“I listen to Zen meditation music now,” director Penelope Spheeris says with a laugh, speaking to DAME by phone last week from her Los Angeles home. It’s especially funny considering that Spheeris is responsible for creating the rawest and most revered documentary about L.A.’s nascent punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization. Filmed in sweaty clubs and squatted buildings in 1979 and ’80, the film captures the chaos, creativity, and “fuck ’em all” ethos of bands like the Germs, X, Black Flag, and Circle Jerks—fledgling groups that would later go down in history as the makers of a movement. After years of being relegated to bootlegged copies and YouTube clips, The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy (which also includes a documentary about L.A.’s mid-’80s metal scene, and a third film that revisits L.A.’s punk scene in the late ’90s) is finally being released as a restored DVD box set (out Tuesday from Shout Factory) with an impressive panoply of extras. Spheeris, now 69, and her daughter Anna Fox, who joined our call, spent years putting the material together, culling footage from Spheeris’s vault of old VHS and antiquated DAT tapes. Despite a storied mainstream career that included stints as a producer on SNL and Roseanne and directing ’90s blockbusters including the iconic Wayne’s World, Decline is what Spheeris considers her life’s work. And it's easy to see why. She told us about Roseanne’s war zone, the misogyny of major movie studios, talking shit to Nikki Sixx, and how she survived the punk scene with all her teeth intact.
Penelope Spheeris: It was miserable, to be honest with you. It really was hard to have to sit there and go through my life. Because for me, this is my identity, The Decline is what I want to be remembered for when I’m dead. It’s like, please don’t remember me for Wayne’s World or [1996’s Chris Farley–David Spade movie] Black Sheep or any of that stuff. So it was hard because I just had to face all these different eras that I’ve lived through—and look at myself in the extras wearing all these funny clothes and hairdos—and it was heavy. Usually when you go to the shrink you’re there for an hour, well this was like being at the shrink for a year and a half.
PS: I felt like I was part of the scene, I was at all the shows before I started filming and it was a close-knit group, you saw the same people at the shows all the time. People are really curious about that and I think it’s because of—it always pisses me off when they bring it up, and I’m bringing it up myself now—the age difference. I was 33 years old so I was older than most of my subjects. I think people assume that I must’ve been an outsider but you know, when I did Decline III I was a LOT older than my subjects but I felt a part of their life and they’re still my good friends.
PS: Not really, I knew enough from going to the clubs before I started shooting how to navigate the crowds. One time I was [talking to] Greg Ginn from Black Flag; I wanted to convince him to be in the movie, and we were sitting out at some Dairy Queen or something, and all of a sudden from behind someone pulls me into a chokehold. Then Greg stands up and takes a swing, I look down and there’s a tooth on the cement there. His girlfriend thought I was trying to pick him up. She picked her tooth back up and put it in her pocket. So I ended up with all my teeth.
PS: Oh, that's so cute. Well then I must ask you to imagine how I felt right before I did the second Decline movie, when my daughter started going out with [Mötley Crüe’s] Nikki Sixx. That was horrible. She was 17 years old, and I made Nikki come over here ’cause anybody that's going to go out with my daughter has to meet me first.
PS: Well, the first thing he said to me was, "I don't like that you said that you didn't want your daughter going out with a 40-year-old heroin addict.” I said, “Oh, did I say that? Well, I'm sorry, how old are you then? I mean, I know you're a heroin addict so I must've got the age wrong, sorry.” So yeah, that was difficult for me, but you know, I probably deserved it after dragging her around to clubs her entire upbringing. Right Anna?
PS: One of the things that I was attracted to in the original punk movement in the late ’70s was the fact that it was very liberating for women in that they didn’t have to have that fluffy, glamorous, girly look. It was okay if you wanted to shave your head and wear combat boots and trousers. But I think we took a major step backward when the metal movement came in because then the girls totally overdid it the other way, and fluffed it up so much that it was asking for trouble sometimes.
PS: Yeah, I did. It’s kind of … demeaning is the word, that’s how it felt.
Anna Fox: But that was the strange movement of that time and it was totally accepted by the women it was being done to. Women liked being objectified, they enjoyed it. They liked being mud wrestlers and stuff.
PS: It was a time of misplaced values. And as you look at the various decades that have passed and the times that we’ve documented here, people’s standards and practices have changed through the generations. There was a collective consciousness that went on during the birth of punk rock in the late ’70s and then there was a different one in the mid-80s and then after that there was grunge. As a cultural group, we go along with the program until it doesn’t work anymore. And then we do something radically different. Right now I’m just waiting for something radically different.
PS: Honestly, it was more with the studio films that I felt that than with the independent documentary work. I remember when they opened Wayne’s World in the Village Theater in Westwood and all the guys from Paramount were there. It was an opening night screening and it was fantastic; to hear people laugh like that was just the most gratifying thing in the world. Then the execs, all guys, were in the lobby and they were having a “how proud are we of ourselves” conversation and I noticed after a moment that they had closed the circle and I was looking at two guys’ backs because they actually physically eliminated me from the discussion circle. I mean, I can’t tell a studio guy to fuck off. But I can really tell that to a 14-year-old punk and that’s not a problem for me. [laughs] If you tell a studio guy that, you never work in this town again.
Except, when we were doing Black Sheep, the writer was describing a scene that was impossible to shoot so I had to say, “That’s not possible.” There was a big argument and I said, “Okay, you guys”—I was being paid two-and-a-half-million dollars as a director fee—“You can take your two and a half million and stick it up your ass, I’m outta here.” And I walked out the door into the parking lot at Paramount thinking, What the hell have I done? And then I hear these little flip-floppy shoes coming after me, it was Paramount’s Karen Rosenfelt: “Penelope, Penelope, come back, please, please.” I’m like, Oh thank Jesus. So I went back and I did Black Sheep. I think I got that from my mom. My mom was one kickass bitch and she would tell anybody to fuck off, on a matter of principle. She was strong in a time when you weren’t allowed to be strong—in the ’40s and ’50s, you were supposed to keep your mouth shut—and I’m very grateful for that.
AF: Oh yeah, and then my daughter, it just keeps going.
PS: We are a family of extremely strong women and that’s a source of great pride.
PS: Roseanne was just like everything in life, it had its upside and its downside. I was greatly intimidated when I walked in the door. My first day they were showing me my office and there was all this broken furniture and a broken computer in the hallway. I’m like, “What’s this?” And the producer said, “Oh, well, one of the writers doesn’t want you here.”
PS: No, there was such dissention and factions in that work space ... it was a war zone. It was a war zone when I worked on Saturday Night Live too. I mean, it’s so bizarre how comedy almost has to be born out of anxiety and stress, and the people who can make it funny after being so deeply entrenched in misery are the people who are really the funniest.
PS: What you’re talking about is the decision between creative freedom and the ability to make money, because very few people have both. And you’ve got to be a man to have both, first of all. No, that’s not true, Nora Ephron had it—she made her own kind of movies, and she got paid for it, and that’s cool. Nancy Meyers does it. I would have rather have made movies like Suburbia for the rest of my life. But I probably wouldn’t be living in this house if I did. The fact that I did Wayne’s World gave me financial freedom that I never expected, but I do regret I wasn’t able to make other kinds of movies ’cause once I did Wayne’s World, that was it. I was only a comedy director. Women get that kind of pigeonholing, men don’t. Men can make whatever kind of genre they want just because they’re a dude.