THE MAKING OF "SPECIAL THANKS TO ROY LONDON"
“It’s all about love.” - Roy London
One of the largest problems facing the filmmakers was that there was very little footage of Roy – and nothing of him actually teaching. However, during Roy London’s lifetime there were several occasions when the recording of a class, or some other codification of Roy’s teachings had been discussed.
Tim Healey: Roy recorded audio tapes of his opening lecture to his beginning acting class. This happened in part when he hired Ivana Chubbuck to teach the entry level classes. It helped him codify what he wanted her to communicate to the students. Also he played the tapes for coaching clients to help them get familiar with his vocabulary.
He also recorded a few audio tapes of his main class and had some of them transcribed. Of course he used the same tape over and over and threw away most of the transcriptions after he went over them in class. A few of those tapes have survived. They were all for his reference and never meant for release.
Roy and I discussed my bringing into his class a second unit camera crew that I worked with. However, when he got even close to getting past his discomfort about how filming would change the environment of his class room, he then didn’t want to pay for it with our money. Roy wanted the studio to be exactly what it was and nothing else. It was a place to experiment with how to further illuminate the story through the actors work. He said, “If someone saw a film of what I did out of context and said ‘that, that doesn’t look like anything!’ It would begin the unraveling of everything I have ever done.”
The only two filmed interviews that Roy gave (and which are used in Special Thanks To Roy London) were explicitly not about Roy’s students. One was for a never-completed segment of the American Masters series.
TH: I kept after Roy about filming his classes and then around the summer of 1992 we were approached by The New York Center for Visual History. They were doing an educational series through the Annenberg Foundation for PBS, called American Cinema. Roy saw this as a great opportunity to get his work on film but not incur the cost. While the arrangements were being made, exactly what Roy worried would happen, happened: The idea of filming in the studio changed students’ attitudes, people started “wigging out” Roy said. Plus he began to understand from the filmmakers that what they really wanted was Roy’s “major star clients” working in the studio. If filming was to happen at all, Roy preferred it to be a regular working class, regardless of who ended up on stage. Roy already walked a fine line to be as equitable as he could with the idea of 'celebrity'. So Roy canceled the filming.
The filmmakers then asked for an interview with Roy, which he agreed to but only if done in our home. He also refused, even on camera, to discuss his clients and can be heard stating that condition in the interview. Roy would only talk to the press about his clients at the request of his clients, and even then he was always cautious and private.
So in the interview, instead of talking about his clients, he uses the time to dissect and talk about the acting of major movie stars from the past; Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and so on. After three reels of 16mm film, a little over thirty minutes, the director from the New York Center for Visual History gave up. However, to those of us that knew Roy, those thirty minutes mean a great deal.
Roy refused to sign the release for the New York Center for Visual History until he saw how the footage was edited. His footage was not part of the final product which was released after Roy’s death.
The other interview seen in the documentary is part of the Electronic Press Kit (EPK) for “Diary of A Hitman”.
TH: Roy had no problem publicizing himself as a director or as an actor, but even in those situations he was careful and protective of his actors. He feared doing artistic damage--defined as something outside of the work that wounds an actors' emotionality. It's the worst thing you can do to an actor or a writer, since emotionality is their main tool.
After his tragic death the subject of a documentary, or something about his teaching was again discussed, but shelved.
TH: After Roy died I was devastated. Although he had been HIV positive he'd had very few symptoms, but when he finally did get sick it was virulent and he was gone within a few months. It took a while before I could look at the material again. Also, for many of the actors that hadn't known Roy was ill, he seemed to have disappeared overnight: Whenever I'd run into someone we would just cry. I worried that if I tried to film people that's all we would do. After a year or so I tried to raise money since I had no ability to finance it myself. I also went back to work and one year led to another. When I had pangs of worry about how I would ever get to filming Roy's legacy, I ended up with the feeling that when it was right, it would happen.
Then, in 2002, with the ten year anniversary of Roy's death fast approaching a chance request started the ball rolling again.
Karen Montgomery: Roy had been a very close friend and colleague. Actually he was more than a friend, he was a mentor who reflected back the best part of me. He was able to do this for almost everyone he came into contact with. His death affected me deeply and I couldn't accept that his work would be lost to future generations of actors.
In Roy's workshop I had come to know and admire Lois Chiles. She decided to put her talents into directing and teaching. She was about to teach her first class on acting for film and was eager to get a hold of the New York Center for Visual History interview of Roy that was shown at his memorial service. I asked around and Rhonda Aldrich told me Julie Warner had a bootleg copy. When I called Julie she was very generous in sharing the tape. I sent it to Lois who was thrilled to receive it the night before she started teaching! That exchange of information and resources was the genesis of this documentary. At a lunch set up by Rhonda at La Scala Julie and I decided to partner as producers and Rhonda would be the Associate Producer on a documentary about Roy. Christopher Monger, who had also been a friend of Roy's, came to us volunteering to be our director.
Our pre-production was only a few months of gathering a crew, finding a sound stage and making hundreds of phone calls. We decided to finance it ourselves instead of taking the time to write up our pitch and shop it to the usual suspects, basically because we didn't know what would emerge once the actors starting talking. The only thing we were sure of was that we wanted the documentary to be from the actor's point of view. We didn't know who would available to give us an interview that first summer. Our main focus was to get as much on tape as possible before people's memories started to fade. We also wanted the film to be finished by the next summer of 2003 which would be the 10th anniversary of Roy's death. Tim Healey was the keeper of Roy's estate so he was invaluable in accessing Roy's old friends, giving us pictures, etc. We never dreamed it would take 3 years before we would premier at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005!
Rhonda Aldrich: I had been hearing Roy’s name from a lot of actors that I respected so I began studying with him in 1988. I met Julie Warner in my very first class and we bonded immediately. Thus began a relationship with an incredible teacher and a new friend. I also met Karen Montgomery in class and became friends with her and her husband Christopher. As the years mounted after Roy’s death, I would continually end up in conversations with Karen or Julie about Roy and the fact that there needed to be something done about continuing his legacy. We all kept talking about the void that he had left and the need for his work to be passed on to other actors. So I suggested that Karen and Julie meet. We set up a lunch with the three of us and that was the beginning.
Julie Warner: I met Roy in 1987, when I audited his class. I was dazzled by his ability to work with actors in a scene study class. Over the next six years, Roy became my mentor, he believed in my talent as no other teacher had before and taught me skills far beyond finding the truth in the written material and bringing it to life. Roy taught me how to take my own life and bring it to my work in a totally unique way that was all my own.
My son was born in 1997, five years after Roy's death. Although my husband had never had the pleasure of meeting Roy, he knew that my beloved teacher had transcended a simple role in my professional success. My son is named Jackson Roy, and I am not the only student who continued Roy's legacy by choosing his name for their child.
On or about the spring of 2001 I shared my desire to keep Roy's memory alive with a few friends, namely Stephen Nemeth and Rhonda Aldrich (a dear friend and fellow classmate), who encouraged me to look into making a documentary. Rhonda suggested that I meet with Karen Montgomery, another Roy alumni who also wanted to do something on Roy, to discuss making this dream a reality. With a lot of enthusiasm we got Chris Monger onboard to direct and with Tim Healey's blessing the journey of "Special Thanks" began.
Christopher Monger: I became involved at that point. I hadn’t made a documentary in twenty years, but I had known Roy through Karen and had attended a few of his classes. I thought he was the best stand-up act I’d ever seen. His energy was contagious. So I jumped at the chance to be involved.
TH: When I started to talk with Chris, Karen and Julie, I realized how hard it still was for me to deal with this. I had the added burden (joy really) of knowing that Roy’s life as an acting teacher was only about a quarter of what our life together had been about. I often tease Karen, Julie and Chris that had they not come along, I would have eventually made something ten hours long, and it would have made the 'Sorrow and The Pity' look like a comedy.
KM: Steve Nemeth had a friend with a sound stage and he also called his pal Doug Blake to be our line producer.
We soon realized we'd have to shoot consecutive weekends since our crew was working for free and that's when they were available. It was also the best chance for us to get reduced rates on an HD camera.
CM: It’s ancient technical history already, but when we started HiDef was all the rage. Everyone told us to go HD. In retrospect the choice created as many problems as it solved – we could have easily filmed at a lower resolution, and it would have been significantly cheaper. Nevertheless it’s cool that we have all the footage in HD.
TH: I had boxes of stuff (storage is the real cross to bear with aging) filled with class lists, the class scene book, loose scenes, thirty boxes of scripts he had analyzed, video tape masters of the New York Center For Visual History, boxes of pictures, and I still had Roy’s phone books. About 1990 I had seized Roy’s hen-scratched phone book (with addresses from the sixties) and had it typed into my computer. So thanks to the digital-age I was able to print out his personal phone files.
JW: The list of Roy's students was lengthy. We didn't know who would best help us to put the pieces of Roy's life into some sequence that made sense of his evolution from actor to writer to teacher and director. We contacted and interviewed as many people as we could but we inevitably missed a few actors who weren’t available.
RA: It was, of course, a crazy task to coordinate the schedules and try to find a few days when everyone could come to a location and be interviewed. What was really great though, was that almost every person contacted was absolutely thrilled that this was happening and couldn’t wait to participate.
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