Photo courtesy of Penelope Spheeris
On a Saturday morning in Los Angeles I found myself on the corner of Lookout and Wonderland. As cars zoomed by giving me the “what are you doing here” side-eye and adult men walking tiny dogs surrounded me with their faux-friendly, suspicious waves, I felt superficially like one of the gutter punks—out of place, but unapologetically present—in the films of the director for whom I was patiently waiting curbside, the undisputed Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll Filmmakers: Penelope Spheeris. Earlier in the week, Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization, 1981; Suburbia, 1983; Wayne’s World, 1992) asked me to meet her on this seemingly random street corner in Laurel Canyon where she promised to pick me up in her silver Escalade and take us up the long, winding path to her new home—currently under construction—so that we might converse on the balcony while overlooking the peaceful, painterly, and breathtakingly verdant vista of the canyon.
In the sixties, when Spheeris heard that you could go to school at UCLA and learn how to make movies, she recalls with a smirk, her response was an immediate “Fuck! I’m there!” Her start in feature-length filmmaking came not long after by way of a seemingly radical pitch to an unlikely financier: a businessman located deep in the San Fernando Valley who wanted nothing more than to be in the movie business. He wanted her to direct something X-rated, but she convinced him that “punk rock was the next best thing.” Thus was born the first in a trilogy of music-fueled documentaries bearing the moniker The Decline of Western Civilization (1981). The first in the series focused on West Coast punk rock music and the modern lifestyle that surrounded it. Spheeris describes it as a time when “all of a sudden, at that moment in history, it was okay to be exactly who you were and be as pissed as you want to be—as long as you didn’t hurt anybody”; the second—The Metal Years (1988)—shifts gears to focus on the countless hair metal headbangers of the Sunset Strip, only a mere handful of whose bands would go on to become household names and whose members would achieve the ranks of career superstardom; Part III (1998)—both mine and Spheeris’ admitted favorite—focuses on gutter punks, or: homeless punk-identifying kids living on the margins of society and forming their own makeshift family units to survive life on the streets. In the nineties, Spheeris branched out into mainstream comedies financed by the major motion picture studios—Wayne’s World (1992); The Little Rascals (1994); and Black Sheep (1996)—and invested her money in two things: her family and real estate. In 2018, Spheeris owns six houses across the span of Los Angeles, most of which she rents out and for which she serves as landlord. She looks back on her life in film with measured gratitude, but with the knowledge that movies are only in her past.
PENELOPE SPHEERIS: I get movie offers, but they don’t really interest me.
NOTEBOOK: Why is that?
SPHEERIS: Because of the condition of the industry now. To me, it’s not the movie business any more. When I was in the movie business—and I don’t consider myself to be in the business anymore, so maybe you don’t want to talk to me...
NOTEBOOK: [laughs] No, I do.
SPHEERIS: [laughs] As a woman in the business, it’s been really, really difficult and now I see—as an older woman—it’s compounded. Old dudes can still make any movie that they want. But when you’re a woman and you get past a certain age… Plus, I worked with the Weinsteins in the late nineties. I felt that somebody was bad-rappin’ me. I could feel it. But I didn’t know where it was comin’ from. There’d be certain jobs that came up and I’d be like, “how come I didn’t get that gig? I’m great for that gig.” Somebody was bad-rappin’ me and I think it was them. But they never assaulted me because I was too old or not attractive enough or something, but I’ve had my share of that crap, too. Anyway, I’m not in the movie business anymore and I feel really sorry for all my contemporaries and friends that I’ve known for years who are still in the business ‘cause they’re still trying. It cracks me up. I laugh, but I also feel a lot of sympathy for them, because I don’t feel like there’s anywhere they can go. They keep trying to do the same thing over and over again. And expecting different results. It doesn’t work anymore, but they just keep on doing it, doing it, doing it.
NOTEBOOK: The love of movies is a kind of sickness—once you catch it, it doesn’t go away.
SPHEERIS: I don’t love movies.
NOTEBOOK: You never have?
SPHEERIS: Not really. I don’t think so. See, you love movies. I know you do. You love movies. And I don’t ever want to discourage that—with you or anybody else—but I just don’t love movies. When it got to the point where—all of a sudden—you had to sift through twenty movies to find a good one, and even then it might be a challenge to finish watching it, that’s when I was done.
NOTEBOOK: For me, the thrill of discovering something exceptional is worth twenty bad movies.
SPHEERIS: Then you’re a stronger man than I. [laughs] The only time I ever got a movie made by shopping it around was when I took Suburbia to Roger Corman, but even then I already had half of the money for it. For the most part, people have always come to me [with projects]. I took whatever job I could get to pay the bills. I was raising a kid by myself, you know. It wasn’t that I did The Boys Next Door (1985) because I really loved serial killer movies. I don’t. It was the only thing I could do at the time to get paid. [Filmmaking] was a way for me to work through my issues of having had a difficult childhood, family, upbringing, and all that; a way for me to exorcise my demons. That’s why when I found punk rock with the Decline movies, I felt completely at home.
NOTEBOOK: Tell me about your family.
SPHEERIS: My mom was married nine times total. I had seven step-fathers. They were all alcoholics. There were four kids in the family and I had to take care of everybody. My mom worked two jobs and it was an alcoholic disaster. It was total chaos growing up. Everybody was bloody at least once a week. Literally. I have seen my mother on the floor with a guy’s boot—he was a sailor—on her head. I heard her screaming. I opened the door. She had blood coming out of her mouth. And I’m like, “Moooooooommmmmmm!” You know, you’re a kid, oh my God, it’s your mom. And she yells back at me from the floor, “Mind your own business!” [laughs] So...
NOTEBOOK: That’s like a scene out of a movie.
SPHEERIS: Totally. When you have these experiences as a child, you have to try and work your way through them. And I think that a lot of creative people have probably had difficult childhoods.
NOTEBOOK: And what about those who have normal upbringings?
NOTEBOOK: [laughs] I think you’re right.
SPHEERIS: You know, twenty years ago I used to live next to this guy who everybody hated. He was the manager for this extremely annoying boy band. All I’d ever hear was their terrible music.
NOTEBOOK: [laughs] That’s enough to drive anyone insane.
SPHEERIS: I remember one time he tried to build a fence on my property and I went over and complained. He said: “You aren’t using it!” I had to get my boyfriend to threaten to kick his ass.
NOTEBOOK: Your boyfriend sounds like a hell of a guy.
SPHEERIS: I’ve been with him for twenty years. I met him on Decline III. He was a gutter punk. Both of us are probably gutter punks at heart. He lived on the street for maybe ten or twelve years before I met him, ridin’ in trains and livin’ in tents—before everybody had to—with a whole bunch of punk rockers. And he’s the strongest guy I know. Let the shit hit the fan, let the bomb drop, let the fuckin’ earthquake come because this guy is a survivor. He never gets sick, man.
NOTEBOOK: Sounds like he’s got an iron constitution.
SPHEERIS: [laughs] ‘Cause he ate out of trash cans for so many years. SIN. That’s his name.
NOTEBOOK: Sin? S-I-N?
SPHEERIS: It stands for Satanic Intellectual Network. He’s the smartest person I’ve ever known.
NOTEBOOK: That’s not a name that I’m likely to forget anytime soon.
SPHEERIS: He’s the love of my life and the only guy that never cheated on me.
NOTEBOOK: That’s just lovely. And, for the record, screw all of those other guys.
SPHEERIS: [laughs] I always said I should’ve ended up in jail or dead. I mean, I almost killed one of my step-fathers. I hit him over the head with a lamp ‘cause he threw me up against the side of a stucco house and scraped all the skin off my back. So, when I came home later and I was hurt and pissed, and he was passed out, I clubbed him. I could’ve killed him or gone to jail. But when you get older, you mellow out. Building houses is therapeutic for me. But it can be frustrating, too. Just last week I had a five-day migraine that kept me laid up in the house.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds like ‘building’ may be more than just a hobby or occupation.
SPHEERIS: When I’m building—which is all the time—I don’t hire people from LA. I hire what I call my “mountain men.” [laughs] These are guys from up in Frazier Park where it’s a small enough community that if you do something wrong, everybody knows, so they don’t do anything wrong. So that’s my whole thing. They’ve got to drive down a long ways, so sometimes they sleep in that shithole garage over there because they don’t want to drive all that long way back...
NOTEBOOK: Do you remember the names of your seven step-fathers?
SPHEERIS: Do I remember them all? Yeah, I do. Most of ‘em are probably gone by now. You can’t drink that much and keep on livin’.
NOTEBOOK: Were there any good ones?
SPHEERIS: I liked this guy named Antonio Delatore. He was from Tijuana. My mom always said that one didn’t count because the marriage wasn’t legal. But they were married for a short while. And I really liked him. He was gorgeous. A tall Mexican dude with blue eyes. He worked in the fields—strawberries, peppers, different things depending on what season it was. I liked him. It was probably because he brought food home for us. Mom would be like, “Oh my God, we’re having the most exciting dinner tonight! Antonio is bringing us watermelon and corn.” [laughs] That would be our exciting dinner. So, I liked him, but to be honest most of them were no good.
NOTEBOOK: Whereabouts did you live?
SPHEERIS: We lived in trailer parks, mostly, but finally when we got a house—it was a tiny house, especially for four kids and two adults—I remember not speaking to my mom’s sailor husband for two or three years. I just stopped speaking to him. That’s how pissed I was, y’know?
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that your interest in building and real estate stems from the fact that when growing up—and forgive me if this is too invasive—you didn’t have a home of your own?
SPHEERIS: Oh, that’s so sweet of you to think of that. I never thought of that before. No, I never thought of that... No, I think it’s genetic. Costa-Gavras. Did you know that he’s my first cousin?
NOTEBOOK: I didn’t know that.
SPHEERIS: His mother and my father are brother and sister. So, filmmaking is more genetic, in a way. The ability to put music and film together is genetic. My own brother’s musical talents were indescribable. And then I found out, Samuel, the word “Spheeris” means “hammer” in Greek. And our ancient relatives who lived south of Athens were a clan of carpenters. So, I think it’s genetic...
NOTEBOOK: It’s in the blood.
SPHEERIS: And you could also interpret not having a house as not wanting a house.
NOTEBOOK: Being more nomadic.
SPHEERIS: I really do think it’s more genetic that I have an interest in building. And I also really like it because it’s sort of like a movie: you build it and then you have it, you can see it, you can touch it, and it’ll be around for generations. It’s something that is going to be around for a while.
Spheeris offered to drive me home. I didn’t live too far away—just down the hill, more or less. But before we departed, I asked her if I could meet SIN and she obliged. We drove down to another house not too far away, her current home while the new one is under construction. Inside it was a very modern, spacious, stark white space with white furniture and all manner of white decoration. Since SIN, like Spheeris, was dressed head-to-toe in black clothing there was something playful in what seemed like the everyday contrast of their apparel and their abode. “SIN, I want you to meet Samuel,” Spheeris said. SIN shook my hand. I told him that I’d heard a lot about him. SIN was a man of few words. Then Spheeris showed me a tattoo on SIN’s chest that spelled out his name with a runic symbol in place of the ‘I’ in his name. SIN didn’t try to explain its significance.
We said goodbye and Spheeris drove me home. On the way, we talked more about the past and whether there is any dream project that would bring her back to the world of feature filmmaking. Spheeris confessed that such a project does exist—a country western trailer park musical called Lust 'n Rust—but “it’s such a relief to not care about the movie business anymore. There’s a beginning, middle, and end to everything. To be at peace with that is a great accomplishment. That’s not to say that if you have a great script and a coupla bucks, you can’t give me a call, but what I’m saying is I don’t care whether I make another movie or not. I’d rather be fixin’ toilets.”