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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
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...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.