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Penelope Spheeris: Selling Her Soul For Cinema

Twenty plus years working both within and way outside the Hollywood system has produced one of the most eclectic of female film directors working today -Penelope Spheeris.

Since her early days working with Lorne Michaels and Saturday Night Live, Spheeris has spent the better portion of her life and her career playing both roles as documentarian of American music history and as a studio director of television show adaptation and SNL alumni comedies.

Her American musical history documentation series – The Decline of the Western Civilization Parts I through III – captured both the chaotic birth and demise of the Punk Rock music scene and the ugly and short-lived Glam Rock music scene of the late 20th century. Currently, her latest documentary feature, tackling the musical circus called Ozzfest – We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll, is working its way through the film festival circuit.

After a brisk morning walk down the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, filmcritic.com sat down with Ms. Spheeris for a bite to eat and to discuss her latest documentary, the difficulties female directors have with the Hollywood system, and the best catalysts for filmmaking.

filmcritic.com: Let’s talk about your latest film – We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll. How did you become involved in the project?

Penelope Spheeris: Sharon Osbourne [Ozzy’s wife] was interested in doing a movie about Ozzfest. I called Sharon and discussed her current ideas for the project. She wanted to produce a scripted feature, with Ozzfest serving as the set for the production. I suggested a documentary, and then my crew and I jumped on the tour buses and let the cameras roll.

What was the best experience you had shooting the documentary?

The best experience was shooting Ozzy right in front while he’s singing the lyrics to the song ‘Black Sabbath.’ Chills ran up my spine, and at that moment, you just know that the guy is touched by something that is pretty profound – not of this earth.

While shooting the film, were you or your crew ever nervous or even frightened by the crowds at the Ozzfest shows?

When my crew and I were shooting out in the back areas of the general admission sections, where the ticket prices are the lowest, there isn’t much security protection. It was daunting because the crew would have two high-definition cameras and two digital video cameras and people would be really drunk and rowdy. One time, a guy pissed in a cup and threw it all over my camera and me while I was shooting.

Another time in Phoenix, while shooting in the back areas, one of my crewmembers with a high-def camera said we should go back because the crowd was getting real rowdy after a bonfire had just been ignited. I asked him if the cameras were insured, and then I found four of the biggest dudes and told them that they could go backstage if they protected us in the pits.

What’s your take on the new corporate rock sound predominately heard at the Ozzfest shows?

I love Static X, those guys rock, but usually there’s too much crap thrown in the salad with most of those bands – you just have to keep it pure and simple to sound good.

How did you get started in the film industry?

I worked as a waitress at International House of Pancakes, no joke, while attending film school at UCLA. In the mid-seventies, after film school, I formed the first company in Los Angeles that produced music videos, called Rock and Reel. The company shot numerous music videos for a variety of record labels including CBS Records and Warner Brothers Records.

How did your production company become involved in producing music videos?

I had a friend at CBS records that called me up and asked me if I wanted to shoot a music video, and I said, ‘What’s a music video?’ The idea was to create promotional materials for music bands, which was more cost effective than sending the band to a remote location, like Australia, [to do live publicity]. The record company would then send the promo materials to a new market – thus establishing the dawn of music videos.

Earlier in your career, you worked with Lorne Michaels at the beginning of SNL. Talk about how you become involved with that show.

One morning, Lorne Michaels was sitting in my living room, reading the morning paper, and he said, ‘We should do a show in the late hour, based in New York, and have it produced live on camera.’ That led to my involvement with Albert Brooks in conjunction with many short films shot for SNL during its infancy and the production duties for Albert’s first feature, Real Life. Lorne Michaels put Albert Brooks and myself together because Albert didn’t know how to technically make movies and I didn’t know anything about Hollywood. So I taught Albert how to make movies and he taught me how to navigate Hollywood. I learned a lot from him.

After Real Life, I was approached with opportunities to produce additional films such as Private Benjamin with Goldie Hawn, but I declined everything. Rather, I decided to go ahead and document the new punk scene in L.A. Everyone thought I was nuts for turning down a big studio feature to shoot a documentary about this new punk rock stuff.

What were your motivations for documenting this new music trend?

I had this uncontrollable sense that this new scene was really, really important to document just for historical purposes. I would walk up to people in clubs who had Super 8 movie cameras and still cameras and tell them, ‘You can’t shoot here, it’s my job to document this’, and they would stop (laughs).

How did you secure the financing and distribution for The Decline of the West Civilization: Part I?

A friend of mine introduced me to a group of insurance salesmen who owned a payroll service. These insurance salesmen had money and wanted to make a porno movie. I asked my friend if he thought they would finance a punk rock movie, because it’s the next best thing.

I told the group it would cost $12,000 to shoot the entire film on Super 8 and then I took the group – dressed in business suits – to a Germs concert lead by Darby Crash doing the typical Darby stage dives and crazed antics. I took the group outside in an alley and told them, ‘This is bigger than we think, we really need to document this for historical importance… and we will not regret it if the budget is bumped up to $16,000 and we spend more money on the film.’

In the end, we spent $120,000 on the film and the insurance guys never flinched because they knew it had to be done. I guess I was lying about the $12,000 part. I could have never shot the film on $12,000. All I remember is that the insurance salesmen wanted to make a porno for $10,000, and I said, ‘How about punk rock for $12,000.’

After DOTWC: Part I, you directed a series of violent and disturbing films dealing with topics including teenager murders (Boys Next Door), pornography rings (Hollywood Vice Squad), and the lives of hardcore punk kids (Suburbia), that appeared to be unusual selections for a female director to tackle. What attracted you to these dark stories?

I believe it stems from my upbringing, in which I was never a very sheltered child. I moved around from city to city, I had seven stepfathers, my mother was a drunk, and I always used to get the shit kicked out of me. My mother was a domestic violence pioneer (laughs). All of those things can serve as motivations….

Talk about your experiences making
Wayne’s World. How did it feel to struggle for years making a series of low-budget films and then assume responsibility for a large studio picture, which then became a massive success?

On the first day of shooting, I was driven to the set of Wayne’s World – which itself was a luxury. When we drove up, I saw all of these trucks and I said, ‘We must be at the wrong movie because we don’t need all of this stuff.’ (laughs)

One of the challenges of the film was the intervention of one producer who constantly voiced his disfavor to the studio heads regarding the most irrelevant of elements in the film. It was difficult because sometimes, people just don’t get it.

Tim Burton once said, ‘What the studio does is beat the shit out of you, knock you down to the ground, stomp on your face, make you feel like you want to kill yourself, and then tell you to stand up and make a good movie.’

Was Burton talking about the dismal Planet of the Apes remake that bore his name?

Yep.

After Wayne’s World, you directed a bunch of studio fodder including The Little Rascals and Senseless. What steered you in this direction?

My whole career up until Wayne’s World didn’t produce any monetary funds. When I directed Wayne’s World, I made close to $150,000 – the biggest payday I had to date. My percentage points from Wayne’s World enabled me to pay off all of the debts from my previous works, but I only came up even in the end.

So I’m looking around for some coin and when someone offers you $2.5 million to direct a film, you just fucking take it. I took the money and made a bunch of movies – Little Rascals, Beverly Hillbillies, Black Sheep, and Senseless.

After I did Wayne’s World – I tried like hell to direct movies I had written and books that I wanted to adapt for film. I tried so hard to do something beside television remakes but I couldn’t get anything going. That is where the sexism in the film industry becomes all too apparent. If I was a guy, I swear to God I would have been able to get my own shit going after Wayne’s World.

In 1998, you returned to The Decline of the Western Civilization series with a documentary focused on the gutter punks of LA. Why did you choose not to document the grunge/Seattle music scene in the early nineties?

I didn’t like it. It was too depressing. I have this theory that you can be either pissed off or depressed but you can’t be both at the same time. I’d rather be pissed off than depressed and I’ve lived my life that way… and that music scene was filled with depression. The fact that Kurt [Cobain] blew his brains out, God bless him, but it was a poetic conclusion to a big fucking downer. Grunge music was too self-pitying.

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