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On Kubrick: An Interview with Leon Vitali

In Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, Lord Bullingdon is the titular character’s stepson. He is played by Leon Vitali, who would become enmeshed with Kubrick’s career and personal life, including the films The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick’s atypically paternal interest in Vitali led the latter to serve as actor, personal assistant, location scout, dialogue coach, and, after Kubrick’s passing, the sole overseer of film to DVD transfers and other post-production duties.

I met with Leon at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s symposium, in conjunction with the University of Arts, London, on the Kubrick archives.

Brad Schreiber: The reason that I think so many people like myself are in awe of Stanley’s work is the total artistic control he was able to wield over most of his films. It’s one thing to be a great novelist or a great playwright and you are in artistic control because they can’t change your work unless you give them permission. But to be in control of a film and to use the camera, to understand editing, to understand how to work with actors, to be so good at story, to understand both the technical and the artistic, if anybody gets to be called a genius, it’s somebody who masters all those abilities.

Leon Vitali: And you know, one of the things that I always loved about him was the fact that he never thought that he knew it all. There was always something more to learn. And depending upon what film or what we were working on, it was always a different way, a different approach, we’d do something different than what we’d done before. I used to do his casting. And my way of doing it was I always made sure the actors got the dialogue at least a day before they came. So it was their responsibility to learn it…And one day, when he was in a bad mood, I can’t remember what it was that upset him, and he suddenly snapped out, “Have you auditioned for Captain January yet?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I sent people the script.” “Why’d you do that?” I said, “Because that’s what we’ve always done.” And he said, “Leon, consistency is the sign of a decaying brain.”

BS: I think “hobgoblin of a small mind” is another one.

LV: You know, I always heard it as, “Consistency is a way of understanding you’re just as wrong now as you were ten years ago.”

BS: That’s pretty good too.

LV: It sounds crazy. That actually does sum Stanley up. I mean, no two cameras were the same. No two lenses were the same. We were always making those tiny adaptations to every element that could come in and make something different. And he was always open to it because he didn’t have a choice. That’s what he understood, to make it as good as you can get it. You’ve got to look at every single area of what you’re doing. And when it came to script, for instance, that thing never stood still. In between setups, he’d be off, typing away. Even if it was the changing of a word inside a speech, that had to be printed on another color paper and that had to be part of a new script. And sometimes he’d take whole chunks out of it, just to see if it would work. And it never stopped.

BS: Nothing was set in stone, not the script, not methodology, not anything.

LV: When I was working for casting, I would do, let’s just say, on Full Metal Jacket, or even The Shining because that was the first experience I’d had of doing it, we gave everybody the same play text. It was Death of a Salesman. And I would video and read the lines back and forth on them, the off-camera stuff. And by doing that, he had a pretty good idea of the kind of actors they were. He was just looking for good actors. You know, a lot of the time, when you see a cast breakdown, a casting director’s breakdown, they get quite specific. You know, “Forty-five, tall.” You know the script is very specific. That really wasn’t Stanley’s style at all. And in that way, you were open to a lot of different interpretations. Somebody could come in who was the opposite of everything in a physical description and just blow you away.

Vitali (seated with Danny Llyod) on the set of The Shining.

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BS: I’m fascinated by the idea of Arthur Miller being used as sides, not pages from The Shining itself.

LV: Well, first of all because we hadn’t really finished the script, not in such a way to let it out to be read generally…And he kept his ears open and you know…I mean, if he was in a bad mood, he could turn around and say, “That’s the stupidest fucking idea I’ve ever heard in my life, Leon.” And on another day, he’d be quite open to it. And a grip or carpenter could say something, just toss it out. And he’d stop and he’d say, “Who said that? Say that again.”

BS: So at what point did he ask you to be more involved in the technical side? I think I heard you say at the symposium that you began asking certain questions on Barry Lyndon. So your interest and response to that led him to say, “Well, Leon, if you’re so interested, why don’t you talk to so and so or help on so and so.” Is that the way it went?

LV: Don’t ask me why, because I’ve never to this day really been able to figure it out. He never liked people on the set if they weren’t in any way there for the scene, whether you’re an actor or a grip or a DOP. I mean, when you had involvement with the scene, that’s when you were on the set. If you didn’t, don’t come near it.

BS: I understand.

Leon Vitali as Lord Bullingdon

LV: But for some reason, he always said to me, “You know, if you’re here and even if you haven’t been called, you’re welcome.” And so I was watching him quite a lot…He even tried to explain aspect ratios to me. It was just amazing. So anyway, I’d go on set, do the monologue, and he’d say, “Thank you very much.” Shook hands, wrap and was gone. And that went on for about five days, until he said, “You won’t have to do this any more. You know it.” And then it was quite a few weeks before we shot the scene. Out of that scene, we broke for lunch. And that’s when he sat me down and he just said, “You know something, I’m going to write a whole bunch more scenes for you. And you’re going to stick around until the end of the picture.” (laughs)

BS: What a thrill.

LV: I’ve never felt so high in my life. I mean, it was just amazing. And so, that relationship was kind of there and in between breaks for setups, different camera setups, you know, he’d have a chair, I’d have a chair, and we’d talk about everything: Soccer, women, films we liked, didn’t like, or actors who I admired. It’d just go on like that forever.

BS: Well, it’s an old cliché but I think it’s also true that people tend to work with people that they like to be around.

LV: That’s true…and then about five or six months later, I got a phone call. I was living in Stockholm at that point. I got a phone call and he said, “How would you like to go to America and find a little boy (the character of Danny) for The Shining?” He’d sent me the book actually. He’d sent me the book with the equivalent of a Post-It on the cover. He said, “Read it!” It was like an instruction. And so I thought, if he tells me to read, I better read it. And I read The Shining in a day. And he rang me the next night. And I picked up the phone and he said, “Leon, did you read it?” It wasn’t like, “Hello, it’s Stanley,” or anything like that.  He says, “Leon, did you read it?” I said, “Yeah, I read it.”

BS: Getting right to the point.

LV: Yeah, getting right to the point. And he said, “So how would you like to go out to America and find a boy for me?” I was not going to say no to that.

BS: And he knew that you could improvise based on what you did with Lord Bullingdon?

LV: That and also because I talked a lot about improvisation. It was partly the bedrock of my drama school. And I’d done a lot of theatre work by this time.

BS: And of course improvisation was a large part of how he worked.

LV: Yeah, absolutely.

BS: If Stanley’s a fellow who’s constantly revising and he often co-writes with his writers, it raises some interesting questions. I’m wondering how co-writers felt about his improvisation. Is it fair to say that anyone who co-wrote with Stanley knew what they were getting into and realized that no matter how pleased they were with their draft, that nothing was sacred and they sort of let go of that sort of authorial attachment.

LV: I can’t speak for Diane Johnson (co-writer, The Shining), because I wasn’t there during that process. I was actually here in America looking for the little boy. I can’t really speak for Anthony Burgess (author, co-writer, A Clockwork Orange), although he always complained to me on the telephone and he also said quite publicly, “Stanley wrote the script. But I was the one who had to go out and justify it when the film had been released.”

BS: Justify it?

LV: The violence.

BS: Oh. And the reaction in the UK specifically.

LV: But I know Michael Herr (co-writer, Full Metal Jacket) understood completely because the way they wrote that first draft, it wasn’t like a film script at all. It was enormous, like a book. It would be a description, for instance, on an attack on a building over there, where they gun down those two snipers. And they run out of the building. It would be a narrative about that attack and what everyone was feeling, and what have you…And so it was laid out like a narrative.

BS: Like an extended treatment.

LV: Exactly.

BS: I understand it was over 130 pages. It was longer than a standard screenplay would have been.

LV: Yes.

BS: And then, he went, “This is how I’m going to guide production, using this, not a standard screenplay.”

LV: Absolutely. And even with The Shining, when we actually started shooting, and Full Metal Jacket too, they all had scripts. When I went down to Salisbury to shoot Barry Lyndon, I was given a script that was 180 pages long.

BS: 180?

LV: 180. I turned to page one. It said, “Scene one, duel between Barry’s father and what have you. Scene to be written. Scene two. Widow. Scene to be written. Scene three. Scene to be written.”

It was like a joke. It was like Stanley thought, “Someone said they want to read the script. Give them this.” Then about a week later, I got a script which was what they were using as their shooting script. But you could never say it was a finished script, because it evolved and evolved and evolved all the time. And on The Shining, like I said, as soon as there was a change in the lighting setup, he’d be sitting on the set, you know, at a table, typing, typing, typing.

Some days, we started with the white page, which was the script. And then the pink page would come, which was the revision. And then he’d sit down during a break and do a revision of that revision. That would be the green page. And then there would be the blue page. And then there would be the yellow page. And in the end, we were sort of standing there at the end of the day, saying, “Which fucking version are we looking at?” Even Stanley sort of started to get confused. But it was always a sort of significant change, as little as it might be. It shifted the nuance and changed the course of the scene as he was working on it.

BS: And Diane was on set?

LV: No, never.

BS: But she worked separately, simultaneously. Isn’t that correct?

LV: Yes, they actually did meet. I know that. But I don’t know if she was omnipresent during the actual drafting stage. She was never there at the shoot.

BS: Because I saw that featurette or EPK or whatever you want to call it, and it suggested that Stanley was doing some writing while Diane was elsewhere doing some other writing. And they would sort of put it together and I wonder what exactly the difference was?

LV: Well, I think, first of all, I think that was very much the way that they worked on The Shining. I can’t swear. I never saw them. I was never present. But with Michael Herr (co-writer, Full Metal Jacket) for instance, there would be these sessions where Michael would send him some script, he’d look at it and then they’d be on the phone for four hours. Michael Herr often talked about how he never spent so much time on the telephone in his life as he did while he was with Stanley. And I know that was the way that he worked. And then Gus Hasford (author, co-writer, Full Metal Jacket) kind of chimed in with some drafts and stuff but we used very, very little of that. And I think I mentioned at the symposium about how we got all Lee Ermey, Sargeant Hartmann down (via hours of improvisation).

BS: Loved that.

LV: I mean, it was hundreds of pages.

BS: Stephen Spielberg did an interview, and perhaps it was in A Life in Pictures, one of those, and he talked about Stanley being very generous and often calling up a director whose work he’d seen. And congratulating them. Do you know who the people, some of the people are?

LV: You know, it’s funny you mention that because the other day somebody emailed me a letter that they’d found that he’d written to Ingmar Bergman, when he was 28. And he’d written to him and said, “You don’t need me to tell you but I think you’re the greatest filmmaker in the world.” You know? And so it went on. It was touching. If he saw a film and he really liked it, he would very often try to make contact with the director. And they could form a relationship, over the telephone.

BS: Did he ever mention to you some of the modern filmmakers still working who–

LV: People like Kurosawa, he had a telephone relationship with. And people like Kieslowski who he was crazy about. The Decalogue, he thought, was the best thing he’d ever seen on television.

BS: So how did working with Stanley change you in either a personal or professional way?

LV:  It changed me personally because with seven days a week, rarely less than 16 hour days, there was a two year spell when I didn’t have a single day off. And I didn’t have a vacation. Not that I actually enjoy vacations. You know, there wasn’t an opportunity. It took me 18 months once to tell Stanley I wanted to leave work on a Friday afternoon because my son was graduating school. It was his 18th birthday. Well, I got back round to him when he was almost twenty. Because you can go, “There’s too much to do, there’s too much to do, can’t go, can’t go, can’t go.”And it puts a major shift in your relationships. Friends stop asking you to parties or dinner because they know you’re never going to be there.

And professionally, like it or not, and you didn’t all the time,  this is when I slept and ate and drank Stanley Kubrick…So everything took quite a long time. And there is a little bit of an area of resentment to me because he used to save me for last. He’d kind of talk to people he had to talk to in Burbank and he’d talk to Jan Harlan, discussing everything with him and then he’d talk to somebody else and then he’d get to me around nine. And that was my existence for years.

BS: On the positive side, you became skilled in so many different areas. And then entrusted with, after Stanley was gone, checking the work as it’s put in different media.

LV: Absolutely, absolutely. What can you say about the time? Gone. You can’t call it back. And you don’t get to ever change anything. And nine times out of ten, no problem. But sometimes, you thought, “I’m not going to be able to do this much longer.” But somehow you always found a second wind.

BS: What was the closest you came to saying, “I’ve got to have another life. It’s been great but I cannot do this any more.”

LV: Actually, it’s funny because he tried to kind of replace me, a couple of times… I suppose what happened was he saw I was kind of handy in a lot of areas, could actually look at stuff and say whether it actually looks right or wrong. At least I could alert him to all sorts of awful things. And there were a couple of times when I was offered jobs for other places. The thing was, when push actually came to shove, I thought, “This is okay because I am learning a lot.” And from Stanley’s point of view, when he thought about replacing me, he realized that whoever he was going to replace me with is going to demand his six weeks vacation.

BS: He couldn’t master all the things you could already do.

LV: And you know, they weren’t going to be eight hour days. And after that was going to be overtime. I mean he realized that he had quite a good deal with me, when you think of it.

BS: One salary, eighteen jobs.

LV: (laughs)

BS: And this was on which film that he was considering this?

LV: After Full Metal Jacket. But then you know the situation swung completely the other way.

BS: I’m not the first one to observe how masterful he was in using music in his films. I marvel to this day, the quotes to the music “Thus Sprach Zarathustra,” in pop culture. And at the symposium it was discussed how he would listen to a variety of different music…What about his listening to music when he wasn’t looking for cues?

LV: During his normal kind of office work, his research, his reading, he’d play a lot of Mozart. The thing is I get it, too. That’s why the category is called classical. He is classical, people like him and Haydn because they were so masterful, you never thought of them as formulaic. He was just so fluent and fluid. And rapid. He was open to every kind of music. But he wasn’t a fan of any kind of music.

BS: What was the quote? He heard musique concréte. “Is that concrete music?” And yet, Christiane (Kubrick, his wife) goes, “You’ve got to listen to (Gyorgi) Ligeti,” and that is so outside the norm.

LV: I was playing a piece of music by what’s his name? Morton, um…

BS: Subotnick?

LV: No, he was in New York.

BS: Feldman?

LV: Morton Feldman, yeah, yeah. I was playing a piece of his in my office one day. I’d heard him on the radio. I just went out and bought I think it was a concerto, piano and orchestra. And he walked into my office and he stood there and he listened to it and turned around to me and said, “So, Leon, is this from a series called ‘Music for Decaying Brains?’” (laughs) So I said, “No, Stanley,” and he walks out of there.

BS: The Bronx boy coming through there. Not so much a cultured fellow from the UK.

LV: And funnily enough, when we were working on Full Metal Jacket, we listened to a lot of Rolling Stones stuff.

BS: I was going to say, the use of “Paint it Black” at the end reminds me in a way of Coppola’s music in Apocalyspe Now. People constantly talk about the use of “The End” by The Doors. How perfectly it’s used.

LV: And the Valkyries and they’re all coming in their helicopters.

BS: Oh, yeah, yeah. There are very few directors whose musical choices are so overpoweringly right.

LV: He said, “The world, Leon, is the biggest music library you’re ever going to see. So you might as well use it if you can.” Specifically, when he was making Clockwork Orange, he heard Switched On Bach and Carlos. And we thought, God, yeah, that’s kind of got that sound, that raw thing. But I watched 2001. I’d never heard of Ligeti.

BS: I guess nobody had.

LV: You’re right. And so there was this wonderful kind of discovery for me, from listening to the soundtrack. Suddenly, it opened up a whole bunch of doors. I was going out and buying all this new music. That was a new experience.

BS: I knew about Walter Carlos because my parents had Switched On Bach. But when I saw that movie, and I heard a section of and then heard the entire piece, “Time Steps,” I think it was one of the most amazing electronic music pieces ever.

LV: Yeah, wasn’t it. For a long time, that was my favorite. It was so kind of insistent because of the way it was laid in the movie. You kind of felt, “Wow.” It was fantastic music. (He hums.) It was just amazing. And then it’s funny, because I suddenly started listening to (Rossini’s) “The Thieving Magpie” in a different way, too. You realize the energy in the strings when it’s beginning to heat up…You kind of knew Stanley was choosing the music, playing the music because of something in it kind of gave a lift to the emotional temperature, I keep on talking about emotional temperature.

BS: It’s the right phrase. It’s the absolute right phrase.

LV: That could just give it that kick. And so when he was doing The Shining, it just blew me away. I was raiding his music library. I was recording as much as I could on cassettes. I’ve got boxes of cassettes.

BS: I’m afraid I still do too.

LV: Well you never know. You never know. Who thought that vinyl would still be here now?

Brad Schreiber has written for film, TV, journalism, radio, theatre and his latest book, Becoming Jimi Hendrix (Da Capo), is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library. He has recently adapted it as both a musical and film. He was V.P. of Storytech Literary Consulting, founded by story structure expert Christopher Vogler, and now does literary consulting on his own. He created the TV series North Mission Road on truTV, based on his book on the L.A. Coroner,  Death in Paradise. Brad administers the Mona Schreiber Prize for Humorous Fiction and Nonfiction, an international humor writing contest.

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Comments: 1

(1) Comment

  1. Daniel J. Cecil says:

    Excellent piece. How is this NOT viral. Thanks so much for this piece of wonderful film history.

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