Penelope Spheeris is probably best known as the director of the 1992 mega-hit Wayne's World, a smart, funny movie that inspired a slew of Saturday Night Live-derived films that were neither smart nor funny. But that hit represents only one side of Spheeris' frequently fascinating career, which began when she produced Albert Brooks' short films for SNL, then went on to produce Real Life, Brooks' 1979 film debut. Spheeris' own directorial debut was 1981's vastly influential L.A. punk documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization, which was followed by a string of low-budget independent films, including Suburbia, Dudes, and Hollywood Vice Squad. In 1987, she made a second Decline film about L.A.'s heavy metal scene before going on to direct a number of mainstream studio comedies in the '90s, among them Senseless, Black Sheep, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Little Rascals. Last year, however, she returned to her roots to make The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III, a moving, empathetic documentary about L.A.'s largely homeless "gutter punks." Spheeris recently spoke to The Onion about her documentaries, her studio work, and why on earth she made a film combining heavy metal with female mud wrestling.
The Onion: How did you come to make the first Decline Of Western Civilization film?
Penelope Spheeris: The first one? Oh, boy, that was a real tragic story. Did you get to see the film?
O: Yeah, I got to see all three. I actually just went back and saw the first two films again.
PS: Well, let me ask you a question. How did you see the second one?
O: I just rented a copy from a video store.
PS: Who was on the front cover?
O: I think it was the guitarist from Megadeth.
PS: I'm only asking because there are a bunch of bootleg copies out there.
O: There's not a regular distributor for the second film?
PS: I have the rights now, but for a while there, they were all being bootlegged. I went to a swap meet a couple weeks ago, and some guy had copies of [The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years] spread out on the ground with the rest of his freaky videos, so I picked it up, and he said, "Well, if you like that one, maybe you'll like this one, as well." So he brought out the first Decline, which he obviously didn't have the right to distribute, either. So I grabbed four other videos that I wanted for my own personal collection and I left. And he goes, "Wait a minute, you forgot to pay me." And I said, "No, you forgot to pay me." But, anyway, what was your question?
O: Oh, I was just asking how you came to make the first Decline Of Western Civilization film.
PS: Okay. Way back then, I had a company called Rock And Reel, which was the only film company in Los Angeles making music videos. And I was totally disgusted with popular music at that point, because it was all, like, disco. When I first saw all these punk bands starting up, I said, "I have to document all this." So I just went for it. I was involved at that time in mainstream film production; I had just produced a film for Albert Brooks, Real Life, and I had been given offers to produce stuff like Private Benjamin, so I could have been rich a way long time ago. But, no, it had to take me 20 more years.
O: After you made the first Decline, your first narrative film was Suburbia. How did you come to make that film?
PS: I had a really difficult time getting distribution for the first Decline. It seemed like no one wanted to play a documentary in a movie theater, even though people were going to see them in droves. So I said, "Okay, I know this subject matter and I've learned a lot. And I love these kids, so I'm going to sit down and write a narrative picture about them." So it turned out to be Suburbia. I got Roger Corman to pay for half of it, and some dude from Cleveland who had a furniture chain paid for the other half.
O: Why make the second Decline film about heavy metal?
PS: It was this whole big scene here in Los Angeles. You couldn't even walk around in the mid-'80s because the streets were so packed with these long-haired freaks. So then Miles Copeland of I.R.S. [Records] called me up and said, "Penelope, I think you're a cool filmmaker. Is there any movie that you want to make right now?" And I said, "Yeah, I want to make Decline Part II," and I wanted to make it about heavy metal because, you know, it is part of the decline.
O: The interesting thing about the second film is that it looks a lot more like a music video than either the first or the third film.
PS: Yeah, but the interesting thing about that is… It's something that I've never really talked about, because I've always felt that it would sound arrogant to say it, but the fact of the matter is that I did the first Decline and gave the world that editing style before MTV was even invented. So people say to me, "Have you ever noticed how your films kind of look like MTV?" And I say, "Let's just stop right there and take a look at the situation, pal."
O: Yeah, but the first and third films both have sort of a minimalist look to them, whereas the second film looks a lot glitzier.
PS: That's because I paid for the third film, and I certainly wasn't about to go broke on it. The first film cost, like, $100,000, and the second film cost around $500,000. And that's because Miles and these guys got some bread from New Line. It's a matter of dollars, but it's also a matter of people looking over our shoulders and saying, "We've gotta make this look slicker!" I didn't really dig that. People think directors have more power than they actually do.
O: It wasn't an artistic choice to make the second film look glossier?
PS: No. It was a choice of, "It's our money. You'll do what we say."
O: But it also seemed to fit the music, in that hair-metal is a much more visual style of music than punk.
PS: Well, yeah. That's part of the reason I went along with the program, to a degree. When we were doing both films [Decline I and III], we'd occasionally look at things and go, "Geez, that stuff looks like crap." But it's good enough for punk-rock.
O: Some of the more memorable scenes from the Decline series are the ones [in Decline II] in which the guy from W.A.S.P. [Chris Holmes] gets drunk in his pool, and where Ozzy Osbourne cooks breakfast. First of all, how did the scene with Chris Holmes end up happening?
PS: Well, everybody I filmed… I asked them, "How do you want me to film you?" I gave them a choice of how they wanted to be filmed. And so Gene Simmons goes, "I don't want to do anything tacky. How about a lingerie store?" So I say, "Oh yeah. Good idea. That won't be tacky." And then with Paul [Stanley], I asked him, "How do you want to be filmed?" And he said, "How 'bout in bed with a bunch of women?" So I was like, "Okay." When I got to Chris Holmes, I asked him how he wanted me to shoot him, and he said, "How about drowning in a pool with my mother watching?" That was his idea.
O: Were the women in bed with Paul Stanley groupies, or had they been paid to be in the film?
PS: The women in bed with Paul? They were a bunch of lingerie models.
O: When you were filming the scene with Chris Holmes, did you know that you were filming something people would remember for a long time?
PS: When he's in the pool? No. Come to think of it, I actually thought the whole night was a waste, and I hadn't really gotten any worthwhile footage.
O: How did Chris Holmes feel about the scene?
PS: Well, he had already signed a release. He got all pissed off about it, but whatever. You know, I was in a bar one night and he started yelling at me, but whatever. I don't care.
O: What about the Ozzy Osbourne scene? How did that come about?
PS: Well, that's not really Ozzy's house. And I faked the orange-juice spill. So there's two broken bubbles. But Ozzy is just naturally hilarious. He's one of the funniest people on the face of the earth. It's kind of hard to lose with Ozzy. You just put a camera in front of him and he goes on. It's hard to screw that up.
O: The first project you worked on after Decline II was a film called Thunder And Mud, which involved heavy metal music and female wrestling. How on earth did you end up making that film?
PS: How about that for a flaming piece of crap? That was a matter of… God, how did that happen? Thank God nobody has ever asked me about that until now. There was a guy working with Miles Copeland, and he said, "Let's do a live show and tape it, and then put it out straight to video." And I said, "Like what?" It wasn't really my idea, I don't think, but he said, "How about doing heavy metal and mud wrestling and putting the two together?" I said, "Yeah." So I did it. And I don't even think I got paid for it, which is kind of pathetic, don't you think?
O: And I guess that was the last thing you did before Wayne's World.
PS: I think the only reason I got to do Wayne's World was because I had done Thunder And Mud. No, just kidding. I think I got it because I had done Decline II.
O: And you had already produced some of Albert Brooks' stuff for Saturday Night Live, hadn't you?
PS: Yeah, I knew Lorne [Michaels] from back then, when I was producing films for Saturday Night Live. But back then it was such a boys' club that none of us chicks could do any directing. We had to clean the toilets and mop the floors instead. But years later, I think Lorne said to himself, "Didn't I tell her she could direct something? Oh, yeah, here, how about this little movie." Then we turned it into a big old hit. Don't ask me how.
O: And then you did The Beverly Hillbillies. What attracted you to that project?
PS: A million dollars. No, dude. I was trying every way to do the films that I wanted to do after Wayne's World. Because I am not a comedy director. If you look at the rest of my work and ask, "Is she a comedy director?," the answer is no. What sucks is that if you do one hit, you can't get out of it. I tried so hard to do other kinds of movies after Wayne's World, but I couldn't. So I said, "Fuck it. Let's take the money."
O: So you feel sort of typecast as a comedy director?
O: What about The Little Rascals?
PS: Well, you know, I shouldn't even talk that way about The Beverly Hillbillies. I did like The Beverly Hillbillies. I thought they were hilarious. Growing up, I always watched The Little Rascals, and I always thought that it would be cool if the next generation got a Little Rascals movie. And by that time, I was getting really discouraged, because I just wasn't able to make the movies I wanted to make.
O: What kind of movies did you want to make?
PS: Like, psychological thrillers or pictures that had at least a little depth to them. Films that no studio would let me direct.
O: Even though Wayne's World was a massive hit?
PS: Especially because Wayne's World was a huge hit. All they wanted me to do was comedies.
O: You'd figure that directing such a successful film would give you some kind of clout.
PS: No. That's what I figured, and that's why I got so frustrated. The only recourse I've had in this fucked-up town has been to make money doing these comedies. And I don't mean to complain, because at least I've got the bread, but that's the truth. I tried so hard to do other films.
O: If you could take back one of the films you've done—other than, obviously, Thunder And Mud—which would it be?
PS: That's a hard question. Not Suburbia, not The Boys Next Door, not Dudes. I liked those films. I don't know. I can't say that. You know, Black Sheep and Senseless weren't huge hits, but I always did the best I could with them. That's a mean question.
O: Sorry about that. How do you think your background in documentaries has affected your work in narrative films?
PS: Oh, not so much, really. If I could make a decent living doing documentaries, I would. I don't really care about [the other] stuff so much. But you can't make a living doing documentaries. Although it has affected my work, at least in that I think I make fairly realistic-looking pictures.
O: A lot of the reviews of Decline III describe its subjects as victims. Do you think that's a fair description?
PS: Yeah, I do. Some of them go out on the streets as a conscious choice and then become victims, but a lot of them are victims in their home situations, as well. I've seen the terrible conditions they live in and a lot of the stuff you see in the film. I don't know. Bottom line is, a victim would say, "I don't want to be in this situation," whereas a punk would go, "Fuck you guys! I'm here and so what?!" So maybe they're not.
O: One of the interesting things about Decline III is that the kids look almost exactly the same as the kids from Decline I. Why do you think that is?
PS: Yeah. They have a great respect for history. Also, it's just a totally cool look, in my opinion. [Laughs.] But there are some differences. You know, there are a lot more tattoos and piercings. They've actually added to it. It's not so cutesy; it's more mean-looking now. Also, the other thing about it that's different is that it's sort of derived out of survival. If you look in the bag of a punk from the '70s, you'd probably find a .45 and whatever, but now they've got can-openers. They're more road-ready. It's way more practical.
O: What do you think is a documentarian's responsibility to his or her subjects?
PS: I feel that a documentarian has an obligation to tell the truth as he or she interprets it. And what I mean by that is that documentarians don't necessarily have the same sort of obligations that a journalist might have. A journalist might be called upon to be objective, whereas a documentarian is sort of forced to take sides.
O: What was your relationship like with the subjects of Decline III?
PS: It was good. People always ask the stupidest question; they always ask, "Did they treat you like you were their mother?" And the answer is, "No, they didn't. You know, if they had treated me like their mother, I'd probably be dead." We were good friends. We still are good friends. They stay at my house. We're in touch all the time. If they need money, they can call me. They're my soulmates.