Some subjects are vast enough that even their most seemingly minor players deserve documentaries of their own. Leon Vitali was for decades lost behind the shadow of the legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, invisible but ever-present. He was a factotum, the man who got things done and got no thanks for it. Someone in “Filmworker” calls Vitali “an Igor character,” always ready to say “Yes, Master.” But the master was Kubrick, so, sure, of course.
Tony Zierra’s fond and slightly unsettling film is, among other things, a reminder of the egolessness necessary for great egos to flourish. However much we like to lionize the singular artist, movies are collaborative, requiring an army behind the general and any number of lieutenants in the field. As Kubrick’s personal assistant — he called himself a “filmworker” on his passport — Vitali is presented as having been critical to the day-to-day functioning of Kubrick Inc., dispatched to deal with everything from casting to archival work to the color timing of prints to building a compound for the Kubrick family cats.
The irony is that he stepped down from imminent stardom to do it. Born in 1948, Vitali was a successful young actor of stage and television and a man about Swinging London when Kubrick cast him as Lord Bullingdon — everything that Ryan O’Neal’s slick title character is not — in “Barry Lyndon” (1975). So taken was Vitali with the director’s vision and so fascinated by the macro and micro of filmmaking, he asked if he could stick around and help. Which is what he did, for the next 24 years. (Aside from appearing as the masked man in the red cloak during the orgy sequence in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Vitali’s acting career was effectively over.)
It was Leon — 10 minutes into “Filmworker” you’re already thinking of him as “Leon” — who was sent to America to find a child actor for “The Shining” (1980) and who, after interviewing 5,000 little boys, came back with 5-year-old Danny Lloyd. Here’s Lloyd, now in his mid-40s, to recall how Vitali was his on-set acting coach, mentor, best friend. It was Leon who was asked to find a creepy little girl for the film’s hallway sequence and returned with twins, inspired by a famous Diane Arbus photo.
Without Leon, Marine drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey would have remained only a military adviser to “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) instead of indelibly costarring in the film and launching an acting career; Zierra gets Ermey (who died in April) on camera for a moving shout-out to the assistant who discovered him and, Ermey says, helped guide the performance. (Zierra also interviews Tim Colceri, the actor who was initially cast in Ermey’s role. He’s understandably pretty bitter.)
Vitali himself, of course, is front and center, happy to tell stories and honored to be in the spotlight. No longer the mod dandy, he looks as though the years with Kubrick have sucked the life out of him while also leaving him standing stronger.
It wasn’t always easy. The Great Man had a temper that is described in the film as “vitriolic” and that could explode at any moment; one Christmas, he spent a half hour yelling at Leon and then gave him presents. We see to-do lists that say simply, “LEON — BILLIARD ROOM.” “Filmworker” brings on Vitali’s brothers and sisters to talk about growing up with a physically and verbally abusive father, prompting a viewer to ponder the many ways a man can feel at home.
We also hear from Leon’s three grown children, who say things like, “If it was a bad day for Stanley, it was a bad day for Leon and a bad day for me.” Why did they and he put up with it at all? Why did Vitali walk away from acting and devote himself to the thankless role of artistic handmaiden?
His “Barry Lyndon” costar Ryan O’Neal shrugs and says, “[Kubrick] was a master. You don’t meet that many masters in your lifetime.” Vitali repeatedly stresses that being present at the Creation — and enabling it in ways both small and large — was all the thanks he wanted. After Kubrick’s death in 1999, Leon helped shepherd “Eyes Wide Shut” through the final stages of post-production and into theaters; he has since overseen the digital restorations of Kubrick’s films (including the 4K print of “2001: A Space Odyssey” that will play selected cities, including Boston, in 70mm next month).
He doesn’t generally get invited to the galas and retrospectives, though, and in this Leon Vitali stands in for all the men and women who make possible the movies we love and whom you’ve never heard of and mostly never will hear of. He lives in Los Angeles now, where his children help him out financially from time to time. “Are you still working for Stanley?” Zierra asks. Leon looks at him as if he’s crazy. “Of course.”
Directed by Tony Zierra. Starring Leon Vitali, Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey. At Kendall Square. 94 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: some language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.