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Features

May 29, 2007

"A Hell of an Experience"

Exclusive: Kubrick actor and associate Leon Vitali looks back on 30 years of Barry Lyndon

(L-R) Ryan O'Neal with Marisa Berenson and André Morell in Barry Lyndon, screening today at the Walter Reade Theater (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Leon Vitali was Stanley Kubrick's assistant for nearly 25 years. They first worked together when he was cast as the elder Lord Bullingdon in 1975's Barry Lyndon; Vitali subsequently stepped over to run Kubrick's office, cast his films and oversee the video transfers and restored prints of his features. In recent years, he has permanently relocated to Los Angeles from the UK and worked as a producer on Eyes Wide Shut alumnus Todd Field's Little Children. When I learned Vitali was to be presenting a series of screenings of Barry Lyndon at the Walter Reade Theater (the sold-out run concludes today at 3 and 7 p.m., with Vitali introducing and discussing the second screening), I immediately threatened Lincoln Center with thermonuclear blackmail until they capitulated to allow an interview.

In person, he's extremely tranquil and eloquent, speaking with a tinge of British on top of his American-born accent. As one of only a handful of people to have known Stanley Kubrick intimately over an extended period -- both personally and professionally -- speaking with Leon Vitali was probably as close as I could ever get to stepping into Kubrick's world.

THE REELER: There are a ton of questions I could ask about Barry Lyndon, but so many of them are cliché: the NASA lenses, how it was initially received. For me, when I was first getting into Stanley Kubrick -- I was probably a freshman in high school, so we're talking '89-'90 -- the one movie I didn't know about was Barry Lyndon. I knew about Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, had seen Full Metal Jacket on opening day when I was 12. I knew everything but this. I didn't even know that this movie existed until I was like 18 years old. Maybe we can start there. These screenings are completely sold out. It's become this movie that everyone genuinely loves. But it was this movie that just wasn't talked about for a while.

LEON VITALI: You know, the genesis of that, I think, was -- and Stanley always admitted this -- he took too long to make it. There was about a year of pre-production, a year-plus of shooting, then he took an awful long time to edit. And by the time it was ready to come out, I would say, the blockbuster action movies had become de rigeur. That was what the people really wanted to see. So when this film came out it was received as strange, slow, completely out of context to what was going on -- and I think people were expecting something a little closer to A Clockwork Orange, which, of course had caused such a furor. It was living! A Clockwork Orange was playing for over a year in London. And it (Barry Lyndon) was trashed by many critics, equally so in the UK. That really hurt Stanley a lot. He was very depressed about it. Very upset about it. He took it to heart. It took a long, long time really before... I can tell you exactly when it was... It was in the early-'90s. The BBC ran a series of his films on television. It was all the films from Lolita, Strangelove, 2001, Clockwork, Barry Lyndon, The Shining --

R: The major canon.

LV: The major canon. The Radio Times, which is like a TV Guide, but more of a magazine, I suppose -- they gave each film a critical breakdown. Well, they gave Barry Lyndon five stars, because they believed that was the true Odyssey film: you start with someone who's lowdown; he travels all the way around Europe; gets himself into the upper-echelons of the British aristocracy; then there's a slow decline back to where he came from. It's a classic Odyssey story. They gave it five stars and all the other films got four stars, but perfect critiques. And they said if it hadn't been for the fact that Barry Lyndon was playing along with these other films, they would have given all those films five stars. I realized there'd been a real turning point, especially toward the end of Stanley's life, where we were getting feedback from a lot of critics that suddenly said: "I've just seen Barry Lyndon again, and I did not realize at the time what a wonderful film it was." They went so lyrical about it.

But anyway, after they screened it on BBC television, the next morning Stanley came into my office, and he said: "Wow, Leon, I watched it for the first time since I don't know when -- and it's a really great movie!" And I said: "Well, that's what we've been trying to tell you for years." It was really then that he started to get enthusiastic about it and, if he had lived, then you can bet that Warner Bros. would've taken notice. We controlled marketing. Barry Lyndon would've been much more to the front of subsequent releases, and it would've had a lot more publicity, been released on its own, given a little flourish. But, in a way, I kind of like the way there's a slow understanding beginning to happen. You feel like it's a groundswell. When I moved to Los Angeles permanently in 2003, I met so many filmmakers and people who work in film, and they started telling me that Barry Lyndon, for them, was not only their favorite Kubrick movie, it was just their favorite movie. It's beginning to work now in a way that it never did when it was released. It's so gratifying.

R: It's sort of the way the movie itself works. The first half of the movie, you really don't know where it's going.

LV: Correct.

R: I always find that with Stanley, on the one hand, his work was so innovative and so many people looked to him as somebody who's going to take it to the next place, but at the same time I kind of feel that he was making his movies outside of time. To one extent, he wanted to be at the forefront of things, but simultaneously, he wasn't doing things as part of the culture. It's one of the reasons his movies have been able to be successful and popular, as opposed to just a zeitgeist movie which sums up the moment culturally, but 30-40 years later you look back and it's just completely dated.

(Photo: Jamie Stuart)

LV: Right. I think you've got a real valid point there. And it's something that I've always been interested in. One of the key things about Stanley -- I was with him on his last four films -- one of the key things that you understood was, the whole point of what he was trying to do was to get each one of those stories down to the most basic, simple, straightforward way of telling the story. Which involves cutting out probably some people's favorite passages from a book, because they have some relevance socially or what have you. He never wanted to do that.

R: It's all very distilled.

LV: Very distilled. Very focused. Very concentrated. And I think that's one of the reasons some people say he was a very cold filmmaker. But, in actual fact, I never find that. I just find him very honest. Getting down to that very distilled or focused storytelling takes out all those sorts of relevances that -- if you'd left them in -- would've dated the movie. So you cut out all that stuff, because even in a film like Barry Lyndon, which is about 18th-century English aristocracy -- it was a satire (of) them really, that was the whole idea of Thackeray's book -- it still, if you look at that film, it has a relevance to the way that society all over the world is structured, because it's an outsider trying to break into an establishment. And the establishment doesn't want the outsider to break in. That's really what it's about.

R: A lot of his work was very much about "the outsider."

LV: That's right.

R: Within a system or some kind of... I think if you read some of the really bad analyses they would've said, "The outsider within some kind of machine..."

LV: Yes, yes, yes. I think he's the most over-analyzed filmmaker in history. I really do.

R: History has its own ways of judging things.

LV: Yes. Absolutely.

R: To me, that's also just the way that Stanley worked. You can see the scene functionally for what it is, but on the second pass you realize: Wait a second, there's something else very much going on here! What you thought was going on isn't what's going on.

LV: Exactly. When I was at drama school, for instance, obviously we studied a lot of classic text. People like Strindberg and Chekhov and whatnot. What happens, I suppose, is, if you get down to the kind of simplicity that they do it leaves the door open for anybody, even in a new era, to put an interpretation on it. It may have not been something consciously that Strindberg meant to be saying, for instance, or Chekhov, but it's still valid. That's the wonderful thing about interpretation -- the personal gratification you get upon watching something. It's down to you. And if it's well-made, you could go back and see it a third, fourth, fifth time. Scorsese said that every time he sees a Kubrick film, he could watch it 10 times, and each time it's like watching a new movie.

R: The thing that's interesting for me: I'm 32, so for the most part, with the exception of Full Metal Jacket as a kid and, of course, Eyes Wide Shut, I got to know his movies on a TV screen.

LV: Right. Right.

R: Finally seeing them on the big screen after getting to know them and analyze them on video, there's always something different seeing it in the manner it was originally intended. When you see 2001 on a big screen, you see the detail inside the space station -- you see the little people walking around through the windows.

LV: I know. It's insane.

R: There's always something. Or because the later films were all done for video in full-screen, or the full negative, I should say...

LV: That's right. Absolutely. I worked with all those transfers. We went East/West. You have the whole frame. When he shot through the camera what he would do was compose for 1.33 -- which is the full TV screen -- and also for 1.85. It's not an uncommon thing to do. But he would intentionally have action going on in the top of the frame. In Full Metal Jacket, a really good example, on the TV screen you see it in a really different context. It doesn't lose its power. Suddenly you're seeing tops of buildings. You're seeing how small these people are inside that milieu. And that danger can come from anywhere. The same with The Shining. It has another kind of power on the TV screen. And another kind of power when it's shown theatrically. But there's no doubt about it, when you see a film like Barry Lyndon or 2001 -- and I'd say also The Shining -- theatrically they're a hell of an experience. It's an experience, that's what it is.

R: I saw Full Metal Jacket during the Film Forum series (in 2000), and all of a sudden it was like -- seeing it cropped to 1.85, and changing the composition, it called so much more attention to the lines within the barracks. But also, every time they're outside and doing something, the troops will maybe be in the foreground or moving along the Z-axis -- but splitting the screen in almost every shot there's a line of troops in the background. My jaw just dropped. Almost every shot. And it just gave the most incredible depth to the compositions.

Vitali discussing Barry Lyndon following a screening at the Walter Reade Theater on May 27 (Photo: S.T. VanAirsdale)

LV: You know, he was not a fan of 1.85. He always thought, you know, "You pay to see a movie, you want to see the whole picture." He always thought that if you're ripping out 27 percent of your screen space in a letterbox format that was a bit sad. But he understood with the multiplex situation what was happening; that was really the only way to go. That's the same reason he only recorded in mono. Everything except for 2001 -- which in 70mm, there's no point in having a mono track with that -- and Eyes Wide Shut. Because by the time we made Eyes Wide Shut, he realized that most of the multiplexes -- and I would say that 90 percent of the movie houses in the UK are multiplexes now -- understood that sound was something that had become important to the average viewer. When we released Full Metal Jacket, we sent a squad of people around checking the movie houses. Some places didn't even know that their stereo systems weren't working. They had no idea. He didn't want to have a bad stereo track playing where you lose half your track if it's not working. Mono you were always safe with. I believe Woody Allen still only releases in mono.

R: Really?

LV: I believe so. I may be wrong, but I'm pretty certain. It's not bad. A good mix is a good mix. That's all there is to it.

R: I was aware that Stanley had done that. One thing I find interesting is that so many people talk about the level of control within his films.

LV: That's right.

R: But other filmmakers I think of who have a great degree of control -- modern filmmakers like say the Coen Brothers or somebody like David Fincher -- they very much work from storyboards. They go into shooting their movies knowing exactly what they want, and they do it until they get exactly what they want. With Stanley, however, it seems like it was completely about the process.

LV: That's right. He never used storyboards. Never used storyboards. That's a wonderful feeling of freedom you have as an actor, and I've said several times that Stanley was the closest to a theater director that I ever worked with. That was the process you went through. It's just that instead of taking six weeks to rehearse for a play scene by scene by scene, here we were taking hours and sometimes days to rehearse and shoot and rehearse and shoot. And all the time during rehearsals, he insisted: "Do it for real. Do what you think you will do." Because the way he found his first shot, he used to walk around the set with an Arriflex tube and just change lenses, look around, down, up, move away, move around. Once he found his first shot, he knew he could build the scene from that point. But he said: "If you don't do it properly, if you don't do it for real, you could change the way I think about the scene. You could suddenly put a whole new accent on it." You know, it's such a refreshing way for an actor to work. It really is.

R: In 2002, I was at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and Todd Field was there for In the Bedroom. He was the first person I saw, and was like: It's Nick Nightingale (from Eyes Wide Shut)! I went right up and started talking to him. He was saying the same thing -- you would rehearse the scene to the point where you inherently knew where the camera was going to be.

LV: That's right. And the other thing is, you hear a lot of actors -- and I'm not being negative here -- a lot of filmmakers, for instance, will say that if you over-rehearse it gets boring, you lose its freshness, spontaneity. But what I always understood was, boredom is just another phase. You get through that. And once you get through that, that for me was always a sign that you'd broken the back of whatever problem was blocking you. You'd gone through it and gone through it and gone through it -- and sometimes you don't even understand why suddenly it feels fresh again. But he wouldn't shoot until it had gotten to that point. That, for me, was the wonderful thing about working with him, because you could trust him to see that point where it's beginning to work, then... Bang! It was like shooting shit off a shovel. It was just take after take after take. And each time, something else would come from that. Then the scene could change again. Could be: "Ahh, I hadn't thought of that..." Then we'd dash off, sit down somewhere. "How would you say that?" Then you'd start that process again. The most exciting time I had as an actor, apart from a couple of stage productions. It really was.

R: I have this idea that a filmmaker should be able to step into any environment and be able to immediately find at least half a dozen shots.

LV: Yeah. Absolutely. I always think one of Stanley's really big plusses when it came to that was he knew how to organize material. So if ever he kind of found himself in trouble in the editing process, he always had this instant mental access to another shot that maybe could help him out. Maybe it was a slightly different angle. Or it was another line reading. Because when he edited dialogue, you know, if he had 50 takes of say, "I love you very much," what he would do is strip out word-for-word -- he'd have 50 "I's," 50 "love's," 50 "you's," 50 "very's," 50 "much's." Then he would cross-match to see which combination of them could give him that dramatic impact. It's a very long process. But he knew how to organize that. And once we got into editing with Avid... The first time we ever edited using a computer system was Full Metal Jacket. We used a system called Montage, which, I gotta tell you, was like Computer Alley! You had to have these huge towers for random access. A tower for the main drive. A hard disk. A command center.

R: Now I can do that on my laptop.

LV: Exactly. Exactly. It was a real amazing experience. You realize, you used to do the same thing before, but you were cutting mag. And that took forever. I mean, it took long enough when you could access your material like that (snaps fingers).

R: And you don't have to worry about trying to find that one frame at the bottom of the bin.

LV: Exactly. I mean, the trim box was, like, overflowing.

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R: This is kind of a general question, and it might be difficult to answer. But I think it's something everybody wants to know: Who was Stanley?

LV: You know, it's not as complicated as you might think. The best way I can put it is this: If you make it in more of a personal context and you think about yourself as being someone who can sometimes be angry, sometimes be generous, sometimes be jealous, sometimes be resentful, sometimes be extremely kind -- all those basic human qualities. Everybody's got them. And the thing is, for many people, there's one part of them that drives them more than another. Some people are continually feeling guilty about life. He could feel guilty about some of the things he had to do. Or they could be extremely ambitious. Something drives them more than all the others. They have all those other qualities inside them. But somebody like Stanley, who had all those like you or I, but to about the power of a gazillion, all right? Because from minute to minute it could change. One of those, the ambitious, would suddenly give way to something quite mean. And then equally give way to something almost over-generous. Everything he did was almost overpowering. Which was quite difficult to live with. But, of course, stimulating at the same time.

For some people it was hard to deal with because if they were delivering bad news, for instance, or reporting on a failure to complete a mission, for want of a better way of putting it, his line was always: "How long have you known this? And were you waiting for the right moment to tell me -- the right psychological moment to tell me?" Of course, you'd always say, "No." But inside you were nodding away. Of course you were, because if you're having a bad time, I don't want to come and tell you I've just had a phone call from so-and-so. It just wasn't worth it. ... What he couldn't stand was if someone lied outright, which is really an easy thing to happen when you're dealing with somebody who's so powerful, who can be so angered and outraged at something. People don't want to go willingly into those situations. But if you did, I could tell you we went into everything so thoroughly, got to the bottom of everything so thoroughly, you were always going to be found out. It's as simple as that. So you kind of learned that approach wasn't worth it either. It was often easier to seek the forgiveness than to seek permission to do something, just to get some things done sometimes.

R: I understand there's going to be another Kubrick Collection for HD...

LV: Yes, they used the standard-def DVD collection that we did for the whole restoration program a little while ago as a guide. But, as you know, in high-definition there a whole color science that goes on. I'm sure a lot of DP's and directors who shoot film going into the digital intermediate or digital negative, they realize that it doesn't always translate right across. So you really have to get into it. But they did a really good job. I went in to look at the titles, which were 2001, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut, and A Clockwork Orange -- all we really needed to do was just place-to-place shift it a little bit. They looked really, really fine. It also means that in HD you are getting the 1.85 you saw theatrically. That'll be converted into 1.77 or 1.78 --

R: 16:9.

LV: Yeah. 16:9. And now it actually fills the whole screen, so you don't get those blank bars at the top and bottom. The only one they're not doing is Barry Lyndon. And I have no idea why not. That would look totally beautiful in HD. And 2001, I can't tell you. It is stunning! It is so stunning! The detail... You know, we tried when I was working with them all those years ago, we tried to see what would happen if we digitally projected it. But back then, they only had this 1080 interlace, and what happened was a lot of digital blocking in the small detail areas --

R: Yeah, the lines...

LV: That's gone now because it's progressive 1080. It's beautiful.

R: 2k scan?

LV: 2k scan, yeah.

R: They just came out with the Alejandro Jodorowsky set.

LV: Right.

R: And they did a 2k scan of The Holy Mountain. It's gorgeous looking.

LV: I went to an exhibition in Las Vegas. I went to the Sony tent. They want all their cinemas in Japan to be 4k within a year. I even saw some test stuff in 8k, and then you're getting into realms of... And there's no use comparing it to film. I love film, and I have so much affection for it. But you can't think about those things in that way anymore. It is going to go. And digital is what it is. It isn't like film, it's different. There's no point in crying over it. It's coming and you just have to deal with it.

The only thing: I was talking last night to some people about this, and the only thing that worries me about digital is there's been no test of time about storing the information. Whether you're going to drop those 1's and 0's -- this migration problem they're talking about. They've gotta work that out somehow. Because if stuff's shot digitally and it's not put on a film format, you've got no 100 percent storage for future archiving. So I hear a lot of people now, if they're shooting digitally, they're making what they call separations on film just to make sure it's covered. But it is something they're going to have to deal with.



Comments (4)

I'd just like to point out that Leon is actually British...

Uhh, great interview, but someone needs to tell Leon that 1's and 0's don't get "dropped".

Maybe I'm misunderstanding him.. but there simply aren't any preservation issues with anything stored digitally.

Leon was assistant to director Ragnar Lyth on his version of HAMLET, in Sweden in 1985.

Any way to get in touch with Leon (aka Toby Leon Philibert Vitali)?

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