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Q+A – PENELOPE SPHEERIS, Director of The Decline Of Western Civilization films

| 12 February 2016 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Penelope Spheeris 01

Penelope Spheeris’s trio of The Decline Of Western Civilization documentaries explore the music and characters that populated three very different Californian music scenes of the 1980s and ‘90s. SHANE PINNEGAR spoke with Spheeris about the movies in advance of their local screenings as part of the Rev Film Festival’s This Is Rock program.

Decline I covered the L.A. rock scene of 1980. Decline II: The Metal Years was made between 1986 and ’88 and delves into the hair metal scene, whilst 1998’s Decline III investigates the gutter punk lifestyle of homeless L.A. teenagers and remains Spheeris’s proudest achievement. That she went on to direct Wayne’s World and other Hollywood blockbusters is something she remains dismissive of to this day.

100% ROCK: Let’s talk Decline of Western Civilization: what inspired you to make the first movie?

Penelope: I had a music video company here in Los Angeles called Rock ‘n Reel. I think it was the first of its kind here. I was shooting music videos since the early ‘70’s, way before MTV. I wasn’t really into the music being played on the radio; it was mostly disco. So I started going to the early punk shows in L.A. and in Orange County and fell in love with music again. I’d never seen anything like it. And since I already had the film equipment, I started shooting punk shows. People always ask how I was able to wiggle my way into the scene, but the fact is, I was into the scene before I decided to make a movie about it. They ask how I could get the interviewees to be so comfortable and relaxed. Well, it’s because most of them were my friends.

Decline of Western Civilization

100% ROCK: So you were you an insider on those music scenes when you set about making the films?

Penelope: Yes. I was offered a million dollars at one point to do THE RAP YEARS and even though I was flat broke at the time, I refused it. I was not and am not part of that scene. So many people love it, but it ain’t me. I can’t do a music movie if I am not part of the scene.

100% ROCK: Did the title The Decline Of Western Civilization come from Lester Bang’s Stooges review for Creem magazine, as has been rumoured?

Penelope: I’ve never heard that one before – and that’s not where it came from. I came up with the title whilst driving my really old convertible ’66 Mustang (which I sold way too cheap ‘coz I was broke) home from the Slash office one day about three quarters of the way through the filming. I’ve never read the Creem article, but I dearly loved Lester!

100% ROCK: The Metal Years especially was a hit – you got some pretty impressive access to some of the biggest bands in the world at the time. How did that come about?

Penelope: My daughter Anna Fox was working in the office making the calls to the ‘big names’. She was 17 at the time and had just finished a short stint as Nikki Sixx’s ‘date’ at various L.A. clubs and venues. Along with Anna, Johnathon Dayton and Valerie Faris (who later acquired well-deserved notoriety for directing Little Miss Sunshine) made endless calls to managers, friends and agents to get the stars involved. I couldn’t believe any of them actually said ‘yes’, but remember, it was back in the day when not everybody was making a movie.

100% ROCK: You did a great job of not only capturing a moment in time, but of showing it in all its glory AND ridiculousness. Was that always the goal?

Penelope: If I was sent out without any ‘controlling forces’ such as producers and guys writing cheques, it would have been a much more hardcore, less ridiculous piece. However, it is what it is, and people seemed to love it, so there ya go! By the way – that’s why I fought like hell to have Megadeth close the film because they are heavier and their lyrics, instrumentation, attitude, etc. more fits my own musical preferences!

100% ROCK: For me being aware of that ridiculousness was integral to loving the music as much as I did and still do, but the sexism inherent in the life those guys were living is pretty shocking…

Penelope: As Anna says, ‘everybody was buying into it’. It wasn’t just the guys being sexist with the girls; they girls went along with it. It was ‘cool’ to be a groupie back then, and forgive me for saying so, but that has not gone away! Neither has the sexism, in my opinion. It was just more overt back then.

Penelope Spheeris with Poison - Decline II

100% ROCK: Did you keep track of those you interviewed after making the movies, and were their career trajectories as you expected?

Penelope: Anna is more in touch with the people in DECLINE I and II and I am more in touch with those in III. Anna still goes to all their shows and I still do whatever I can to be with and support the gutterpunks. Kirsten from Naked Aggression has a kid with MD and so we supported his charity. WhyMe? just had a heart operation and we helped with that. Those are my soul bros and sisters. DECLINE III is where I met my boyfriend of 18 years. He was homeless for 10 years before he and I got together. I don’t know why, but those are the people that still twang my heart strings.

Decline of Western Civilization III

100% ROCK: Was there any backlash from anyone involved in the films who may have not appreciated the way they were portrayed?

Penelope: No. Over the years I think the movies have helped the bands’ visibility and kept them for future generations to know and enjoy. I think the bands know that and the kids in the interviews like the movies too. Eugene, from DECLINE I and I are still in touch by email weekly. Good dude. He is a folk singer now and lives in Berlin.

Penelope Spheeris with Eyeball - Decline I

100% ROCK: By commentating so concisely on the various music scenes the films covered, you became integrally part of those scenes. Are you happy to be remembered as one of the prime chroniclers of those moments in time?

Penelope: Honestly, it doesn’t make any difference to me. I documented a time that otherwise might be lost by now. I don’t need any credit for doing it. I am glad if it helps today’s kids understand better where much of their style, music and fashion really came from.

100% ROCK: The movies are less about the actual music as they are about the people behind the music and the culture of the scenes themselves. Did the meaning of the films change or evolve from your initial plans, the more footage you shot?

Penelope: Yes, I think of myself as more of an anthropologist than a music documenter. I am mostly interested in where each youth movement comes from. Human behaviour, that’s what I like to study.

100% ROCK: You went on to direct Wayne’s World and other big grossing Hollywood films, but I gather you’re quite dismissive of that part of your CV?

Penelope: Yeah, I would much rather that people get the historical importance of the documentaries. I am, of course, very pleased that people enjoyed my studio movies, but in the long run, what really matters? Party on?

Penelope Spheeris directing Mike Myers in Waynes World

100% ROCK: You also turned down the opportunity to direct This Is Spinal Tap…

Penelope: Well, let’s just say we were ‘in discussions’. At the time I loved metal music so much that I didn’t want to ‘make fun’ of it. And like I said, I would have made DECLINE II a much more serious movie had I not had folks looking over my shoulder. That’s why I used the money I got from the studio movies to finance DECLINE III. No one else would do it. That movie is actually my favourite film that I have ever done.

100% ROCK: Why did it take so long to release the Decline films on DVD and BluRay?

Penelope: I think it’s called fear. Not the band – but the way I felt when it came to sending the trilogy out to the world. Because once it’s done, it’s done. It’s there FOREVER. Anna is the one who convinced me to finally do it. And actually SHE did most of the work. I’m glad I don’t have the weight on my shoulders anymore, that’s for sure.

100% ROCK: I believe that finally assembling the films for reissue ended up bring your daughter and you closer?

Penelope: Yeah, she had been through a few years of drug addiction and came to a point where she knew she had to stop. Her father had died of a heroin overdose when she was four years old – addiction is definitely genetic. I asked her to come to work with me so I could ‘keep an eye on her’ in her recovery. That’s when she demanded we put the Decline movies out. So, my thought is: you never know if something is bad or good until some time has passed!

Penelope Spheeris with Anna Fox

100% ROCK: The Decline movies really took on a life of their own over the years – what are the strangest places they have taken you into?

Penelope: Definitely the strangest place is when Anna insisted that I watch all the leftover footage and all the interviews with me that occurred along the way. It was like dying and having my life flash before me. I am waiting to be re-born, but that hasn’t happened yet. Life just keeps trudging along!

100% ROCK: I believe you almost directed a biopic of John Lydon recently. Is it frustrating to put a lot of work into a project just for it to go nowhere?

Penelope: Yeah, I put a lot of work into developing a lot of movies, which is why I don’t do it anymore. Don’t even bring up the 20-some years me and the ghost of Janis Joplin hung out. Grim.

100% ROCK: You’re also working on a fourth Decline film – can you talk about that at all?

Penelope: No, because all your readers could take their iPhones and make that movie before I get mine done. Sorry!

100% ROCK: Do you feel that the Decline movies can be seen as a cautionary tale at all?

Penelope: I’m not about teaching lessons. I just wanted to honestly document what I experienced.

This Is Rock

Make sure you catch the Decline Of Western Civilization trilogy when it screens in Perth at the following dates, or at a cinema near you. The Decline box set is now available at all good retailers.

The Decline Of Western Civilization I screens at The Backlot Friday February 12 & 19 at 8pm

The Decline Of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years screens at The Backlot, Saturday February 13 & 20 at 5:30pm

The Decline Of Western Civiliation II screens at The Backlot, Sunday February 14 & 21 at 5pm

Category: Interviews

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Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

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