Penelope Spheeris on Her Eventful Directing Career: ‘I Don’t Know if Hollywood Quit Me, or I Quit Hollywood’

Pat Saperstein
·10-min read

Trailblazing director Penelope Spheeris has very few fucks left to give.

Spheeris first came on the scene with her Los Angeles punk rock documentary “Decline of Western Civilization,” followed by the disturbing punk drama “Suburbia” starring Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea. But after directing several more independent films, huge success with “Wayne’s World,” and then some lightweight studio comedies, she basically lost faith in Hollywood. A run-in with the Weinsteins was one of the main catalysts, coupled with the industry’s general lack of interest in women filmmakers at the time.

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For now, filmmaking is on the back burner while she finishes working on building two houses in L.A. and taking care of her foster kids. While making “Decline Part III,” she developed a deep connection with the runaway teens portrayed in the documentary, and started fostering children. She’s also writing a book about her wild ride in the business, and has a few more stories left to tell in documentary form.

The child of carnival workers, Spheeris spent her childhood bouncing around various trailer parks in Southern California, then attended UCLA film school at the same time as Paul Schrader. Before diving into the punk rock scene, she started the first music video company in Los Angeles and produced some of the early shorts for “Saturday Night Live,” where she met Albert Brooks through Lorne Michaels, and came on to produce Brooks’ “Real Life.”

Candid and irreverent, Spheeris spoke to Variety about working as a director in the ‘80s and ‘90s in honor of Women’s History Month.

Did your early life lead you to identify with outsiders?

I think in doing those documentaries, what I was trying to do was understand myself and understand why my mother and my seven stepfathers behaved the way they did. Because for me growing up, it was insane and chaotic and inexplicable, and I kind of had to make sense out of it.

Why did you make a punk rock narrative film, “Suburbia,” right after punk rock documentary “Decline of Western Civilization”?

When I did the first “Decline,” I couldn’t get theaters, the whole concept was so misunderstood. Everybody was so afraid, they wouldn’t book it. I remember sitting down with the Mann brothers, up on Hollywood Blvd., they had the Mann Chinese, and they said “Nobody’s going to come see a documentary in a theater, and no one’s going to come see a punk rock documentary. If you want people to see a movie about punk rock, you have to write a narrative movie, that’s got a real story, a plot, a beginning, middle and end.” The first “Decline” couldn’t get released back then, but recently it was inducted into the Library of Congress national film registry. It only took 40 years! People finally got it. Flea refers to “Suburbia” as the punk rock bible, he goes all over the world and kids everywhere now know it.

“Suburbia” is a pretty dark film…

I was just working out my own troubles. A lot of the stories are stories either I experienced or my friends experienced. I just melded them together and stirred them up and made a different thing out of them. Darby Crash’s mother had lost another child before Darby, and he overdosed like Darby did. Instead of calling an ambulance or the cops, they put the young man in the mom’s car and she came out in the morning and that’s how she found her son.

For the Chris Pedersen role, the first person I went out to was Henry Rollins. He would have been perfect, but Chris did a good job. Rollins told me on a talk show that Black Flag told him if he did the movie, he couldn’t be in the band anymore. So I finally stopped being mad that he turned it down.

What was it like working with Roger Corman, who produced “Suburbia”?

He was very welcoming, he liked that I already had half the money. Roger gave me two or three typed-out pages of how to be a director.

What did it say?

“Sit down in your director’s chair as much of the day as possible.” “Always cover one side of the room first and then flip your camera around and cover the other.” They were actually good suggestions, Roger knew how to make movies.

After I did “Suburbia,” he took me down to his studio in Venice and said, “I have to show you this spaceship that we made, because if you want to make a sci-fi movie, we can make it here.” And I thought, “You don’t get me at all, Roger. I’m not into sci-fi!”

What happened after you directed “Suburbia” and before “Wayne’s World”?

I was doing a lot of music videos. I did the second “Decline,” the Metal Years, and I did a movie with Jon Cryer called “Dudes.” I did a movie with Charlie Sheen about teenage serial killers (“The Boys Next Door”) and I did “Hollywood Vice Squad,” a movie with Sandy Howard producing, who I call the low-dollar Roger Corman.

Even lower-budget than Roger Corman?

When we were shooting at the old Brown Derby on Vine, I heard somebody in the other room say “Action!” and it was Sandy directing a scene. Today, with the Directors Guild, you just can’t do that. I went in and said, “What the hell are you doing?” And he said “I want to make sure we stay on schedule, and we might get behind if I don’t shoot these scenes over here.” Stuff like that, being a woman in the ‘80s, and not in the Directors Guild, you just got stepped on. If I was a guy he probably wouldn’t have done that.

How did you get the “Wayne’s World” gig?

I had known Lorne, who asked me to work on “SNL” when he first started it and hired me to produce “Real Life.” He asked me to teach Albert Brooks how to direct a movie. Of course a woman couldn’t direct it, a man had to direct it. I got “Wayne’s World” because I knew Lorne already and had done “Decline Part II,” which was about headbangers. Wayne and Garth thought they were headbangers, but they really weren’t. Don’t tell anyone!

Do you feel like you would have gotten more opportunities if it had been a different time?

I‘m absolutely positive that if I had come up a bit later I would have been able to do the movies I wanted to do. I have stacks of scripts that I wrote that I could never get made that were like “Suburbia,” more serious subject matter. Because the only movie that blew up and made a bunch of money was a goofball comedy, “Wayne’s World.” Then they kept offering me lots of money to do stuff like “Little Rascals” and “Black Sheep.”

I would have rather been a little more poor and have done the movies I really think would have made a difference in the world. I’m not bitter about it, but when I look back it’s like I think if I was a dude, it would have been different.

As a woman, is it harder to get the next directing job?

A male film director can get arrested for drunk driving while on cocaine with a hooker in the car and then go ahead and get a deal the next day to direct a $50 million dollar movie. If a woman director gets arrested for drunk driving, there’s no way you work after that, you’re a danger.

When you got a male director on the set and he’s a screamer and obnoxious and hard to get along with, we call that a genius. And if you have a woman who’s a screamer and hard to get along with, they call that the wrong time of the month.

What happened when you worked for the Weinsteins?

What took me down was the fact that in the ‘90s, I worked with the Weinsteins on “Senseless.” The script started out brilliant, with Marlon Wayans and David Spade starring. They kept rewriting it and sending me pages the day before, and I kept saying, “Let me just shoot the original script I signed up to do.” They messed it up and then it didn’t do well, and then they bad-rapped me. So I had the Weinsteins bad-rapping me and I couldn’t get a job.

Luckily they never did anything inappropriate, because I was too old or something. But they sure did mess me up otherwise, and they messed up my head, because I knew it was wrong, what they were trying to do, and I knew it was going to mess up the movie. But Bob Weinstein said, “It’s my fucking money and I’ll spend it any way I want.” By the time you get done dealing with that kind of thing, you kind of don’t want to be in the business anymore, and that’s where I was at.

After writing for “Roseanne,” did you think about doing more television?

I tried television a couple of times, and I don’t think the shoe fits.

Are there are any actors you really wish you could have worked with, or films you wish you had been hired for?

For a while it was Gary Oldman, but now I’m over that too. I don’t know really if Hollywood fired me or I quit but all I know is I don’t really give a crap anymore.

It’s hard to not be jaded and bitter and negative. I just try to keep my head up and stay positive. Every so often I get reminded of things that were really emotional difficult to deal with as a woman director in this town and I have to let those thoughts go away because they’re very hurtful.

You must have some great stories over the years…

I’m writing a book, we’re going to spill the beans. I don’t want to scare people, I can’t scare some because they’re in jail!

Do you admire any women filmmakers?

I did have a great appreciation for “Nomadland.” But you kind of have to twist my arm to watch a movie. My boyfriend can’t sit with me and watch a movie because all I do is talk about how the lighting doesn’t match.

You’ve mentioned a “Decline Part 4” over the years?

I had a lot of it in my editing machine. I got sidetracked working on a movie about my mother who ran away with the carnival. Then I decided I needed to build two houses. Now that they’re done, I’m going to jump back into those documentaries.

Do you prefer working on docs or narrative?

The thing about the documentary world now, is it’s become cluttered and unfocused. Everybody’s doing it and nobody’s doing it right in my opinion, you just get lost in the crowd. I know that my dramatic narrative pieces may get made someday, because they’re good scripts. But for now, I’m going to doing to do those two documentaries, build a couple of houses and take care of a couple of foster kids.

How many kids have you fostered?

Over the last six or seven years, I’ve probably had six of them. When I did the “Decline Part III,” which was about homeless gutter punks, I got to have an experience that really changed my life, which was to really live with them and learn about them and understand their condition. It gave me such an understanding of their situation, I thought the only thing I could do to help would be a foster parent.

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