THERE ARE FILMMAKERS who capture vital moments, and there are filmmakers who make lighthearted comedies like Black Sheep and The Beverly Hillbillies. Penelope Spheeris is both. While she got paychecks for movies like Wayne's World, the meat of Spheeris' career is The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy: Each documentary covers a corner of Los Angeles' music scene, from punk rock (1981's The Decline of Western Civilization), to hair metal (1988's The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years), to the gutter punk lifestyle (1998's The Decline of Western Civilization Part III).
This weekend, the Hollywood Theatre is showing remastered versions of all three films, with Spheeris in attendance. The director discussed the trilogy with the Mercury—along with the creative curse of Wayne's World and the possibility of a Rodeo Drive killing spree.
MERCURY: Why did you call the first film The Decline of Western Civilization?
PENELOPE SPHEERIS: When I called it that, it was meant to be... let's just say ironic. A little bit smartass.
What was the catalyst behind the first Decline film?
I guess just that I was going to all the punk shows. I had always been interested in music. I've been going to concerts since I was a kid, and I had never seen anything like what happened at punk shows.
Because people thought the punk scene was a negative thing?
Exactly. As time's gone on, it's unfortunately fulfilled its tag, because when you see Decline III, you say, "Oh dear, it is declining!"
The second Decline is more silly and fun. Why did you feel it was necessary to document that scene at that time?
That's two separate issues there. Yes, it is silly and fun, but I think if I were using my own money, like I did on Decline III, it would've had a different feel to it. In the big picture, I never would've gotten to do Wayne's World had Decline II not been silly and fun. It was the producers that kind of skewed it that way. I wanted to make it more serious.
I can't complain, because various positive things resulted from the fact that it was a lot more frivolous.
Did the bigger rock stars in the film decide how they wanted to be portrayed, or was that your influence?
I wanted them to tell me how they wanted to be filmed.
So Paul Stanley said, "I want to be lying in a bed with three women while I'm being interviewed"?
Yeah, have you heard the story? This is the truth! When he came to shoot that day, we had these three girls lined up to be in the bed with him. He took me aside and said, "Penelope, oh, I'm sorry, but... um... these girls aren't attractive enough." And I said, "I'm sorry Paul. Those are the girls I have. We don't have a lot of money here, and I can't hire more girls." So, he went and called the Playboy Mansion—swear to God—and he got three girls from the Playboy Mansion to come down. I had to tell the less attractive girls to go away. I've always wanted to see if I could find them and ask, "How did you feel that day?" [Laughs.]
Decline II is not all fun. The Chris Holmes interview is kind of scary. It's heavy seeing him literally drowning himself in booze because you see the rock 'n' roll lifestyle has taken a toll on him.
That's pure Penelope coming out. There were people that were writing checks that really weren't part of the scene, you know? From their perspective it was silly.
I don't know how the hell I got stuck doing this comedy crap because I'm actually a serious person. Once I did Wayne's World, that's all I could do in the film business. I did serious films before that. Wayne's World was a blessing on a financial level, and a curse on a creative level.
Wayne's World portrays as much of a special time in American culture as the Decline films, but it definitely was a turn for you.
I'm not complaining, I'm just stating a fact. Had I been able to be the filmmaker I had in mind when I left college, I would've done movies that had more substance and less fluff to them.
More Declines and fewer Beverly Hillbillies?
Exactly. Then again, I don't think I would've made the money I have. Still, in my mind I'm totally poor because I didn't make any money until I did Wayne's World and I was 45. By the time you're that age, you kind of are who you are. I still shop at Target and buy my clothes on eBay. You could not find me on Rodeo Drive unless I was killing people [laughs].
The third Decline film is the heaviest. It starts out about the music, then becomes about the gutter punks. Was that your intent?
I didn't know these kids were gutter punks until I got to know them. I just thought they were fun-loving kids that were dressed up like that. They loved punk rock music and they had no doubt seen the first Decline because they looked just like those kids in that movie. I just saw them walking down the street on Melrose one day, so I pulled over and talked to them because I felt [by] how they looked they were my soul mates. I told them I'd like to make Decline III, and they said, "Well, you can't do that, because Penelope has to do that." And I said, "I am Penelope." Then they said, "Oh. Well, then let's go for it." So I did Decline III, and I spent my own money on that one. Then, I couldn't get it released because it was so depressing.
To answer your previous question, yes, it turned out to be more about homeless kids than about music. Once I saw their situation, I couldn't turn my back on that. I had to go down that road and understand why they were out there on the street.
You wanted to make the film to show who these people were.
That's right. I got my foster care license too, so I could try to help. The film didn't get released so people couldn't see it.... Now, because of the other two movies, people are seeing Decline III. To me, that movie is the most important movie I ever did. It says something. It has a message to it: take care of your children.
Right. The other two are kind of a moment in time, but this one is always gonna be happening.
Yeah. Children are always gonna be mistreated by irresponsible parents. They think that happens a lot in the ghetto, or the barrio, but no. It happens in the Inland Empire, in white-bread America. It happens all over the country. People just ignore it.