Talking with Penelope Spheeris
Spheeris found commercial success with Wayne's World, The Little Rascals and other films, and went on to make the boisterously entertaining Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Now there's Decline of Western Civilization Part III, which documents the homeless punks in L.A. and the punk rock music they listen to.
The Little Rascals was just on HBO or Showtime or one of those channels. It was really great. What was that like, working with all those kids?
When I started working on it, Steven Spielberg said to me, because he was the executive producer, "You're gonna have the time of your life working with these little kids." I was like, "Yeah, right, Steven." But you know what, he was absolutely right. Because kids are so?I don't know, I always describe them like they've got one foot in heaven. They're just really sweet. Every day I left that set I felt high from being with those kids. But sometimes they would get distracted, because they don't understand making movies. Darla was four years old. We had to hold her feet so she wouldn't walk out of the frame. Buckwheat was only four years old.
Did you have to deal with any weird stage mothers?
No, not really. You know why? It was because none of the kids were stars. If I would have had a little Macaulay Culkin, I might've had some trouble. The parents were all so happy that their kids were involved that they were very cooperative.
How'd you get into the Decline films?
The first time I was just hanging around with all the punk kids here in L.A. and going to all the shows, and I was so knocked out by the fact that this is a totally new form of music. I felt totally compelled to make a movie about the subject. Probably the same way you felt when you wrote your book [Sarah]?"I've got to get this down so that other people can know about it." I went and did this little thing for nothing, but it put me on the map.
Are you still in touch with any of the folks from the first movie?
Lee Ving called me just the other day?the lead singer in Fear. I see John Doe every once in a while, from X. Keith Morris from the Circle Jerks is still a friend of mine. A couple other people are no longer with us. The lead singer in Catholic Discipline is dead?I guess he's dead. Claude Bessy. He was also the guy who wrote Slash magazine.
It seems like in the Decline 3 you started out focusing on the music and then?did you know you were gonna end up making the movie about gutter punks?
No, I didn't. I actually thought since there was such a revival of interest in punk music?you know, what with the Rancid and Green Day and whatever else?that I was gonna be doing the next generation of punk kids. But then I started looking at the music that was out on the street. I love that band the Resistance. I love Naked Aggression. The more interesting fact to me was that there were so many kids out on the street, homeless. And really the only thing that they had was they kinda just attached themselves to a punk rock lifestyle, and I focused on that. A lot of those guys are my friends, too.
Is Spoon [one of the film's gutter punk girls, who was charged with killing her boyfriend] in jail still?
No, she got out. She was acquitted of the crime of murder... She had a defense built on the spouse-abuse thing. She was protecting herself, because they did fight a lot.
You saw that film Streetwise?
Yeah. Great film. So good. I cried so much in that movie when one of those kids died.
Do you see any comparisons?
There's a comparison just in terms of kids out on the street trying to make their way in the world, don't have a family. The difference is that those punk kids have a certain philosophical ethic that they kinda go by. I mean, it wasn't punk rock kids in Streetwise. But in both situations the issue is survival.
You've had a hard time getting distributors for Decline 3?
Yeah. I got some offers. Nothing that I felt was fair, given its potential. It cost me about $265,000 of my own money?and you're the only person that I've told that! But anyway, yeah, I paid for it myself. And so far it has made back only a very small amount of that.
Did you think about putting it on HBO or something like that?
I will at some point. But first what I'm gonna do with it is put it out with a series, the first, second and third Decline. Video and DVD. I don't do those movies to make money. As a matter of fact, I didn't make any money on the first Decline at all. On the second Decline I made only my salary, which I think was $30 or $40 thousand. And I certainly haven't made any money on the third one.
I never really hung with the gutter punks. I didn't fit in with them. I mean, I've been to punk shows and I've hung out with punks, it just wasn't my scene.
The fact that your mom was one, that's enough of an education.
I always was jealous of the way the punks were very much a tribe. I did the whole L.A./San Francisco/Portland/Seattle scene. A lot of them really pride themselves that they don't trick?but a lot of them actually do, they just don't tell each other about it.
The way I look at that kind of life is, you gotta forgive them for so much, because no one's taught them values, no one's taught them how to get along in the world. They just kind of throw 'em out there and hope they float. I want my movies to try and show other people that we have to forgive the kids, even if they're not conducting themselves in exactly the right way. It's just about human understanding.
There was a way that you asked the questions, a way that your tone was kind of very aggressive, when you're asking pretty intense questions. I know that these are questions that they've answered before?any kid who's been on the street or been through the system. But there was this guy and he's talking about how his mother used to beat him with a two-by-four. And you said, "So what?"
Well, you're 20 years old. It's easy to criticize my way of doing things. But I think you should probably just step back a little bit and ask yourself what other major Hollywood film director is spending their own money trying to make people aware of the homeless kids out there. Maybe I didn't do everything perfectly in the film, but at least I tried to make people aware of the problem.
I agree and I?
I mean, is Oliver Stone spending his money to help these kids? Or is Michael Bay, who directs those big old action movies? Maybe they're spending their money on other things, on other charities?which is their perfect right. I have to say... I don't think it's fair to be criticized because I may have said a word wrong.
I guess it's because you are a part of the story, in terms of the filmmaking.
Yeah, I'm like a character, because my voice is so present.
When the squat burns down and you are filming the kids' reaction to it, you had real moments of emotion?they weren't just doing it by rote. I guess other times it almost feels like you're taking people on a tour?these are the gutter punks, these are their sob stories?but without asking them to feel anything.
Well, as a filmmaker I think I've transcended that one. I mean I think I've shown over the years with the films that I've made that I'm not a tourist in the area.
Suburbia was prophetic.
I made Suburbia in 1983. Seventeen years later, and here it is the same thing... I think there's gonna be more and more kids out there on the street. In the streets of Rio De Janeiro, kids run around in packs and the cops shoot them. We're not far from that.
One thing the policeman said when you interviewed him?he talked about how starved they are for attention.
I think someone that is truly a punk doesn't like that media attention. I think they have disdain for the media.
There were a number of films being made when I was on the street that I ran away from. But when someone kinda proves that they're for real, it's different. You feel you might be heard.
I got one guy, Pinwheel, I got working for me, who runs around and does messenger stuff for me. Whenever I see him on the street I always stop and give him money. I have such respect for them because they don't call me and hit on me. They don't call me and go, "Penelope I need such and such and such and such, I've gotta borrow some money." They never do that. They know how to reach me. They've got a lot of pride. They won't allow themselves to call me and ask for stuff.
What has the reaction to the film been so far?
Excellent. We won the prize at Sundance. The Freedom of Expression Award. The L.A. Times review is really righteous. To be honest with you, the press has been really supportive.
How do you hope the movie affects the public?
I would hope that if they have children they realize what a treasure they are. If they don't make a lifetime commitment to take care of them, they shouldn't have them. That's what I think... I think the reason it gets me, when I was growing up I was the oldest of four kids. My father was murdered when I was seven. If I didn't take care of the other kids I got my ass kicked. I pulled myself out of it. I don't know how. I always say I should have been dead or in jail. I pulled myself out of a lot of abuse. I was abused as a child, physically, and I don't tell that to a lot of people. I think that's why when the subject comes up it makes me cry. Still to this day.
Did you tell any of the kids about your past?
Well, it's only because...um, I mean, I'm obviously doing well now... When you're doing as well as I am?I'm crying, I can't believe this?it's hard to get sympathy from anybody for anything... I don't tell too many people that..
It shouldn't matter, but it does.
My mother was married nine times total.
My mom got married lots of times, didn't get no divorces.
Right. No divorces, just a bunch of marriages. My stepfathers were just like these drunk sailor dudes, like one time this guy picked me up and threw me against the stucco house and dragged me against it, my whole back was bloody, and I went running to my neighbor's house. I went back a couple hours later and I picked a lamp up from the table, he was passed out in the chair, and hit him over the head with the lamp. Now, I could have killed him. You know what I mean? I was 17 years old. Things like that happened my whole life, after my father got killed.
How was he killed?
He was murdered in Alabama, in a racial incident. He was protecting a black man, and a white guy didn't like that. So he pulled out a gun and shot him... So I've had kind of a shitty life, and like yourself, I'm trying to pull myself out of it.
How old were you when you made the first Decline?
Thirty or so, something like that.
Were you in therapy?
Oh yeah, I was 13 years with the same shrink. It's the only thing that saved me.
Do you still talk to that shrink?
I talk to her every day in my head. But I haven't been back in a while because I'm trying not to be dependent on her.
Decline of Western Civilization Part III opens July 7, at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th St. (betw. University Pl. & Fifth Ave.), 924-3363.
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