Leon Vitali was an actor with a promising career, working mostly in British television from around the early seventies where he was a familiar face in youthful roles of all sorts, with a regular job on sitcom The Fenn Street Gang. But when he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, he thought it was the greatest film he had ever watched, and when its director Stanley Kubrick brought out his next, A Clockwork Orange, Vitali made up his mind, this was a talent he simply had to work with. Therefore, when Kubrick started casting his following effort Barry Lyndon, the actor jumped at the chance to be included, and the great director noted his enthusiasm and dedication. Leon wouldn't act much more...
Filmworker was a documentary that asked, is it a sacrifice of a life if the victim truly loves what they do? Vitali, once he had appeared in Kubrick's historical epic, convinced him to give him a job as his assistant on his next, The Shining, and if this was to be believed, Kubrick would have had a lot more difficulty completing it had Vitali not been around to do that assisting, even down to the casting of the key role of five-year-old Danny (Danny Lloyd, who grants a rare interview that doesn't last too long, but was evidently done out of respect for his best buddy on the set). Then there was Full Metal Jacket, and lastly Eyes Wide Shut, three films that made it to fruition among many that did not.
We are gently asked to question whether filmmaking is a valid use of your time, never mind film-watching. Kubrick was undoubtedly a genius, but the anecdotes we hear are of a mercurial personality who could charm the socks off you one minute, yet blast you with his fury the next, such was his all-encompassing perfectionism. That sense that he was manipulating even this documentary to sustain the interest in his canon through his most devoted admirer was never far away, after all he had manipulated Vitali for over two decades and as star Matthew Modine observes, the lackey had turned into an Igor to Kubrick's mad scientist Dr Frankenstein, completely willingly.
This did not merely stop at managing the cast of those final three efforts, it went as far as ensuring the advertising was to his master's satisfaction, that his filmography was being preserved and remastered to his exacting parameters, and that every country would be getting the very best version the studio could muster. It goes beyond dogsbody, it's more like Vitali sold his soul, yet was enraptured at being in the presence of a genius who trusted him. Director Tony Zierra amassed a huge collection of behind the scenes footage and photographs, plus interviews with key players (and a few more peripheral ones), though nobody from Kubrick's family was talked to; we did hear from some famous personalities, however.
Ryan O'Neal was Lyndon, and he was obviously included for a reunion with the actor he beat up in that film though oddly all we see of that is a fleeting moment of him and Leon on the sofa together. Then there was R. Lee Ermey, the ex-sergeant who replaced Tim Colceri in Full Metal Jacket; you admire his chutzpah, and he was right that the role made a career for him, but Colceri is interviewed too and it obviously still smarts that while he also had a career, it was far lower profile than his usurper. But then, there is a lot of cruelty here, with mentions in passing of crewmembers on Kubrick's films who suffered nervous breakdowns (Shelley Duvall is not mentioned, but her well-publicised mental illness pops into your mind on more than one occasion while watching). That's not to mention how that eventual perfectionism could have sabotaged the director himself, preventing him from making more films after The Shining when he was too bothered with securing the correct frame for an ad campaign, or whatever minutiae that didn't matter as much as he believed. Vitali himself has no regrets he'll admit to on camera, but he was in his late sixties here and looks about a hundred years old.