request - Filmmaker Magazine
Andrea Sperling talks with Penelope Spheeris about The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III

Penelope Spheeris began her career in the early '80s with The Decline of Western Civilization, an aggressively political and energetic chronicle of the late '70s L.A. punk scene featuring bands like Black Flag, X, and The Circle Jerks. In 1988 she followed the first Decline with a second installment, The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years. Like its predecessor, the 1988 doc looked at music, but this time her emphasis shifted to bands like Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and Kiss. Also during these years Spheeris directed a series of features, including Dudes and Suburbia, both of which attest to her ongoing interest in the L.A. punk scene.

More recently, however, Spheeris has become Hollywood's emissary to disaffected teens, having directed blockbuster multiplex comedies like Wayne's World and Beverly Hillbillies. And she's currently finishing Senseless, a sci-fi comedy for Dimension about the mishaps that result after a kid takes an experimental drug in a medical experiment.

Photo: John Goleard
But also this year, Spheeris returned to her punk doc roots to complete the third episode in the Decline series which, as she says in this interview with Andrea Sperling, represents something of a departure. Instead of focusing on bands, the new Decline looks at the kids who make up the audiences. As she was shooting, Spheeris discovered that many of the kids going to clubs are homeless; her focus shifted as she realized that the "decline" she first referenced in 1981 now had a new and more urgent connotation. Vividly colorful and extremely moving, Spheeris' new film maintains the raw energy of her earlier docs, but moves on to depict the hardcore realities facing many of today's youths.

Filmmaker: How did the idea for the film come to you?

Penelope Spheeris: I was moving along making millions of dollars doing commercial movies, and I saw an ad in a magazine that said "The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III" advertising some weird punk album. And I thought, hmmm, they can't do that. I checked out the calendar and decided it might be time to do another Decline. So Scott Wilder, the producer, and I started going out to shows. We thought we'd watch a bunch of bands, have a good time, make a bunch of money.

Filmmaker: You wanted to see the difference between then and now?

Spheeris: Well, here it is 20 years later, and I know how to make movies with my eyes closed. I've made 12 features now -- I've got it knocked. But once we got down to really understanding the subject, I realized there was no way I could make money off these kids. That would be obscene.

Filmmaker: Did you focus just on kids in L.A.?

Spheeris: The shows were all around Orange County, Ventura County, Riverside County, and then there were a few here in town, but here it's too expensive. I think that this new wave of punk music is more rooted in the suburbs than in urban areas, but of course it was like that back in those days too, you know.

Filmmaker: Do you see a difference in the kids now as opposed to back then?

Spheeris: In the film you'll see that they're far more desperate in terms of survival and their idea of a future. Long-term goals are not even an issue for them. Daily survival is the goal.

Filmmaker: Whereas back then there were goals?

Spheeris: Yeah, I think they still had goals. In a way, when the Sex Pistols did "No Future" it was like they didn't even know how profound it would be 20 years later. There is absolutely no future for these kids.

Filmmaker: Was the film all self-financed?

Spheeris: Yeah. What better use for that money? So I don't buy a new home. I've been in the same house for 20 years.

Filmmaker: How did you approach the kids? Were they open to talking to you?

Spheeris: Yeah, they're cool. Because they know my films, they were O.K. I relate to them, definitely. I'd walk up to them on the street and go, "My name's Penelope," and they were like "So what?" "I did the first Decline." And they were still like, "Yeah, so?" And I said, "And now I'm doing Decline, Part III," and that was it. We paid them each $50.

Filmmaker: Do you still listen to punk music?

Spheeris: Yes.

Filmmaker: What are your favorite bands?

Spheeris: My favorites? I hate that question. Godflesh, Fear Factory, Anti-Schism. I love the band that does "Fuck Hollywood." It's so cool. It's the way that I feel about the city.

Filmmaker: Is that true?

Spheeris: Yes. "Fuck the day, with the million dollar movies with nothing to say. It's like sticking my head in a bucket of shit."

Filmmaker: But you sort of function in Hollywood?

Spheeris: I know. It's difficult, isn't it?

Filmmaker: So with Senseless you're in post -- it's a Miramax movie?

Spheeris: Well, Dimension. What happened was, we started shooting The Decline, and I was like, Jesus, this is costing a lot of money.

Filmmaker: 35mm right?

Spheeris: Well it was 16mm, but then we blew it up which is actually more expensive then just starting with 35mm. But we couldn't walk into those places with big 35mm cameras. It was costing a lot, so [Dimension] had this movie, and we thought we'd do it, make some quick money, and then use it to finish The Decline.

Filmmaker: How many were in the crew?

Spheeris: Usually three or four: me, the camera guy and a sound guy.

Filmmaker: And the profits are going back to homeless kids?

Penelope Spheeris and d.p. Jamie Thompson Photo: Sally McKissack
Spheeris: Well, we were going to buy a house here in Hollywood that could be a drop-in center for kids. I figure I could get a house off this thing. And it would be a great house. We still might do that. But the other alternative was to give the money to existing organizations because I don't want to be in the business of running those kinds of places.

Filmmaker: Any distribution yet?

Spheeris: No. With the first Decline we didn't get any distribution until after we closed down the boulevard with 5,000 cops up there. We four-walled it at the Fairfax Theater. The reason the Fairfax got re-done was because of The Decline, Part I!

Filmmaker: In this third one, which is political, about homeless kids, the title The Decline of Western Civilization seems even more true.

Spheeris: Yes it is. As time goes on, the title fits the series more and more.

Filmmaker: So, the difference between these kids and skinheads -- they're at odds.

Spheeris: Yes, for the most part. There's a whole section in the movie where they talk about the radical political racist groups, and there was a decision on my part not to go and interview those racist skinheads because I don't like to give them screen time.

Filmmaker: But I think it works really well. You feel even more sympathetic for these kids.

Spheeris: It's amazing how much heart these kids have. You'd think that by being so disenchanted and disenfranchised and outcast from normal society they would develop in a direction that would make them hard and cold and distant and unloving, but as a matter of fact, they are more loving, especially of each other.

Filmmaker: Why do you think you're so interested in punks?

Spheeris: Oh, probably because I come from a similar kind of background. My shrink says I've been raised in total chaos. Alcoholic stepfather, my mother was married nine times.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the film's dedication.

Spheeris: It's dedicated to Squid and Stephen Chambers who died in a squat fire. Squid was one of my favorite people, and he got stabbed in the last part of July of this year -- he and his girlfriend were always fighting. They were totally in love, but always fighting. They drank a lot. She is presently awaiting trial in County Jail for first degree murder. There was a big gathering of the kids down at the place where he got killed, and I had the whole crew all lined up to go down with me. But it felt so wrong to go down there and exploit it. There's a point as a filmmaker where you just have to draw the line. So I didn't go. I had the whole crew, I had bands lined up, I had every piece of equipment I could possibly want, but there's a point where life's more important.

Andrea Sperling is an independent producer based in Los Angeles. She is currently producing Morgan J. Freeman's Desert Blue.


Filmmaker's curated calendar of the latest video on demand titles.
Free Men Sensation Restless City
See the VOD Calendar →
© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham