Serious Rock & Roll Anthropology
An interview with SXSW honoree Penelope Spheeris
"Attention: Please be advised that by your entry upon these premises, you are consenting to being photographed and filmed and otherwise having your likeness used in video and for motion pictures and for other purposes. Thank you."
Right up front you knew that The Decline of Western Civilization was not a film that was going to pull any punches. It went for the gut straight out of the chute, and before you knew it, you were down and out with the firestorm onscreen. The advisement above, issued in more or less the same form by members of seminal Los Angeles punk bands X, the Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Fear, Circle Jerks, and the Germs, opens Penelope Spheeris' infamous 1981 documentary on the L.A. punk scene.
Looking at the film now, it's hard to remember a time when punk rawk wasn't pre-packaged, market-ready, unit-shifting bubblepunk, but there it is, right in front of you in all its sweaty black leather and arthouse fury, spitting and swilling and flaying everything in sight.
Spheeris went on to direct two more documentaries in the Decline series (the second deals with mid-Eighties heavy metal bands, the third with destitute street punks, and both cleverly repeat the now-famous advisement from the first film), but the mainstream knows her best for directing the 1992 smash hit Wayne's World. It was her first studio film (for Paramount), grossing over $183 million worldwide (plus another $54 million in video sales/rentals) and soundly tagged Spheeris as a comedy-film MVP. It wasn't a label she particularly appreciated, though, and her output in the 1990s has been a series of middle-ground comedies along the lines of The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), Black Sheep (1996), and Senseless (1998).
Spheeris' new film is a jaw-dropping and entirely welcome return to the documentary form: We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll chronicles Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne's Ozzfest, the highest-grossing touring concert festival of the past five summers. Like the Decline series, We Sold Our Souls revels in the outlandish theatrics of fringe rock & roll, at the same time paying homage to Ozzy and heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath. Bad craziness abounds, along with gatecrashing fans, thunderous, chaotic Nü-metal, and those wacky guys from Slipknot.
Prior to Spheeris' appearance at SXSW Film for a retrospective in her honor, I spoke with her by phone from her home in Los Angeles and asked her what she'd learned in her 25-plus years fighting the good fight in the bad city.
Listen up, punkaroos. Class is in session:
Austin Chronicle: How did you get access to the L.A. punk scene back when you were shooting The Decline of Western Civilization? Had you been a part of that already?
Penelope Spheeris: The way it came about was that I had produced a film with Albert Brooks [Real Life, 1979] which immediately convinced me that I never wanted to produce a movie again. And so I decided maybe I should direct. I had gone through the film program at UCLA, but back in those days, if you were a woman, you didn't ever say that you wanted to be a director. I'd always been a music fan and had been going around to these punk rock shows, and a friend of mine said he knew some guys who wanted to make a porno movie, and I said, "hey, punk rock." They were a couple of business guys from the San Fernando Valley who had some extra money to throw around and decided that they wanted to do a porno. Well, I convinced them to do The Decline instead. To this day they're actually glad they did it, too. I'm sure they would have made more money on the porno movie, but this way we ended up making history instead.
AC: What was the best thing about that shoot, and what was the worst?
PS: I think probably my intense obsession and passion to just go out and do it was the best part, you know? I would go to the bars, and there would be other people there who would be shooting, and I'd walk up to them and say, "Excuse me, I'm sorry, you can't shoot here because I'm shooting here." And they would stop! That would never happen today. I just felt like it was my domain, and I was somehow driven to just do the movie.
I think the worst thing about that shoot was that I was younger then, and when you're that age people still have that adolescent competition thing going on, and I think there was some bad feelings, maybe.
AC: Meaning what?
PS: Well, I wanted to shoot the Go-Go's, but they didn't want to do it because they were too cool or something. In my mind I was thinking, "Should I really shoot the Go-Go's? Because they're really just total sellouts, and I don't like their music, but it would really help the movie, but I could get the movie to do better," and so on. Years later, VH1 did a Go-Go's Behind the Music special and wanted to license my audience shots to make it look like they were actually in the scene, if you can believe it.
When I did The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, Guns 'N' Roses said no, too.
AC: I read recently that somebody was trying to get a biopic about [the late Germs singer] Darby Crash off the ground.
PS: I read that. It was a good script, actually.
AC: What was it like hanging around the Germs back then? Was it as chaotic as it seems to have been?
PS: I remember I went down to listen to them for the very first time in a tiny little garage somewhere in West L.A. -- I guess it might have been Darby's mom's place -- and the original band was there, Pat Smear [most recently of Foo Fighters] and everyone. Joan Jett [producer of the Germs' only official release, GI] was in the car with us on the way there, and she was kind of toasted. By the time we actually got there to see the band, she was asleep.
I swear, though, I remember that day as being so amazing, because I was stuck in this tiny garage listening to the loudest music I'd ever heard, and the most psychologically disconcerting music I'd ever heard. It was a trip, definitely.
AC: Did you have any inkling during the shooting of Decline that it might go on to become this iconic work of independent documentary filmmaking? Because, you know, it really is right up there with D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back in terms of capturing that particular moment in musical history.
PS: I did! That's why I was so protective of it. I knew that it was historically important. I don't think I knew the degree to which it was historically important, but I did know that I was documenting something that needed to be preserved. I knew a lot about popular music, pretty much everything you could know at that point, and I had never seen anything like that punk rock movement. It was like night and day from the rest of all music history. And there hasn't been a change like that since, either.
AC: After Decline I, you did a series of indie features -- Suburbia (1984), Dudes (1987), The Boys Next Door (1986), and Hollywood Vice Squad (1986) -- that were arguably more mainstream. Were those all for Roger Corman's New World Pictures?
PS: I worked for Roger on Suburbia only. It was the first scripted piece that I had directed, and it was really exciting. When I look back, it was such an invigorating time, creatively speaking. Here I am, 20-odd years later, and I'm saying, "God, I wish I could get excited about things like I did back then." But you're just excited like that when you're young.
AC: How did you select the punk bands (D.I., TSOL, the Vandals, et al.) that were used in Suburbia? Did you know them previous to the shoot?
PS: Yeah, they were people who I knew, who were around on the scene and whose music I liked. Roger didn't care who I put in the film. He was like, "Oh, yeah, popular music of the day? Go ahead. Do whatever you want. I don't know anything about it." Roger was cool, man. I've still got this list from him titled "Things To Do When You're a Director."
AC: What's on it?
PS: The first thing it says is "Sit down a lot during the day. Get a really comfortable chair and sit down a lot, because your ass is going to be tired." Right? And it was true!
AC: In 1987 you made The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, which shifted focus from the punks of the first film to the Sunset Strip hair-metal bands (Poison, W.A.S.P., Faster Pussycat, et al.) that were all the rage at the time. How did making the second film differ from making the first?
PS: Well, first let me say you're talking to the person who turned down directing Spinal Tap because I love heavy metal music so much that I couldn't make fun of it. Ouch! Chris Guest and Harry Shearer came to me with the script, and I read it and said, "Dude, you can't make fun of this shit, because heavy metal is so cool. You just can't do it."
Not long after I passed on that, Miles Copeland from I.R.S. World Media gave me a couple of producers to do Decline II with, and they really looked down on the metal scene. You can see it in the film. I don't like that tone because, you know, I dig heavy metal music. And I dig punk rock, too. I know it's kind of weird to like both, but I do.
AC: 1992 saw the release of your first studio film, Wayne's World, and because of the film's success, your career was suddenly moving in a completely different direction, with comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Little Rascals, and Senseless becoming the order of the day instead of these gritty indie pieces you had been known for.
PS: Never to be reversed, either.
AC: How did that affect you?
PS: Once you make a movie that makes a hundred-however million dollars, that's all anybody wants you to do. Even though I had done The Boys Next Door, which was a very serious picture (maybe too serious), and Suburbia, which was also very serious, I've been tagged as a comedy director. I think of all my scripted pieces, I'm most proud of Suburbia, actually. If I could just start over and erase everything, I would have continued to make movies like Suburbia. But that's just not what was in the cards. At least I've been able to sell out, take the money, and use it to do the movies that I like. Like The Decline of Western Civilization III, which I paid for myself, and the new film, We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll, on which I worked for free.
AC: Decline III (1998) never got any distribution, and it's not available on video or DVD either. It's by far the most powerful of the Decline series. What happened with that? I couldn't even find a bootleg copy on eBay.
PS: The only offers I got were along the lines of distributing Decline III, but I had to give up DVD and video rights to all three films in the series. And my answer was, of course, no fucking way. I'm not going to give that up. I've still got the rights, much to the suffering of Decline III.
AC: In Decline III, which focuses on homeless L.A. street punks, you really get a feeling that things have hit rock bottom for the kids, some of whom end up dead. This, finally, is the decline of the title literally in action. Was the shoot tough to do, emotionally?
PS: Yeah, it was very difficult, emotionally and psychologically. But, you know, that's the thing I love about doing documentaries: It really teaches you about life. You gotta learn the good things, and you gotta learn the bad things. I wouldn't give up that experience for anything.
AC: Do you have a particular favorite amongst the trilogy?
PS: Decline III is closest to my heart. With Decline I, I really appreciate that people love it so much, but in its own way, it has become kind of mainstream. For that reason, I have to keep my old punk rock attitude and not dig it. Decline III is much closer to my heart. I always love the outcasts.
AC: We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll is a documentary about Ozzy Osbourne's wildly successful Ozzfest summer touring package. How was it hooking up with Ozzy again, who also made an appearance in Decline II?
PS: I've known him and [wife/manager] Sharon over the years since then, and I think that's why they felt comfortable with me doing the film in the first place. I think one of the reasons Ozzy is so eternally cool is that he keeps evolving as a person, you know? He's absolutely one of the five most amazing people I've ever met. Maybe top three. What can I say? The guy is just unbelievable. And Sharon is a whole goddess in her own right. This man adores her. He follows her around like a puppy. I ask her all the time, I say, "Sharon, how do I get a man like that?" I want one, too, that goes out and makes millions of dollars when you put him out on a stage and then comes home and doesn't want to be with anybody else but you. It's the most beautiful love relationship I've ever seen.
AC: Why Ozzfest?
PS: The Ozzfest is the biggest music festival the last five years running. It totally beat out Lilith Fair and the Lollapoloozers and all that. We got on a bus and hit about 15 cities on the tour and followed the bands, the fans, and focused a lot on Black Sabbath, but also on the other bands. Since the film has been completed, some of the bands have become really big. Like Slipknot, System of a Down, Static X, and Godsmack. There's a pretty broad fan base for the movie, I think.
AC: How does it differ from the Decline trilogy?
PS: This film is kind of like a bastard-son cross between The Decline of Western Civilization and Woodstock. You know what I mean? It's even trippier than Woodstock -- for me, anyway -- because you get to go all around the country. Somebody described it to me the other day as "serious anthropology." And what they're trying to say is what a lot of people have said about Decline, which is that this film is telling us a lot about what our culture is like at this point. For middle-class, white, drunk, American males, this is what it's like.
AC: Does what you saw while documenting the chaos of Ozzfest concern you, and by that I mean does it concern you in the same emotional way as Decline III?
PS: Yeah, because there's so much alcohol and really a lot of drugs. But the film itself is fun, right? When you walk out of We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll, you feel good. You feel kinda high. You just had a great time. When you walk out of Decline III, you're like, "Oh my god. We're fucked." But I do believe that they both present a pretty good, poignant look at what's going on.
AC: How have you seen women's positions in Hollywood change over the years since you first arrived on the scene?
PS: Well, it's better, in some ways. I'm in the Director's Guild of America and very active with it, but only 4% of the directors in the guild are women. Which is kind of pathetic. It's just really, really competitive. You've got to be pretty tough and pretty committed to do it. It's brutal.
AC: Do you find being a woman in the industry is an impediment to getting projects green-lighted and such?
PS: It's all about how much money your last movie made. If you're perfect for the script, they'll do anything to get you. It's not even about getting a green light on a movie, really. It's more about being perceived as having the ability to make it all work. The bottom line is that I really don't give a shit about doing most Hollywood movies. I just do 'em so I can make the money to do the things I care about.
AC: When you set out to do a documentary, what's foremost in your mind? What do you want to accomplish above everything else?
PS: My goal when I do a documentary is just to be open-minded and to let the film take me where it's going to take me. Often it's like these films have a life of their own, and whenever you start to try to form it into something that's not really, truly "it," then the film doesn't work anymore. It's like it's organic. It's freaky. It's a weird thing.
AC: Can you give me a specific example of that?
PS: Like, I didn't know that Decline III was going to be about gutterpunks when I started. I thought it was just going to be a whole bunch of really fun, punk rock bar bands who go out and party. I had no idea that I was going to end up making a movie about homeless kids, some of whom lost their life. I had no idea. But when I saw that was there, I couldn't turn away from it.
AC: One musical form you haven't come anywhere near is hip-hop. Why is that?
PS: I was offered millions and millions of dollars to do a Decline on rap, actually, and I didn't do it, because it's not a type of music that I sit down and listen to or that I know very well. I did a really fun piece on 2 Live Crew once, and way back I did a piece on Funkadelic. So I was there at the grassroots time of it all, and I enjoyed it from that perspective, but it's just not part of my life. So I turned down that opportunity because I didn't think it was right for me to do it if I didn't know it very well.
AC: Parting shots?
PS: Yeah, we shot We Sold Our Souls on high-definition, and you know what? I never want to shoot on film again as long as I live. It is unbelievable the way that it looks. We shot on HD and then converted to film, and we got the most awesome sound mix, too. You're sitting in the theatre watching this tremendous visual, and your insides are booming from the bass and it's like nothing you've ever seen or felt before. Viscerally, this movie is awesome. It just fucking rocks.
Penelope Spheeris will be in Austin for a SXSW Film retrospective of her work. See "Penelope Spheeris Retrospective," for details.