Penelope Spheeris [Interview]
January 5, 2013 Leave a comment
Whether it’s from her amazing rock documentaries, or her quintessentially 90’s and stoner friendly comedies like Black Sheep or Wayne’s World, or possibly even her family friendly films sitcom adaptations like Little Rascals or The Beverly Hillbillies, it is almost certain that Penelope Spheeris has brought a grave amount of entertainment to several generations. Her versatile ways and means of filmmaking have made her a sought after and acclaimed mastermind behind the camera. This is a woman who has made Hollywood her bitch, and shows no apologies for it whatsoever. She doesn’t what she wants. And even if she isn’t, you can damn well guarantee she will fund her way with projects towards getting exactly what she wants. And yet, she still remains so humble. Hence the reason she agreed to talk with the likes of us and you, the lovely, yet mildly insane Trainwreck’d readers. So take heed folks, we have (another) legend in the house, and we are so very pleased to have her join the TWS family. Enjoy!
You worked on the show Roseanne in its early years. What was the dynamic like during that time?
To give you an idea of the dynamic at that time ~ my first day, when the producer was showing me to my office (I had the job title of ‘story editor’) ~ there was a pile of broken things in the hallway. A chair, a computer, parts of a desk. I asked what happened and the producer said one of the writers was unhappy about my coming on board and he tore up his office and threw it in the hallway. What a warm welcome, right?
Did it feel revolutionary in some way with such a common place plot, but with such non-common placed characters?
The first time I saw Roseanne was on her 1986 HBO special. I immediately called my agent and said ‘I must work with her! she’s brilliant!’ keep in mind I had previously worked very closely with richard Pryor and Albert brooks. my agent didn’t know who she was, but quickly signed her up as his client. Doncha love Hollywood? It was not my agent, but instead a wonderful woman named Arlene Rothberg that put me together with Roseanne. Did I think she and the show were revolutionary? not really. mostly because there were plenty of other sit-coms based in the ‘common place’ that were around at that time and even earlier than that. it was however, the one that hit that special nerve and made America laugh at itself.
You have a sort of a Jekyll and Hyde sort of thing going on in your career when it comes to directing mainstream comedies and rock documentaries, which has been widely noted. There are obvious differences, but are there similarities as well?
People, journalists, etc always ask why I have such a diverse body of work. I wish I could flower it up and give you some romantic answer, but the fact is~~ I always took whatever gig I could get. Women have to do that in this business. We can’t pick and choose like men do. Serial killers in The Boys Next Door, squatter punks in Suburbia, cheesy Hollywood Vice Squad. I remember refusing to direct that one and my agent said, ‘where else are you going to make $50k?’. So I did it. Cool though because it gave robin Wright her first feature role and it got Carrie fisher back into the good graces of the bonding companies after re-hab. Oh, also – I learned how to roll a car and as research the producer made me ride around with the real Hollywood vice squad as the arrested people for prostitution. Grim. As time has gone by though, I have purposely chosen not to take those kinds of gigs because I am very much against any type of gratuitous violence in films. ‘real life’ violence has become too pervasive. I believe that we as filmmakers have a responsibility to society to not contribute to create more violence.
Is it difficult to switch gears from anarchist supporting noise making films, to family friendly Tim Arnold movies?
I don’t remember ever claiming to be an anarchist. Maybe people assume that because I made films about punk rock which has its roots in anarchy. I do, however get your point. How can someone direct ‘the little rascals’ and the decline of western civilization’? The moment I saw the punk movement emerging, I felt compelled to film it. I knew it was important, and the moment needed to be preserved for history’s sake. However, I did not know that it would become so pervasive in the culture. Fantastic that it did, I must say! Once I did ‘Decline II’, I inadvertently positioned myself to get the gig to do ‘Wayne’s World’. I had become the ‘expert’ on head banging. After that movie, comedies were the only films I was offered. I had written many scripts – more serious scripts like Suburbia – but I couldn’t get them made because the perception was that I could only do comedy. So, I did comedy. The salaries were awesome, so I used the money to make Decline III. I couldn’t get distribution for it or for the Ozzfest documentary I did, We Sold Our Souls for Rock N’ Roll, so I did a Tom Arnold comedy. Filmmaking is like an addiction. You take whatever you can to satisfy the desire.
Your 1983 film Suburbia is without a doubt an extremely underrated film that was either ahead of its time, or just in the right time. What was the inspiration behind writing this film? Anything personal?
Suburbia was very personal. Making it was quite therapeutic in that it helped me let go of a terribly tumultuous and chaotic childhood. Many of the situations came from my own upbringing. When I tried to release the first ‘Decline’, I could not get distribution for it. Although it got awesome reviews and inspired hundreds of journalists to write feature stories in an effort to understand the new youth movement, theater owners were afraid of it and would not book it. Also, at that time distribution for a documentary was virtually unheard of. So, in an effort to express my youthful rebellious nature, I wrote ‘Suburbia’, a narrative film – hoping that it would get better distribution. No such luck. However, it has survived beautifully over the years and has become a source of inspiration for a lot of young kids to this day.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming projects?
My entire focus right now is making The Decline series available on DVD and the other outlets. My daughter, Anna Fox, and I have compiled all the extras, including splicing together the parts of the interviews that were not used in the original versions. Hopefully mid-2013, they will finally be available. I would like to thank the fans for their patience and loyalty.
What was the last thing that made you smile?