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Interview: Penelope Spheeris Talks Her Seminal Punk & Metal Documentaries ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’

Interview: Penelope Spheeris Talks Her Seminal Punk & Metal Documentaries ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’

Fans of ’70s punk and ’80s heavy metal have long held Penelope Spheeris‘ “The Decline of Western Civilization” movies as sacred texts. The first ‘Decline,’ released in 1981, is a vital document of the Los Angles punk scene, with performances by X, the Germs, the Circle Jerks, Fear and Black Flag. The music in ‘Part II: The Metal Years’ is less enduring, but the portrait of striving metalheads bent on success has a striking poignancy: You may not remember W.A.S.P.‘s Spandex-clad hair metal, but you’ll never forget Spheeris’ interview with guitarist Chris Holmes, who floats drunkenly in a pool and douses himself in vodka while his elderly mother looks on blankly from the sidelines. The previously rare ‘Decline III’ takes that anthropological approach to the next level, focusing on L.A. gutter punks who beg for change by day and rock out by night. Although there are no continuing characters, the complete “Decline” feels like an American equivalent to the “Up” series, charting the continuing evolution of a city’s musical culture rather than a fixed group of individuals.

READ MORE: Watch: New Trailer & Images For Michael Apted’s ’56 Up’

Spheeris’ biggest box-office hit was “Wayne’s World,” but she views “Decline” as her legacy, and rightly so. Shout! Factory’s four-disc box set, which includes a full disc of expanded and unreleased interviews, was years in the making, a process largely overseen by Spheeris’ daughter Anna Fox, who joined her mother on the phone call for this interview.

Congratulations on putting together the “Decline of Western Civilization” box set.
Penelope Spheeris: Thanks. It’s been a year and a half of really painful, stressful hard work.

Let’s talk about the pain and the stress. You found out at some point that the “The Decline” had been destroyed by the lab.
The negative for “Decline” is the one that was lost, or I should say burned, because they were going out of business. I think I figured it out in the mid-’90s. I remembered, “Oh yeah, United Color Lab,” so I found a guy that worked there, and he said, “We put an ad in Variety, and we said pick up your film if you want it.” We went to the cheap lab, so it was mostly porno movies in there, and they burned them all. So I had to find a pristine print, which I was able to find, thank God, and they were able to make a new negative. But I would wake up every morning, crying, thinking, “My movie’s gone.”

Is that why it took so long for these three movies to come out on disc?
I could have, in the late ’90s, released all three movies, but the only way I could get a deal was to give up the right to the first two, so I said no. So that was the ’90s. That was the beginning of me sitting down and putting together chunks of 16mm outs from “Decline 1” myself and pasting all that together, because nobody else could really do it, and just put in on a shelf for a while. Four years ago, I said to Anna, I want you to come work for me, and she said, “Only if you do the ‘Decline’ box set first.” And I went, “Oh my God, I can’t handle it.” I guess I was afraid do it, because it’s kind of my identity, like I wouldn’t get it right. So I made her do it.

Anna Fox: No, I made you do it. Or I made you get on doing it. I made you make me do it. How about that.

PS: She’s the one who sat down with three different editors and charts and everything. It was a tremendous and horrendous job.

AF: And everything was on different formats. Some of it was on formats that don’t even exist anymore. The sound on “III” was on DAT tapes and these other weird things, I don’t even know what they were called. And we also had 3/4″ tapes, Beta tapes. We had to borrow machines out of people’s garages.

What influenced the decision to shoot parts of “III” on video? Was it that you didn’t want to lug a film camera into the squats where these gutterpunks were living?
Sam, I’ll be honest with you, I really dumbed out. If I would have waited a year or two to do “Decline III,” I would’ve had the benefit of digital technology. In 1999, I went out with Sharon and Ozzy and did the Ozzfest, and we were walking around with $200,000 hi-def cameras. [Spheeris directed a documentary called “We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n’ Roll” about the tour, but it remains unreleased because of issues with music rights.] Two years before, they didn’t have that. What I thought would be interesting, because I just like shooting different formats, was I’m just going to put every format together that I can find. I shot Hi8, I shot Super8, I shot digital video, 16mm film. So that’s what made it hard for Anna to try and put everything back. Between the video from “Decline II” extras and “The Decline III,” it was like some crazy kind of Chinese puzzle.

Watching all three movies, you see that they have a lot in common, and not just music. They’re very powerful portraits of lost people, some of whom are rich and famous and some of whom have almost nothing.
I gravitate towards outcasts, just by nature. I kind of relate to them, I guess, maybe because my formative years were on a carnival. Psychologists say your personality is formed by the time you’re 5 or 6 years old, and all that time I was hanging around with a group of people who took off for the carnival. I was very comfortable in dealing with people who were more or less outsiders. It is a common theme, you’re absolutely right.

How did that aspect end up coming to the fore in “Decline III”?
I kind of came to a conclusion after doing that film that a good documentary will take you on the trip, and it will evolve organically and become something that you never expected. I think people that do documentaries and try and force it, they’re going to make it about such and such, it’s a mistake. I thought it was going to about this whole new era of punk rock music, because when I saw the kids, I’m like, “My gosh, they’re like cookie-cutter versions of the original movement,” so I was really interested in them. But once I got started shooting, I realized it was far less about the music, which was good, energetic, all the things i like about that kind of music, but it hadn’t changed a lot. What had changed was was the social environment. I went to film school at UCLA, but before I went to UC Irvine and studied psychobiology, so part of my personal interest — I should say most of it — was studying human behavior. That’s, I think, what made me turn more towards how these kids got out on the street, because most of them were homeless, and just focusing on that.

It’s interesting, because you have the opening scene where the kids mention bands like Green Day and Offspring, but they don’t figure into the film at all.
I hope you understand those kids were saying that in jest, because that was not the real deal to them. I thought that was interesting, because I kind of felt the same way. There was a bastardization of punk that became very mainstream, probably Green Day s the best example of that. It’s funny, because I just remember when I got a call from a representative of Green Day, and they were doing — what’s the name of that play they did?

American Idiot.”
Thank you. They called me when they were having “American Idiot” play here in L.A., and they said that they wanted to show “Decline” as well. And I said, “How dare you. You may not.” “But we’ll pay you.” “You may not.” And I’m not putting Green Day down, because they did really really well and people love their music, God bless ’em, but it’s not what we’re talking about. It’s not the same thing.

So did your carnival past predispose you to being interested in punk?
The outcast aspect definitely came from that period of time. but I think as I got older and my particular family situation evolved, I was even more primed to fall into the punk death trap, as it were. My mother was married seven times, and there were a bunch of drunk sailors and soldier guys. She married a strawberry picker once, and he was very, very nice and we had really good strawberries. It was just total chaos in my family. I was the one in charge. I was the oldest child, and I was the one who had to clean up the blood after people got in fights. So to me, chaos was just normal, and so was aggression, and so was people getting in fights with each other. So when I saw the punk thing happening in clubs, I was like, “Gee, I’m at home here.”

One of the things that’s great about “Decline” is how the club performances are shot. It’s something movies never get right. Even when they shoot in real rock clubs, they never really get what it feels like to see a band.
I have to agree with you, that I believe that most filmmakers have a difficult time representing musical performances properly. Not only do they have difficult time with that, but they also have a difficult time representing punk rockers in a movie, or guys who like metal in a movie. As I’ve come up in my career, I’ve had one foot in the music business and one foot in the film business, so I’ve learned how to navigate both worlds, and they’re very, very different. People who understand the music world don’t understand the film world, i.e. Sharon Osbourne. [laughs] And a lot of other people who understand music don’t understand film. And vice-versa. Brilliant filmmakers. Okay, Scorsese, he breaks the rules, but in general, people don’t understand both. For me, it was a matter of having to shoot in really small clubs. I shot one camera, and I put the other guy in the pit. [Cinematographer] Steve Conant in the first “Decline,” was like, “Oh my God, I can’t hold the camera steady,” and I was like, “That’s okay.”

One of the great sequences in the films is in “Decline II,” where you ask the guys in metal bands what will happen if they don’t “make it.” To a person, they refuse to admit that possibility: They’re going to be successful, no matter what.
It was the collective consciousness of the time to believe that if you thought you were going to make it, you would make it. I think it was some mind experiment that we were all participating in to see if it would work. Well, it didn’t work. It was like the hippie movement: If you believe in peace and love, the whole world will become peaceful. It didn’t work. But good for us for trying. I don’t think it’s quite right to make fun of people who thought that back in the day, because that’s just how everybody thought. I mean, I hadn’t done “Wayne’s World” at the time, but I’ll be honest with you, I never thought I was going to make it. Maybe the secret is to not think it, I don’t know. Or just do it for the purpose of the work, which is what I was doing. I was never in this business to become famous, to become rich, or have all that Hollywood glam going on. I never did it for that reason, I never was interested in that. I’m still not interested in that, because I know it doesn’t make you happy. It really is not very fulfilling on a personal level. All it does is make your life complex and difficult, honestly.

You’ve seen both sides of success, with “Wayne’s World” being a career-defining hit in both good and bad ways. You were suddenly a director of comedies, even though you’d never thought of yourself that way.
“She can do that, so let’s assume that’s all she can do.” Then again, I don’t want to complain. I could go off on a tirade about that, but I’m not complaining that I did “Wayne’s World.” I will say that I think that had I been a dude instead of a chick, I probably would have been able to make more serious movies after I did “Wayne’s World.” We kind of get categorized, so that was it. My only recourse was to spend the money on doing “Decline III.”

There’s been a lot of talk recently about people like the director of “Jurassic World” making a huge leap from indie movies to studio blockbusters, and how studios only seem to have that kind of faith in young white men.
Here’s the cool karma, though. That guy’s probably going to be going dinosaur movies forever. Let’s see if he gets pigeonholed forever. The reasons the studio hires these relatively inexperienced directors is so they can control them. There came a point in my career where I would walk out of a meeting and I would go, “They’re never gonna hire me,” because I could sense in the room that they felt they couldn’t totally control me. That’s what it’s all about. If they tell me to do something and I don’t want to do it, I’ll tell them, and they don’t even want to deal with that. I ditched out of the studio system before they could fire me.

The parallel to that sequence in “Decline II” we were talking about before is one in “Decline III” where you ask the kids where they’ll be in 10 years. They all say they’ll be dead.
There’s no predicting it. I couldn’t know when I was shooting the third “Decline” who would survive and who would not. The heavyset guy who called himself Hamburger, as a joke — we all knew him as Evol, like “love” backwards — he passed away from a heroin overdose. Then Sage with the tattooed face, he passed away. I don’t know who’s gonna die when I’m shooting these things. I feel terrible, but if you look at Rick Wilder, who spoke up in “Decline III,” I knew him from ’77, I thought he’d be dead back then, and he’s still alive — sort of.

I was surprised to learn that W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes, who did that famously hard-to-watch interview in “Decline II” where he’s so drunk he can hardly speak, is still alive.
PS: That’s what I’m saying. You can’t tell. What is Chris doing now?

AF: He’s in France right now. He got married and moved to France.

PS: But is he doing well? I don’t know.

AF: I think so. I heard he’s sober, for a while now. I hope it’s true.

Pat Smear is an example in the other direction. He’s a minor figure in “Decline,” visible in a few shots playing guitar for The Germs, but he went on to be play with Nirvana and is still in Foo Fighters.
PS: Dave Grohl did a commentary for us on “Decline.” We got a little blowback on it, because he’s not really known as a punk guy. I thought it was cool, actually. Anna’s the one who set it up.

AF: When Dave directed “Sound City,” he had wanted to use some footage from the first “Decline,” so we worked it out, even though my mom doesn’t license footage very often. So when he did “Sonic Highways,” he wanted to use some footage again, and that’s when we were doing the DVD, so I thought let’s ask him and Pat if they would do a voiceover for us in exchange for the footage. Pat decided not to do it, but Dave did a great job.

PS: Pat said it was too hard for him to go back to those days, because he and Darby were best friends.

It’s uncanny how much some of the kids in “Decline III” look like Darby Crash.
Isn’t it eerie? You’re absolutely right. There is a rebirth of Darby in “Decline III.” Reincarnation.

You mention on your commentary track that Frederick Wiseman was a major influence on you in school. How did you come in contact with his work?
When I was in school at UCLA, we were required to see all different kinds of films. When I saw [“Basic Training“] and “Titicut Follies,” I was just knocked out. It totally hit home for me. I wanted to be that kind of a filmmaker. With “Basic Training,” it was the time of the Vietnam War, and people were against the war loved that movie. And the people that were for the war loved that movie. I thought he had a magical way about him, where he presented the material in an objective way and let the audience interpret it as they wish. They are certain shots in Wiseman’s films where you wonder what the hell is going on. He’s got the camera just sitting there, and there’s legs walking by, it’s like “Why is the camera there right now?” It’s because he just put it there and didn’t want to sway the viewer’s perception. That’s what I tried to to with “The Decline”: This is what’s here. Think as you wish.

I think in “Decline II,” the cop who was explaining all the hardware would look at the movie and go, “See? What a bunch of idiots.” Whereas a metal dude would look at the movie and go, “Right on! Metal, dude.” If we accomplished that, that was the goal.

Shout Factory’s “The Decline Of The Western Civilization Collection” is out now on DVD/Blu-Ray now.

Bonus: 1 Hour 20 minute podcast chat with Spheeris and Marc Maron.

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