Kubrick in the spotlight

Leon Vitali on Stanley Kubrick, Filmworker and working with children and animals

by Anne-Katrin Titze

‪Leon Vitali, who played Lord Bullingdon, on Stanley Kubrick: "We had taken a walk when we were filming. It was like a whistle-stop tour of every Stately Home in England, it seemed like, when we were filming Barry Lyndon."
‪Leon Vitali, who played Lord Bullingdon, on Stanley Kubrick: "We had taken a walk when we were filming. It was like a whistle-stop tour of every Stately Home in England, it seemed like, when we were filming Barry Lyndon." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the final installment of my conversation on the afternoon of the première in New York of Tony Zierra's Filmworker, Leon Vitali reveals that Stanley Kubrick was "nuts for animals", that the ballroom used in Barry Lyndon was "full of Joshua Reynolds' and Van Dykes", and that a scene they called the "Masked Ball" was filmed in the home of Lord Carnarvon, who discovered the Tutankhamun tomb.

We speak about Kubrick, the photographer, a secret nostalgia, the casting of the twins Lisa Burns and Louise Burns for The Shining, Diane Arbus and Bruno Dumont's Jeannette, The Childhood Of Joan Of Arc.

Leon Vitali on Stanley Kubrick, the photographer: "He said to me when he was taken on the staff of Look magazine he was always in trouble."
Leon Vitali on Stanley Kubrick, the photographer: "He said to me when he was taken on the staff of Look magazine he was always in trouble."

Anne-Katrin Titze: You were constantly on your toes working with Stanley Kubrick?

Leon Vitali: You have to be.

AKT: Or you were floating?

LV: Sort of, yeah, yeah. Of course there are days when you're dragging yourself through.

AKT: Everybody has those. Even if you sit at home and do nothing you're dragging yourself.

LV: Exactly, you're dragging yourself through the day. But they were very, very few. Because there were very few days when there wasn't something you really had to focus on. Everything was important.

AKT: Something that is only touched upon in Filmworker are the animals, the cats and the dogs. Was he very attached to them?

LV: He was nuts about animals. Because he felt - the thing about animals was - they are.

AKT: They have the spontaneity he desired?

Barry Lyndon (Ryan O'Neal) with Bryan Patrick Lyndon (David Morley): "[Stanley Kubrick] was nuts about animals."
Barry Lyndon (Ryan O'Neal) with Bryan Patrick Lyndon (David Morley): "[Stanley Kubrick] was nuts about animals."

LV: Yes. And they don't have any guile. Apart from what their natures are. That's what he loved about them. It was so touching to see how he cared about them. He was distraught, totally distraught if an animal died or was sick.

AKT: Which is correct. So am I. You have a relationship.

LV: My dog - I say my dog, it was a family dog but I became the one who took him for walks and looked after him and all that stuff. For 14 years. And when he died, I was so heartbroken. You just are.

AKT: They become family members. What about the animals in his films?

LV: There were horses. And in Barry Lyndon he used dogs. But they were all very trained and disciplined. More so than some actors.

AKT: He gave you a Christmas gift in 1975, a book called A Treasury Of Great Master Drawings. Were you interested in master drawings?

LV: We had taken a walk when we were filming. It was like a whistle-stop tour of every Stately Home in England, it seemed like, when we were filming Barry Lyndon. When you walk around and look at the art and the pictures … I mean, imagine, in a ballroom in Barry Lyndon, they were full of Joshua Reynolds' and Van Dykes and God knows what.

Danny taking aim at the twins, Lisa Burns and Louise Burns in The Shining
Danny taking aim at the twins, Lisa Burns and Louise Burns in The Shining

You kind of thought, they're letting us film in here? With all this priceless, priceless art? We'd look around and look at stuff and talk about it. You know, how hard it is to capture a face. The expression, the full depth of a personality. The people who can, it's amazing, it's fantastic. And they can do it with a few strokes or they can do it with incredible detail, nuance in paint colour and stuff like that.

And that's really how fascinating we found all that. When we were filming what we used to call the Masked Ball we were filming in a house which belonged to Lord Carnarvon. He'd been the one who discovered the Tutankhamun tomb.

AKT: That is fantastic.

LV: So in his basement was a huge display of all this stuff and photographs from the period when they were doing that work. You could immerse yourself in that world just looking at it. The way they put this together it arrested people, made them interested. People who probably never even looked at an Egyptology drawing. The whole exhibition just dragged people in.

AKT: Speaking of exhibitions - did you see the Kubrick photography exhibition going on right now?

LV: No, but I've seen all those photographs. We had all those photographs. He used to sometimes go back and take a look at them. He was not nostalgic, [Leon continues in a whisper] - except sometimes he was.

Leon Vitali as the Red Cloak in Eyes Wide Shut
Leon Vitali as the Red Cloak in Eyes Wide Shut

AKT: Sometimes with what? What was he nostalgic about?

LV: I mean, he was very very proud of his photography. He was very young, he was 17 when they bought that picture of that news vendor crying. He said to me when he was taken on the staff of Look magazine he was always in trouble. Because they used to give the photographers one roll of 36 exposures.

And he said you can't do anything with that. And so he was always getting into trouble because he was overusing film and resources and what have you. For some of those pictures, black and white is so effective whereas colour is not. And you see that in those pictures.

AKT: I was fascinated seeing them.

LV: And he was doing things like planting captains of industry on a chair in the middle of a street in New York and saying just look into the camera. He was working in these ways, which for a young man … and to get away with it too!

AKT: Another photography link - Diane Arbus and the twins being cast for The Shining. It's such a beautiful scene in the film.

Leon Vitali on Stanley Kubrick: "I still miss him. I do, of course. I can still hear him."
Leon Vitali on Stanley Kubrick: "I still miss him. I do, of course. I can still hear him."

LV [laughing]: Oh my God. You know, it was one of those moments you pray for because it seems too perfect. I had run out of people, out of girls to sort of audition. So when these two girls walked in they were the very last people. And I just went "My God!"

AKT: Did you see Bruno Dumont's film about Joan of Arc?

LV: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AKT: The twins?

LV: The twins, yeah.

AKT: He told me about casting the twins, and why not, playing the nun together. Same idea as yours. How did you feel about your name being used by Stanley Kubrick to sign some of the letters?

LV: That's because he didn't want people to think it was him. I still miss him. I do, of course. I can still hear him.

AKT: Especially now doing this interview. He's there everywhere. Thank you.

LV: You're so welcome. It was fun.

Read what Leon Vitali had to say on being cast as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, Matthew Modine's comment in Filmworker, the unmade Aryan Papers based on Wartime Lies, playing the Red Cloak in Eyes Wide Shut, and more.

Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs is on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York through October 28, 2018.

Filmworker is in cinemas in the US and out in the UK on May 18.

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