Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The tip of the spear

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Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

One Response

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  1. Interesting read

    thelonelyauthorblog

    December 13, 2018 at 9:34 am


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