SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- In 1988, film director Christopher Monger moved in with Karen Montgomery, the actor who would later become both his wife and producer. It was a happy time, except for the telephone's annoying habit of ringing at the crack of dawn.
"The first phone call every morning -- very early -- would be this guy named Roy," Monger recalls. "I thought this must be an ex-boyfriend. Who else calls at 6 in the morning? I didn't have friends who called at that hour unless they needed to be bailed out of jail."
When Montgomery informed him that the caller was her acting coach, Monger was only moderately mollified. A native of Great Britain, where no such profession existed, he had met only a few acting coaches since moving to Hollywood.
"I felt they were charlatans as well as abusive to their students," Monger says. "I was highly suspicious of this guy." So he asked for, and received, permission to audit a class by the revered Roy London. "I was totally blown away by him. He was erudite and enormously witty." Thus began a friendship that ended only with London's death, of complications from AIDS, in 1993. He was just 50.
London's brilliance, and the enormous effect he had on his students, is captured in Monger's documentary Special Thanks to Roy London. The work, which was screened Feb. 4 and 7 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, features interviews with more than 50 well-known actors who studied with London and who credit him in large part for their success.
Among them: Geena Davis, who thanked London in her acceptance speech after winning an Oscar for The Accidental Tourist; Sharon Stone, who did the same after winning a Golden Globe for Casino; and Garry Shandling, who insisted that the final credit on every episode of The Larry Sanders Show read "Special Thanks to Roy London." That's where the documentary got its title.
"We went into this very blithely," says Monger, who spent well over two years on what he thought would be a small-scale project. "The only thing I did right at the beginning was to have no expectations. I let the thing grow organically."
Initially Monger was hampered by the fact that there's very little footage of London, who refused to let cameras into his classroom. All he had was a 15-minute filmed interview and a short clip from an electronic press kit created to promote the one film London directed, 1991's Diary of a Hitman.
While he incorporated every usable frame from those sources, the film is dominated by the reminiscences of London's clients. And while there is some biographical information, including several touching stories about his illness and death, the film's primary focus is the master teacher's innovative ideas about acting.
"Roy's contention was that characters in scenes are either after love or power," Monger says. "It's a simple and effective way of approaching something as an actor. That's not to say that you don't change as the scene is going on. On the first line you might be going after love, while on the second line you might be going after power."
Tim Healey, London's life partner during his final decade, notes in the film that London would regularly ask actors a difficult question: 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," Healey says. "If you're willing to bring all that you know to bear on what you're doing, then your work will have all of the interest and color and texture that a full life has."
London taught his students that to give a great performance, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable, admit you don't have all the answers, and be open and responsive to what is happening in the moment.
During early screenings, Monger reports, the documentary struck a chord with actors and nonactors alike. It premiered at last year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and Monger expects it to have a limited commercial run in several large markets this summer.
"There's a wonderful moment in one of the interviews where London says, 'I just know about acting. Life? Who knows?' But if you look at the trajectory of his life," Monger notes, "here is a guy who was doing what he was teaching people. He was this extraordinary life force."
A third screening of the documentary has been added on Friday, Feb. 10, at 4 p.m., at the Metropolitan Metro 4, located at 618 State St., in Santa Barbara.
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