An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part II

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. This is Part II of a two-part interview. Part I can be found here.
– Rebecca Lyon

Willie (1985) – Murderers (2005)

DL: By the middle of the ’80s, photography is starting to take off, and I’m going, “Well, here I am, I’m probably the greatest photographer of my generation, I haven’t taken a picture in fifteen years, everybody’s making money, this is crazy.” I might as well announce that I’m still alive and still a photographer. And I start doing photography again. And I did the Haiti book [Merci Gonaïves]. We go into self-publishing. But the big period of making films that were mostly ignored and in that sense failures, is from around ’70 to ’86, and that includes Los Niños, ending in Willie, and all the films in between.

RL: I wanted to ask you about Michael Guzman. Because that’s such an amazing story about filming him later in life and then realizing he was in an earlier film.

DL: Right, so the great film I had made at this time was Willie, and ironically I made it while I was living in Long Island, not when I’m living in New Mexico. But you and I and the family had gone back to Bernalillo because we would go back on different summers and I was there, I think, with the camera. This might have been around ’82 or ’83, whenever I was shooting Born to Film and I took the camera with me.

I went downtown and I came back and said to Nancy, “I just saw Willie.” In fact, he had recently been released from  prison  but I didn’t know that at the time.

I had filmed Willie as a child in Llanito,and I had filmed him as a teenager in Little Boy and then he had kind of vanished. In fact he had vanished into the penitentiary for five years. But that day I was so stunned and I said to Nancy, “You know I’ve got to film him.”  I did film him, and by the time we returned home, I said, “I’m going to make a film about Willie because I have the earlier footage.”

Willie was not really a criminal, I don’t know why he went to prison for five years, but he wasn’t a burglar or rapist or bank robber. He was not what you would call a professional criminal. He would just get angry at police who would do bad things to him and he’d get in trouble. At one point he was in the local jail which is just a little building in Bernalillo and he got uppity and the sheriff sent him to the penitentiary, and we went to look for him and he was being kept in the basement of the penatentiary, which also served as death row.

I’m filming Willie and he’s talking to Nancy. You know, he loved Nancy. I don’t think he had much contact with women, so he was always very nice in speaking to her and she’s holding the tape recorder. He had been beat up by the guards, and at one point he turns to the camera and says, “Oh Michael, he’s in the next cell, Michael’s from Bernalillo.”

And the camera and audio just moves to the next cell and there’s this handsome guy sitting in his underwear with no shirt, and he says, “My name’s Michael Guzman, I’m from Bernalillo.” And he starts talking about Willie, and how he’s a good guy and the guards beat him up, and Willie’s good people.

And I’m going, like, “What are you here for?”

He says, “Oh, murder.”

And I go, “Oh, I remember you, you’re this monster, you attacked these coeds. What’d you do that for?”

And he says, “Drugs and booze.”

And that was Michael Guzman. And he was sentenced to death, he was waiting to be killed by lethal injection. He was an old friend of Willie’s and David’s and part of the boys back home in town. And it’s a great scene in Willie, Michael is the most polite, the nicest guy in the film.

Twenty-five years went by, and I was here in Manhattan and I was staying at Peter Kasovitz’s on 23rd and I was gonna film in Kew Gardens, Queens. I went for a walk without a camera, and I ran into a guy fishing in the East River and started talking to him and within ten minutes he’s telling me he’s beaten someone to death with baseball bat. And I say, “Do you mind if I go get my movie camera?” And he says no. And I run back to Peter’s, come back, and shoot this amazing scene.

RL: Yeah that scene is amazing. So that’s the second time he told you that story, in the film? Because it’s very…

DL: That’s correct, yeah. Well I cut him off when I realized that he was telling me something incredible. But you’re right, yes, that’s why I went and got the camera. Plus, I’m, like, huffing and puffing because I’m already in my 60s and it was a long way to go back to get the camera . And he tells me the whole story. And based on that one scene, I said to Nancy, “You know Dinker, he’s doing Life in Arkansas, and I bet you Guzman’s alive and all these people have killed people. I’m gonna make a film called Murderers.”

And so, about 25 years after I filmed him as a teenager for Willie, I drive from Bernalillo out to Grants [Penitentiary] and walk in and there’s Michael Guzman. Only now he’s in his 50s, and I film  a remarkable scene where he talks about being raped as a child, and starts to cry. And he also confesses and is saying “I never told anyone this,” and he shows me he has tattoos on his  back of the girls he attacked. And he has a very sad story. He’s still in prison, he’s not popular apparently, people are trying to kill him. He was attacked recently and almost killed.

RL: When did you realize you had footage of him as a little kid?

DL: Oh yeah, that’s a whole other thing. So I think as I got to know Michael I had been looking at Llanito. Llanito is the first film I make in New Mexico and I did it with a group of children who are centered on not just Willie but the Sanchez family. And they all go to the same school, and there’s a scene in the schoolyard , which was just a field next to the St.Joseph’s Manor where the retarded people lived. And I was filming at St. Joseph’s, which was a very nice place, and the kids were out in the school yard/field playing. So whoever was doing the sound, we just stepped across the barbed wire and we’re filming the kids playing.

Then as we leave the field the kids come to the barbed wire fence and they basically just riot. Just because I’m holding a camera and they’re kids and one of them yells and then they’re all yelling and there’s a little kid in the middle, he’s being crushed. And I recognize Russell Barros, he’s in the picture, I know him. The Sanchez boy’s in it, I know him. And right in the middle is a young man (these kids are about 12 or 13) who looks exactly like Michael Guzman. Because it is Michael Guzman. That is astounding. So it’s just the one scene and I didn’t talk to him, but here’s a film of him as  a child. He lives up in a tiny town in the Jemez, his own uncle is raping him on holidays when he visits him, and, of course, there he is, just a school kid. But within five years he gets turned into a monster who finally attacks two women and tries to kill both of them.

RL: It’s pretty amazing also considering that’s a pretty small community of people in Bernalillo. I mean, of all those kids…

DL: Well there’s only one school. It’s a little Catholic town. It’s still a small community. You know, it’s remarkable the people I meet who know me now and who have seen the films, usually on DVDs. I was walking on the ditch with Julian Cox, the co-curator of Message to the Future,who’s responsible for showing these films at the De Young and the Whitney, and these two guys come by. They’re brothers and they’re about 60. And they say, “Oh man, you made Llanito. You’re Danny Lyon, right? What is that, a new studio Danny Lyon? I know you, man.” And these guys knew Willie and they had seen the films, they said, “Oh, that film, man.” They had seen the film.

RL: So where do they see them? I was going to ask you if Willie had seen the earlier films.

DL: Willie, I don’t think, ever saw any films. But now you can buy them digitally, and the library bought them, and AA groups rent them, and these guys had seen them. And they said, “Oh that film, man, Llanito, that’s like a time machine, man. That’s like a time machine.”

I loved the encounter because, first of all, there was a great curator there. Second of all, they hit the nail on the head. The films are so realistic, they’re absolutely convincing when you watch them about the reality, and it was their reality.

[The films] were projected, I projected them in Bernalillo, I went to meetings and stuff like that. So I think some people saw them. They were shown in Popejoy Hall [at the University of New Mexico], too, and the place was crowded. Forty years later I show them at the Guild and nobody came.

RL: Well, I think that’s their fault. Maybe those guys in Bernalillo wouldn’t go down to the Guild and see them anyway.

DL: No one came. We put up signs everywhere. But that was years later.

Something funny happened … I forgot. Oh yeah, so when we were on Long Island, it turned out that in Riverhead there was a public TV station. And they had to show anything. If you would come in and give them something they had to show it. Public access. So I gave them all my films and they put them on at, like, midnight. And we ran home and we were watching the tattoo film on television. It was great.

RL: When was that?

DL: You were about two or three years old.

Spiders, Steenbecks, and Box sets

RL: I want you to tell the story about the Steenbeck and the spider. I feel like that’s a good story to talk about how you were a New Yorker and you really escaped to New Mexico. This idea that the Steenbeck was sent back and forth multiple times…

DL: Unlike today, you could go non-from from Albuquerque to NYC. And TWA not only had a nonstop flight, the plane had a really big door. And you could ship a Steenbeck on it because they would go Air Freight in a single big carton, as big as a Steenbeck, and it’d have to fit into the airplane. And so we would rent one and it’d be sent out. And I had it there for months. You know, I was paying $300 a month for rental. It was to edit the Abandoned Children… [Los Niños Abandonados] I was editing something and when we were done, we’d pack it up and send it back in a crate. We’d lift it with a forklift, put it in the truck, my pickup, and then I’d drive it to Albuquerque to some station and they’d take it and ship it to New York.

So anyway, we had unpacked it and left the crate behind the house and when we packed it back up, there was a black widow spider living in the crate. I was working with [Paul] Justman, and no one wanted to remove the spider. We packed it up, and we wrote a big note, “Watch out when you unpack, there’s a black widow spider in with the editing machine.”

And so it went back to New York, and everything was done at 630 9th Avenue. It was called the Film Center, that’s where I met Harvey Keitel, that’s where all these editing rooms were. And these guys said that they unpacked it and they had it as a pet, and it lived in a jar for months and months. They gave it a name.

RL: Well, how ya feeling?

DL: Wanna know about the new film?

RL: Yeah. But just for context, this is your … fifteenth, sixteenth? You’ve made a lot of movies.

DL: You know people ask about numbers. I do have an answer because recently, you know, Criterion turned my films down. I got so excited—you do a lot of work, you loan them stuff, and then they say no. Which is unfortunate. The only good side is we do it ourselves, we keep the money, and it’s easy on the website. You just get a PayPal thing, someone wants it, and I actually package it, I do it myself, I put it in an envelope. The covers are printed at Staples.

RL: It’d be nice to see a really beautiful fancy box set. Well, maybe Criterion’s not the right place.

DL: Yeah, I agree. I do this because no one else is doing it.  Stanford library bought two copies of each film and it turns out there were thirteen discs, but that includes Born to Film and Two Fathers as one. And then Shadowman and Nothing are one disc. So, if you do the numbers, it becomes fifteen.

RL: Is The Xerox Kid in there? Or that one’s been shelved?

DL: No, I’m ashamed of that one. But then there’s Nothing, and the question is…how much weight do you want to give to that? As a film.

RL: I like that film!

DL: Well there you go, so that’s important. So the answer’s fifteen.

RL: What’s the one where you’re in your psychiatrist’s bathroom?

DL: That’s Shadowman. That’s a funny one. You know the psychiatrist said to me, “You know, this apartment and these apartments lining Central Park West in the 90s have been occupied by psychoanalysts and psychiatrists for 100 years.” Which is pretty cool. Mom once saw an expert in adoption and it was, like, right down the street. What happens is in the summer all these people go to the Hamptons, no one can see their psychiatrist. So they’re like all wailing and moaning like a Greek tragedy on Central Park West. [Laughing]

RL: So what’s the new film?

DL: Well, it’s digital video. We all mourn the loss of film. But I can’t hold my 16mm movie camera steady anymore, I’m not strong enough. I just made a new film about John [Congressman John Lewis]. I would love to show it to you. It’s 19 minutes long. I filmed him for about … I use the term ‘film’ even though it’s [HD], but it’s such a nice term. There’s nothing you can do about it, I can’t lift my movie camera, literally. Much less focus and keep it in focus. Even by the time I did Two Fathers, which was 16mm film, I was having trouble focusing properly, my eyesight wasn’t good enough. None of those are real issues with digital. In addition, I had a lame right arm and I was so anxious to start this new film I’m making now that I ended up buying this digital video camera which weighs about a pound. It’s fabulous.

It’s somewhat controversial, but Frosty Myers, who is my age and a sculptor, he said something great. I’m going, like, “Eh, I’m using a DVCAM.” He said, “Danny, it doesn’t matter what you’re using. What matters is that YOU are using it.” It’s such a great idea. Meaning if you see something by Kenneth Anger, are you really gonna say, “Oh, too bad he didn’t make it in Panavision? Too bad he made it in 8mm?” Really? Are you? You’re not.

RL: I mean some of my favorite movies you’ve made…. I love Murderers, that was shot on a DVCAM.

DL: Yeah it’s low-def. I like Murderers too. Thanks a lot. Well, when we’re done I’d love to show you [the video of] John. I can show it in here, no one will see it but us.

RL: Well, we’ll turn this off.

Nancy Weiss Lyon

DL: So did that work and everything? You wanna ask about mom? Mom did a lot of recording.

RL: Yeah I was gonna ask about, because I know you did a lot of work yourself….

DL: Well, when we first met, I was working either with men or alone, and mom is a super competent person. She’s also a natural assistant. Some people are like that. She wasn’t personally ambitious to be, like, “I wanna take this over, I wanna be a director.”

So especially a sound recordist, you want someone to run a machine, not to be intrusive. You know, I always want to be left alone if I’m talking to someone, or trying to get them to talk. I want to be alone with them because I want to have a relationship with them. I don’t want them to have a relationship with a group. So you really want a sound person to do their job and not interfere, etc. You know I was a sound recordist for Robert Frank. And he basically never told me what to do. Once we went to a recording studio and there’s Allen Ginsberg doing madrigals, and I’m holding the Nagra and said to Robert,”what should I do?”. Meaning there’s a studio, I can go outside, I can go inside, I  can go behind Ginsberg…and Robert says,  “well, just do some kind of mix.” [laughing].

 RL: Do you remember what film that ended up in?

DL: Probably About Me: A Musical…, and I don’t know if that scene is in it or not. I took Robert into the prison, and that’s in it.  I did everything in that scene. Including the audio.  I picked the guys, I got him inside  prison, I told the men where to stand. That’s the best scene in that film.

RL: And were there other people that did audio. Some of the films are not mom, right? Because before you met her…

DL: Well I was gonna say, by the time I was doing WillieWillie had become a very serious film. So had I shot anything that summer, mom would have been the person, but I made at least three trips to New Mexico. When I [filmed] Guzman, it’s mom standing there next to me.

RL: Do you feel like it helped at all to have her there? You said Willie really liked her.

DL: Oh, I think it had a huge effect. Don’t forget Willie is this hyper-paranoid guy. Willie is violent, capable of attacking people, capable of attacking me. When he’s brought into town in chains at the last scene, he sees me there and he turns and says, “Oh, hi Nancy.” And you can just hear the lilt in his voice, how happy he is. The poor guy is being dragged around, nobody cares about him, there’s no family there, we were like family to him. And he speaking to Nancy, he’s singing to Nancy when we go under the bridge. So I think she’s a huge part of that.

The day we find Guzman, it’s Nancy. Don’t forget Guzman has attacked two women. Two coeds. And it’s Nancy, who is very beautiful … You know they made a big fuss at the prison whether they’d let her in: she had to wear a brassiere, you can’t go in without a brassiere, and all this bullshit.

RL: Maybe I’ll get her in here next.

DL: Oh sure. Well you want to look at the film…you want do that first?

RL: Talk to mom? I could. Would she do it? She hates stuff like this.

DL: Well, let’s see. So the films she worked on … she worked on Willie, but for Media Man she did everything, and she got equal credit.

RL: Yeah, send her in here.

DL: This is the only film I ever shared credit with anyone on [holding up a DVD of Media Man]. She’s gonna come in in a minute.

[Nancy Weiss Lyon enters]

RL: Don’t make that face. We started talking about you a lot towards the end. Want to talk about doing sound on dad’s movies? We were talking about Willie, and he said you did so much work on that film, and I felt like maybe you were a calming presence because Willie really liked you.

NW: We were buddies. I think just a woman in the prison made him feel more comfortable. He was…drugged. I think he had, you know, some bipolar type issues, and was not treated. So he’d have these flare-ups and then be perfectly normal. You know it kind of came out of the blue. So when we were filming him on the ditch, someone said something or did something, and he just got totally freaked out and left. Right in the middle of filming. And under the bridge, the scene under the bridge where he sings, which is such a wonderful scene. He sings these hymns. You know, he had a couple six packs of beer.

RL: Dad said he was singing to you in that scene.

NW: Oh, probably.

RL: Also maybe he’s performing for the camera a little bit?

NW: I don’t know. It was all so spontaneous. It was remarkable. And I think that’s because he felt comfortable, but he did know we were filming. So that was like his ticket to fame, he thought, maybe. You know, it made him feel like somebody. He wasn’t treated very well his whole life, and we treated him like somebody. We respected him and we were friends. He was a difficult friend, that was the problem. I wish he could have gotten treated. When he got sick in the prison, he just had, I forgot what it was, I think he got pneumonia. So he could have been treated.

RL: Do you remember the first time you worked on one of the films? You were using a Nagra?

NW: Yes. A Nagra 3? I don’t remember, it was big. It was a big black.. about two feet wide. I had been given a reel to reel tape recorder to play music, and I used to tape with 5″ reels. 1/4″ tape. I used to tape music. And that’s how I listened to music. So I was familiar with a big tape recorder, it was an upright, I forget what kind it was. From records, from the radio. I don’t know how I did it technically but I did it.

So I was sort of familiar with the tape recorder. But I was a quick learner, I had never taken sound before. I was terrified. But I figured it out. It was pretty simple, you know, levels, and turning it on and off. Making sure the wind wasn’t whipping around you. It was not hard. And I was a good sound person, because I was quiet, and I creeped around, and I listened. We were a good team. Because he would kind of do the interviewing …

RL: And you did more, you did Media Man later. He handed me that DVD and said, “This is the only time I’ve given co-credit.”

NW: I like Media Man!

RL: I like Media Man, too.

NW: I think it’s a very interesting film. It’s all kind of parts of America, it’s funny. I thought it was great. Yeah that’s the first time I got a credit for you know, making the film.

RL: And why is that? Because you were more involved in that one? Did you edit?

NW: Yes, but I helped edit other films. Not consistently. It’s ok, I don’t need credit. [Laughing] It’s not important to me.

RL: Well, you’ve gotten it. People know.

NW: Yeah, that’s fine. I enjoyed working on the films. You know it was hard for me because I had children. And I never had a babysitter. So I was always rushing around. I always wanted to do the sound work…

RL: So who’s watching the kids? Gabe?

NW: Gabe is in one film and she gets a credit for “childcare.” I think the hardest part of filmmaking for anyone is doing it. You know, getting the energy to go out and do it.

RL: There is a little bit of, well, a lot of … kind of handholding on your part. Which I know I’ve done. Just to be the person that can sit there and listen to someone kind of obsess over what they are gonna do next. You’re like a sounding board.

NW: Right. But it takes a lot of energy to get out there and actually do it. Even something as simple as driving was helpful for him. I enjoyed it. It took us places … I certainly wouldn’t have gone to the penitentiary! It took us places we never would have gone. There was a funny story with that.

RL: About your bra?

NW: Yeah. Did he tell you already? They asked me if I was wearing one. And I said no, because I was rather small breasted and I didn’t need one. And they said, “Well, to go into the prison, you have to be wearing one.” And they brought out a box of bras. I thought that was so funny. I guess they didn’t want the inmates getting stimulated.

When we got married, he was working on Little Boy. Because I remember getting letters from him when he was up north at four corners, at the anti-coal demonstrations where the Navajos are protesting, it’s the beginning of Little Boy. He would write me letters. And then I kind of worked on that a little bit I think. Editing. But Justman worked on that with him. And then what was the next film…. I must have started there.

RL: Born to Film isn’t until ’82, but that’s still early on. Because Noah is a baby in it. Is it weird to watch that one because it’s all about his divorce and moving back to New York? I love that film because it’s sort of a family film.

NW: It’s a wonderful film. I wasn’t there at first. I went to Florida for the beginning of that, and as soon as I walked in the door, there was a junkie dying on Chrystie Street in front of our loft. And he gave me the tape recorder, I was still wearing the dress I had on that I wore on the plane. It was that quick.

RL: Welcome home.

NW: Yeah, welcome home.

RL: We talked a little bit about Bleak Beauty [DL’s distribution company] and the self-distribution….

NW: Oh yeah, that was major. VHS tapes. Remember those? Oh my god. Making covers, having them made, selling them. There’s something very satisfying about doing it yourself. We’re not really into mass production is the problem. So I think with the internet we’ve started selling a lot more, and Dad’s blog. People have gotten interested. And the Whitney show.

They’re fun to watch, the films. They’re almost like stream of consciousness to me. I think they’re great. I think that’s one reason I liked working on them, because I did think they were great and I loved the style of filmmaking, that it wasn’t real formal. And he’s got such a great eye. The composition and the music, it’s great. Very stimulating, I find them much more stimulating than the photographs. I love the photographs, but they’re static.

RL: I think they are sort of wonderful together too. Because with so many of the films, there are photographs of the same subjects.

NW: That’s true, it’s all connected. But I think the films are really powerful.

I think it was El Otro Lado, because we were all in Mexico and then in Maricopa County, Arizona.  I’m not going to mention names but a sound recordists we hired had a father that distributed Bazooka bubblegum. And the guy whips out a handful of bubblegum and gives it to our subjects, so they’re all, chewing gum and blowing bubbles. Now to me that isn’t very sensitive …

RL: Is that in the film?

NW: No! Dad was furious.

RL: Are there scenes that you worked on that didn’t make it, that you were surprised didn’t? Or films that you were surprised turned out the way they did?

NW: Not really. Dad is a very sparse shooter, and as a photographer as well, he says, “You should just get it on the first shot, and if you don’t, it’s no good.” He was very frugal about film. And he was a great editor in his head. So he kind of could edit as he [shot] … I don’t know if I should say that. But I think he was so good at editing that he knew what to shoot. He didn’t shoot reams and reams of film. Oooh … there’s a new Terrence Malick film out. Have you seen it?

RL: Oh yeah, no I haven’t seen it. I want to. That was a good story, the bubblegum story. I’m trying to think of more I’ve heard you tell.

NW: Yeah. I mean there were…there was a roadblock in Mexico. Like police, with automatic weapons that pulled us from the car. There were some hairy scenes. The penitentiary was scary. I tried not to think about where I was. I just tried to think about doing sound. Not that I went into the psych row of…you know, I didn’t think that they could get out of their situation and get to me. But dad was very nervous about that.

RL: I’m sort of surprised they let you in at all.

NW: Dad’s good at that. They hassled us part way in there. It’s in the film. Where the guy is saying, “Do you have permission?” And dad’s saying, “Oh yeah! Of course!” And then we just kind of moved in. The county jail was interesting. The one in Bernalillo. The Bernalillo jail. Where there’s all that music. That was a great scene. And you know, it just happened while we were there.

RL: There’s always so much music in the films.

NW: I love that. And the scene in Mexico where they’re under the bridge singing Huastecan music. I think I did that sound.

RL: What about the one in Media Man, in the church? All the gospel music?

NW: Yes. Oh my god, I was crawling around on the floor. Because dad was doing a pan of the entire church, so I either had to be down low or going two feet in front of him running around, but I was mostly on the floor for that one. That was a great scene.


RL: Are we getting a knock?

NW: We are. Turn that off.

RL and NW [simultaneously]: Come in!

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

Special thanks to Justin Dennis for making a perfect audio recording of this interview despite the fact that both my dad and I accused him of not doing it correctly.

Categorized as Blog