Penelope Spheeris

The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Lens

Although she’s directed everything from Wayne’s World to the 1980s teen outsider drama Suburbia, filmmaker Penelope Spheeris owns significant culture-hero cred for The Decline of Western Civilization, a series that began in 1981 with her mosh-and-mayhem chronicle of the Los Angeles punk scene, and its early footage of Black Flag, X and The Germs. Part II: The Metal Years, with visions of glammy excess as parodic as anything in Spinal Tap, followed in 1988. She completed the trilogy a decade later, with an exploration of L.A.’s crust-punk scene that never had an official release.

At the urging of her daughter, Anna, Spheeris oversaw production of a new four-disc boxed-set from Shout! Factory that presents all three documentaries, with commentaries and bonus material. Stomp and Stammer caught Spheeris on the phone, and asked her to reflect on the films, which have become part of America’s rock ‘n’ roll legacy.

What was your first impression when you started going to punk shows in ‘70s Los Angeles?

“I was astounded. I had been a music fan my whole life, except for that mid-‘70s disco era. I’d been going to clubs since I was 12. I had never seen anything like that punk rock movement. I was totally obsessed with it. I had to film it. So I did. I’m glad I did because back then everybody didn’t have a camera. So the uniqueness of it is what interests people.”

Were you using film or video?

“Oh no. There was no video back then. A video camera was on wheels in a studio. It was 16mm, Arriflex and Eclair cameras. I was shooting one camera and I had a guy who could get hurt, rolling around on the floor shooting the other one.”

Did you ever feel like you could get hurt?

“I’d been on a club floor before and looked down and saw two teeth on the ground, but that was just mostly in the mosh pit. It felt tense, but it felt fun. OK, it’s almost fun [that] I’m going to maybe get hurt. It didn’t feel for real [like] I’m going to get killed.”

Who impressed you the most?

“Black Flag was the epitome of tear-it-all-down. That was the purpose of punk rock, to tear down traditional music and they went about it in such a determined way. No guitar solos. No love songs. Nothing nice, and we’re gonna look like shit and fuck you. They hit it from all angles. Also I think Circle Jerks did the same thing. If Darby had not been so wasted, [the Germs] would have done the same thing. X looked the part, but the melodic aspect was not what the movement was about, by my definition – but not everybody’s.”

I remember seeing Decline when I was in college, but it seemed like it was just floating out there.

“I couldn’t get any distribution for it. I couldn’t even get a theater to show it here in L.A. Mostly, they were telling me no one would come to the movie because nobody gave a shit about punk rock. I sat down with the Mann Brothers who had this chain in L.A., these twin brothers – it was freaky because they looked exactly alike – and I said ‘Please, just let us have just one midnight showing.’ They said nobody would come, forget it. We went across the street to this dinky theater and asked them, and they said OK. You see the pictures in the booklet there, they had to close down Hollywood Boulevard, because there were so many people that came. Then after that, we couldn’t get a booking because so many people came. ‘They’re gonna tear everything up!’ It was a real challenge to get it seen. It played a few theaters around, and we finally got a VHS deal. The freaky thing about it is, that even though it had such limited distribution, people would copy the VHS tapes and give them to each other. It was like underground contraband. Because of that dynamic, the films became well known. It happened with Decline II as well. Decline III never got any distribution at all.”

I never knew there was a third one.

“Me, either!”

The Metal Years still feels like the one most people are familiar with.

“People that liked heavy metal and glam-rock, they liked the movie for the reason that they were buying into it. And people that didn’t like the music liked it, because it appeared that it was making fun of it.”

How did you get hooked on the idea?

“I saw this scene happening on the Strip. I remember driving east on Sunset one night and whoa! The cops have the street shut down, everyone’s spilling out on the street from the Roxy and the Rainbow. I noticed first of all the style. It had been everybody had short hair and purposefully looked like crap and all of a sudden everybody had their hair all grown out and had makeup on and had scarves and jewelry and shit. So I had to do that movie.”

It was a total reaction to punk.

“Oh yeah. If you look back over the history of music, you started out with your basic rock ’n’ roll. Then you kinda got into your basic hippie love music. Then you get from hippie love music into disco, and then you get punk rock reacting to disco, and then you get metal reacting to punk rock, and then you get grunge reacting to metal. It just keeps going. We didn’t learn anything from that movement so let’s try this one.”

Everyone loves Chris Holmes [from W.A.S.P.] floating in the swimming pool with the vodka.

“Anna put together all those interviews from beginning to end now so you can see that it wasn’t all vodka. It was a lot of swimming pool water. She goes, ‘Mom, do you really want to have people see that you didn’t tell the truth here?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t care.’ It’s a movie.”

Was anyone in the movie really concerned that they might be a punchline?

“Let me ask that question back. Was anyone ever really concerned that they might come off as a cartoon character? You’re trying not to insult me but I don’t care. You have to understand that I don’t care. I really don’t. Anna has the perfect answer for that. Back then, all they were doing – the musicians, the fans and the groupies – was common accepted behavior. It wasn’t as if everybody wasn’t doing it. It was OK. It was OK for a groupie to be a slut and admit it. It was kind of a badge of honor. Disgusting, I know. But that’s the truth. It was OK for a musician to admit that he wanted to go out with these young innocent girls. That was the consciousness of the time. People did that experiment. It was Caligula here in L.A. People always asked me, ‘Well, as a woman, did you feel bad that you were being treated the way that you were being treated?’ And I’m like, you don’t understand. I’m not all that gorgeous, OK? Plus, I don’t fluff it up like these girls do. I was never treated badly or discriminated against in a sexual way. They had too much else to work with.”

A lot of bands from the movies have reunited for tours over the years. Do you ever make their shows?

“My daughter goes out and sees bands. She goes to every X show. I have absolutely zero interest in listening to a live band anymore, I hate to say. I asked that to my crazy boyfriend about 10 years ago, why don’t we go to clubs anymore? And he said, ‘When you’ve been out on Ozzfest, and you’ve been to 30 cities, and you’ve shot 10 bands a day,’ – I did that movie We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’n’ Roll for Sharon and Ozzy – you really don’t feel like seeing any more bands.’ Here’s another one from him. I said to him one day, ‘How do you make time slow down, because it seems to be going by so fast?’ And he said, ‘Go to jail.’”

Is there anyone you stay in touch with now?

“I’m in touch mostly with the kids from Decline III. Anna is in touch with the bands and the fans in Decline II and in I, and she was so before she wanted to do the DVDs, and I think that’s one reason she kept pushing me to do it.”

How old is Anna?

“My daughter?”



[Puzzled guffaw] She’s what?

“I’m kidding. I’m joking. See that would make me really young if she was 12. She’s 45. Oh yeah, she’s a grown-up. She looks like she’s a grown-up. But she’s still a teenager in her head. I don’t know what happened.”

When did she get engaged in your work?

“Oh, from the very beginning. She was always at the punk-rock shows. Not when I was shooting. She was nine years old. She’d tell stories of falling asleep in the booth at the Whisky when she was ten. I feel so guilty for even doing it. On Decline II, she worked in the office and made all the cold calls to the superstars I could never believe we even got to be in the movie. She knew the movies better than me, because I’d forgotten them and moved on.”

Yeah, that’s healthy.

“I did not want to say, this is all I’ve got. I wanted to do different things. She made me at one point actually sit down and watch each of the movies from beginning to end, and it was miserable. I had to do it. It was like either being at the dentist for a year-and-a-half or being at the shrink for a year-and-a-half. Miserable.”

I reckon that Decline III will be the discovery of the set. What inspired it?

“I was driving down Melrose. I guess these ideas happen when I’m driving. I saw this pack of kids that look like the poster for Suburbia walking down the street. They look like they just stepped out of 1977, what’s up with that?”

What did you learn about them in the process of making the doc? Most people don’t know much at all about them because it doesn’t intersect with pop culture.

“True punk rock doesn’t promote itself. It goes against the ethic. That’s another reason the box set didn’t come out for a long time. I kept saying to Anna, ‘I feel like I’m selling out.’ She goes, ‘Fear is playing with the Offspring, get the fuck over it!’ I definitely sold out when I did the studio movies, and I probably wouldn’t have done them if I was able to make the other scripts I had written and I would have been poor and everything today, ha ha ha! After Wayne’s World it was just like fuck it, I can’t do the movies I want to do so I’ll just take the money. That’s the money I used, part of it, to do Decline III, and that’s why it’s able to say what it said. If someone would have been writing me a check to do that movie they would not have allowed me to be as honest as I was about the condition of homeless kids in this country. And that was 18 years ago, and it’s worse today, and people don’t know about it. It stays underground. I became a foster parent after doing Decline III because I felt like I needed to actively do something besides make a movie about it.

How many kids have you fostered?

The goal of the California foster system as of 1984 is to reunite the child with the family. The older the child gets, the more they want to be with their family. The children I had ranged from 9 to 15. I had five of them for varying lengths of time. The stories that these kids have to tell is far worse than anything that’s in Decline III. The one kid I’ve had twice, her mom’s a prostitute and she’s got four kids, four different guys, and none of them know who their dad is. I mean, it’s just a mess. So, I do that, to try to help. It’s kind of depressing. But, you know, I think it helps.

And so, the inevitable question, will there be another installment of Decline?

We started shooting Decline IV. It’s a little baby embryo in the depths of the Final Cut Pro system in the editing room. We’ll be able to get back to it soon. We’re doing a theatrical tour right now with the [first three]. It’s a total of about 20 cities nationally. I feel like one of those rock stars, ‘Hello, Toledo!’”

Is there a theme for IV?

“You’re so casual, I almost answered you. I almost slipped up.  Everybody has a camera today. I would guess that they’re probably faster than me, too. So if I tell you, anybody can go do it. So I have to keep my mouth shut.”

Well, I was curious how you follow the three you’ve done.

“We have the perfect one.  Here’s the funny part. You could never guess it. But once you see it, you’ll go ‘Of course.’ I’ve got everyone trying to guess.”