Cannes 2017: Stanley Kubrick's mysterious right-hand man steps out of the shadows

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 Stanley 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.

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.")

"I'd work 14, 16 hour shifts, seven days a week" Vitali said of his time on set or at Kubrick's British compound. "It wasn't like that some of the time," he clarified. "It was just normal."

Zierra, an indie filmmaker from Boston, started out making a very different movie — a film about "Eyes Wide Shut” that would serve as a corrective of sorts to what he sees as the misunderstood legacy of Kubrick's final complete work. He spent more than five years on that project. But it all changed when Zierra met Vitali, who now lives in Southern California, and encountered the stacks of boxes filled with Kubrick notebooks, props, photos and other artifacts the man has in his house.

"It was amazing to discover that this guy who lives off Venice Boulevard by himself is the key to one of the greatest filmmakers of our time," Zierra said. "I thought, 'This should be the person people are hearing about.'"

"Filmworker" shows the kind of improbable heroes Cannes sometimes mints; the film's title comes from how Vitali describes his job on immigration forms, "assistant" being too narrow a label.

So close was Vitali to Kubrick — and so present on the set — that, actor Matthew Modine recalls in the film, actors thought he was a spy for the director, dispatched to report on their misdemeanors. He wasn't. He did get sent to fire actors though.

"That was," he said, "the not-so-fun part of the job."

The day before “Filmworker’s” premiere, Vitali was drinking a Coke in the lobby bar of a popular festival hotel, having arrived in Cannes for the first time ever 24 hours earlier. Super-svelte at 68, with long hair hanging below a bandana, he combines the renegade spirit of a classic rocker with the solicitousness of a mail room assistant.

Such fierce loyalty to a high-powered director, of course, meant a less fulfilling, more fraught relationship with his three children, now grown. "Some would say it was selfish. But I don't think so. The only self-interest I had was working with Stanley because he was my absolute hero," said Vitali, who gave up a promising acting career to work with Kubrick.

Vitali doesn't view any of Kubrick’s films as reflective of his own legacy. "To me it was just about solving the problem. If things worked out and Stanley liked the actor or the layout or something else, that was great, for a moment," he said. "But there was always a new challenge."

Those challenges could be self-created. On "Eyes" Kubrick wanted to time a street-stop of Tom Cruise's walking character with the halting of a camera on a dolly — an almost impossible feat that few viewers would notice anyway. Kubrick plowed ahead and got the shot. It took him 50 takes.

"It's the old Jack Nicholson line," Vitali said. 'There were 300 people who walked out of a screening of '2001,' and Stanley knows, because he counted every one of them.'"

Vitali said Kubrick was both kinder and harsher than his reputation implies. Kubrick would encourage Vitali's children to pick up tennis rackets, draw chalk on the driveway and reenact Wimbledon. Or just chat with them over toast and tea for an hour. But the extent of the director’s verbal abuse could be much greater than many realize.

As one of the Kubrick associates says in the movie of Vitali’s loyalty. 'You either love [the work] so much or you're an … idiot. Or a mixture of both."

Indeed, Vitali’s work ethic runs so strong that when he got involved with a project after Kubrick’s 1999 death — restoring a hallway at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles — he became so consumed with the job, working 18-hour days, he grew gaunt and almost died.

For all of his dedication to Kubrick, Vitali was left out of the Kubrick traveling exhibition a number of years ago — an oversight the film depicts as a travesty. Yet he still took groups of schoolchildren on a personal tour of it just for the joy of reliving those moments.

Here in Cannes, Vitali said he continues to feel close to the director, even 18 years after his death.

"I still hear him every day. 'Oh Leon,' every time I do something that was a dumb thing to do," he said. "He's always crossing my mind, like my [late] mom. Just always there."

And does Vitali think that Kubrick, if he was alive, would break a longstanding no-festival policy and come to Cannes to see the celebration of his longtime filmworker?

"I'd like to think he's up there somewhere watching this movie,” Vitali said. “And editing it."

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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