on the other Warner Bros. resulted in outstanding discs. But seeing how the Kino 4K UHD Kubrick titles have been flawless, Warner Bros. should be able to manage by themselves.
 

Ross Gowland

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I’m sad to hear he’s died. He was a fairly familiar face on British TV in the Seventies, especially for his regular role in a sitcom about school leavers called The Fenn Street Gang, and then of course he became Kubrick’s right hand man. His devotion to that genius was unwavering and his work in the past twenty years, as quality controller and guardian of the legacy, has been immense.

Filmworker is now a nice memorial to him.
 
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