There’s something about the work of Stanley Kubrick that encourages obsession. Cinephiles young and old pore over the man, searching for secret clues hidden both in his dense, knotty films and outside of them. They treat every shred of information offered up by those who knew the mercurial titan as a kind of sacred scripture, picking apart even the arrangement of canned soups and meats scattered throughout The Shining. For those who love him, it’s as though everything Kubrick did is part of a complicated and secret string of code composed for the benefit of his faithful; a kind of secret message only visible to those who sacrifice huge hours of their life to his work – and, perhaps, their sanity.

Documentarian Tony Zierra understands that kind of obsession. He is as committed to Kubrick as the next film lover; not only has he made two full length documentaries about the auteur, SK13 and Filmworker, he’s spent years haunted by Eyes Wide Shut, unable to shake the film. “I worship Kubrick’s creativity,” Zierra explains. “I learned filmmaking from watching his films and dissecting them. But things took a different turn when I watched Eyes Wide Shut.

Watch The Filmworker trailer here:

“I saw it in Los Angeles on opening day. Since then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The press were harsh, and people were saying that Kubrick had lost it. SK13, which explores Kubrick’s body of work and his obsession with Traumnovelle – the source material for Eyes Wide Shut – became my next project. I spent at least 10 years researching, shooting and thinking about it. I really wanted to know if that genius was too old and lost control of his film as some people who were close to him claimed. I think I found the answer.”

It was during the process of making SK13 that Zierra met Leon Vitali, a kindred spirit and one of Kubrick’s closest confidants. A committed and versatile actor, Vitali’s film career kicked off when he was cast as the prissy Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. But rather than keep at acting, Vitali decided instead to leave life in front of the camera behind, and became Kubrick’s longsuffering personal assistant. The pair worked together for decades – it was Vitali who found and cast the eerie, blood-soaked twins of The Shining – and the demanding, reclusive Kubrick allowed Vitali glimpses of his creative process none had ever seen before.

Watch the Barry Lyndon trailer here:

It’s this at turns terrifying and inspiring relationship between Vitali and Kubrick that inspired Filmworker, Zierra’s latest tribute to Kubrick, and, just as importantly, the unsung heroes of the film industry; artistic powerhouses like Vitali. Not, mind you, that Vitali was initially excited by the prospect of having his song sung – when Zierra first suggested making a film about his life, the 69-year-old turned him down. “He didn’t think he was interesting enough for a documentary and feared that I would be disappointed later on,” Zierra explains. “I kept pressing him to do it and finally he reluctantly agreed.”

Note the emphasis on reluctantly – at the beginning of the three-year long filming process, Vitali resisted Zierra’s questions. “He was closed off and very uncomfortable about being in front of the camera and talking about himself. I quickly learned that Leon is more at ease talking about Stanley Kubrick, and not about himself. I had to be patient and tried everything to engage him.”

All of Zierra’s hardwork paid off. Filmworker is a painstakingly drawn portrait of two obsessives, one of whom is rightly regarded as a true master, and the other of whom has for far too long been condemned to the shadows. “You can’t tell Leon’s story without Kubrick, and vice versa,” Zierra says, simply.

Filmworker plays as part of Sydney Film Festival. For more SFF content, read our interview with the director of Holiday here.

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