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Sharing a Coke and memories at Cannes with Kubrick whisperer Leon Vitali

Director Stanley Kubrick (AP)
Director Stanley Kubrick (AP)

When Leon Vitali was working on Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," he became involved in a disagreement with the director over the size of cabins in the shoot.

"I got a phone call at eight o'clock. 'Your measurements are off by miles,'" Vitali, Kubrick's longtime aide-de-camp and subject of the new documentary "Filmworker," recalled the director telling him.

"It was '… Leon … Leon … Leon, you are off,'" Vitali continued, repeating Kubrick’s choice of obscenity. "I said '… Stanley … Stanley … Stanley. I am not.' Ten minutes later, Stanley called back and said, 'I'm sorry. I was given wrong information.'"

Vitali drew a breath. "That was one of the times I got an apology from him."

Fans of Kubrick‎ know well how exacting the director could be. Far less recognized is the person who helped him carry out that exactitude, and endured some of its harshest consequences.

I'd work 14-, 16-hour shifts, seven days a week. It wasn't like that some of the time. It was just normal.

Leon Vitali, filmworker

For nearly a quarter-century since "Barry Lyndon," Vitali — a successful British TV actor earlier in his career — served as Kubrick's right-hand man. After starring as Lord Bullingdon in the 1975 period piece, Vitali shifted roles to work behind the scenes on signature Kubrick movies such as "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Eyes Wide Shut."

When "Filmworker" premieres Friday at the Cannes Film Fes‎tival, it will offer a fitting addition to this cinephile gathering. The Tony Zierra-directed documentary is, in part, a profile in absentia of Kubrick, one of moviedom's most studied and at times misunderstood masters.

But by spotlighting Vitali, an insanely devoted man who lived in that master's shadow, it also illuminates a unique picture of creativity and its costs. Hollywood biopics can pull a muscle trying to tell us the crazed devotion that art requires. "Filmworker" effortlessly shows it.

To explain Vitali's job is to try to trace the path of a worker ant. The best description might be 'The Kubrick Whisperer.” At various points the diminutive Brit was — unofficially and often unexpectedly — a casting agent, an editor, a title translator, an on-set manual laborer, a foreign-license negotiator, a color-corrector, an actor workshopper and a marketing advisor. And a dozen other jobs that came up as needed, all because Kubrick trusted only him to handle them. (It was, for instance, Vitali who found Danny Lloyd, who played young Danny Torrance in "The Shining.")

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