bookworker

It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools.

Anonymous

My tools are terrible. Nothing works the way I want it to work. And if it does work, it takes too long to work. Maybe I should just learn to program so I can make tools that work for me—then I’ll be able to get some work done…

This actually happened to Keith Blount. Trying to write a novel, he grew so frustrated with the limitations of traditional word processing software that he taught himself to code. Next month, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are going to attempt a novel in thirty days, and a good portion will use Blount’s software, Scrivener, to do it.

Blount never did write that novel.

I could easily procrastinate myself into a lucrative new career—the temptation is there every day—but today is not the day I crack. But what if Scrivener doesn’t cut it for me? And neither does Ulysses? Or [insert your preferred writing software here]?

Maybe it’s not the tools. Maybe I’m just exhausted and the slightest bit burned out. (“Maybe”—ha!)

We just watched Filmworker, the wonderful new documentary about Leon Vitali on Netflix. Vitali was a working British actor when he won a significant role in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. So taken with the genius on display during the shoot, and so completely drawn to the craft of filmmaking itself, Vitali abandoned his acting career completely to enter Kubrick’s service. He did this in an almost feudal sense, serving as the director’s full-time filmmaking assistant for the rest of Kubrick’s life. For little money and no credit, Vitali slaved away nearly every waking hour for three decades, playing a crucial supporting role in the making of each subsequent film (as well in the continued promotion and distribution of all Kubrick’s works).

Kubrick, naturally, saw the value in this arrangement.

“Leon is fascinated, and he’s curious, and he’s there,” the filmmaker Jacob Rosenberg explains at one point in the documentary. “Someone who’s a Shakespearean-trained actor. Someone that you can explain three-point lighting to, and they get it. Then you find someone that you can tell them about baths in labs, and they remember. And you’ve struck gold. And that person is so enamored with you and they don’t want to leave your existence.” Kubrick wasn’t always kind to Vitali, but he wasn’t kind to himself, either. The two of them bonded over their shared commitment to the work over their own well-being.

It doesn’t seem as though Kubrick left anything significant to Vitali in his will, nor did he leave him in charge of his estate. The guy had to turn to his own kids for financial support at one point after Kubrick’s death. But his loyalty to Kubrick, or at least Kubrick’s films, is steadfast. Even today, so ignored by the critical establishment that he wasn’t invited to the star-studded opening of the recent Kubrick exhibition, Vitali devotes himself to ensuring Kubrick’s artistic legacy is secure.

To most viewers, I assume, Filmworker must appear to belong in the same row as Netflix’s ever-popular cult documentaries: Wild, Wild Country, My Scientology Movie, etc. Even if you don’t see Vitali as a brainwashed acolyte, his story reads as a passion play. Everything had been going Vitali’s way as an actor. If not for Kubrick, he might have had a truly significant career as a creative artist beholden to no one. Instead, he voluntarily traded in the spotlight for a chance to operate a spotlight. For love of Kubrick, he took on nearly every thankless filmmaking task you can imagine, from running lines with actors day and night to color-correcting VHS releases for foreign markets. Whatever the great director needed, at whatever hour Kubrick needed it, Vitali was there to provide, all in service of the greater vision.

Kubrick was a perfectionist who wanted control of every aspect of the making of all his films. That is, strictly speaking, impossible. Not without another you, anyway. So, over the years, Vitali became Kubrick, an expert at every part of the filmmaking process from conception through distribution. As Kubrick’s extra eyes and hands, he became a movie-making machine fueled by tea and cigarettes, a device as indispensable to Kubrick’s process as his lenses and storyboards. And, as becomes clear during the documentary, Vitali loved every minute of it.

Unlike my wife, an artist who understandably found the whole story abhorrent, I related to Vitali closely. His decision to sacrifice personal artistic expression in pursuit of the craft in its purest form struck me as admirable, an entirely rational exchange. It’s not dissimilar from what I do as a ghostwriter, just with multiple Kubricks to serve. People often tell me it’s weird to work on books without credit, to devote my creative energy to executing for others. But I’ve always been more interested in the how than the what, in building things right over building the right thing.

In The Craft of Writing, William Sloane writes that “the real rewards of writing are serious and bitter as well as sweet, like love, and they are private, not public. They range all the way from the satisfactions of good craftsmen to the inward and painful glory of a Sir Bors or a Sir Lancelot. They are not a matter of a lead review in the book section of the New York Times.”

I’ll close with something profound from Vitali himself:

When somebody came in to Stanley, and they would, and they’d say, I’d give my right arm to work with you, he’d kind of smile. Because I actually think, you know, he thought, “Well, why are you low-balling me? What, just a right arm? How about the left one, and the legs? And the body and the heart, and everything?” If you said to him, “I commit myself,” you just better make sure you mean it. Otherwise, why would you bother? ‘Cause you’ll betray yourself anyway, in the end, if you’re not going to give everything you’ve got to what it is you’re doing, because he did.