Development Hell: Leon Vitali, Stanley Kubrick’s Right-Hand Man

Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

In Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, Lord Bullingdon is the titular character’s stepson. He is played by Leon Vitali, who would ironically 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. We met at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s symposium, in conjunction with the University of Arts, London, on the Kubrick archives. Our in-depth discussion in his West Los Angeles home is excerpted below, on the topics of script development and the use of music in Kubrick’s productions.

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 (the character Danny). I can’t really speak for Anthony Burgess (author, 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.” (Laughs.)

BS: Justify it?

LV: The violence.

BS: Oh. And the reaction in the UK specifically. Yeah, yeah.

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… and so it was laid out like a narrative.

BS: Yeah, well, like an extended treatment, in a way.

LV: Yes, yes. Exactly.

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

LV: Yeah.

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

LV: Yeah, right, absolutely. And…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.”

BS: (laughs)

LV: It was like a joke. It was like Stanley thought, “Someone said they want to read the script. Give them this.” And 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, I tell you… 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. And 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’d be the blue page. And then there’d be the yellow page. And in the end, we were sort of standing there at the end of the day, saying, “Which f—ing 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: Yeah. 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 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 many hours of improvisation).

BS: Loved that.

LV: I mean, it was hundreds of pages.

BS: And no doubt you read Eyes Wide Open by Freddy Raphael.

LV: I did, I did… so Freddy would write and send Stanley the stuff. And Stanley would keep on saying, “No, I want it more like this or more like that,” whatever their discussion points were. And it took me about two years to read Eyes Wide Open, you know Freddy’s book about his experience of working with Stanley. Similarly, I was too busy because I was working on all the restorations of the camera negatives and stuff. And also, because I kind of didn’t want to, because I actually didn’t like him very much. I found him quite arrogant.

BS: And you probably knew he was going to be rather critical of it, as it was.

LV: Because I’d heard him when Eyes Wide Shut opened in the UK. He’d been on one of those art chat shows and it was all, “Me, me, me. I, I, I.” It was all that. And I read the book in the end, finally. And I suddenly felt, “Now I understand.” Because he writes quite clearly about how when Stanley said, “Well I think that we’ve got it now.” And Freddy came to see him, and Stanley said, “Yeah, we’ve got it now. Just tell Warner Brothers what they owe you. Thanks.” And that was it. And what Freddy writes about is he wanted the arm around his back and he wanted to hear—I’m paraphrasing—but he wanted to hear, “I couldn’t have done this without you, Freddy.” He wanted to hear all that. And he didn’t get it.

BS: You should write a book if that’s the control you want. You don’t normally get it as a screenwriter and you certainly don’t get it, working with Stanley’s methodology.

LV: No, and absolutely not. And you’d have to be a prize egomaniac, I think, to even consider that to be a possibility from the start.

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 “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (Strauss’s tone poem in 2001: A Space Odyssey) in pop culture. And at the symposium, it was discussed how he would listen to a variety of different music.

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…And so, 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 concrete. “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.)

BS: (Laughs.)

LV: 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 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 Apocalypse Now. People constantly talk about the use of “The End” by The Doors and in a way how perfectly it’s used.

LV: And “Ride of 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.” When he was making Clockwork Orange, and he heard Switched On Bach and (Walter) Carlos, we thought, “God, yeah, that’s kind of got that sound, that raw thing.” But I watched 2001. I’d never heard of Ligeti. I’d never heard of Ligeti in my life.

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. It was fantastic music. (He hums.) It was just amazing. And then 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. It’s just there, absolutely. And that was the other thing. You kind of knew Stanley was choosing the music, playing the music, because 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: 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?

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