For Penelope Spheeris, Fame Came at a Price
Friday, June 17, 2005
Last time Penelope Spheeris came to Washington was for Ozzfest '99, when she filmed the metal band Slipknot as they ran around the Lincoln Memorial. She spun the footage into "We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n Roll," a documentary on middle America's love of heavy metal that she says is an "awesome, awesome " film. We'll have to take her word for it, as "We Sold Our Souls" still hasn't been released because of music copyright issues. But that's the way these things often work for directors with bold, edgy intentions. Spheeris should know: She once sold her soul to Hollywood by directing "Wayne's World."
"I was a millionaire overnight because of this damn comedy," says Spheeris, 59, back in the area as a festival juror and keynote speaker for the Silverdocs film festival. "I tried so hard to get so many movies made, but the only thing I could do were these goofy comedies. I didn't want to do it. But give me $3 million for 'Beverly Hillbillies' and I'll do it."
That last sentence was delivered with sarcastic self-pity during her Wednesday address to a hundred or so festival attendees. Spheeris -- filmmaker, champion of punk rock, grandmother -- is a director both aggrieved and respected, with a career defined by a passion to do good work in an industry she says she loathes. She is lauded for her pioneering work in music videos in the '70s and her documentaries on the punk and metal revolutions of the '80s. Spheeris was courted by Silverdocs because "her work challenges the status quo," says festival director Patricia Finneran. But like anyone's favorite band, Spheeris had her own -- how to put this delicately? -- sellout period.
"Wayne's World" was by no means a clunker. Far from it. The "Saturday Night Live" Mike Myers vehicle was a massive hit in 1992, grossing more than $100 million. Studios were ravenous to copy the formula, and enticed by seven-figure paychecks, Spheeris made a string of those goofy comedies. The aforementioned "Beverly Hillbillies." "The Little Rascals" update. "Black Sheep" with Chris Farley and David Spade. "Senseless" with Marlon Wayans. All within six years of "Wayne's World," all arguably fantastically dull and routine compared with her work in the '80s.
Now it's a different story.
"It's actually a liberating feeling not to care if I'm wanted, not care if I'm not on the top-10 list," Spheeris says over brunch after her keynote speech. "And I think if I could choose whether or not I was, I would prefer not to be. It's just too tempting when they wave $3 million in front of your face to do the wrong thing. I don't like to have to make those decisions."
Lately, she hasn't had to. Spheeris is busy filming interviews and molding special features for the year-end release of the DVD versions of "The Decline of Western Civilization," the seminal punk-rock documentary trilogy she began in 1981. She just finished a script for a film about Johnny Rotten, the former Sex Pistols frontman, and is negotiating with a distributor for "The Kid & I," a narrative feature about a young man with cerebral palsy. Plus there's an oft-delayed Janis Joplin biopic she's been nurturing for 15 years. Spheeris was supposed to start shooting last summer with singer Pink as Joplin. Now, in a haze of contractual concerns, Spheeris isn't even sure if Pink is still attached.
"They were supposed to flop down some money for her and they didn't," says Spheeris, both resigned and resilient. "The official word from producers is that we're shooting in October. I've been working on it for 15 years, you know. There's been a lot of Octobers. I'll be working on it long after I'm dead." She'd also like to write her autobiography.
Raised in "total poverty" on her father's traveling carnival, she waitressed her way through film school at UCLA, working at the International House of Pancakes. In 1973, she started her own production company, Rock 'n' Reel, one of the first to produce music videos. After directing for Gary Wright, Funkadelic and Queen, she directed Albert Brooks's film segments for "SNL." Sensing the tremors of a cultural shift in 1980, she pointed her camera at the Los Angeles punk rock scene and captured its violent adolescence in "The Decline of Western Civilization." Few saw the film at the time.
"When I first started out doing documentaries, we couldn't even get a theater," Spheeris says. "You couldn't get 'em distributed."