An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part I

I made this recording with my parents Danny and Nancy Lyon in March of 2017, sitting in their apartment on Avenue A in New York City where I was visiting for the occasion of my dad’s 75th birthday. Many toasts were made on the eve of his birthday party the night before, most of them to Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of them to Eleanor. My dad finished his first film in 1969, and continues making them to this day.

After becoming a member of the Chicago Film Society last year I finally had some co-conspirators to help me lure my dad out to Chicago for a screening of his films. We will be screening two of them on Thursday, April 20 at the Logan Center for the Arts: Willie (1983) and Born to Film (1982), both in 16mm prints from Anthology Film Archives. This is Part I of a two-part interview. Part II can be found here. – Rebecca Lyon

Danny and Nancy Lyon in the New Mexico State Prison filming “Willie”. Photo credit: Jack Foley

The Traveling Filmmakers

DL: So you were saying we never talk about film. I was saying we never talk about anything.

RL: That’s not true. We worked together! I helped you make two films. We did Two Fathers together…

DL: I think the perfect helpers for me don’t say anything. They just do what they are told [laughing].

RL: That’s why you like me, because I don’t ask any questions.

DL: Nancy [Lyon] was the perfect sound recordist. And I thought, well, this is great, I’ve met the perfect companion, let’s put her to work. And our tax form has said ‘traveling filmmakers’ ever since.

We made many films, five, six seven films together. Nancy did the audio, but she also helped with the editing. Nothing happened without mom seeing it. She was an assistant editor on some films. She’s been involved in everything. So… you want to talk about the films?

RL: Do you want to start a little farther back?

DL: My formal education ended at the University of Chicago. I was a history major, ancient history mostly, and a philosophy minor. Self-taught in photography. I think the first movie camera I actually picked up was in Chicago, so I would have been doing The Bikeriders by then. So I was already past the Civil Rights [book, The Movement], and had done Uptown and The Bikeriders. So I think at that point I already was interested in film.

I think the first movie camera was a 16mm, probably a Bolex. I might have gotten it from Art Shay, the established Chicago photographer/filmmaker. He was kind of an early mentor and someone I hung around with. It must have bought it inexpensively because I know I shot some movie footage of the carousel. It must have been in Lincoln Park. And I remember showing it to Susan Pollack, a very pretty girl in my class, and she said “It made me sick.” Meaning that the motion made her sick. She later shot herself. But I don’t think it had to do with my footage.

So that was the first time I shot film, but I know by Texas I had these aspirations to make movies. So I aspired to make films even though I was a photographer. I knew painters and I knew sculptors, and I was a photographer and I think I was trying to be a photographer as an artist and most photographers weren’t really considered artists. And for good reason—they didn’t act like artists. Filmmaking was considered the ‘Cadillac’ of the art forms, meaning it was the most expensive. You could be a sculptor and painter for not much money, you could be a photographer for not much money. But you couldn’t be a filmmaker without money. So it was thought of, to me anyway, as a real privilege to be able to even do it.

So I already own a Bolex when I’m doing Conversations with the Dead. I didn’t shoot very much with it because I wasn’t a filmmaker, but I did buy five or six rolls of 100 foot Tri-X and took them inside the prison and shot this footage, which I never tried to edit into a film and were never shown publicly, until they were scanned by Jeff Kreines and included in the Whitney show. And those are three or four minute versions of the first 16mm, but it’s still pre-film for me.

RL: I remember at the Whitney show you said you thought the films in the prison were better than the photographs. Because you hadn’t seen them in so long, you seemed really amazed by those.

DL: I think when I saw the prison stuff, it’s not fair to say it’s better because it’s like saying an apple is better than an orange, but I think I felt that it captured more of the reality of what the prison was actually like than all the photographs. Which is quite a statement because it took me a year and a half to make the photographs and the book and this was shot in one or two afternoons.

RL: Watching people in motion is pretty powerful.

DL: Hugh Edwards [Curator of Prints and Drawings at The Art Institute of Chicago, 1959-1970] talks at length about motion pictures. He said the essential thing about movies is that they move. It’s an interesting statement. He compares film to literature, because they move. And I don’t think he means they move in the sense that a man raises his arm and slaps his thigh and you see the whole arc of his hand. I think he means they move in the sense of beginning, middle, and end. The way a book moves. I think that’s what he’s talking about. But he’s like Buddha, you know, he has many interpretations.

RL: Did he see your films?

DL: He did. I came to Chicago in September of ’72 and Gabrielle, your sister, was born in July of that year. So Gabe is only three months old, I travel by myself to Chicago intending to make 100 tape recordings of Hugh Edwards, but I also go because I think I’ve finished Llanito and want to show him a print. Most of Llanito was shot in ’71 and then edited in a different house on a vertical Moviola. And I think I wanted to show it to him. So he did see that. So the answer is yes, and I think that’s one reason he talks so much about films [in the recordings].

DL: He kind of bemoans the fact that some photographers have given up photography to
make films. He might be talking about Robert Frank. But he basically argues, ‘Why can’t you do both?’ and speaks about them as two related but different forms. Except that films move [Laughing]. And in photography he talks about the sequencing of photographs, meaning how they are hung on the wall and how they are put in books.

RL: I would think your montages have that quality as well, because you’re not looking at a single photograph. You’re making sort of a world within a single piece.

DL: I don’t know if he would have liked the montages. Most of them were done after he died. He argues that in great photographs you know—and if you think of a lot of the biker stuff, the girl on the back of the motorcycle looking—these decisive moments and frozen moments and moments in time, really almost a scientific instrument has isolated them. They are still photographs, but he said that in the great ones, you know what’s outside the frame, and you know what’s come before, and you know what’s coming after. So there’s this tremendous sense of time in the good photographs, because all these things are implied in the photograph. Which makes them very dynamic and interesting and not isolated moments at all, but quite to contrary.

Soc. Sci. 127 (1969) and Llanito (1971)

DL: The first film I get some money for—it was very little, $3,500 from the American Film Institute, which was new. A guy who passed away much too young—James Blue, who was a filmmaker— helped me get the money and that money turned into the tattoo film [Soc. Sci. 127], which is my first film.

I began by saying how expensive [films] were. There was always a certain subterfuge and cleverness in trying to get the money, because I was not rich. You know people have said, “Oh, it was easy, you were rich,” but not only was that not true, but by ’72 Gabe was born and then there were children and all these expenses. There wasn’t any money to pay for films. I basically said, “I’m gonna go into the prison and make a film”—which was an absolute lie, because I had no intention of doing that. I knew I would not go back into the prison to make a film. I didn’t want to. The book was everything to me. I was completely exhausted psychologically having gone through this totally horrible experience of being immersed in the prison system, knowing the prisoners, and doing this on a daily basis for 14 months.

So I lied, I called it “Texas Underground,” a very duplicitous name, but I knew what I wanted to do was film this tattoo artist. And so I got the money, I made the tattoo film, and then I went to them and said “$3,500 is ridiculous,” and I wanted more money. I got another thousand. So I got $4,500 and that was the first film.

Basically at that point the next fifteen years I really devote to making films. While I do a few pictures, I don’t do any more books, and if I do still photographs, which I did in Colombia and I did in Arizona with your mother, they always lead to film projects. It turns out, like, “Wow, I found this world, let’s make a film about it.”

The second film was The Destiny of the Xerox Kid. I think I actually paid for that myself, and it’s pretty awful. Then I get to New Mexico and I started shooting Llanito, and by then I would have owned a camera. I shared it with Robert Frank at first. I bought him out, so I owned the camera, and when I did Llanito I drove to Berkeley and bought a Moviola for $1,200 and drove it back. Because you could take them apart and put them in the back of the car. I still have that. I was so happy, I always liked owning the equipment. Most filmmakers rent stuff, but I work very slowly, and so it was right there in my adobe.

RL: I remember cleaning bird shit off that Moviola.

DL: Yeah that’s the same one.

So I shot the film, I knew what I was doing, I have all these notes about it. It was based on the people I knew in the area and Willie, who was this local Chicano boy and his friends. They were all people I knew who lived within two or three miles of us.

I think these were 200-foot rolls, and I’d put them in the refrigerator because I didn’t have the money to process them. The cheapest thing is to buy the film, but when you process it, that’s money, and when you print it, that’s more money. So I just put in the refrigerator, and I had like twenty, thirty rolls.

I hitchhiked to NY with Buck Dant, and I was going to take the film to the lab. Which is pretty crazy because it gets to be, like, 100 degrees there. We had gotten about five miles outside Albuquerque and we were standing by the road and no one would pick us up. We were gonna hitchhike to NY, which is 2000 miles away. That was the plan. We joked that we were gonna make a sign that said something like “Crippled veteran seeks ride to veteran’s convention” or something catchy like that. That would be sure to get a ride because of patriotism. And meanwhile there was a guy behind us with crutches, and a truck pulls over, and he just lifts up the crutches and runs up and gets a ride. So we’re going, “Where’s our wheelchair? No one’s ever going to pick us up.”

We have cans of film in backpacks. Like thirty rolls. We’re out there for an hour. I said, “This is crazy. We’re not making any progress to NY. We’ve only gone five miles. Why don’t we go on the other side of the road, where the traffic is headed into Albuquerque?” And as soon we did that a car stopped and drove us to the airport, in those days you didn’t have to go through all this bullshit, and we went up to TWA and we flew to NY.

Los Niños Abandonados (1975)

DL: I went to visit Danny Seymour who had been a good friend. He appeared in my second film, the bad one, Destiny of the Xerox Kid. He had money and I had a budget, and I was asking for $7,000, I think, and he said, “If you wave that in my face again, I’m gonna throw it out the window.” We were on the Bowery. And he said “You know, I give money to all my other friends and I don’t see why I shouldn’t give it to you.” He was a trust-fund kid, he had inherited it. So he gave me a check to finish Llanito. And it says it’s “Produced by Sensory Overload.” That was his company. So that paid for the second film. The third film I paid for myself, that was El Mojado. But I was really practicing for Niños, which is really a big production and I really did need money for that. I think on that one a dope dealer gave me enough money to buy the tickets for the first trip to Colombia.

I went with Harris Dulany, with my still camera, but I was looking for a subject, and I found these children begging and I knew that they would be the subject of the next film which would become Los Niños Abandonados.

RL: Niños was financed in part by grants right?

DL: I came back to America and it took over a year to get the money. Then I met Paul Justman, who had been working for Robert Frank, and he said, “I’ll go with you.” So we then flew back to this little town on the coast of Colombia called Santa Marta. This time I take a sound man [Justman], I take film, and it was the same thing. I just had enough money to shoot it. I didn’t have a budget, I didn’t have money, but I was so determined to do it whatever I got. So $5k—if it was enough to buy this film stock, so I just went and shot it, confident that I would somehow get through it.

We went back to where I had been with Harris. It’s nighttime, and I immediately want to go down to the cathedral because it’s now fourteen months later: are these abandoned children still there? That was really an amazing moment. We took a taxi downtown. We were across from the cathedral and I saw a few shadows. I didn’t normally go out at night; I never film at night. But I saw shadows, I knew someone was there and I walked across and these two children approach me. One looks like Joselín and I thought it was his brother. And at that moment someone came up behind him and said, in Spanish, “It’s the gringo.” And that was Ivan. And the little boy was not Joselín’s brother, it was Joselín. And they were still there. Which is really amazing because that’s who I wanted to film, that’s who I came back for.

And they had left. As we talked, they said they had gone into the interior—they would hop freights and go all the way to Bogotá, which is way up in the mountains—and since then they had returned. We started filming the next day. I think the whole film was shot in 21 days. I brought a hundred cans of film—20,000 ft. of film. I think we shot every bit of film we had. We took a single day off because one of my batteries failed and I think Magnum sent me a new one. That was the only day I didn’t film.

So it was a super intense, pressured event and then, of course, we flew back to America with 20,000 [feet] of film and again there was no money. I think what I did was I processed the work print, and then edited it in New Mexico on a rented Steenbeck, which was flown out. I put together a 15-minute roll of the best scenes.

The target was Dominique de Menil. I knew of her because she was a huge patron of the arts, had built the Rothko Chapel, owned the Menil Collection. I flew to Houston and she had a theater. You needed a special projector that will show a work print and the mag track, and she had one. [We] projected it and she came out when it was over and said, “I’m gonna give you $15,000 but you have to promise me not to tell anyone that I’m giving you this money.” She didn’t want other photographers asking for money. I never heard of her giving money to anyone. Later, after she passed, the museum gave me a great show and has been a big supporter of me. And later they put up money to preserve the film.

But then something else happened which I kind of deeply regret. She gave us the money to finish the film and I showed it to her on an answer print (which is now faded, because of the stock), and she said it needed subtitles. I had done intertitles. I had never intended to do subtitles. They’re very problematic to do, and intertitles is what Charlie Chaplin did. I like those.

So the film had half a dozen intertitles with the songs or wherever was needed. She said it needed subtitles. That was a terrible mistake because it led to a very elaborate process of taking the original negative, making titles in 35mm…it’s complicated, but basically they took out the original negative and substituted copied 16mm negatives that included titles. The original was lost, the colors never matched. Niños has been restored, but it always broke my heart that I would come to these sections (and it’s about 5, 7% of the film) and the copy footage would be a little magenta. There’s a lot of things wrong with the film, but the colors are great.

It bothered me my whole life, and ironically when we redid it digitally, because of color correcting we really were able to make it look pretty good, even though we had lost the original. So there are some blessings to digital, and that was one of them.

Dear Mark (1981), Born to Film (1982), and Self-Distribution

DL: Early on you couldn’t apply to the NEA to make a film, because they didn’t consider film an art form. I find this very interesting, and it’s true what I’m saying, you can look it up. You could apply for all kinds of things but you couldn’t apply to make a film. But you could apply to the NEA to make a film about an artist. So I went to Mark di Suvero and I said, “Mark, can I make a film about you because it’s the only way I can get any money?” And he said yes. And so I got money to make a film about Mark di Suvero.

In New Mexico I got money through the New Mexico Arts Commission which serves as a conduit for NEA funds. There was basically no competition. I wasn’t in New York State, where everyone is a filmmaker, and almost every year or every two years I’d apply for NEA grant and say I want to make a film. But for Dear Mark, I go directly to the NEA itself which at the time only funds “films on artists”. The film was interrupted by my mother’s death in 1975, and by the time had finished it around 1980 they had changed the rules. 

And another thing happened right around that time. Dominique [de Menil] had five children and of course they’re all multi-millionaires, and one of them who I never met, Francoise, was a filmmaker. And he was making a film about Mark and spending a million dollars, including about his [Mark’s] accident. I’ve never seen it. When I heard of that I thought, “Well this is stupid, who’s gonna care about my film if there’s a guy who spends a million dollars to make some kind of ‘documentary’ about di Suvero?”

So I made Dear Mark, which is a very clever film, and doesn’t have much to do with Mark di Suvero. He, of course, says “You don’t show a single one of my sculptures in that film!” Which isn’t true. [Laughing]

That was a very liberating film because it’s a very crazy film and I still make crazy films, so that was a step forward for me. I took out Mark’s voice and I put in Gene Autry, and I put in a radio show about Mexicans. So I became liberated by the fact that I’m not making a documentary.

Oh, and no one would show Niños. That was crushing because Niños was meant to be a very upsetting film about homeless children and, of course, the vehicle was television, which would have been public television, and they wouldn’t show it. There was some very important woman in charge of it. She saw it and said, “There’s no narrator.”

RL: This was at PBS?

DL: Yeah it wasn’t even called that then but that’s what it was. And, of course, I was crushed. And, of course, that argument was just asinine because in fact within a few years they’d make something called The American Family. It was a big hit, it had no narration.

But the truth is Niños was years ahead of that and people just felt that, you know, a documentary (and it’s not a documentary) had to have a narrator, what we used to call “the voice of God.” So I totally rejected that and then I get punished for it. Of course within years everybody was making films that way. But it was never shown on television. That really bothered me at the time a lot. I don’t think any of them were really shown on television. Which I think is a real loss.

RL: So you finish these films, at this point you’ve done three or four. Are they showing anywhere?

DL: That’s a fair question. What happened with the tattoo film, because it was a grant, the American Film Institute wanted to circulate a group of films. I was so excited. They were gonna send them around to colleges, and then they said, “Well you gotta get a music release.” There’s a little Mozart in it. I had no idea how to do it, or what to do, and they pulled it from distribution and it infuriated me.

Things like that drove me crazy in film. I guess I just did it as an art form. That kind of rule makes sense if Coppola makes a film or Spike Lee, but with some little guy doing something, who really gives a crap? They said things like, “If you show a radio you can play music,” and I did. Anyway, they didn’t distribute it. I think they were just being uptight. That never got distributed. I did briefly have a distributor named Freude Bartlett, she had a little distribution company in California. And she showed Niños at the Roxy. So it showed in a few theaters. I think it showed in Chicago.

RL: And the self-distribution with the DVDs and VHS didn’t happen till later.

DL: Yeah that all happened later. We come to New York and my parents die. My mother dies, I think in ‘76. Then my father dies the next year. I stop making Dear Mark, Nancy and I are married. We then relocate to Chrystie street a few blocks from here.

A couple things happen. One is, I finally finish Dear Mark. And then I made Born to Film, and Born to Film was a completely different kind of film than anything I had made. Because it wasn’t about something outside of me, it was about my own life and family. And however detached I tried to be, nevertheless this was not some outside subject—I was the subject. So that was a huge change for me and I think is very different. I think there’s a whole body of work like that, and it’s very different from the other stuff.

I think once I was with Nancy we tried to distribute them ourselves. First there were distribution companies. We’d mail out the prints and get them back, they’d get scratched, and we’d say the rental is $50. There was a warehouse in New Jersey where you could store them and they’d do the shipping and get them back. It never really worked out. There was the Pacific Film Archive; we might have given them a couple prints. There was a place in Canada, we’d give them the bad prints. I think Anthology [Film Archives] did it. Nothing much ever happened. You know, if you got a $100 rental and you had to give away $50 … we always wanted to keep the money, so we did everything ourselves. Which is a pain in the ass, but Nancy did a lot of it.

Then around the early ’80s someone invented home video and we thought, “That’ll be great, that’ll change the world, we finally have a way to reach people.” And Dale Sonnenberg copied all the films. We came to NY and went to Rafik [Film & Video], where all the hippies went, and we made 1/2″ copies for $1 each. Then we made these covers which were great and now on display at the Whitney Museum.

RL: Yeah I love the covers. Even the VHS tapes had beautiful covers.

DL: Yeah those were the original covers. [Yawning] I’m falling asleep!

RL: Well, we’re at 45 minutes.

DL: Can’t you record forever on this?

RL: We can record forever, but you don’t necessarily want to talk forever.

DL: No that’s alright, I like talking. So I was gonna say, we sold mostly sets. Like Columbia [University] would buy a complete set and we’d get $100 each for institutions or something. And we might have sold twenty sets of them, which are now sitting in libraries. But the big thing that survived were these covers which I just loved making them.

RL: Yeah they’re good. I even love the typeset.

DL: You know the typeset was done by a woman named Jameson who was in Sante Fe and she helped me do this. In other words, I gave her the graphic work and she did this, and they’re fabulous.

Read Part II
Click here for a link to Danny Lyon’s blog and for DVD copies of his films and videos.

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