Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Penelope Spheeris.
Penelope Spheeris is perhaps most popularly known for her work with various alumni of Saturday Night Live, having brought to screen much of the program’s ’90s cast in Wayne’s World, Black Sheep, and more. But Spheeris’ most popular works have obscured an extensive and eclectic filmmaking biography that includes establishing the first music video production company in Los Angeles, teaching Albert Brooks how to make films for his SNL shorts, directing Richard Pryor’s almost never-seen Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales, and directing three of the most definitive documentaries on American punk ever made.
The latter series of projects, The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, which Spheeris considers the defining work of her career, have finally been made available together in a fantastic release from Shout! Factory. The Decline of Western Civilization’s newfound availability has brought Spheeris’s career back into the spotlight and produced a timely opportunity to consider her substantial body of work well outside the video store shelf mainstays that dominated her ’90s career.
So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the only filmmaker to shoot live performances by Germs and a Little Rascals movie.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Penelope Spheeris
1. “Making movies is all about changing peoples’ lives”
The release of the first Decline of Western Civilization, Spheeris’s notorious portrait of the late-’70s/early-’80s LA punk scene, was met with enormous controversy. The first words anyone spoke to her after the film’s premiere screening were, “How can you live with yourself when you are glorifying these heathens?” and the Los Angeles Police Chief urged Spheeris never to show the film again in the city.
But Spheeris made The Decline of Western Civilization neither to exploit nor condemn nor celebrate punk subculture, but to depict, understand, and empathize with the unique values, rules, and worldview of punk, thus bringing to light an intricately attentive view of a radically different philosophy of living. The Decline of Western Civilization is a testament to film’s power to manifest a unique, otherwise unavailable lens onto the world. It is in this respect that films like The Decline of Western Civilization achieve Spheeris’s ambitious but worthy objective of filmmaking.
2. Know when to bring out the shark cage
Nick Pinkerton: “You’ve got equipment out [during The Decline of Western Civilization’s punk shows], that equipment must have been at risk at many points.”
Spheeris: “Yeah, Yeah… [Cinematographer] Steve Conant says to me, after one of the first shows, he says to me: ‘If you want me to continue shooting, you’re going to have to get me a shark cage.’ But I shot one camera, I always did when I did the music videos, I would shoot one camera and then I would have another one, and then what I would do is I would have a rehearsal and I would shoot the rehearsal with the guys in their stage gear, and I would shoot all the close shots so that it wouldn’t have any audience in it, and once the set started I knew which songs we were going to do because you can’t shoot the whole set. I knew what songs we were going to do so that’s when I would get the wide shots with crowds. I learned a lot doing those music videos. Pretty well self-taught on that one.”
3. Find some way to get your subjects represented on screen
Nathan Rabin: “After you made the first Decline, your first narrative film was Suburbia. How did you come to make that film?”
Spheeris: “I had a really difficult time getting distribution for the first Decline. It seemed like no one wanted to play a documentary in a movie theater, even though people were going to see them in droves. So I said, ‘Okay, I know this subject matter and I’ve learned a lot. And I love these kids, so I’m going to sit down and write a narrative picture about them.’ So it turned out to be Suburbia. I got Roger Corman to pay for half of it, and some dude from Cleveland who had a furniture chain paid for the other half.”
Spheeris’s fiction and non-fiction films have a remarkable quality of conversation between them. Her interview with a reserved, almost clinically articulate Alice Cooper in The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years is echoed in Cooper’s hilarious backstage scene in Wayne’s World. This quality can be seen in Spheeris’s fiction work prior to her studio comedies, like Suburbia, her narrative portrait of LA punk that followed The Decline of Western Civilization. Whether through fiction or non-fiction, Spheeris wanted to see to light an empathetic cinematic portrayal of this subculture, and thus found a means of bringing her knowledge and experience of punk to screen regardless of the particular cinematic mode.
4. Pay attention to outcasts’ vision of society
Pinkerton: “Since we’re talking clairvoyance, you’ve mentioned your family background, and I know you come from circus folk. To what degree do you think that informed your interest in the punk scene?”
Spheeris: “I think to a large degree. Yeah, because I think that I’m attracted to… the people that I’m attracted to are people who are outcasts, and I think it’s because when I was in those formative years, that’s what I was surrounded by. Those are the people I’m comfortable with, people that joined the carnival because they didn’t fit in where they lived ‐ we were just passing through so they just went with us. There was no discrimination in the carnival, everybody was equal. The bearded lady wasn’t made fun of, the black guy was just as cool as the white guy, the guy with no legs was just as cool as the strong man ‐ that was my dad ‐ I mean we were all equal. That’s why I was attracted to that punk movement: not only were they outcasts, also really a lot of the barriers had dropped, you know? Like it was okay for a woman not to be fluffing up, being all girlie pretty like in the Fifties and the Sixties. It was okay if they were wearing combat boots and had a shaved head, you know? With ‘Fuck you’ written on their arm. Yeah, I was comfortable with them.”
As Spheeris recently detailed in an interview with Marc Maron on WTF, she grew up in a carnival and was thus surrounded by a diverse set of people who had no reason to ascribe to social norms. Within this context, Spheeris grew to develop and witness a unique support system and family mentality amongst this group. The filmmaker witnessed a similarly compassionate view of society amongst the punk subcultures she’s depicted in documentaries and fiction, one that with the reactionary mainstream view of punks as a social pestilence. The Decline of Western Civilization III, which portrays the collective support system developed between “gutter punks,” a group of homeless LA youth, distills this perspective: from defying social norms and societal rejection births out of necessity a mutually supportive community, the likes of which are largely absent in mainstream culture. Outcasts can throw into relief a dearth of virtue and love elsewhere.
And in the narrow boys’ club of commercial filmmaking, Spheeris herself is inevitably an outcast…
5. Indeed, the film industry isn’t good to women
“You don’t see us getting arrested. You don’t see us getting busted for DUI or drugs. We can’t, because you just don’t work after that. You can’t lose your temper on the set. A guy loses his temper on the set and he’s a genius. A woman loses her temper on the set and it’s the wrong time of the month. That one is very, very true. You can’t lose your temper, because there’s something about an irate woman that is just off-limits in this business. I complained one time when I was working at Universal that some guys in the transportation department were ‐ what shall I say? My assistant was an attractive girl and they were trying to pick her up. They would harass her, so I complained about it, and guess who got in trouble? Me. They think you should keep your mouth shut.”
6. Make sure to shoot it your way
“One of the great moments [in shooting Wayne’s World] was when Dana [Carvey] and Mike [Myers] were lying on the hood of the car on a soundstage and they were supposed to be at the airport watching the planes go overhead. It was the last day of the shoot, and they were both so exhausted that they got into one of those laughing fits, and Mike just started spitballing. It was insane. We started talking about Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny or something, and it was just an insane moment when Mike started having this stream of consciousness. It didn’t make any sense, but it was funny as hell. And when we were doing that headbanging scene in the car, Mike said he didn’t want to keep doing it because his head hurt, his neck hurt and he didn’t think it was funny. I made him do it over and over and over and over again, and he was a little bit upset with me, but it turns out that’s the memorable moment in the movie. Sometimes you have to negotiate with the actors. I had to shoot that movie three times. I had to shoot it my way, I had to shoot it Dana’s way, I had to shoot it Mike’s way, and sometimes, when Lorne [Michaels] was around, I had to shoot it his way.”
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Across numerous platforms of filmmaking, from music videos to television segments to grassroots documentaries to mainstream studio comedies, Penelope Spheeris has fought for and found the means to make evident her worldview and see to completion her idea of who and what belongs on film. She has tackled radical subjects and worked with difficult personalities, and even made some films she’s less proud of in hopes that it will help see to screen the underrepresented subjects for which her work lives. While many will continue to associate her name foremost with Wayne’s World, Spheeris’s scope of influence throughout numerous tiers of filmmaking has brought to the screen subjects and images that might not be there otherwise.