Penelope Spheeris jolted the cinema world with her debut feature The Decline of Western Civilization in 1981, a blistering look at the LA punk scene, and then continued that theme in Suburbia (1983), about abandoned kids living in abandoned houses in the LA area. She has gone on to write, produce and direct several more distinctive films, including the blockbuster Wayne’s World. Penelope Spheeris talks with Nora Novak at PKM about her start working with Roger Corman, surviving working for Harvey Weinstein, her disgust with present-day Hollywood and her new projects.
Penelope Spheeris is a screenwriter, producer and film director known for her trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization. The latter three films—The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988), and The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III (1998)—so completely probed and documented various L.A. youth subcultures that Spheeris has also been called a rock’ n’ roll anthropologist.
Spheeris formed her own company, ROCK ‘N’ REEL, in 1974, the first production company in Los Angeles specializing in rock videos. She has also directed many feature films, such as Suburbia, The Boys Next Door, Dudes, Senseless, and the blockbuster Wayne’s World. She traveled with prominent metal bands as director and cinematographer to document OZZFEST for the historic film: We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’N’ Roll (2001). Many of her films have achieved cult classic status, portraying some of the most memorable pieces of rock film history.
Nora Novak recently spoke with Penelope Spheeris for PKM about her career:
PKM: You’ve famously documented the music scene covering punk rock and the metal years, with the Decline. What do you think about the music scene today? Does any current music excite you?
Penelope Spheeris: If you are talking about contemporary music happening today, say in the last five years that excites me, basically the answer is no. I feel like the music has become homogenized, watered down and the good music has been bastardized. It’s all designed for a very young demographic, 15- to 25-year-olds who are still learning about life. There is one guy, though, I’ve come across, a black performer I saw in Portland. His name is Willis Earle Beal; he’s a very innovative, poetic soulful singer with a big bluesy voice. He’s from Chicago, also goes by the nickname Nobody, very much a visual artist. Otherwise, I listen to Japanese meditation music or some older music.
At least I didn’t have to bend over for Harvey! First time I met him, he tried to give me a big bear hug and the guy totally creeped me out.
PKM: He sounds very interesting, I will have to look him up. I’m still waiting for the next Amy Winehouse, you know, someone unpredictable.
Penelope Spheeris: You should definitely check out Earle, he’s awesome.
PKM: As a female director in a male-dominated environment, you were certainly way ahead of your time. Do you see more women in film making progress? There seems to be a new crop of female directors out there still facing the same challenges.
Penelope Spheeris: I think there is an extremely obvious gratuitous attempt by the studios and entertainment entities in general to appear as if they are giving women more jobs but, really, it’s all bullshit. I personally don’t care about working in Hollywood anymore, but if I did want to get a job, I’m sure I would still encounter the same issues being a woman and being older.
PKM: Yes, things haven’t changed enough yet. I’m guessing that when you were filming punk rock bands for the Decline, you couldn’t have imagined there would be big blockbuster award-winning movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman in the future. What if the studios came to you to do with a big budget to do a music bio?
Penelope Spheeris: Both movies were very successful that’s true and, actually, I have had offers. I’m attached to four projects right now that are in the process of getting financed for me to direct and two are musically oriented.
PKM: Okay. That’s good to know. I definitely look forward to hearing more about those upcoming projects. Let’s back track a bit. You had such an unusual childhood traveling with your dad’s carnival, did that shape your vision as a writer or filmmaker? I think everyone would like to know more about it.
There is an extremely obvious gratuitous attempt by the studios and entertainment entities in general to appear as if they are giving women more jobs but, really, it’s all bullshit.
Penelope Spheeris: I know they would and that’s why I’m making a movie about it, but I can’t talk about it just yet.
PKM: Okay, then let’s go back to you possibly getting a big offer to let’s say, one about Bowie, I’d like to see that.
Penelope Spheeris: Keep on dreaming, babe, but you know I could do a kick ass job! But here’s the problem with hiring me as a director. I have my own ideas about how to make a movie and would of course want to make it my way with my vision. These new, inexperienced 30-year-olds in the movie business want somebody even younger and more inexperienced than they are so they can control them.
You know I worked with the Weinsteins, which was an absolute nightmare by the way. I directed the movie Senseless with Marlon Waymon and David Spade and I have to say they paid me very well, over two million for my salary and that just doesn’t happen anymore. I always got the feeling that they were certain they would make money on it, but it was psychological torture throughout the entire shooting. At least I didn’t have to bend over for Harvey! First time I met him, he tried to give me a big bear hug and the guy totally creeped me out.
PKM: Good to hear that you didn’t get harassed by him.
Penelope Spheeris: I have a very good instinct about those things.
PKM: I’ve read that you are not really a movie lover. Did you watch any teenage revolt movies when you were young that may have inspired you to gravitate to punk rock filmmaking?
Penelope Spheeris: First of all, let me clarify that about me supposedly not being a movie lover. I love movies and I watched every movie ever made growing up and during my teenage years. There were so many good movies then. I just don’t like the movies today. I think they suck and can barely sit down and get through them.
Here’s the problem with hiring me as a director. I have my own ideas about how to make a movie and would of course want to make it my way with my vision.
PKM: OK, thank you for clearing that up. Let’s talk about Suburbia? You know it’s a favorite at PKM central. How did you get all those punks to act, did you have to coach them? What was it like working with Roger Corman? How did you meet him?
Penelope Spheeris: I didn’t want to bring in actors, nobody even knew what a punk was then and any real actors wouldn’t even know how to play it as punk, so I convinced Corman to let me use some of my friends and real punks.
I’d met Roger in the late 1960s when I was in college and was acting in a few movies and he was producing one called Naked Angels that Bruce Clark directed. I was cast as one of the bikers’ girlfriends and no, we weren’t naked! Anyway, I knew this guy who made millions in the furniture business in Cleveland and said he would give me 250 grand to make a movie if I could match it. So I went to Corman and he agreed to put up the rest of the money for Suburbia but I had to rewrite the script. He insisted on sex and violence every ten minutes. I didn’t want have that fight scene in the garage and the girl getting her dress torn off but that was part of the deal with Corman, I had to do that to make it work. Roger was all about business, you know very professional, not creepy like Weinstein, definitely not a perv.
PKM: You’ve worked with quite a few legendary mavericks in your time, any stories you want to share about Charlie Sheen, Chris Farley, Flea or any of those guys that got big?
Penelope Spheeris: Everybody wants to hear about celebrities! Well, okay, I can tell you a Charlie Sheen story when I was working on The Boys Next Door. He was 25 years old then and I saw the seeds of a fuck up right away with him, he was a troublemaker. For example, when Maxwell Caulfield had a scene coming up, Charlie would throw a stink bomb in the car right before Maxwell’s closeup so he had to say his lines with that stink bomb going off. Charlie was always up to something and when my daughter Anna came to visit me on the set, he kept cruising her and she was only 14!! I had to keep my eye on him.
I went to Corman and he agreed to put up the rest of the money for Suburbia but I had to rewrite the script. He insisted on sex and violence every ten minutes.
PKM: Oh that Charlie! Let’s talk about Decline 1. You had been going to the Masque to check out all the punk bands. I was going there too but it wasn’t until right after FEAR had done SNL, that I was at Derf Scratch’s place, which is where I met you. I think he was trying to get a copy of it from you when you came over.
Penelope Spheeris: Yeah, he probably was. You know I got a lot of criticism when Decline first came out that I was glorifying these heathens when really people just didn’t understand punk rock and couldn’t see that things were changing. Like in Wayne’s World, Garth said, “We fear change.” And it’s true, people are afraid of change. But I knew that the punk rock scene was an important movement at the time and needed to be documented. Did you know that the Decline has been inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry?
PKM: No, I didn’t, and everyone needs to know that! It has, of course, since gotten much-deserved critical acclaim. You know I saw it again at a punk rock exhibit at Track 16 Gallery in Bergamot Station in Santa Monica where they had it playing in a loop.
Penelope Spheeris: Where’s my residuals? [Laughs].
PKM: Well, it was a long time ago.
Penelope Spheeris: Yeah, before they invented residuals!
PKM: So, moving on to Decline II, the Metal Years. Besides all the great scenes with the mega metal stars, what struck me was when you interviewed the unknown bands that were so certain that they were going to be famous.
Penelope Spheeris: I think that human beings are like a flock of birds or a school of fish, when they get an idea that they all go along with it and if you think you’re going to make it and, you know, the mind is such a powerful thing that they really believed it. They all thought they would become famous.
PKM: Yeah that was so crazy, they couldn’t imagine any other future than being rock stars. Around that time you were also scouting for big hair bands for MCA, did you find any with real potential?
Penelope Spheeris: I did find a band I really loved called Grave Danger. They were from outside of Chicago and living in L.A. I tried really hard to get them signed at MCA, but I also brought Lenny Kravitz’s first album. They listened to it and said it sounds like it was recorded in a garage. Well, it was! [Laughs]. So you never know who is going to get picked up and who’s not.
PKM: Their loss. And some did get signed and never really went anywhere.
Penelope Spheeris: That’s right.
PKM: So with Decline III, you document the young homeless punks, living on the street, I remember a guy named Eyeball. Can you tell me about him?
Penelope Spheeris: Eyeball had a band called The Resistance that performed in the film, but he’s not my boyfriend like everyone seems to think, he is my friend. SIN is my boyfriend, who I talked to briefly on the street in the film. SIN stands for Satanic Intellectual Network. He was a homeless gutter punk for ten years before I met him. He’s Japanese, he’s an artist and a guitarist and we’ve been together for twenty-two years now. He has a studio here in the house we built.
PKM: Wow twenty-two years, that’s fantastic!
You know I attended the screening for Decline I at LACMA in 2014. I understand that your daughter Anna encouraged you to put out the deluxe box set of the Decline Trilogy at that time which is now available through Shout Factory and at Amazon. What are some of the bonus features?
I can tell you a Charlie Sheen story when I was working on The Boys Next Door. He was 25 years old then and I saw the seeds of a fuck up right away with him, he was a troublemaker.
Penelope Spheeris: There’s a lot of extra features, a performance by the Gears, some footage of Brendan Mullen at the Masque and X signing their contract with Slash Records. There’s all kinds of cool extra footage on all three films.
PKM: I’d love to see that, I’ll have to order it.
Penelope Spheeris: You know what, I’ll send you a copy.
PKM: Great! I would love that! Thank you, can’t wait to see all of it! Any other projects you are working on now? Can you tell us about Gypsy? What about Lust n Rust?
Penelope Spheeris: Well I can talk about Lust N Rust. Let me describe it. It’s going to be a Country and Western Trailer Park musical. You probably know I was kind of raised in trailer parks. I listened to all the country western artists that my mother listened to, like Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. I know all the lyrics to those early country music songs. I loved country music then, not today though. So that’s one of my projects that that I’m currently working on.
PKM: It has been a pleasure catching up with you, Penelope, and I’m really looking forward to Lust N Rust!