Stanley Kubrick's Right-Hand Man Tells Us Some Fascinating Secrets

Meticulous. Demanding. Visionary. To many cinephiles, Stanley Kubrick is remembered for his uncompromising, near-obsessive filmmaking. But his former right-hand man, Leon Vitali, who appeared in Kubrick’s 1975 Oscar-winning film Barry Lyndon and went on to cast several of Kubrick’s films, remembers the late auteur differently.

As Vitali tells it, Kubrick was a funny guy. Really. “He had one of the quickest wits I think I’ve ever experienced in my life and sharp right up until the very end,” Vitali, 66, recounts to Yahoo Movies.

Vitali spoke with us in advance of the 10-disc Blu-ray set Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection, coming out on Dec. 2. He also appears in the exclusive clip above, from one of two new documentaries included in the set, which also contains Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

And the revelation about Kubrick’s quick wit wasn’t the only tidbit we gleaned from our conversation. Here are seven other factoids we bet you never knew about the cinematic genius.

1. From consultant to star on Full Metal Jacket.
It’s no secret that former Marine Corps drill instructor R. Lee Ermey, who played the vicious Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, started out on the film as a consultant. After wowing Kubrick and Vitali with his verbal vitriol directed at the movie’s young actors, Ermey got a field promotion to the breakout role. What you may not know is that Kubrick reworked the script, using Ermey’s own words. (Hartman, you'll recall, had such indelible lines as "Did your parents have any children that lived?" and "You’re so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece!") “What we did was we took 800 pages of transcribed video [of Ermey],” recalls Vitali. “Then we went through the script line by line and picked out all the best lines that R. Lee Ermey had uttered. We strung his role together like that. It was a fantastic sort of genesis. I’ve never come across anything like it before or since.”

2. Jane Fonda in The Shining?!
Kubrick had to battle studio executives because they wanted Jane Fonda — or someone of her caliber — for the female lead in The Shining. “I think you can imagine Jane Fonda and Jack Nicholson,” recalls Vitali. “I don’t think that would’ve worked.” Kubrick had already seen Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman’s 1977 drama 3 Women and knew she was the perfect fit for his 1980 horror masterpiece.

The Shining

From right: Nicholson, Kubrick, and Vitali (holding the camera) on the set of ‘The Shining’

3. It’s a minor miracle Danny Lloyd was cast.
When Vitali was casting the lead little boy role in The Shining, he auditioned 4,000 children. The very shy Danny Lloyd broke a strict casting rule Vitali was instructed to follow: He wouldn’t even come into the room. “Even to this day I don’t understand why I didn’t follow those instructions because he [finally] came in with me and we just sat there opposite each other about two feet away and just stared at each other. Then he looked down, and I was wearing a green corduroy suit, and he said, ‘Gee, I like your suit.’ And that was it. From that moment on we were on fire.”

4. Little Danny wasn’t meant for showbiz.
Today, Lloyd teaches science. He only appeared in one movie after The Shining. Lloyd’s parents brought him to Hollywood for a small role in a TV movie about Watergate in which he played a young G. Gordon Liddy. “It was a very small role, but I think they realized they did not like being in Los Angeles. They wanted to go back to what they knew, and I think Danny, for his age, was a very mature little kid. I think he understood that this wasn’t a fun experience every time,” says Vitali. “I think it was really smart for them to deal with it that way.”

5. Kubrick was not a control freak.
The legend of Kubrick’s scrupulous style is overblown — especially when it comes to his relationship with his actors, says Vitali. “He let you find your way, which is one of the reasons why he is famous for doing so many takes,” Vitali notes, saying Kubrick fostered an encouraging, experimental environment on set. “For a ‘control freak,’ he was a free-wheeler when it came to story and the acting… very much so.”

6. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were braced for the long haul.
"Stanley loved working with Tom and Nicole because they gave absolutely everything," Vitali recalls of Eyes Wide Shut, which, at 400 days, holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot. “There was no question that they understood that they were going to get out when it was done.”

7. Kubrick worked hard up until the very end.
"I spoke with him on the Saturday afternoon before he died [on March 7, 1999] because I was going in there to do the written screenplay [for Eyes Wide Shut], as it was in the final cut,” Vitali remembers. “He had me pinned down in a supermarket car park for an hour and a half about how we were going to do this, or how we were going to approach it, and so on and so forth. The only thing I’d say was that he was very, very tired, and I would say that’s the only sign that I saw. But then I’ve seen him tired before when we were doing Full Metal Jacket. We worked 36 hours [straight] often. I guess you could say that had a lot to do with it. I’m sure it did.”

Photo: Warner Bros.