Interview: Penelope Spheeris

Carnival wake-up calls, punk shambles and heavy metal heat from the film director behind The Decline of Western Civilization

Filmmaker and music video director Penelope Spheeris slashes through screens with visceral depictions of underrepresented communities. Her masterful trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization brought the world an inside view of the nascent Los Angeles punk scene, heavy metal hair explosion and gutter punk community. She went on to direct many fiction films, including Wayne’s World, that pulled from her real-world experience documenting fringe cultures. In this excerpt from an interview with Frosty on Red Bull Radio’s LAndscape, Spheeris hones in on music’s role in her life and films.

Mark McNeill

A Musical Family

I was born in a carnival. My father owned a carnival and every morning I would wake up to John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” My father would blast it through the carnival to get everybody hyped to throw the tents up. He did that a lot, he was the strong man at the carnival. Whenever he would get mad at people he was really pushy, like, “I’m the boss, don’t mess with me.”

I’ve been into rock & roll ever since it was born.

He would get in fights with people. If he got in a fight in them he would put those big speakers outside of their trailer and play a song by, what was her name? I think it was George Clooney’s aunt or something. Rosemary.

I’ve been into rock & roll ever since it was born. I depended on music all the time growing up as my escape mechanism. I was raised in a family of four kids, and after my father died my mom got married seven times so I always had different stepfathers. They were all just jerks. I was always trying to figure out some way to get my head out of the bummer that my life was. I went to Westminster High School in Orange County, and when I was probably 15, 16 years old I started hearing about bands playing up in LA, and started making trips up there.

The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III - Trailer(1998)

One time I went down to Tijuana with my girlfriend and I bought a guitar off some dude on the street and brought it back thinking I was going to play it and my brother, Jimmy Spheeris, picked it up and instantaneously just knew how to play it. He did the same thing with the piano. It was some sort of odd gift that he had that he didn’t even have to take lessons. One day he says to me, “How about you sit down with me at the piano because this producer, Jack Nitzsche, wants to see if he could put together a Sonny & Cher type team. Me and you could do that.” I hated it. I wasn’t good at it. I’m not good at being in front of the instrument. I was trying to sing along, but my brother was playing piano beautifully and his voice was incredible. I need to be on the other side of that lens. Clive Davis signed my brother, and he was dealing with David Geffen at one point because he was an incredible gifted musician. He got killed by a drunk driver in 1984.

Chris Spheeris in Arizona is a very well-known new age musician, or what you call that music that makes people spiritual and shit. He’s a relative. Then Costa Gavras and I are first cousins. We both make movies. He did that movie, Z. He’s Greek like me.

Movies and Music

I used to go up to Topanga Canyon a lot. There’s this place up there called The Corral. There would be a lot of local bands playing and a lot of pretty well-known bands actually lived up there in Topanga Canyon, like Canned Heat. Every once in awhile, you’d see Crosby, Stills & Nash float by. I saw The Doors in Griffith Park on a ten-foot square stage and there were ten people standing around. Griffith Park was hip at the time. Everybody just played for the sake of peace and love.

We were always working on movies up there in the second floor of Melnitz Hall at UCLA. I remember laying the pieces, 16 millimeter film, and clicking the button to close the picture head and then laying the 16 millimeter track in and starting that machine up. It was like the clouds opened up and God looked down and said, “OK. Now you figure out what you want to do in life, go do it.” It was a pretty magical moment.

Traffic - The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys

Traffic’s song “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” really worked with the film I was doing at the time. It was a short film called I Don’t Know and it was a fake documentary about a girl that wishes she was a guy and a guy that wishes he was a girl falling in love. I did two films with two transgender actors in the early ’70s, Dana and Jennifer. One was I Don’t Know and the other was was Hats Off to Hollywood. Subject matter-wise, I was considered to be an outcast. In those days you did not deal with the topic of transgenderism. I remember showing the film at school and some of the students were open-minded enough to be complimentary about it, but for the most part I got very criticized, like, “What are you doing? What’s the matter with you?” Which made me want to do it all the more of course.

When I put that Traffic song to picture, I remember something happening to my soul which was, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to do movies and music.” I’ve done that. Most of my films and my documentaries have been inspired by listening to songs. For me, music is extremely important. When I listen to the songs I become inspired enough to figure out the scenes and the transitions and the way the camera should be. For me, music just helps open up the creative channels.

Rock N’ Reel

I got a call from a friend of mine, Peter Felben, from CBS Records. He goes, “How would you like to make a music video?” I really didn’t understand what that meant. I had just graduated from film school. Actually, they kicked me out because I had been there for too long, but I did have a master’s degree.

Anyway, Peter called me and said, “We just figured out that we can send just a piece of film around the world and we don’t have to send the band. We’ll just go and film some bands.” I started my company, Rock N’ Reel, because I started gigs with the record labels. There was no other company around doing that.

The record labels, Warner Brothers, CBS, would fly me around the country. I would walk into the Casablanca office and Neil Bogart would say, “Hi Penelope. Listen, go with my secretary. She’ll do your nose and then we’ll have our meeting.” It was just a way of life. You would just go do the blow and then you would sit down and talk.

I don’t like to get too much on a downer, but I will say that my daughter’s father had just died from a heroin overdose and I was in no mood to go to work. There was a guy named Adam Summers, an executive at Warner Brothers Records, who says to me, “You got to get your head back together and go to work. It’s the only thing that’s got to help you.” I went to New York to shoot Funkadelic. I was too bummed to do anything, but he put me on a plane with the film crew and we landed in Newburgh and drove over to an airplane hangar. I had no idea what I was getting into because I really wasn’t familiar with work of George Clinton and Funkadelic at the time. I walked onto this set, the Mothership. We set up our cameras and all this smoke started happening and George was in 5" heels and his big-ass pimp hat. All these feather boas and he’s walking down the stairs of the Mothership, singing. I couldn’t be distracted with the tragedy. I couldn’t. I felt like I just flew up to the moon.

I always tell young people please try to grasp the moment and enjoy how wonderful things are at the time, because I look back and I go, “My God. Look what I did. Look what I went through. Look what I experienced. I was so lucky to be in the right place, at the right time with so many different occasions, and that was one of them.”

The Decline Of Western Civilization - Trailer (1981)

Decline of Western Civilization

I believe I have very good instincts. I know when something is important and needs to be preserved and I think that’s why I did the first Decline of Western Civilization film. I was working mostly doing Rock N’ Reel music videos. I knew how to shoot music. I had so much practice in the field at that time.

I was going to these clubs – The Mask, Blackies, Club 88, Cathay de Grand and the Cuckoo’s Nest – and I had the equipment sitting around from working on the music videos and I thought, “Why don’t I just start shooting this stuff? This is important.” Nobody else was filming it at the time. I was trying to get money together to make the film so I took a couple eight-millimeter cameras down to a place where the Germs were rehearsing, to show the financier. He’s like, “Well, I don’t know. It was pretty crazy, but I guess we can do it. I wanted to make a porno movie but I guess we could do punk rock.” People ask, “Why did you shoot the bands that you shot?” Well, because they were all playing on the same bill at the Fleetwood. I mean, I like them all. I like more than that, but film is expensive and we made the film on zero bucks. I had to just be careful [about] what I shot and I couldn’t shoot too much.

This is punk rock. Like it? Fine. Don’t like it, fine. Have an opinion about it, I’m not going to give you mine.

I shot the film in ’79 and ’80 and Darby Crash from The Germs passed away on December 7, 1980, the same day that John Lennon died. I know it sounds like I’m brilliant or something but I’m not. Here’s what happened: I said, “Darby, how about I shoot an interview with you?” He said, “Oh man. I just woke up. I got a bit of a hangover. I don’t feel like it.” I said, “Well, come on. I got the equipment.” He goes, “Well, can you bring over some food?” I go, “Well, how about if I bring some bacon and eggs and you can make your own breakfast?” He goes, “I don’t care. Just bring over some food and we’ll shoot whatever you want.” That’s how that happened. It wasn’t like, “Oh, Penelope is genius man. She thought to have him cooking bacon and egg.” No, the dude was hungry so I brought him some food.

When you look at [the work of Frederick Wiseman], what I love about it is that it was objective and that it didn’t try to sway the audience one way or the other. I remember he did a movie about the army, [but] the war protesters liked the movie and the war supporters liked the movie. I thought if you can do that as a documentarian, then you’ve achieved a lot. You’re not imposing your own opinion on it. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. This is The Decline of Western Civilization. This is punk rock. Like it? Fine. Don’t like it, fine. Have an opinion about it, I’m not going to give you mine.

What I liked about the punk scene is actually the same thing [I like] about the metal scene: you can’t be angry and depressed at the same time because it’s the same emotion. It was an expression of frustration and anger. I liked that because as long as nobody gets hurt, it really helps to say what you think and get it all out. People always go, “Weren’t you scared [while filming the Decline of Western Civilization films]?” I’m like, “No, I wasn’t scared. I came from a household where people were bloody all week.” Even when I did Decline of Western Civilization III, I was a lot older. This is 1997. I always shoot one camera, and I remember shooting and thinking, “You know what, this is total chaos, total mayhem. People are getting hurt, ouch, oops, be careful, but it’s invigorating.” I just loved it.

Most of my movies, except for Wayne’s World and Little Rascals, don’t get any kind of release or recognition until 20, 30 years later.

When that whole grunge thing came along and everybody started writing songs of whining and feeling sorry for themselves, I checked out of it. To me you don’t turn that stuff inward because it makes you sick, makes you shoot your brains out. Forget it. You got to express it and not hurt anybody but get it out.

I didn’t know that people would still care. I knew that there weren’t a lot of other people shooting and that what I had would probably be good to have 30 years later, but I never expected for the first Decline to be inducted into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, which it was last year in December. That’s a shocker. And to have my short films play at the National Gallery in Washington DC? That’s also a shocker.

A Woman in the Hollywood System

Most of my movies, except for Wayne’s World and Little Rascals, don’t get any kind of release or recognition until 20, 30 years later. Dudes is one of those movies. It stars Jon Cryer and Flea and Lee Ving is in it. I shot it in 1987. Randall Jahnson who wrote The Doors movie is the writer. We shot it and it never really got a release, but now it’s going to be released.

Dudes Trailer (1987)

There are a lot of downsides to being a woman in this business, but then they’ve got to pick some women to congratulate. I’m getting some congrats lately, just so they don’t get more trouble. I don’t know how I made it through the studio system because those fuckers will piss you off really bad. They’re so insulting. They’re so degrading. I mean, you have to crawl on your belly and jump through hoops. It’s just horrible what they make you do. It really hurts your ego and you just have to swallow it and eat it. With my upbringing and my amount of rebellious anger, I cannot believe I survived and actually thrived in Hollywood studio system.

I can talk about them like that now because they’re mostly dead. They’re going down the drain fast. I don’t have to worry about them trying to hire me again because they don’t exist, like the record label. Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

By Frosty on May 24, 2017

On a different note