Talking with Penelope Spheeris

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

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
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

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

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

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?


Why not?

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

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

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.