Remembering Jim Lyons: 1960 - 2007

Staff April 18, 2007

James Lyons, known for his frequent work with Todd Haynes, died last week in New York. The editor and actor starred in and edited Haynes’ "Poison," winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991. Lyons edited Haynes’ other projects: "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," "Dottie Gets Spanked," "Safe," "Velvet Goldmine" (for which he also co-wrote the story) and "Far From Heaven." He also edited Esther Robinson’s Berlinale Teddy Award winning documentary "A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory," which will have its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival next week. Born in October of 1960, James Lyons was a member of Act Up and was treated for H.I.V. for many years. He died of cancer on Thursday in a New York City hospital.

[ Editor’s note: This article was originally published in indieWIRE April 17, 2007.]

Lyons’ other editing credits include Sofia Coppola’s "The Virgin Suicides," Jesse Peretz’s "First Love, Last Rites," and "The Chateau," along with Peter Friedman’s "Silverlake Life" and Ronnie Larson’s "Shooting Porn," as well as Dan Harris’ "Imaginary Heroes," Christopher Herrmann’s "Ghostlight," Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s "Prozac Nation," Tom Gilroy’s "Spring Forward," Rea Tajiri’s "Strawberry Fields," and John Johnson’s "Ratchet."

In addition to his work as an actor in "Poison," Lyons also appeared as Billy Name in Mary Harron’s "I Shot Andy Warhol," played artist David Wojnarowicz in Steve McLean’s "Postcards from America," and also acted in "The Chateau," and Todd Verow’s "Frisk."

A number of friends who worked with James Lyons throughout his career shared their remembrances for this tribute. Among those participating were "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" creator John Cameron Mitchell, "Spring Forward" director Tom Gilroy, film critic Amy Taubin, filmmakeer Esther Robinson, Strand Releasing co-president Marcus Hu, and producers Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot of Open City Films and HDNet Films.

A memorial visitation was held Tuesday in Port Washington, NY. In lieu of flowers donations are suggested to the James K. Lyons Memorial Fund, 47 Davis Road, Port Washington, NY 11050.


We met in the early 90’s at the "Poison" party at Limelight. He and his boyfriend Todd were impossibly glamorous. I was embarrassed to invite them to see me in "The Secret Garden" where I sang to birds. They came. He said he loved it. I cringed. He was only being kind. We became friends. He was the coolest. Not only did he have great taste, he was also brilliant. And funny! And hot. A dark, sexy, sexual man. Melancholy. We almost worked together but not quite. Two years ago he was going to make his short film. A beautiful story about Andy Warhol going home to feed his cat. A haunting image of him undressing for bed. He’s wearing a diamond necklace under his shirt. Then he touches the scar on his chest. From the attempt on his life.

Last Wednesday. I’d been avoiding visiting. Too hard to watch him waste away. I texted him to see if he wanted me to come. No answer. John Bruce said he was too sick for a visit. Jim had been editing John’s film from his hospital bed up until a couple of months ago.

Terry suddenly called to say that Jim wanted to see us.

Friends in their early middle-age huddle in the cafeteria talking about the new bad news. "He wants to see people in ones and twos." "Hospice care." "Last chance chemo?" "Too weak." Amy says, "I told him there’s a time to let go." Jim whispered, "There is a time to rest." What does that mean? A call comes. He’s ready to see John and me.

His head is a rotting fruit on a stalk, the oxygen mask like a candy dish on his face. But he’s still all there. Still Jim. Responding to the nurse with his funny Long Island Jewish shrugs. "Do you want more pain medicine?" Shrug, like "Meh." He wants to be lucid. "Agitated? Do you want Ativan?" Another shrug, like " What’s the point, doll? I’m dying." John and I didn’t know what to say. We can’t understand his words, only the shrugs, which make us laugh. We don’t know if we should. It was hard for him to write, words written over other words, like Cranium when you have to draw blindfolded. I try to make it out: "I don’t…have anything to say… except…I love you…guys." We’re barely able to speak ourselves. He tries to write again. We can’t read it. This upsets him. King Lear: "When you can say it’s the worst, it’s not the worst." What is this then? Does he need something? He starts to write it again. Oh God. Wait… "What…are…you…up to?" Jesus Christ. I try to be light. "I’m looking at a script. Thinking about acting again. It’s about…" He starts to nod off. That’s how I felt about the script. The nurse wakes him. She’s worried. He starts to write again. I shout out the words like it’s a game show: "I need to pee soon!" She says, "You’re wearing a catheter, hon. Go ahead." He lets go. A brief moment of relief on his face. We’re starting to choke up. I say, "You’ve got a lot of wonderful friends downstairs, honey. High-caliber friends." He writes. We can’t read it. He starts over. He tries to speak. It’s a garbled cry. He must be feeling pain. Does he want his mother? She’s lying down in the next room. What is he writing? Is the oxygen working? He writes: "High…fiber..count…friends." We burst out laughing. Goddamn it, Jim! "Your timing has not failed you I see. You’re like a Beckett character," I say. He nods slowly. It’s hard for him to see. I want him to see me seeing him. I move closer and look into his right eye. Very still, we stare, a single eye into a single eye, unblinking. I look so hard into that eye: "I love you. I love you. I love you." He hears. He doesn’t blink. He’s been so close to death so many times. Never has anyone clung so fiercely to life and been so ready for death. We kiss him on the forehead and mumble a few broken words. We don’t want to take up his precious time. There are more people to say goodbye to. More people that he loves and that love him. We go down to the cafeteria and tell Tom that Jim wants to see him now.

— John Cameron Mitchell


Although Jim was a dear friend and peer, he was, in many ways, the closest thing I ever had to a mentor. To me, he was the complete embodiment of PUNK, with all its rebellion, mixture of high and low art, D.I.Y.-sensibility, political activism, working class ethos and identification, at once macho and sympathetic, opinionated yet soft-voiced. He was utterly unpretentious, a person who recognized and simply assumed his undeniable place in the culture’s continuum. I felt I could take him everywhere and would always be proud of him. He taught me more about film than anyone, and he always answered my requests for advice with unlimited time and insight and love.

The book he gave me — David Bordwell’s "Figures Traced In Light" — is a compass to my work, even in the writing stages.

Jim used to do this thing where he’d very casually drop a transcendent idea into your head in a way that was so informal it was like he was telling you what kind of bagel to order.

While editing a piece of mine one afternoon, Jim said he’d felt a building rhythm in some dialogue, and so he’d composed a series of shots with a complementing rhythm. As we watched his cut, I mumbled something about rhythm helping me arrive at a new idea and Jim pinched his chin and said, ‘yeah, yeah, like incantation — calling it up. Incantatory.’

I knew instantly what he’d meant but I’d never really understood that word before. I’d kind of blocked it out after hearing it too many times in Church. It was a dead word to me. But hearing that word at that moment was like a little flower landing on my forehead.

This was typical of Jim, to so casually link religion and the creative spirit and film and writing, while simultaneously illuminating the power of rhythm in both prayer and dialogue. He’d do all this and even compare it to a Ramones song, just for good measure. And it would come out of his mouth as humbly and unassumingly as, ‘do you have any gum?’

About a year ago I heard on the car radio that Eno’s favorite band was Abba. Last week I read some media analysis where the writer theorized William Burrough’s ‘cut-up’ writing style presaged channel-surfing. Both these ideas made me think of Jim because they felt at once radically new and yet completely obvious, like the moment he breathed new life into ‘incantatory’ for me. It’s like he’s cut a refrain into the rhythm of my brain.

That was Jim’s gift; he could draw out of people their next step in thinking.

The world will be a worse place without him, but it was immeasurably improved by his having been here.

When we last looked at each other I felt he knew that, that up until his last moments he was seen as he wanted to be seen — the ‘Renaissance Man’ personified — in a black leather jacket. There was nothing more to say to him and nothing more to hear from him. We were clear.

— Tom Gilroy


Right now, all I can think of is the way Jim said "yeah, yeah, yeah," so that the words and the head nods that accompanied them signaled not only agreement and enthusiasm but also encouragement to go further. He was the most encouraging and supportive person I’ve ever known, which, in part, is the reason he was a wonderful editor.

Jim and I bonded over our passion for film and punk rock, and over the fact that for some reason, which was never entirely clear to either of us, we were neither of us film directors. I think that if Jim had lived just a few years more, he would have turned his elegant, poignant script about Andy Warhol into a movie and then his incomplete monster of a script about Foucault into another. Or maybe not. What matters is that he understood and conveyed through his work as an editor, his conversation, and his writing that poetry and politics are inseparable in great art. Indeed, they were inseparable in the way he lived his life, just as his intellectual brilliance was inseparable from his generosity and tenderness of heart.

I was so very lucky to share a friendship with him. He kept me honest and focused on what matters, and I suspect everyone who knew him and worked with him would say the same.

— Amy Taubin

Love. It’s not a word used much on indie wire, but it’s the force that elevates everything we do beyond the ordinary. A feeling beyond reason. It is the bedrock on which all great work and all enviable lives are built. And it was the essence of Jim Lyons. He loved big and hard and with such intelligence that he propelled each of us to reach beyond ourselves to make something bigger and braver than we thought possible. And not just work. While his contributions to my filmmaking are immeasurable, his love made my entire life larger and more incandescent. Even today it asks me to try harder, to be bigger, to live more.

We cannot make lives or art without this kind of love. On our own we are not up to the task. We get frightened and fatigued from the difficulty of charting these new paths. And we must rely on our friends to inspire us beyond the average and the easy. Jim’s faith in art and love and friendship was a core component of so many lives. His vision for what life could deliver moved each of us to fearlessly reach farther. His love remains fierce and incendiary and brave. It is asking us to live outside the safe and the known; to fight for a more difficult but rewarding path that places the messy hopefulness of love and art over the staid predictability of safety. To fight, to laugh, to create, to live, beyond expectation and in the realm of grace.

He will be immeasurably missed.

— Esther Robinson


Jim Lyons was a dear friend, a work colleague and a consumate professional. Whether he was talent coordinating interviews for "Postcards From America’, or as an actor working on our super no-budget shoot of "Frisk" in San Francisco, or as an editor helping us fine tune our films, Jim was always there for you.

I have fond remembrances of travelling the festival circuit with him and his kind and gentle ways were always an indelible memory. Todd Haynes and Jim Lyon’s collaborations are history, they complimented each other both personally and professionally and their work together represents some of the richest independent cinema of the past few decades. I always knew of his health issues, Jim was never one to shy away from letting his friends know where he stood, but his vibrant life and his dedication to a craft will always be part of what got a lot of us where we are today.

I will always remember his toothy smile, his sexy wink of the eye and his "aw shucks" nod when I walked into a room.

— Marcus Hu


We worked with Jim on a number of projects through the years, and soon became friends. Every editing session spent with Jim, every dinner we had together, seemed to be imbued with more intensity than everyday life. Philosophical questions always popped up, naturally, as if one were talking of the banalities that so often take over regular conversations. Sometimes, just sitting with Jim in a room as music played was a form of communication – it was so obvious that he was listening, and thinking, as would we… those moments of being that seemed heightened by being in Jim’s presence. We once remember Jim saying that we always had the best music playing in the background at our home – it was an offhand remark – but to us it felt like a great complement.

It’s hard to accept the fact that we won’t see you anymore. Your wonderful, warm smile, your hilariously awkward hugs (we don’t think anyone under 6’2" doesn’t remember almost being thrown to the ground every time you were hugged by Jim!), your wise words and extraordinary generosity. Every time we would ask you to come to a cut of a film or ours for notes you would show up, and always give the most profound notes in the gentlest way. It’s hard to imagine how many films you must have improved just with your words.

To say working with Jim was unlike any other professional relationship is an understatement. Who can’t remember Jim walking out of the edit room in the middle of the day, saying he needed some time to think! At first, we felt he was not being professional. He wasn’t. But when he would return to the room with a solution to a scene, we began to understand that "professionalism" isn’t all it’s cut out to be. Artists need space, their own space, and Jim was undeniably a great artist. He taught us that there are no rules to the process of creation. We hope to never forget that lesson. It was also such a joy to watch Jim cut a scene. He felt time in frames, as if they were breathing or he was breathing them. He just knew when a scene should start or end in the most natural, organic way.

You live, Jim. You’ve been a wonderful teacher, and your spirit has affected so many of us. And of course, you live as an actor, writer, editor and director in the films you created. We will never forget you, and you are a part of us all.

Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot


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