Q&A: Director Penelope Spheeris

The director of 'Wayne's World' is the guest of honor at this weekend's Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival.

By John Chandler March 6, 2013


On Saturday night, esteemed filmmaker Penelope Spheeris will be the featured guest at this year's installment of the Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival. Several of her most prominent movies including The Decline of Western Civilization series and pivotal punk drama Suburbia will be screened. We chatted with Spheeris by phone over a wide range of topics, from cashing in, to the power of a good script. 

Culturephile: Congratulations on being named the guest of honor at POW Fest.

Thanks! I'm very, very flattered. Oh gosh, I've been to so many film festivals, I can't remember them all! But the honoring aspect of this one certainly stood out. And unfortunately, there aren't many festivals dedicated specifically to women, so this may be a first!

You're known for budget rock documentaries like The Decline of Western Civilization, and punk-themed narratives like Suburbia and Dudes, but you're also as a very successful commercial director, with Wayne's World, Black Sheep [with Chris Farley and David Spade], and The Beverly Hillbillies. I suppose your box-office clout allows you to do more personal films?

Yes! I used the money I made on the big studio movies to make Decline Part III, and I worked on that for three years! It does afford you some creative liberties when you have box-office success. Mind you, when I started out in film school I never even thought I could be a director, because women just didn't do that then. So I'm grateful for all the things that happened. We always want more, but I don't like to go there, because so many people I know have not had the success I've had, so I'm never going to complain!

As you said, you've attended a great many film festivals. What do you say when an aspiring filmmaker asks you for advice on getting started?

Oh, that's the primary question, all the time. That's the key question. If I knew the answer to that … (laughs) I don't know. Things are so complicated now, with new technology. Like I said, back then, no one wanted to be a director. It wasn't a popular occupation. Now everyone wants to be a rock star or a director. But advice … Oh, I'm reminded of what (well-known film producer) Tony Bill once said: "If you have a great script, you could be driving down the freeway and you could throw it out the window. And if it's a really great script, it'll still get made." It starts with that. 

I was going over your filmography and I saw some titles I didn't recognize. For instance, what's The Thing in Bob's Garage?

Isn't that a great title? I've got scripts that have never been made and I've made movies that never got distributed. You know what The Thing in Bob's Garage is?

A monster movie?

No, it's about gay marriage! It's a great script, but it never got made. Norman Lear had it for a while … It's about a gay couple living in a neighborhood where everyone is a little bit closed-minded so they have a wedding in the garage and everyone shows up and they all become friends. 

That sounds very marketable at the moment. Very topical.

Yeah, but it's been what? Ten or fifteen years ago? Times have changed, thank god, but it wasn't very marketable back then. That's always been one of my curses, to be ahead of my time. 

What projects are you working on now?

I'm restoring The Decline of Western Civilization series. It's rather time consuming. My daughter is working on it with me and she's collected all the materials and it's kind of unwieldy. We're putting the DVDs together, we're putting a book together … I'm not good at hyping myself or promoting myself. It's like the last talent on the list of things I do well. But a lot of people want these DVDs and my daughter's really kicked it in gear. I've got two or three television shows, pilots, in development and two or three films in development, one of which I think is really great, it's called Lust and Rust. It's a musical set in a trailer park. It's really fun. 

With The Decline of Western Civilization, are you going to revisit your subjects? Obviously you can't revisit (the late Germs singer) Darby Crash, but …

We're definitely going to have commentaries and we're taking the scenes from the movie, and we're putting all the old footage, the dailies, back in. I don't know how far ahead we're going to go, but I stay in touch. (Fear singer) Lee Ving called me the other day, and (Circle Jerks singer) Keith Morris is a good friend. They will be present in some form. 

You did The Little Rascals movie, Wayne's World, The Beverly Hillbillies. What's your honest opinion of recycling television concepts for the big screen? Is it a sign that there are no original ideas left or are we just a really nostalgic nation?

I think it's the first one. I thought about this quite a bit when I was making those movies. To be honest with you, I have a bunch of scripts on the shelf that I would like to make that I think are on a par with Suburbia. But after I made Wayne's World, I couldn't make any of those movies. In Hollywood, when you have a hit movie that's a certain genre of movie, that's it. That's all you can do. I turned down so many of those movies. But I'm an addicted filmmaker! I have to make movies. So I was given a ridiculous amount of money, $2.5 million, to direct The Beverly Hillbillies!

I like that movie. It's funny. 

You don't have to be kind. (Laughs) Look, I'm glad I made the movie, and thank you for the money. But the thing you don't think of, is that now you really can't make anything else. So I did The Little Rascals

So what were some of the movies you turned down?

Legally Blonde with Reese Witherspoon, George of the Jungle, The Nutty Professor, The Brady Bunch … gosh, there's probably 50 hit movies I turned down. 

Who are the artists you turn to for inspiration?

Do they have to be living filmmakers? 'Cause I love Fellini and Cassavetes! 

Are you in town at the moment?Penelope Spheeris Hollywood Theatre        March 9 at 7pm

No, I'm in Los Angeles.

You live in Los Angeles?

Uh-huh, I own some homes here, thanks to Wayne's World. In Laurel Canyon, one in Studio City, and one in Santa Monica. I live in one of the smaller ones, here in Laurel Canyon. 

Nice! Real estate is always a sound investment.

I know! And I grew up in a trailer park! I didn't even know how to write a check! 






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