Back in the late seventies, filmmaker Penelope Spheeris heard about a dude who wanted to make a porno. He ran a payroll service and car rental business out in the Valley. She saw an opportunity to fund her first feature project. So, she took the investor to a Black Flag show. When it ended, she gave him an ultimatum: “Now do you wanna do porno or punk rock?”
Punk won out.
Between those reallocated skin-flick funds and some equipment hustling, Spheeris made The Decline of Western Civilization, Volume 1 which captured a crucial moment in music history: the rise of punk rock in Los Angeles. Through a combination of in-home interviews and live concert footage of bands like Fear, X, Alice Bag Band, The Germs and more, Spheeris wove together a rock doc that would be ignored by theaters and panned by critics of the time. Later it found preservation in the National Film Registry and be regularly screened at film schools and museums across the country.
Spheeris is coming to Oak Cliff Film Festival for a Sunday screening of her 1987 cowboy western punk comedy Dudes with one of the film’s leads, Daniel Roebuck. She’ll also be part of a Saturday Q&A for Half the Picture, a documentary which passes the mic to Spheeris and other top female Hollywood filmmakers for insights on gender imbalance in the director’s chair.
Before all of that, I wanted to ring Spheeris up at her Los Angeles home and pelt her with questions. She’s documented punks, metal heads and gutter punks. Made shoestring cult films like Suburbia. And left the business when she was at a peak, directing blockbuster budget studio films, like Wayne’s World, Black Sheep and Little Rascals. Now she runs other types of crews with her home renovation business.
I wanted to know why she stopped making movies (spoiler: it involves the Weinsteins). What film she would make if she started again. And what that Black Flag basement really smelled like, because it was probably crazy gross, right? And Penelope Spheeris is generous with her answers — colorful, funny and loaded with more insights by 7 a.m. than most of us conjure throughout a very good day — so we’re leaving it long.
Was there a first punk show you saw that made you think “Whoa, things are changing”?
Shit, it was a long time ago babe, but the Germs and The Screamers and The Weirdos were among the first three bands I saw. The club was owned by this guy who got killed, actually. I just started going to shows cuz I was making music videos. I had this company called Rock and Reel and I was the only company doing music videos in LA, so I was getting all the work, and the radio was all disco at that point. I remember returning equipment to the equipment house one day and the guy who was standing there said “Have you heard the Sex Pistols?” And I said “Noooooo?” And he said “Check ‘em ouuuut.”
It was really listening to the Sex Pistols that got me into music again, you know? Cuz I’d checked out.
What did it smell like in that Black Flag church basement?
Wasn’t bad, actually! It didn’t smell funky, honestly. And I’m really sensitive to smells. It smelled a little bit like spilled beer, but everyplace I went back then smelled a little bit like spilled beer. It didn’t smell like a bathroom or something at all. It actually was pretty clean. It didn’t look clean, I know, in the movie, but it was pretty clean except for the writing on the walls.
You’ve talked about having to take your daughter to some of those shows. How old was she, and did she dig it?
Well, if we’re talkin’ ‘77, I started really going to shows in ’76, she was 8 or 9. And did she like it? I don’t think so. I mean, I couldn’t afford a babysitter and sometimes I had to take her to work with me. I would never take her to a show where I wasn’t working and she didn’t have to be there, but she tells the story of “My mom would put me on the corner of the stage when Fear was playing and she was shooting. She would leave me there so she knew where I was at. She thought that was safe.” (laughs)
It gives her kind of the best street cred.
Oh, she does have the best street cred. You know I bought her a house up here in Laurel Canyon — it’s on a private street with a gate and blah blah. And who moves in next door to her? Gene Simmons’ kids. Can you imagine what they went through? Ha!
I think part of what makes the Decline movies so interesting to me is that you play with layers in them. Like, there are those shots of Darby Crash tenderly playing with his tarantula and in the background is all of that super high energy music. It gives you this nice complete look at a person.
I have to say: It was such a big decision what to do with that scene. Because I feel as if, even when I made it, that scene with that music was unbearable to watch. But you know what? That sometimes is where you have to go, especially with punk rock. It needs to break so many rules that it’s unbearable. And that’s why I kept it in the film. Back then, with that screaming music in the background and that tarantula. People were just cringing! And it goes on for fuckin’ ever.
So you knew (Lorne) Micheals for a long time before Wayne’s World. Why did he finally give you that job?
I always liked to think that Lorne gave me the gig to do Wayne’s World because of two things: One, he felt guilty that he never gave me any of the films on Saturday Night Live. And the other was that I had just done The Decline 2, which is about headbangers — and Wayne and Garth mistakenly considered themselves headbangers. I don’t know! And then a lot of shitload of luck. I was 45 years old when I got to do Wayne’s World, you know?
These movies have held up for so long. Wayne’s World, even 25 years later, is still ranked one of the all-time best comedies.
People just keep hanging in here with Wayne’s World. I was at a screening here in LA last summer. They have these huge screenings at this cemetery. It’s called [Hollywood] Forever Cemetery. So you’re sitting there on all of these graves: There’s 4,000 people there watching Wayne’s World!
And cracking up, right?
Totally. Still loving it. My films I think are — I don’t know why — but most of them have a lasting quality. The Decline has been that way. Suburbia has been that way. Obviously Wayne’s World. And as time goes on people kinda “get” the other ones as well. Like Black Sheep now I hear a lot about that. “Oh dear, you did Black Sheep? Oh God.”
Like with Dudes, it didn’t even get a release back then. Nobody got it. Nobody gave a shit about punk rockers from New York coming to California, nobody cared.
I really kind of love that Jon Cryer is leading man in Dudes. I feel like we all wanted Ducky to get the girl in Pretty and Pink. And this is like the opposite of a John Hughes film.
I think that’s why he wanted to do it. He also says that this is where he learned comedy, on Dudes. He wasn’t comfortable with comedy before that.
Did you originally have anyone else in mind or had you wanted him?
We looked at quite a few people. I don’t remember them all but I do remember Keanu Reeves. He must have been just a kid, I know, just a gorgeous little boy. Just a sweetheart of a guy. But I gotta tell you everybody was pushing for Jon because of Pretty in Pink. Keanu didn’t have any credits under his belt at that point. I like Jon too, and I’m glad he did it, but it was a stretch for him. Not only with the comedy but with the punk rock too.
Yeah. I feel like Keanu could have easily been a punk rocker.
Oh totally. Even to this day.
Daniel Roebuck is joining you for this. Do you have a favorite memory of him on set?
Roebuck? Yeah. He complained really a lot. Hahahah! The mohawk. How embarrassing it was.
I was like, “No dude. You kinda look cool. Don’t you get it?” He had to wear a hat when he was not shooting because he was so embarrassed of the mohawk.
What was his persona off set? What was he about? What was he into?
Total serious actor. It’s in his DNA. It was a push for him too to do the comedy but I think that’s what’s cool. They weren’t both natural comedians. That’s what’s great about being a good actor, they can morph into whatever they need to do and they both did it.
From the soundtrack to the cameos, I feel like Dudes has about a million Easter eggs in it. Is there something or someone people should look for when they watch it this weekend that most people miss?
Yes, okay. I’ll say this in due respect because she just passed away, but Pamela Gidley (Fire Walk With Me) was an actress. She never got to high stardom but she sure did hang in there in the music business. She was this gorgeous 20-year-old in the scene in the restaurant. She’s the one who kinda lures Jon over to her table. So Pamela Gidley is in there. And I love that scene when Jon goes into the bar and talks to Lee Ving and actually approaches him. And the girl sitting on Lee’s lap is Christina Beck, and she was one of the girls in Suburbia.
You made these very successful comedies. What do you think made these things work? Was it understanding timing?
When I was still in film school I was walking across campus with my daughter’s father and he saw Richard Pryor walking in front of us. And he said “Oh my god. That’s the funniest man in the world.” And I said “Richard Pryor? Who is that?” So, we talked to Richard and he said “I’m looking for some film students to help me make films.” And I said “Well, you found it.”
So, I spent my first two years of actually making money, even though it was cash laid out on the table next to a plate of coke — that was my first real gig. I really think I got a lot of my sense of comedy from Richard Pryor.
Was there a specific moment that you pivoted [away from filmmaking]? Or was it a culmination of things that made you say, “Check it: I’m out”?
I’m glad you brought that up. Here’s the thing. In ’97 I did a film with the Weinsteins. It was called Senseless with Marlon Wayans and David Spade, and when I took the gig it was a very good script. And those idiots, Bob and Harvey, kept rewriting the script. So, I’m shooting and they’re rewriting the script and they’re sending me pages and they suck. But I was stuck. …And I would say to Bob: This doesn’t work! And he says “It’s my fuckin’ money and I’ll spend it any way I want.” That’s a quote. From Bob. Weinstein. And then him and Harvey decided that they were gonna write the ending, reshoot the ending, which I had to go along with or I’m not getting the rest of my money, and then they really messed it up.
So, the movie didn’t do well and here’s the thing that I figured out because of Ashley Judd’s lawsuit lately: It’s very likely that those guys were bad-rapping me after that movie. Very likely. And I could feel it! Every job I’d go in on I’d think “I should be doing this job, why are they not hiring me?!” And I thought “Oh well. It’s because Senseless didn’t do well because those guys messed it up.” But that was the turning point, right there. And that’s when I went and did Decline 3 and used my own money to pay for it. That’s the thing about the Weinsteins: They were pissed. They gave me two and a half million dollars salary to direct Senseless and they were going to get their money’s worth no matter what. They’re the ones who messed it up, but they had to blame it on me.
They’re Lady Life Ruiners, across the board.
They’re the scum of the earth. May they burn in hell. Ugh! (laughter)
I know that you’re not interested in going back to filmmaking but is there one thing that sticks out in your mind, or one thing that pops in that makes you think: I’d really like to tell that story?
You know what story I’d really like to tell is meeting my boyfriend when I did Decline 3. He was a homeless gutter punk when I met him. That was 20 years ago.
He’s asleep upstairs right now, yeah! That’s kind of a cool story. We’re together 24/7 and we never argue and we’re just perfectly fine being together all the time. It’s just the freakiest thing in the world. I would do that story and I do have a couple of documentaries in my editing machine, and if I ever get these houses built, one of them’s going to have an editing room and I’m going to finish working on these docs. One of them’s about my mother who ran away with the carnival when she was 19. And the other one is Decline 4.
What does Decline 4 focus on?
I can’t tell you sweetheart because then everyone would go and do it because everyone has an iPhone now, so I have to keep it secret. You understand.
Join filmmaker Penelope Spheeris this weekend at Oak Cliff Film Festival. Half the Picture screens Friday at 3 p.m. at the Kessler Theater (1230 W. Davis St.). Dudesscreens Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at Texas Theatre (231 Jefferson Blvd.). Individual tickets cost $10 at Oakclifffilmfestival.com.