Director Penelope Spheeris talks about upcoming books, Decline of Western Civilization, Wayne’s World and more

Director Penelope Spheeris talks about upcoming books, Decline of Western Civilization,  Wayne’s World and more
July 20, 2011 | By More

Penelope Spheeris warped my brain as a kid with the amazing Decline of Western Civilization series and then later with her landmark smash Wayne’s World.  So you can imagine the amount of questions I had ready for her when she agreed to do a phone interview with us.   She was funny, witty and didn’t back down from any question and even asked a few of her own while talking with LRI.  Consider this piece you’re about to read as Part I since we’ve already agreed to do an even more music-focused interview next year when her Decline DVD series is finally available….Read on. (photos courtesy of Penelope Spheeris and Rik Fox)

Q: You already had some rock and roll filmmaking experience before the Decline of Western Civilization movies and Wayne’s World when you were working on the pre-MTV era “promo videos” right?


A: Yes….I see you interviewed Larry Harris of Casablanca. I worked for that guy and Neil Bogart on some videos. I shot Funkadelic coming out of the mothership….I still have that footage. I also shot a Hudson Brothers clip. Their office on Sunset was tripped out. It was all decked out like Casablanca with the fake palm trees and palm trees painted on the wall. The first thing they’d say when I’d walk in is “Take Penelope and go do her nose and then we’ll talk”. You’d go down the hall and they’d have a bunch of coke for you and then you’d come back.


Q: How much different were those old promo videos from the latter day MTV style clips?


A: They were VERY different. I started the very first music video company here in Los Angeles. It was around 1974 believe it or not….My friend Peter Philbin from CBS Records had called me up when I was just getting out of film school and suggested I do a music video, he said “We need a music video here for the record label”. I was like “What’s a music video??” He was like “Well, we just figured out…we don’t have to send the whole band over to a foreign country for promo we can just film them here and send the film and it doesn’t cost us nearly as much, it’s much more cost effective.” That was the very beginnings of the music videos and they were very different in that era. What we would do is just try and film the band performance. Sometimes it was recorded live but most of the time it was just to playback. The whole idea of concept videos and stories came well after that.


Q: You obviously went to film school and are known as a director but there is also a definite journalistic angle to what you do quite often. Do you see yourself as more of a “truthist” or an “artist”?


A: Thank you for noticing that John. I think it was put nicely once by a publication in Austin that ran a story on me. They had a photo of me on the cover and then underneath the photo was a headline, Penelope Spheeris, Rock and Roll Anthropologist. I kind of liked that phrase, that’s sort of how I see myself; as not just a filmmaker but also trying to document or report on things. That’s what I do.


Q: I’d heard that you were also preparing a few different books. How did that come about and how are they coming along?


A: They came about from that desire to document I suppose. I feel like my experiences in filmmaking, and my personal life and upbringing are all something I want to get down on paper or electronic file or whatever. I talk to people all the time about the Decline movies and they express that one of the things they really appreciate is how they accurately document a certain time, a lifestyle, in an honest way and they can relate to them. I have actually talked to people who’ve said that those movies changed their lives, that it sort of validated what they were doing at a given time and as they got older they’d tend to use it as a reference point to see where they are and what they became. With the books I just feel like there are so many experiences and things that if I get them down could help people, that they could relate to. The filmmaking book that I’m working on for instance could be very helpful to someone diving into that area as it is a very, very complicated, complex and cutthroat business.


Q: Looking forward to all the three of them. The one about your upbringing and all the difficulty and strange nature of growing up in the carnival biz especially…..


A: I’ve got a lot of photos and documentation that has probably never been seen by many and it was a really interesting time for sure. It was a very, very unique upbringing and nowadays, everyone tries to be different. This really was DIFFERENT (laughs). I truly was strange and different growing up….I was an outsider in the purest definition. I mean I was going to a different school every week (laughs), I didn’t have any friends other than these other gypsy kids who were raised in the carnival. It definitely makes you different at a time when you’re really just trying to learn about the world and adapt.


Q: Do you think some of that difficult part of your adolescence influenced or made it into the movies you made later?


A: Oh yeah John….definitely. I don’t think I would have ever grabbed onto the punk rock movement or the metal scene had I not had an extremely tumultous and chaotic upbringing. I had seven stepfathers and most of them were violent drunks. I lived in trailers. Even after the carnival time I was still just white trash and still moving around all the time. I think that when I first latched onto that punk scene it really made sense to me. I was always into rock and roll you know, like a lot of people I got my release in it.   I used rock and roll as a security blanket and I think a lot of kids did. When you’re feeling down or alienated or like everything in the world sucks you tend to feel a little better after listening to some rock and roll. Good rock is the voice of discomfort.


Q: Finally, the third book is going to be all about your personal life and relationships right??


A: Yes. Who told you that??? (laughs). I am working on that as well. Over the years I haven’t really had that many relationships but the ones I’ve had have been very interesting. I never wanted to get married, after seeing my mom get married so many times and I also didn’t want anyone to “take care” of me. I can take care of myself (laughs). I’ve only had six or seven significant boyfriends….and I’m fuckin old John!! The stories about our relationships though are really good I think, like my boyfriend now, I met him while filming the Decline of Western Civilization 3 and he was homeless for ten years before I met him. He’s kind of a schizo genius, an amazing artist, computer wizard and our story is pretty interesting. He goes from being homeless to living in a multi-million dollar home (laughs). It’s a bitchin story and I’ve been with him for 14 years so like I said….there’s not a lot of guys but the ones I’ve crossed paths with have all led to interesting stories.


Q: What’s the story behind you deciding NOT to direct “This Is Spinal Tap”???


A: The guys, Chris Guest, Harry Shearer and this other guy David Javelin met with me a few times and went over it and wanted me to direct it. At the time I had started getting into heavy metal. Like really started digging it, which, if you’re in the punk rock scene is a pretty big jump (laughs). I was really into a lot of the bands and really seriously listening to a lot of it all and enjoying it. It was clear they were really making fun of it and putting it down and I couldn’t do that. I liked the music so much that I couldn’t take it on so I just stepped away from it. Also, it wasn’t like when they asked me to do Spinal Tap they came to me and said “Here’s the money…go make the movie”. People always ask me “How come you made so many different KINDS of movies over the years?”. The answer is really just that I was trying to make a living, I was raising a kid and trying to keep a roof over my head, you know? I remember when I did “Hollywood Vice Squad” which was Robin Wright’s first movie and it was just this cheesy, exploitation type stupid movie. I told my agent, “I don’t wanna do this movie, this is stupid, it’s crap!”. He said, “Where in the fuck else are you gonna get 60 grand Penelope?” and I was like “Oh yeah, you’re right.” (laughs). I had to do it. Along the way in my career I had to do what I had to do in order to keep making movies, to keep myself above water. To me, making movies is kind of an addiction. I can’t STOP making movies, I keep doing it even when I shouldn’t be doing it, like a drug.


Q: Did you see the music scene changing as far as bands like Dokken and Motley coming up when you made that broad jump into the metal scene from the punk rock world? Was it evident right away?


A: Oh yeah! There was a time there on the strip where everyone was still stick pins and mohawks and it started to really change. It became a movement and there were a lot of people involved. It was clearly taking over in big numbers and I knew I had to document this big scene happening. It was a major difference, a major shift on the strip and again, I felt POSSESSED to sort of capture it and document it (laughs). I truly felt that if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.


Q: Over the years you’ve made some really interesting and left of center choices in regards to casting. Does working with someone like Flea or Moon Unit Zappa bring something different to the movies you’ve made versus working with more “traditional” actors?


A: I felt that they were authentic. When I did “Suburbia” none of those kids were “actors”. I felt like it was much easier to turn punk rock kids into actors than it was to turn actors into punk rockers. I always felt it didn’t feel right when actors did it, it felt phony. I think I was right in using those kids in my movies, they were reality and people sort of gravitate towards reality. Casting is the most important part of a movie besides the script. I thought that what they brought was that feeling of realness. Flea is so real. I remember meeting him for the first time at Lee Ving’s house (Fear). We were making Lasagna because Lee’s Italian and I was just watching this little 19 year old kid eating and thinking this guy’s got something. He’s gonna be a star, it was just something in him. I put him in my movie “Dudes” and he was great. I’m trying to get an official release on that movie too.


Q: Great soundtrack on that movie as well.


A: Yeah!! I tried to get Aerosmith on it but that didn’t work out. I also tried to get Bon Jovi, the cowboy theme would have been perfect but he said no so fuck him (laughs).


Q: You said you wanna do a second interview and talk about the Decline of Western Civilization movies exclusively when you get closer to a release date. I don’t really even buy very many DVDs anymore but I am still patiently waiting to buy the Decline set. For the record… is it going?


A: I know everyone is wondering when are they ever gonna get released. I’ve been so busy and i’m still making movies…I just finished a movie called “Balls to the Wall” which is a comedy about male strippers and I’m seeing that to release. So there’s been that and the books and…let me just say we plan to have Decline out by summer 2012. All three movies, with lots of special features. We just want to make sure they are perfect. The movies are very important to me, they are my life’s work and I want to make sure they are done right once and for all. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me again closer to the release, the distributor just wants to do more of that type of promotion when the DVDs are actually ready to ship. There have never been any official DVD releases of any of the three Decline movies, they have been bootleged many times over. In fact, I was at a flea market and this guy had a copy of one of them sitting on a table along with all his other illegal bootlegs. I picked it up and acted interested and he says “Oh, if you like that you might like these other ones” and he goes and gets the other Decline movies and I just start walking away with all my movies. He was like “Hey, excuse me….you need to pay me, you forgot to pay me” and I looked at him and said “No, YOU forgot to pay ME, you’re bootlegging my work and you better get it outta here or you won’t have a stand here next week”. He did. It just bugs the shit outta me to see my movies on a shitty VHS to DVD dub. So, I’m working on them and they will come out, I just want them to be perfect. As for extra features, I can tell you I have tons of footage. I spent years on these movies putting together footage as far as interviews and stuff especially. For instance, the Black Flag interviews you see in Decline 1 are just a small portion of what I actually shot. There will definitely be extra features.


Q: Since we’re from Illinois, we have a couple questions about Wayne’s World, how did you guys go about establishing the midwest feel of suburban dorkiness when most of the movie was shot in L.A? Did you ever come here to shoot?


A: We did briefly. We did three days of what’s called “pick up shots” there in Illinois and the rest was all recreated on set in California. Funny thing though, I still get letters or emails from people in Illinois saying “We live in Illinois and we know you shot the movie here and we can’t find Stan Makita’s Donut Shop, we know it’s here” and I tell them “No, I’m sorry it’s not real it’s actually a flower shop out here” and they get kind of angry (laughs). The whole premise of boring suburbia was something that I could totally relate to though. I’d lived in Orange County after the whole trailer park thing and we bought a tiny little cracker jack house in Westminster. It was SO boring, the oldest cultural landmark in the town was a friggin 7-11. It had no history, no culture, no identity. It was just orange groves before the houses got put in and it was sooooo boring. The only thing to keep you going was to go around and check on all the people in their driveways fixing their cars. You would make a day of going around and seeing how everyone’s carburetors were doing.


Q: To an outsider it looks vaguely ridiculous that you didn’t make Wayne’s World 2. Usually when a director has that kind of success they at least get offered the chance to turn down a sequel. What in the hell happened?


A: Here’s the deal….Mike Myers did not WANT me to make the second film. The reason being that before the release of the first film, Mike wanted a lot of changes made. Changes that the studio and I were not willing to make. He had ELEVEN pages of changes he wanted to make and I said “No, Mike, it’s working, it will be great, give it a shot”. Well, in the meantime, his father dies and he has to go to Canada but while he was gone Paramount had already arranged a test screening and he didn’t see how it went over with the test audiences and all that. I think if he would’ve actually seen a test screening and seen how amazing the finished project went over with the audience he would have understood the movie was fine but he didn’t. So, when he asked for all these changes to the movie, the studio didn’t wanna tell him cause he’d get pissed off and they wanted to do Waynes World 2. Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live Producer) didn’t wanna tell him because he of course wanted to have him be happy and come back to write on SNL. So who does that leave John? I had to tell him and he was pissed. He said, “Oh, so you’re not going to make my changes, well, you’re not going to make WW2!”. Although, personally, I didn’t think at the time that they did the sequel that it was the right time anyway. I thought it was too soon, it needed some work and a couple years in between the time the first one came out. They just went and released it immediately and to me it felt greedy and it didn’t do as well. I kind of make it a point not to revel in other people’s troubles, I think it’s bad karma. I sort of was neutral on the sequel, I didn’t make it a point to rush out and see it though.


Q: Last question til next time….how did you feel about your MTV video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” becoming such a huge hit and kicking off this whole new generation discovering QUEEN?


A: I was thrilled! I mean, growing up, I had probably watched every single piece of film on Queen ever made, so to be involved and to be nominated for a GRAMMY, hell. I was happy to be a part of it but it was really because Freddie Mercury was such an amazing human being and he had just passed.

I think in his life he had went through a lot of pain for being different, for being gay, for dressing the way he did. I think he was often dealing with that pain and having a really hard time. You could just hear it and see it in his music. I was just so happy that the video did well and the band kind of kicked off a resurgence after that. Hopefully, Freddie was up there looking down, you know?

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  1. Wayne’s World | moviewise | May 22, 2013
  1. GMan says:

    Let’s go Penelope!
    I’m not gettin’ any younger!