Penelope Spheeris Interview

For a very long time The Decline of Western Civilisation trilogy by Penelope Spheeris has been long overdue a dvd or blu-ray release after the first two being only released on VHS decades ago. Shout Factory in the US and Second Sight in the UK have released a extras packed boxset of the three films including the under-seen third part. Our writer Ian Schultz called up Penelope Spheeris at her home in L.A. to discuss her 3 films along with other topics.

The first question is kind of an obvious one—why has it taken so long for the Decline films to finally come out? because I was a afraid to do it because I was afraid I wouldn’t get it right, and it’s my life’s work and I didn’t want to screw it up.

Good reason! So there’s loads of deleted footage and interviews and stuff. Was there anything you found which you couldn’t put on the disk for any reason?

Oh yeah, there were things. And I don’t know if you know the history here, but my daughter is the one who actually got this thing going. Now… she, I asked her to come to work for me awhile back, and she said “only if we do the Decline movies first.” So she was kind of in charge. I said “fine, you do those, but you’re going to have to do the work, because it’s gonna be kind of a giant mountain of work.” And so she agreed and she went through and found all the extras in the vault and she put it all together, and sometimes she would ask me to come to the editing room and ask me if such and such should be in the film, and I said “sure.” And the extras? I said “sure.” But then she said, no it shouldn’t be, and… because a lot of this stuff was kind of politically incorrect, so we left it out.

So were there any bands which you wished you filmed for any of the films which you couldn’t for any reason?

Oh yeah—there were plenty of bands that I wish I would’ve!  there were plenty of bands I wish I could’ve filmed, but you know back then it was so different with regards to the amount of money it cost to do it. Like a roll of film cost $400 and that was ten minutes. And that was a lot of money to me back them—to all of us. And I think it was just a matter of not having enough money to shoot other bands. I wish I would’ve shot the Screamers, although they didn’t want anyone to shoot them, anybody for some reason…

I’ve seen some footage of the Screamers though, there’s a bit. There’s like a DVD that came out a couple of years ago Oh was there? I’d love to see that. Tomata du Plenty was the awesomest dude. And, um, the Weirdos, and the Gun Club, and … lots and lots of bands, you know. I just couldn’t do it because of constraints of money and time, you know.


So looking back over the youth scenes you’ve documented, how would you describe the changes you’ve seen over the decades? Oh well, you know, I think I actually came up with an explanation for all this crazy roll n roll that we’ve been involved with for so long, and here’s what I figured out—I could be wrong—but each movement over, you know, the various decades since what I guess we could call the birth of rock n roll in the ‘50s, each movement has sort of been a reaction to the previous one, you know? If you look at basic rock n roll – Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis rock n roll – and then you look at what came in after that, which Iguess we could call some kind of pop that evolved from the radio and the TV, it was a reaction to the original one. And then we have a reaction to that when you get into the hippie days with the Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin era. Every movement is a reaction. So when you’re in the punk rock, you’re reacting to the disco, which they all hated. And then you get into metal, and they were reacting to the punk, and then you get into grunge and they were reacting to the metal. Well, that’s my explanation of it. Does that make any sense?

Yeah, I would more or less agree with that and you’ve said in some interviews that Decline III imitates bits of Suburbia. Is that a case of life imitating art, or just social conditions?

Oh, you’re funny—that’s a great question. I can’t figure it out. I can’t figure out if I did Suburbia and then those kids did that, or if I saw the future, and..,. I think it’s probably the first one though. I don’t know. It could be a combination of both. But isn’t it weird that they’re so similar?

Yeah, it is very… and it all ends in tragedy at the end as well.

You’re right, with a tragedy—you’re exactly right. It’s bizarre, you know. I don’t know why they’re so similar, it’s almost like a cosmic kind of synchronicity, you know? And I don’t usually quote Police songs…

So, you have obviously kept busy with TV and film work over the years. What has been the biggest challenge to keeping your career going for so many decades at this point?

Oh, I think basically that Hollywood sucks so bad. I mean, they’re just ruthless and heartless and mean, and I can’t stand ‘em. I think just dealing with Hollywood… I think I’ve just become, I’ve tried to not become bitter. By this age, definitely—I just don’t trust anybody,.That’s terrible. When my daughter was trying to get these things going, I said “Anna, it’s just going to backfire—it’s going to fuck up, it’s not going to work. And she said “Mom, shut up, you don’t know how people want these things, and you don’t know how cool are.” And it’s true, I do not realise that since I’ve been going around, I’ve been having a theatrical tour here in the United States of the films, and I had no idea that people thought about me as I do. I mean, that special group of people who love the movies. And I don’t sit and wallow in it, you know, it’s just not me to do that. But yeah, dealing with Hollywood is the hardest part.

Yeah, my sister was at The Metal Years show in Portland the other week.

Oh, you’re kidding—gosh, small world. Well, what did she say about it Ian?

She said it was fantastic, it was great to see it on the big screen and stuff. She had seen it on VHS, like years ago and stuff.

I know, signing all these old beat-up VHS copies is hilarious. Well, um, yeah so she can testify—it was sold out both nights and the audiences were just amazing. I even had a couple of groupies, and a guy who was actually cute. It’s so funny. But your sister, does she live in Portland?

Yeah, that’s where I’m from originally.

You’re from Portland?

Yeah, I’m one of the few people who’s actually from Portland, because most people aren’t, they just moved there.

I know, but why do you have an accent then?

I moved here when I was like 10, so…

OK, wow, that’s cool.

And it’s the best cinema, the Hollywood Cinema is one of the best cinemas I’ve ever been to in my life.

Ever, ever! It’s just got such soul and heart. It’s awesome.

So obviously you’ve worked with some “underground” people who’ve achieved some sort of “star” status, like Flea and I guess Lee Ving to some extent. Would you predict that any of that would have happened in the 80s, and what do you think of the underground becoming overground eventually?

Let’s put it this way—I could never tell who was gonna become successful with their music career, I could never tell you that. And to be honest, in my opinion none of ‘em really have. You know. I know X and maybe Fear have the most, you know sort of, largest audience still. But still they’re not huge—I know they think they could’ve done more. And of course I do too, we all think that. But… well, that’s inevitable. If it’s good it’s gonna rise to the top. But I think right now music just sucks, honestly, because it’s so diverse and so—it’s all over the place, you know? Like, I don’t know if you agree or not but there’s no focus to it. And I think it’s Internet damage, because everything is just little bits ad pieces here and there, and you don’t know what to focus on. And I was very fortunate to live in a time when things could be focused. We focused on metal, we focused on punk rock, we focused on—you know what I mean? It’s like, you cant do that now.

Yeah, I certainly agree with that. There’s certainly good music, but it’s totally all over the place.

Yeah, you have to look really hard and long to find good music.

Have you ever thought about doing a TV show kind of inspired by the Decline series, or your documentary work in general?

Yeah, I have, but here’s the thing—another reason honestly why the films, why the box set did not come out before now—I think innately in my heart and soul, I’m a punk and I have punk values. And part of that is to not sell yourself. And I just am not good at it. I’m not good at promoting, I’m not good at selling shit, like they tell me: “Bring your stuff to the theatres and sell it in the theatres.” And I’m like, “I can’t do that, that’s crazy!”And then they laugh—“well, the fans want it,” you know! So I haven’t exploited the Decline as much as possible because it’s just not part of that ethic to me, you know. I’mnot good at that.

So obviously you’ve been busy with the Decline reissues. What are you working on next if anything?

Next it’s gonna be Decline IV, which we started before we made our deal with ShotFactory. And, um, we will pick up shooting it when it gets to be winter, because I’m not going to be flying around to Boston and shot in the winter time, it’s gonna be too cold. So we’ll pick that up then. And I have a couple of other projects, but I have scripts sitting on shelves for years, and I don’t know… I’m not going to bitch about being a women, but it’s just really hard in this business. Especially when you’re an old women, ha ha. It’s bad enough to be a woman. The only other thing I could be is an old, Black woman, then I’d be really fucked.

Oh, here is my lovely daughter, Anna I’m talking to Ian Schultz in London. Are you in London?

No, I’m in Leeds. 

Leeds? Where’s that at?

The North. 

Oh, is it, up by Manchester?

Yeah, it’s about an hour from Manchester. It’s where Gang of Four and the Mekons,those sort of bands came from.

Oh, that’s cool. I’m looking for another phone, Ian… I’m working out of my house here, we’ve got three levels here and downstairs is the editing room, where Anna was riding hard on three editors. So did you watch the whole damn thing?

I’ve seen the three films, I’ve seen probably about half the bonus features. I mean, there’s so much stuff…

You know, when we handed it in, I kept saying, “can we stop? Can we not do this anymore and just give them what we’ve got?” And Shout Factory said, “no the fans don’t like that. I said, “we can put out another one later.” And they said “No, no no—you’ve gotta give ‘em all you’ve got, right now.” you know. And that’s why there’s so much stuff there.

Anna’s on the phone now, say hi to Ian.

Anna Spheeris: Hi Ian!

Since you did the bonus features, what was the most surprising thing that you foundwhile you were compiling it?

Um, I’d say the footage of X signing their record contract on the roof of Slash Records.

Yeah, that was quite a cooler bit, I was quite surprised by that.

Anna Spheeris: Yeah, because not even the visual has ever been seen before so…

I forgot I shot it?

Whatever happened to the guy from Wet Cherri?

Oh my god, I have no idea—you’re so funny. She’s the one in touch with all these guys…

Anna: Let me see if I can find it… he’s in some, like, he’s playing guitar and singing in some band of his own where he has like white-face, like you know, black eye makeup down his face and long straight hair to his waist.


Anna: I can’t remember, oh gosh…

I’ve got to find that guy, he sounds cool! Is he married?

You should put him in Decline IV.

Yeah, I told him we started Decline IV, Anna…and uh…

Can you say anything about it—I’m just quite curious what music are you going to focus on if you can say anything about it yet…?

Well, here’s the thing, Ian, I know you’ll understand this, that you know, back in the day not everyone had a cellphone or an iPhone with a high-definition camera, and not everybody could shoot. So I think that’s why these feel a little bit special right now, because nobody else was doing it, But right now if I tell everyone what that film is gonna be, anybody could shoot it!


So that’s why I’m trying to keep it as quiet as possible, but it’s tricky because you’ve got to go out and tell people you’re doing it, and then they tell everybody else. But we’re trying to be quiet about it.

 And finally, when is Suburbia going to come out on Blu-Ray?

Well, you know, they did a reissue a few years ago, Shout! Factory did it actually. And I don’t know if it was Blu-Ray or not though. It don’t think it was. They did a reissue though. I love that movie… You know what movie I would really love to see come out of mine is Dudes. Did you ever see Dudes?

No, but I’ve been meaning to. I don’t think it ever got released over here.

You can’t find it! You know, that’s the problem, you can’t find it. But that’s a cool movie—it’s got Flea and Lee Ving in it, and John Cryer of all things.

Because the copy of Suburbia I have is some really dodgy cheap UK one that was the bargain bin…

I don’t know if they distribute internationally or not, but I can ask those guys, I talk to them all the time.

No, Shout Factory’s like a US-only company.

Not really, they’re doing it in England, that’s how come you guys are…

No, it’s Second Sight that’s doing it over here.

Oh yeah, right—but they bought it from Shout! Factory.

Yeah, they’ve got some kind of deal with them, they’ve done a couple of things.

We should tell Second Sight to get Suburbia—yes! I’ll do that, I’ll do that.

Because the DVD here is terrible, it’s just… I think it’s out of print now over here, because I think the company went under like a few years ago.

Wait, which company?

There’s a company who released the original DVD, I think has been out of of business a few years ago, so I think the rights should be easy to sort out over here.

Oh, Roger Corman has the rights, so he could license to anybody he wants. But I’ll find out, because that’s a cool idea to get Suburbia over there in the future. That’s a great idea. I think I should do that—you could be my business manager!

Well, thanks for your time, it’s been great talking to you.

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