Interview: Director Tony Zierra Talks About His Stanley Kubrick Documentary FILMWORKER – Part 1

Movies In Focus had the opportunity to chat with director Tony Zierra about his brilliant Leon Vitali/Stanley Kubrick documentary, Filmworker. The film looks at the relationship between Vitali and Kubrick after the pair formed a bond on the set of the 1975 film Barry Lyndon. Zierra’s film makes for fascinating viewing for movie fans and Kubrick aficionados alike – and it really is not to be missed (read the Movies In Focus review)

Zierra is a fountain of Kubrick knowledge and we chatted for nearly an hour about his film, Vitali and Kubrick. Here’s the first part of our chat…

How did the film come about?

Originally I was working on a Kubrick documentary and I put that aside when I met Leon. I met Leon through that documentary, he was one of the people on the list because that film was more based on Kubrick’s career and process and as you know, there were a number of people who were close to him – and Leon was the closest when it came to creativity. He was one of the last people to film with and I was struck right away by the story about how this man, who didn’t really need to be an assistant did it by choice. His acting career was taking-off and he chose to go behind the camera, so I felt that I really had to tell that story. Maybe also what appealed to me was that so many people in the end credits never get any exposure and attention and it always goes to the actors and the director and I thought it would be really nice to acknowledge and honour people like that – like Leon. He’s really an amazing example of that, for devotion basically. That’s how we started it. 

Watching the film, how he talks about Kubrick – it’s almost a love story.

Yeah, Yeah. You remember that first time they met, he was like talking about meeting God, or the love of his life. 

It comes back around to that at the end of the film. The last time he spoke with Kubrick, he had the same feeling. 

Yeah, the first time – he said it was eerie. It was really strange the same calm, the same gentleness that I guess disappeared for years. 

Like you said, the character of Kubrick evolved throughout their relationship – do Leon go into detail why he thought Kubrick changed?

He said it was always like a rollercoaster. It all depended on the day, so when you’re dealing with someone like Kubrick, who oversees all of his films – he’s actually a partner who owns all of his negatives – he was always managing all of the little details, whether it was a poster or a boxset or a package of some sort or television deal for his movies, he was managing all that. it was just too much to handle I think, for Stanley. The moods would go up and down because he really cared about every tiny detail and that would sometimes send someone occasionally into a rage with the system. 

Leon said that everything that he did was a fight. It wasn’t the same perception that we all have that whatever Kubrick wanted, he got. He was obviously extremely respected, but it was never easy. So there was a lot of stress going on and I think that stress was sometimes taken out on Leon. They were almost like master-servant, some people described them as a married couple or an odd couple or father-son. When you’re with somebody for almost 30 years you almost get tired of each other occasionally, you know. Stanley didn’t like people having days off or going on vacation. He would kind of get worked-up that nobody was working – he was married to his work really. 

You would imagine that once you made these films you would put them aside and worry about the next one – but he really cared about his legacy. 

He did everything for every country where they were released – he cared about the translation! Leon said to me that for him the phrase ‘killer smile’ would be translated and it wouldn’t convey the word ‘killer’ and Stanley just managed all that stuff – micro detail managing. Of course there was going to be a lot of stress. 

What do you think that Kubrick saw in Leon from Barry Lyndon that made him pull him into his own personal world and behind the scenes?

Thats what Leon wanted. Leon just couldn’t let go. Walking around set, he fell in love with the process and felt that being an actor was limited so it was the only way he could be with Stanley was to go around the camera and – he doesn’t like to use the word partner – he just wanted to be involved in that creativity. And as you saw, he got to work in every area and he was allowed – and Stanley encouraged him to go to the lab and manage the processing of the film, the transfers. 

Leon, and so was Stanley, they were creative junkies. There’s obsession, and there’s just some people can’t live without it. They both had that. 

You say creative junkie – Leon couldn’t get enough – like being there for Stanley of Christmas Day. 

At the end of the day he said it was worth it – the experience itself. He wants to be stressed and worried about every single thing. It’s’s the highs and lows. There’s also the relationship with his father. He believed in Stanley’s creative endeavour in so many ways. He said he just wanted to see Stanley make the next movie and the next movie. And I think a lot of people felt that about Kubrick – there was this thing where he made people really care, but that care came with a price. 

You say that he wanted Stanley to make movies – and there were a lot of unmade Stanley Kubrick films. Did Leon go into detail about those?

Sure. All of them. Like Napoleon because of the financing fell because there was another film about Napoleon and he put that away.  Wartime Lives was the same thing because of Schindler’s List because he knew the industry wasn’t going to embrace two Holocaust films. There was always something coming up that prevented him from doing something. Leon said he hardly ever had a vacation because he worked all the time. Every now and then he would have more than two days off in a row – that was the world they were in. As you know, Stanley practically dropped dead right in the middle or work. 

That’s another thing that I respected about Kubrick – going in I really admired him, but what really interests me is that he didn’t just make people work, he worked himself to death practically because he refused to get himself checked and take care of his health because the work meant everything to him. Like I was saying, they were both creative junkies – they had to have that kind of life. 

You say Kubrick worked all the time, and Leon worked all the time – was there a big staff around Leon?

No – there was only Leon, Emilio the driver, Tony Frewin and Jan Harlin, his Executive Producer and bother-in-law. There were people on the outside at the studios – but it was mainly those three. It wasn’t this big production team. 

People said that the older he got, the more the crew and the film felt like a student film. His knowledge grew and grew and he had a lot of experience doing different things. They crew was a lot smaller than it used to be on 2001, it just shrunk. He felt the more people you have, the slower things get and the more chaos happens. 

He was able to bring his movies in so efficiently…

Yeah, under budget. 

Something like Eyes Wide Shut, which he shot for almost 2 years  – it’s crazy to think that. 

Yeah, it’s considered one of the longest continuous shoots in film history. It’s kind of interesting – but you see the details – that’s why the shelf life of the movies is amazing. They go through seasons with people just discovering the films over again. New generations finding what’s so beautiful and rich about the films, because of the details. I think that Leon really represents the details. Without these details you wouldn’t have hundreds of people in the credits. You can’t really just say that the director just makes the movie, or the actors. It takes a lot of people to create something like that – and the captain that steers the ship. like Kubrick. 

Read Part 2 of the Interview