Anybody out there remember Penelope Spheeris? She was the intellectual director’s intellectual director. Cool, hip, tougher than tough.
A 70’s punk film movement pioneer, Ms. Spheeris (we wouldn’t dare pretend to be on a first name basis with a woman we feel great admiration for while also finding her – well, we find her terrifying, to be honest) directed the smash hit Wayne’s World in 1992, had her way with whatever properties she wanted after that, ands then vanished from Hollywood’s grace after the flop film Senseless in 1998.
Here’s how it went down:
Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris on leaving Hollywood behind: “They can blow me”
by Katie Rife
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….