Hotseat: Penelope Spheeris

The filmmaker talks about punk rock and losing her temper.

Teenage angst has paid off well for Penelope Spheeris. Her breakout film, the remarkable 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, chronicled the Los Angeles punk-rock scene, with performances and interviews from Black Flag, Germs, Circle Jerks, X and others. She would go on to make two follow-up films in the Decline series, one about heavy metal and another about gutter-punk teens. Her narrative films Suburbia and Dudes also home in on the darker sides of youth culture, and her biggest commercial success, Wayne's World, needs no introduction. Now 67, Spheeris still isn't quite ready to grow up. "I have always done movies about teenage angst," she says. "I'm sure it's just me trying to work out my own problems."

Spheeris will be in town as the guest of honor at this weekend's Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival. (For POW Fest recommendations, see next page.) Spheeris spoke with WW by telephone from Los Angeles about Hollywood's rules for women filmmakers, working with Mike Myers and why she doesn't listen to rock 'n' roll anymore.

WW: I hear you were already interviewed by The Oregonian's Marc Mohan, so I don't want to repeat the same conversation.

Penelope Spheeris: That was an odd interview, honestly. It turned out that the questions had more to do with being a woman in this business. We didn't really talk about my past work. His topic had to do with how women are treated in an unequal manner in Hollywood. Hopefully, yours won't be as well. Honestly, over the years it's just been a beaten-to-death issue. I don't know what to do about it. Nobody knows what to do about it.

What goes through your head when you're repeatedly asked those sorts of questions?

I understand why [Mohan] hit that so hard, and it's because it's a women's film festival, so you can't avoid the issue. Only 7 percent of the Directors Guild [of America] are women. We get stuck under different kinds of rules than the men do. Oliver Stone can have a flop with Alexander and then have another deal the next week, whereas if a woman has a flop, then you don't get another job immediately, if ever.

What else is different for women?

You don't see us getting arrested. You don't see us getting busted for DUI or drugs. We can't, because you just don't work after that. You can't lose your temper on the set. A guy loses his temper on the set and he's a genius. A woman loses her temper on the set and it's the wrong time of the month. That one is very, very true. You can't lose your temper, because there's something about an irate woman that is just off-limits in this business. I complained one time when I was working at Universal that some guys in the transportation department were—what shall I say? My assistant was an attractive girl and they were trying to pick her up. They would harass her, so I complained about it, and guess who got in trouble? Me. They think you should keep your mouth shut.

You've made several documentaries about music, most notably about punk rock. What's your relationship with music?

I had a very difficult upbringing, as many people do. I had seven stepfathers and an alcoholic mother. I went toward music to ease the pain. Music became my friend: I totally related to it and escaped with it. I remember the first time I put music together with a piece of film when I was a student at UCLA. It was like the heavens opened up. I just felt ecstatic when I saw what would happen when you put the two together. It was a film called Hats Off to Hollywood, and it was a song by Traffic called "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," and I put it together with a couple of very colorful drag queens walking down Hollywood Boulevard. I'll never forget how I felt when I put the music to the film. It felt like I had a calling. And this is before MTV. When I did the first Decline, it was 1980. Afterward, people would say, "Why did you copy MTV?" My answer was, I think it was the other way around.

What kind of music drew you?

In my younger years, it was just plain old rock 'n' roll. I cannot hear a song that was on the radio before 1970 that I don't know every lyric to. And then they get stuck in my head. Mike Myers, when we were working on Wayne's World, said, "I think I'm gonna start a school that will help you get a song out of your head." I kind of gave up on music in the early '70s; it started getting to be very disco and pop. Then, when the Sex Pistols came around and tore the walls down, I got back into it. 

What kind of music do you listen to now?

I really like to listen to meditation music, where it's very Zen and ethereal. I don't listen to punk rock, I don't listen to heavy metal, I don't listen to rock 'n' roll.

What do you have in the works?

I have a follow-up to the Decline series [about punk rock]. I haven't told anybody else that yet. But I also have a narrative picture called Boneyard about a heavy-metal band.

What's the state of the punk-rock scene?

My daughter is very much into it, and sometimes I'm glad about that, sometimes I'm not. It is flourishing, to be honest with you. It's bigger now than it ever was. It really has become extremely pervasive, not only in the United States but internationally, and not only with the music, but with the fashion and the look and even the philosophy and the standards. One of the aspects of punk rock is that it's kind of creepy to promote yourself. You don't see me promote myself a lot. I think I've had an extended career just because I don't oversaturate. I'm not Kim Kardashian, thank God. For me, it just has to do with self-respect. 

You directed Mike Myers and Dana Carvey in Wayne's World. What was that like?

One of the great moments was when Dana and Mike were lying on the hood of the car on a soundstage and they were supposed to be at the airport watching the planes go overhead. It was the last day of the shoot, and they were both so exhausted that they got into one of those laughing fits, and Mike just started spitballing. It was insane. We started talking about Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny or something, and it was just an insane moment when Mike started having this stream of consciousness. It didn't make any sense, but it was funny as hell. And when we were doing that headbanging scene in the car, Mike said he didn't want to keep doing it because his head hurt, his neck hurt and he didn't think it was funny. I made him do it over and over and over and over again, and he was a little bit upset with me, but it turns out that's the memorable moment in the movie. Sometimes you have to negotiate with the actors. I had to shoot that movie three times. I had to shoot it my way, I had to shoot it Dana's way, I had to shoot it Mike's way, and sometimes, when Lorne [Michaels] was around, I had to shoot it his way. 

SEE IT: POW Fest is at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 281-4215. Spheeris' films show on Saturday, March 9: Dudes (2 pm), Suburbia (7 pm) and The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (9 pm). Conversations with Spheeris follow the 2 and 7 pm screenings. $7, festival pass $60. 

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