Thursday, 03 January 2019 13:54

Vintage Bits Interview: Leon Vitali talks Stanley Kubrick on DVD

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[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally posted on The Digital Bits on 5/4/01. It refers to the original and much-maligned Kubrick DVD collection release and also the better and properly remastered 2001 DVDs. It hints at future HD releases, but this was five years prior to the debut of Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD was still well over the horizon. Read it as an artifact of the period. But our admiration of Vitali has only been enhanced by the recent and terrific documentary about his life, Filmworker, not to mention his fine work on the new 4K release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, so we thought it would be fun to share this vintage interview we did with him. It’s clear just how protective he was then – and remains now – of Stanley Kubrick’s body of work. We salute him for it. All Kubrick fans owe him a great debt.]

One thing you can say for sure about Leon Vitali, is that he knew Stanley Kubrick. Vitali first came into contact with Kubrick when he was cast to play the role of Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon. The two quickly struck up a friendship, and Vitali soon found himself working side-by-side with the director as his assistant and a permanent part of Kubrick’s staff. Over an association of more than 25 years, Vitali personally worked on nearly every facet of Kubrick’s films, from scripting to casting, production, laboratory supervision and advertising. He even worked on the translations of Kubrick’s films into other languages for international markets. [Read on here...]

During the production of Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, he and Vitali spoke in detail about the requirements for bringing the director’s films into the digital age. Recently, Vitali was tasked with supervising new high-definition transfers and audio re-mixing of Kubrick’s films for the new Stanley Kubrick Collection on DVD. Vitali is essentially the “executor of all technical aspects” for the Kubrick estate, and few people knew Kubrick – or his movies – better than him.

Bits editors Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan recently had the chance to speak with Vitali, to discuss the Kubrick DVDs, both new and old, and to address the many complex issues surrounding them. We think you’ll find what Vitali had to say as fascinating as we did. Enjoy...

Leon Vitali talks Kubrick on DVD

Bill Hunt (The Digital Bits): We understand that you originally got involved in the film industry as an actor, and that you first met Stanley Kubrick in that capacity, is that correct?

Leon Vitali: Yes, I went to drama school and was working as a professional actor. And my first experience with a Stanley Kubrick film was seeing 2001 in the theater. What impressed me about it, was that here was a film that told a powerful story, mostly without dialogue. Several years later, I also saw Clockwork Orange, and I knew that I would love to work with Kubrick at some point. And then Barry Lyndon came up, and I auditioned for Stanley. And that’s how I met him.

Todd Doogan (The Digital Bits): How old were you then?

Leon Vitali: Oh, gosh. I suppose I was maybe 23 or 24. And Stanley cast me in the film as Lord Bullingdon. [laughs] Or Lord Bowling Ball as we sometimes called him...

Bill Hunt: So obviously you worked with Kubrick closely on the set. But how did you go from being an actor in one of Kubrick’s movies to working for him in other areas?

Leon Vitali: Well... one of the things that anyone who met Stanley – one of the things that impressed you about him – was how easy it was to work with him. You know, there’s a lot of stories about how demonic he was, and how he was often temperamental. But with me, he was just so patient and willing to give me a say in the process. You know, if he was concentrating on you... Stanley could just make you feel like it was just you and him. It was almost like working with a theater director. He wanted to know what you had to say, and he really listened to you. As an actor, that’s really a wonderful thing. And I could ask him anything about the camera, or the lenses, or the lighting, or why he was doing this or that. He took the time to explain it to you... if he knew you were interested, he was very patient and willing to share that.

And after Barry Lyndon, we stayed in touch. And one day, he sent me a book called The Shining, and he asked me if I wanted to work with him on it. Which I did, or course.

Todd Doogan: How do you say no to an offer like that?

Leon Vitali: [laughs] You don’t! And as it ended up, I never stopped working with him.

Todd Doogan: What was your position with Kubrick, and what’s your role with the estate now?

Leon Vitali: Well, when I was with Stanley, I was just his assistant. I worked as part of a very, very small team. When he was going into pre-production on a project, it was often just him and me at first. So I was working on scripting, video releases, marketing, story research... you name it. Particularly with Full Metal Jacket, I was involved with almost every aspect at some point – pre-production, production, post-production...

Bill Hunt: Do you have a title currently?

Leon Vitali: Well... technically, I’m working for Warner right now on this special project – the DVD release. My contract is with them. I suppose you could say that I’m a technical consultant responsible for the Kubrick films.

Bill Hunt: That actually gets us to something we wanted to ask you. How much knowledge of the DVD format did Kubrick have before he died?

Leon Vitali: It was rather like... well, probably as much knowledge as he had about VHS before they first began releasing his titles on video. Which is not very much. He had a picture of basically what DVD was – what it could be and what it should be in terms of picture and sound quality. But round about 1996, Stanley and I really started talking more about high-definition, and he was very interested in the details of that. He would talk with everyone he could about it, and he knew that to get his films to high-definition, he would really have to start from scratch. He knew that you couldn’t just reuse old elements – transfers that had been done for laser and so forth. And he was very much aware of exactly how much work would be involved in transferring his films digitally, and just how he wanted the process to work.

Todd Doogan: How much involvement did you or Kubrick have in the original DVD release from Warner? Because that initial release was definitely substandard in terms of picture and sound quality...

Leon Vitali: Well... the short answer is really none at all. The masters that were used were originally used for VHS and laserdisc, you know. They weren’t new, high definition transfers. Stanley and I hadn’t yet had the chance to do them yet. Stanley really didn’t think that the existing masters were viable for DVD. High definition was obviously going to be the next step, and Stanley always felt that the DVDs would come out of that. But, at the time, we were very much in the middle of Eyes Wide Shut. We had always been thinking about doing a Kubrick Collection, but it kind of got put to the side while were working on the film. Stanley gave the project the green light, but it kind of all got left behind in his mind because of Eyes Wide Shut. And then, of course, he passed away. And, unfortunately, those first DVDs just sort of slipped by. But we had always intended to go back and do new high definition transfers of all the films – Stanley was very excited about that.

Bill Hunt: So the decision was made to finally do the high definition transfers, and to go back and release a much more polished DVD collection...

Leon Vitali: Yes. And we got an improvement in the interpositives, and an improvement in the telecine, and then we were able to further enhance the films – color correction and dust removal and that sort of thing – with the Spirit 2000 system. And by doing the high definition that way, we could go to DVD and VHS and anything else from that. And, best of all, the transfers would never have to be done again – particularly by someone who hadn’t actually worked with Stanley. You know what I mean?

Bill Hunt: Sure – you could make sure it got done right the first time.

Leon Vitali: Exactly. And once it’s done, it’s done.

Todd Doogan: So you actually supervised the transfer process?

Leon Vitali: Yes. And all the lab work, and the audio – the whole thing.

Leon Vitali

Bill Hunt: So let’s talk about this new DVD set. One of the features of DVD is the ability to present widescreen aspect-ratio films anamoprhically, to allow for the highest possible resolution when watching on widescreen TV sets. And our understanding is that there were only three Kubrick films that were intended to be seen in a widescreen aspect ratio...

Leon Vitali: Correct. There was Spartacus and 2001. And then there was Lolita, which was 1.66. The important thing to know about Stanley, is that he wanted all of his films shown on video – anything that wasn’t a theatrical presentation – in the original camera ratio that he shot it in. He wanted you to see the films exactly as he saw them when he looked through the camera lens and composed them on set. He was no fan of 1.85, because he felt that you were losing part of the image he composed. Now he knew that, with a film like The Shining or Full Metal Jacket, that they would have to be shown in theaters in 1.85 format. But for video, he could present the full frame as he composed it – that’s what he wanted.

Now Lolita is 1.66 and Dr. Strangelove is sometimes like 1.33, but sometimes you see a little bit of a mask in there. That’s the thing about Stanley – as long as he was pleased with the individual composition of a shot for maximum dramatic effect, he didn’t mind that the aspect ratio might be slightly different. Or, for example, that you might see the helicopter blades in The Shining. As long as the shot was good for him, it didn’t matter. He thought it was part of his artistic license.

Todd Doogan: So the idea was always to present the original in-camera aspect ratio on DVD.

Leon Vitali: Absolutely.

Bill Hunt: Was there ever talk about doing alternate anamorphic widescreen versions of the later films – the ones that were shown theatrically at 1.85? So you could have both versions on DVD?

Leon Vitali: Yes, it was discussed. But Stanley just wasn’t interested.

Todd Doogan: So 2001 is going to be in anamorphic widescreen on DVD. But a lot of people are going to have a question as to why Lolita, which is 1.66, isn’t anamorphic on DVD...

Leon Vitali: Well... Stanley just didn’t want it done. You know, someone could have a disagreement with that, but the only thing I can tell you is that that’s what he wanted. And we didn’t feel it was appropriate to go against his wishes.

Bill Hunt: So how will the open matte films be presented in future high definition broadcasts, hi-def having a 1.78:1 aspect ratio?

Leon Vitali: They’ll have black bars on either side.

Bill Hunt: Let’s talk about special edition materials on DVD. I know there’s very little added to the new DVDs that wasn’t on the original discs...

Leon Vitali: Yes, Stanley just didn’t want much of that to be seen. He wanted the films to really speak for themselves. There was the documentary on The Shining, that was shot by his daughter. Since that had been done for TV, he felt that it would be good to include – that it was good.

Todd Doogan: His daughter also shot behind-the-scenes material on the set of Full Metal Jacket, is that correct?

Leon Vitali: Yes, I think she did. But it never amounted to much. Nothing ever came of it.

Bill Hunt: I know that when Columbia TriStar recently went back to do a collector’s edition of Dr. Strangelove, they wanted to use the alternate "pie fight" ending, but the Kubrick estate denied the request.

Leon Vitali: Well, again... Stanley never wanted any of that to be seen. Stanley was never one to save a lot of deleted scenes and trims and so forth. He felt that if he didn’t use it in the movie, it had no business being seen.

Bill Hunt: And that same thing would then apply to, say, all the soundtrack work Alex North originally did on 2001?

Leon Vitali: Yes. Alex did a lot of good work, but then Stanley decided upon the Ligeti. He felt that Alex’s work was just a little too generic. And so he didn’t use it.

Leon Vitali

Todd Doogan: We also wanted to ask about Kubrick’s other films – his documentaries, like The Seafarers, Day of the Fight, Flying Padre – and his first film, Fear and Desire. What are the chances of those ever being released on DVD? Because a lot of fans have asked about that...

Leon Vitali: Well, I’m sure. Fear and Desire, I have to tell you, Stanley withdrew from circulation and he never wanted it to be seen again. The documentaries, however, he didn’t mind. He felt indifferent about them, I suppose.

Todd Doogan: Doesn’t RKO own them, which means Warner?

Leon Vitali: Yes, I think so. And I guess they could release them. Certainly, there are no plans right now to do so. I think we have prints of them back at the estate, but nobody’s ever mentioned the idea before.

Bill Hunt: What about the unaltered, “international” version of Eyes Wide Shut? Will American audiences ever get to see that on DVD?

Leon Vitali: Well... that’s something that I can’t really answer. That would be up to Warners – the estate has no control over that. I can tell you that Stanley, before he passed away, was conscious of the fact that there was probably going to be a problem with the film with the MPAA, which might affect those scenes. So we talked with Stanley about what we’d do if that came up. We talked about CGI – digital alteration – and simply re-editing the film. Stanley would probably have just gone into the editing room and made the cuts himself. But after he passed away, we didn’t feel comfortable re-editing his film after the fact. So we opted for the digital alteration, which he had acknowledged as an acceptable option. That way, his original edit would still be left intact, and yet the needed changes could be made to get the R rating which the Warner contract mandated.

Bill Hunt: That’s interesting, because I think the fear among fans has always been that those changes were made without Kubrick’s knowledge, after the fact, by the studio.

Leon Vitali: Sure, I can absolutely understand that. But you know, a lot of things were said about Stanley that weren’t true, or were blown out of proportion. Stanley was such a strong person, and the studio allowed him such complete freedom to do what he wanted, that I think a lot of people assumed that he wasn’t reasonable in making changes if the studio had concerns. But, you know, Stanley himself cut down 2001 after the initial release – not cutting entire scenes, but making certain ones a little shorter and trimming for length. And The Shining had slightly different cuts in the U.S. and internationally. I think that because Stanley was intractable occasionally, people assume he was intractable about everything. And that just wasn’t the case.

Bill Hunt: Thanks very much for chatting with us, Leon.

Todd Doogan: Yes, we certainly appreciate your time.

Leon Vitali: My pleasure, gentlemen. Thank you.


The staff of The Digital Bits would like to thank Leon Vitali for participating in this interview. Thanks also to Warner Home Video and Carl Samrock Public Relations. Watch for our reviews of the new Stanley Kubrick DVD Collection, coming soon. [Editor’s Note: All of the films of Stanley Kubrick are now available in very high quality on Blu-ray. Several have been released in fine special editions from The Criterion Collection. 2001: A Space Odyssey is now available in 4K Ultra HD (and should be back in stock on Amazon next week). Filmworker is available on DVD from Kino Lorber and you can watch it on Netflix and other streaming services. We HIGHLY recommend it.]

- Bill Hunt & Todd Doogan

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)


Filmworker (DVD)    2001: A Space Odyssey (4K Ultra HD)