The unsung heroes of cinema: interview with indie documentary filmmaker Tony Zierra

Tony Zierra is the director of the indie documentary, Filmworker. I caught up with Zierra to find out how the project came about and the challenges along the way.

Has Filmworker been long in the making? How long was it between the initial spark of inspiration and the premiere screening?

I would say about 3 1/2 years. Which is sort of normal in the documentary world. 


Did it take much convincing to get Leon Vitali on board with the project?

He was hesitant and it took time to convince him. It was partly that he didn’t see or understand his value compared to Stanley Kubrick, who is obviously bigger than life. I remember in the beginning Leon didn’t think that his life had the elements of a good story to tell. And once we started filming it was a bit difficult for him to talk about himself. I think he’s very comfortable talking about Kubrick but not comfortable talking about himself. So, he was reluctant but I took the time to draw him out and get past the resistance. 

Leon Vitali in Filmworker. Photo by Tony Zierra

Leon Vitali in Filmworker. Photo by Tony Zierra


Where do you go for financing something like this? Did you have backers from the beginning?

No, we didn’t have investors. We were basically on our own. It was me and my producer, Elizabeth Yoffe. This work is all about passion and believing in the story that you want to tell and usually, it’s difficult to convince investors or outsiders to come in and take part in your project because it’s a long commitment and a lot of times filmmakers are more committed than investors. I believe it’s because we see the bigger picture of our project. So from the beginning, it was a constant battle to find ways to keep filming and to keep the project alive. It was more of a continuous journey of acquiring funds to keep going. 

Director of Filmworker, Tony Zierra. Photo by Tracy Schoolman

Director of Filmworker, Tony Zierra. Photo by Tracy Schoolman


How would you describe Filmworker for someone that hasn't seen it?

Leon Vitali is the ultimate representative of devotion to the art of cinema - and Kubrick played an important part in Leon’s story. Kubrick represents the ultimate cinema. The project is also about the details and how much goes into making a great film. We’re accustomed to thinking that a good film revolves around its leading men and women and the big directors, which is completely not true. Filmworker is about the unsung heroes of cinema, the people that are usually overlooked, the workers below-the-line. And in our celebrity-obsessed world, people like that are often forgotten. 

Much of your work deals with themes of celebrity and the aspirations of actors and filmmakers. What is it that keeps you returning to this area?

I’m not sure. I think it has to do with passion and my love for the arts. I’m more fascinated with dreams. Dreams are the core of one’s life and it’s fascinating to me to see someone with a dream who’s willing to go after it. Dreams are the core of who we are and dreams are what keep us alive and what drives us to try again and again. It’s also devastating when you don’t live your dream. So I find it to be interesting because you’re dealing with the unexpected when you’re focusing on what people dream of doing and becoming. 

Leon Vitali on-set with Stanley Kubrick. Photo courtesy Leon Vitali

Leon Vitali on-set with Stanley Kubrick. Photo courtesy Leon Vitali


It seems to me that Filmworker is something of a departure from the theme of celebrity by focusing on someone that had the chance to chase fame but chose instead to support someone else's creative endeavors. Was this a deliberate change in direction for you?

That’s what made the project interesting. I think it’s so common to always make movies about people who have big dreams and who are seeking fame and fortune. Yet not that many people actually have the opportunity to become famous. And certainly, most people wouldn’t choose to give up that worldly success to be behind-the-scenes and working tirelessly without recognition. I think the reality is that you don’t have to be famous and you don’t have to be rich to actually have a fulfilling life. 


You've collaborated with Elizabeth Yoffe extensively over the years. What are the unique qualities that you each bring to your projects?

I believe that Elizabeth has an amazing sensibility which is crucial. It’s important when you’re working with someone like that because they can actually see and understand what you’re going for which actually enhances your vision. So, having a good producer that believes and understands what you’re doing is vitally important and I’ve been lucky in that area to have Elizabeth.


You've interviewed a range of people for this story. What was the most challenging interview to get something interesting out of? Who was the most entertaining person to talk to?

All the interviews are different and sometimes you go in and you’re trying to film with someone and you have to dig and find what makes that person interesting. So, it’s all about being patient and about getting to know your subjects. Some of the interviews were a big surprise to me - like R Lee Ermey who we lost recently. I expected Lee to be that tough marine we’re so familiar with and I was surprised to see a tender and sensitive man. He was genuine and honest. But to me, everyone that ended up being in the film was amazing because obviously you get rid of the flat ones. The people we ended up with had something special about them.  


As you were following the story where it went, what was something unexpected that you learned?

To stick to your gut feeling. Sometimes throughout the process, you start to question if you’re on the right path. Then you find yourself thinking too much and going in the opposite direction and so you get back on track and you follow your instincts. I think that’s very important in order to tell a unique story. 


What are audiences reacting most positively to in the film?

I think they come to appreciate how much goes into making a good film. I think people are fascinated by the details and the choices we make in life when we are confronted with options. But people also tend to be really surprised that someone would pick something that isn’t going to make them more money or make them more famous and that they’d leave fame and fortune behind for something deeper. That tends to amaze people about Filmworker.


Do you have someone looking after the marketing for Filmworker? Is it proving easy to connect with your target audience?

Our approach is more organic. We don’t have an outside company that handles marketing. We don’t have the funds to do something like that. I think projects like this have their own life and they grow on their own as long as you’re there to do the work and to oversee things. It’s almost like a ship sailing and you just chase the wind.


In 10 years time, how do you hope people look back on Filmworker and describe it?

I love films that have a long shelf life. I think that’s what attracted me to Kubrick in the first place. So I think in 10 years people will see it as an in-depth film about devotion, art and what it takes to create great movies. 

Stanley Kubrick and Leon Vitali. Photo courtesy Leon Vitali.

Stanley Kubrick and Leon Vitali. Photo courtesy Leon Vitali.


Are there plans for wide distribution? Where can people see Filmworker over the coming months?

More countries continue to acquire Filmworker. We’re also continuing to show the film at different festivals all the time. 


What are you working on now? Is there another documentary in the works?   

I am starting to edit SK13 which is a documentary about Kubrick. There have been several documentaries on Kubrick but what excites me about this one is the unique footage we shot over the years. I think SK13 will be an intriguing way of looking at Kubrick’s work and I think it will be exciting for Kubrick’s fans and for fans of cinema. 

Filmworker, directed by Tony Zierra, produced by Elizabeth Yoffe, is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

Cover image: Leon Vitali in '2001' room. Photo by Jacob Rosenberg.