Pioneering punk film director Penelope Spheeris ran out of fucks to give a long time ago—around the time she started getting script notes from Harvey Weinstein, as she recalls. There’s visible disgust on her face recalling the disrespect the Weinsteins showed her on the set of her 1998 movie Senseless, which would end up being her last studio film after a successful—if unexpected—run as a comedy director that began with the smash hit Wayne’s World in 1992. Senseless was a flop, and “as a woman, when you do a movie that doesn’t do well, then you’re done. You’re in director jail,” she says.
Although Spheeris insists that she’s happier now that she’s (mostly) out of the movie business, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if she’d been able to get the second (and third, and fourth) chances so often granted to her male peers. Born the daughter of a sideshow strongman, Spheeris spent her early years traveling America with her parents’ carnival, giving her an affection for outcasts that would stay with her for the rest of her life. After putting herself through UCLA film school waiting tables, Spheeris started Rock ’N’ Reel, the first production company in Los Angeles to specialize in music videos, in 1974. That led to The Decline Of Western Civilization (1981), a vivid, visceral document of the late ’70s L.A. punk scene featuring interviews and performances with bands like Black Flag, X, and Fear. That documentary eventually became a trilogy, which has shaped Spheeris’ life both professionally (she was offered Wayne’s World on the strength of 1988’s The Decline Of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years) and personally (she met her partner of 21 years, Sin, while filming the gutter punk documentary Decline III in 1998).
The A.V. Club met Spheeris in Los Angeles in the green room of a club as The Decline Of Western Civilization screened for a packed audience downstairs as part of the Red Bull Music Festival Los Angeles and its Center Channel series. The interview followed a revealing Q&A in which Spheeris described building a cage for her cameraman so his equipment wouldn’t get broken in the middle of a violent slam-dancing pit, and traced the serendipitous origins of the documentaries’ famous shtick of interviewing rock stars as they cook breakfast (“I’m no cheap bitch, I brought the mint jelly,” she says). Unfiltered and highly opinionated, she’s everything you’d ever want the woman behind classics of teen alienation like Suburbia to be, and a trailblazer for future generations of women both in punk and in filmmaking.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been a filmmaker forever, but you’ve said in interviews that you didn’t grow up obsessed with cinema.
Penelope Spheeris: I wasn’t obsessed with it. I would go to movies because it would be our escape. We lived in trailer parks, and I would save money by collecting up Coke bottles so we would be able to go. It would cost, like, a dollar to get into the Saturday matinees. I’d go to a double feature and you got free stuff in the middle, you know, news reports and The Little Rascals and shit.
AVC: Then you ended up making a Little Rascals movie.
PS: That’s why I did it, because I really knew a lot about The Little Rascals from going to the matinees.
AVC: Do you remember the first thing you ever shot?
PS: When I was at school at UCLA, they loaned [us] cameras and I was going home one day and I saw a bunch of crows flying in a field. I used some negative film, and I printed it as a negative so it was a black sky with white birds in it. That was my first piece of film I ever shot. And I’m like, “Man, this is cool!” Filmmaking is about trying to master or change reality, and have your own interpretation of it. It’s kind of an ego trip in a way!
But yeah, I fell in love at that moment, and again when I did my film at UCLA called Hats Off To Hollywood. I put some music to a shot of Hollywood Boulevard in, like, 1968 or something, and man, when you put music and movies together—it was like the sky opened up and God said, “You’re meant to do this.” So I did it.
AVC: Combining music and film is your thing, but a lot of the stuff that you do is also about outcasts, people who live on the margins. What is it about those kind of characters that interests you?
PS: I think the fact that I was born on a carnival [had a lot to do with it]. When we traveled around, the people that would join us as we moved from town to town would be people that didn’t really have any reason to stay where they were. The carnival was a collection of outcasts, so I feel very comfortable around them.
AVC: You’ve filmed in the pit at punk shows, you’ve done TV movies about alien abductions, you’ve shot in a women’s prison. Has there ever been a day on set where you were just like, “What the fuck am I doing here?”
PS: That would be working with the Weinsteins. I have done a lot of different kinds of genres and a lot of different types of subject matter, but I did those because I just took whatever job I could get. Because as a woman in the film business, you really don’t get to pick and choose.
But working with the Weinsteins was probably the moment where I said to myself, “How the fuck did I get here? What am I doing?” I did a movie called Senseless with David Spade and Marlon Wayans with the Weinsteins producing back in 1998. I was just finishing this movie and I said, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to work in this movie business anymore.” And as a matter of fact, that was that.
AVC: Do you feel like you forgot why you were in the business, or that it had changed into something that you didn’t recognize anymore?
PS: It changed into something that I didn’t want to be a part of. I really didn’t want to be a part of mainstream Hollywood anymore. It was too—it’s ugly. You have no friends in Hollywood. Hollywood is a lonely, lonely desert, especially as a woman.
AVC: Something that I’ve heard a lot of female directors say is that there’s no mercy. If you make a movie and it’s not a hit, that’s it.
PS: There’s no forgiveness. Oliver Stone could go wreck a car and get arrested for being on drugs and then do Alexander. But we can’t do that. Women can’t make mistakes. I’m not driving home tonight because I had a couple beers, you know? [Laughs.]
But yeah, you can’t screw up when you’re a woman. One little mistake, and you’re done. Like Senseless, they kept rewriting it and rewriting it. And I’m like, “Dude, you guys, this is not working. Don’t keep rewriting it. Let me just do the movie I signed up to do.” But they kept rewriting it, and it’s in my contract that I got to do what they say, you know? And at one point, I said to Bob Weinstein, “I don’t think this works,” and he goes, “This is my fucking money and I’m going to spend it any fucking way I want to.” And how are you going to argue with that?
So I had to do the movie, and it didn’t do very well. And as a woman, when you do a movie that doesn’t do well, then you’re done. You’re in director jail.
AVC: For forever.
PS: Forever. It’s not like they go, “Okay, Penelope, you’re out of jail now. Let’s make a movie.” At this point, I don’t want to make a movie. They can’t even fucking beg me to make a movie. I got to make a lot of money in the days when you could make a lot of money as a director, and I invested it right. I don’t need that anymore. It’s not like I’m bitter. I just feel like I went through too much pain. I really did enjoy my life, being in the movie business.
AVC: That’s something that’s incomprehensible to a lot of powerful men in Hollywood, that you would not care about them.
PS: [Laughs.] Really?
AVC: I think they think that the world revolves around them and that’s why they can do whatever they want.
PS: That’s their problem, because I don’t care. I don’t care. I really don’t. I feel like there’s more important things in life than going through these dealings where you’ve got these people that are deceitful and liars who don’t stand up for their words, you know? And I went through a lot of that.
I don’t mean to be griping. Let me tell you, I did better than most people did. I got paid during the time where they were paying directors millions of dollars for doing movies. I think that’s why the Weinsteins tortured me so much, because they paid me 2.75 million or some shit like that for doing Senseless. It’s like, “Okay, we gave you all this money so we’re going to torture you this much.” It’s not worth it.
AVC: So you just thought to yourself, “This isn’t that important to me”?
PS: I got to a point where I said, “It’s not that important to me.” It took a little while, because that was me. I identified with the movie business. “I am a filmmaker. That’s what I do.”
Right now, I don’t identify with that anymore. [Sin and I] just spent two years building a house together, and we have six houses, and we’ve got a lot of tenants and a lot of rent, and I don’t need the movie business, you know? So if they don’t hire me because I’m a woman—because I’m an older woman—if they don’t hire me, I don’t give a shit. I don’t know who fired who, but as far as I’m concerned, I fired them.
AVC: That’s kind of badass. “Fine, well, fuck you too, then.”
PS: I don’t need them. I really don’t. Especially now, what am I going to do? Work for a year on a movie and make $50,000? They can blow me! That’s a quote. You can print that.
AVC: How does it feel to go to something like this event and see something that you did back in the early ’80s and be celebrated as a filmmaker?
PS: It does feel good, especially because when I did it back then, nobody cared.
AVC: You were saying the LAPD tried to shut down the premiere of The Decline Of Western Civilization.
PS: Right. Most of my movies do well later—they don’t do well at the time. Well, except for Wayne’s World and Black Sheep. And I guess The Little Rascals did good.
AVC: We were talking earlier about places where you felt like you didn’t really belong. Was there a time where you felt like, “This is the place for me?”
PS: That’s a really good question. I’ve thought about that a lot. And honestly, in mainstream studio production, I never really felt like I belonged there. I almost regret not soaking up the glory at the time, but I just never felt like it was the right place for me. I was doing it because, like I said, I took every job I could get. But those aren’t my people. My people are these people here tonight [seeing Decline]. Just down to earth, normal people.
AVC: What about the second Decline movie? That’s a whole different thing, with Ozzy Osbourne and KISS and that whole rock star culture.
PS: Well, the second one—that’s a long story. I don’t mean to put it down, a lot of people like it, but it’s a different thing. You know who produced that movie? Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who directed Little Miss Sunshine. And they had a whole comic vision for the movie. I would have made every band in the movie be more like the hardcore bands [in the original Decline Of Western Civilization], but I didn’t really get to pick and choose.
AVC: There are some pretty heavy moments in it regardless, like Chris Holmes [of W.A.S.P.] pouring a bottle of vodka in his mouth while his mom watches silently.
PS: Yeah, in the pool. Chris Holmes and Megadeath. That’s me making a movie. The rest of it is, “Let’s exploit this, you know, scene that’s going on right now.”
AVC: The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III is close to your heart, for a number of reasons.
PS: Not least because that’s where I met my boyfriend of 21 years. [Gestures to Sin, dozing on the couch next to her.] He’s going to sleep right now. [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you feel when people say punk is dead?
PS: I feel like they are so behind the times, because back when punk was thriving, that phrase was being used. Punk rock is by nature so against being exploitative and commercial that it doesn’t promote itself. And so people don’t hear a lot about it. But punk, I think, still is alive and well.
And I’m not talking about Green Day—I mean, fine. Okay. Green Day’s okay. Whatever. But for me, it, punk is not only music. It’s a philosophy and a way of life and a set of morals and ethics.
AVC: So someone could be a punk painter or chef or something.
PS: Yeah! Definitely! Usually, it doesn’t involve self-promotion or exploitation.
AVC: There are lot of people talking now about how can we get more women into directing. If a young woman today wants to start making movies, do you think there’s any value for her in going through the system, or do you think that’s just totally fucked?
PS: There is, actually. I’m very glad that today there are more opportunities for young women. I don’t think it’s a useless endeavor at this point, by any means. I almost feel jealous that I was not able to take advantage of this movement. Because it’s one thing to be a woman in this business, but let me tell you something, it’s another thing to be an older woman in this business. Because then you’ve got two strikes against you from the start.
That’s why I don’t give a fuck about the business anymore. I was there at a time when I could do well, and I could contribute, and make some decent movies. I do wish these young women well, and I hope that they—look, it’s all about learning lessons. I learned a lot of lessons doing this work.
Penelope Spheeris’ body of work, including her short films, music videos, and documentary and fictional feature films, currently resides in the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles. The Decline Of Western Civilization trilogy, restored from Spheeris’ original elements, is out on Blu-ray now.