Santa Barbara News Press
As director Christopher Monger has observed, "Special Thanks
to Roy London" tends to evoke tears from its audience. The late acting
coach was widely revered and the documentary makes clear both the intensity of
his clients' affection and the reasons he had such an impact on their lives.
But Saturday afternoon's screening at Victoria Hall Theatre, and
the question-and-answer session that follows, promises to be a particularly
London, after all, is buried in the Santa Barbara Cemetery. His
life partner, Tim Healey, is a longtime Santa Barbaran, and during the 1980s
and early '90s, the men spent countless weekends enjoying the city as a getaway
from the pressures of Los Angeles.
Moreover, it will mark London's return of sorts to the Santa
Barbara International Film Festival. The one and only film he directed,
"Diary of A Hit Man," won the festival's audience award in 1992.
"Had it had not opened on the first day of the (Rodney King)
riots, it might have had a better life," said Healey, who was one of the
founders of the Solstice Parade in the 1970s. "All the advertisements had
a picture of Forrest Whitaker with his arm around Sherilyn Fenn's neck and a
gun to her head. I can't tell you how excited people were to go see that movie
on that weekend."
There is considerable excitement about Monger's documentary, at
least among the many actors who studied with London or were influenced by his
work. The film mixes archival footage of the teacher explaining his philosophy
with reminiscences from more than 50 of his former students.
Among them are Sharon Stone and Garry Shandling, both of whom plan
to attend Saturday's screening and answer questions afterward, according to
Healey. Shandling felt so indebted to London that every episode of his HBO series
"The Larry Sanders Show" concluded with the credit: "Special
Thanks to Roy London." That's where the documentary got its title.
A successful actor, director and playwright in the off-Broadway
theater scene of the 1960s and '70s, London discovered his calling after moving
to Hollywood. Initially working out of his living room, he began coaching
actors -- including many who subsequently became famous.
When client Geena Davis won the Academy Award for best supporting
actress in 1989 (for "The Accidental Tourist"), she thanked London in
her acceptance speech. Even as his classes and coaching sessions multiplied, he
expanded his focus to include directing, including two episodes of "Larry
"Roy really wanted to transition to directing," said Healey.
"He saw it as the next step."
London, who was HIV-positive, died of lymphoma in 1993, not long
after his 50th birthday. Monger recalls some discussion about creating a
memorial on film. "But the speed with which he died, and the communal
grief was so strong, nothing happened," he said. "It was just too
The idea of a documentary was revived in 2003 by a group of
London's close friends, including Healey, Monger, actress Lois Chiles and
producer Karen Montgomery.
"We went into this very blithely," Monger recalled.
"The only thing I did right at the beginning was to have no expectations.
I let the thing grow organically."
He ended up interviewing more than 50 people, virtually all of
whom ended up in the film. Sharon Stone tells what is arguably the best
anecdote, recalling with humor and horror the day when London nearly died in
her arms. With disarming candor, the actress admits that her first thought was
how special she clearly was, since this great man chose her to be present for
his final moments.
How did Monger get such marvelous stuff?
"Years ago, I used to know (the great documentarian) Errol
Morris," he said. "He had this theory of interviewing on film, which
was, the less you said, the more uncomfortable people became, so they just
started to say things (to break the silence). There was a little bit of that
going on. I was clever enough to just shut up."
Once the interviews were completed, Monger spent more than two
years organizing the footage and editing it down to from 41/2 hours to 90
"There were two ways of approaching the material,"
Monger said. "One was to make a general biographical film. The other was
to make it much more about the teaching. The biographical stuff would be there
to support that.
"(We reasoned that) the first one might have a wider
audience, but the second would have a more specific, more intense audience. We
decided to go with the latter. Why dumb down a movie about a really brilliant
As it turned out, the filmmakers didn't need to worry. By focusing
on the specifics of London's teaching, the film strikes a number of universal
London taught his students that, to give a good performance, you
have to allow yourself to be vulnerable; to admit you don't have all the
answers; and to be open and responsive to what is happening in the moment.
Those are, of course, also quite workable guidelines to living an authentic
"His class was not therapy," Healey insisted. Yet, he
added, by urging his actors to embrace the fullness of their personalities,
including their flaws, London made them happier people as well as better
London had a favorite question he liked to ask actors, according
to Healey: "Are you willing to learn something about yourself, through the
story, while the camera is rolling?"
"What he meant was, all of your life is available to your
work," he said. "If you are willing to put all that you know to bear
on what you are doing, then your work will have all of the interest and color
and texture that a full life has.
"That's what's exciting about a character like Ennis in
'Brokeback Mountain.' Heath Ledger brings a life to that character."
"Special Thanks to Roy London" premiered at the Tribeca
Film Festival in New York last spring; this will be its fourth or fifth
festival, and most likely its last. Monger expects it to get an art-house run,
at least in major cities, later this summer.
The director said he has been pleasantly surprised at how strongly
"civilians" -- i.e., people outside the industry -- have responded to
the film. At festivals from Texas to Europe, audiences have been deeply moved
by the way London lived, and the way he died.
"I don't think the film is just about acting or
showbiz," Monger said. "He was this extraordinary life force." n
In the "Special Thanks to Roy London" screening at the
Santa Barbara International Film Festival, more than 50 Hollywood stars
including Sharon Stone, Garry Shandling and Geena Davis talk about the revered
"I don't think the film is just about acting or
showbiz," says director Christopher Monger. "He was this
extraordinary life force."
"Special Thanks to Roy London" will mark the late acting
coach's return of sorts to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The
one and only film he directed, "Diary of A Hit Man," won the
festival's audience award in 1992. London died in 1993, not long after his 50th