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."
One of the first ways "Decline" found an audience and established Spheeris's reputation was by airing on "Night Flight," a program launched in the early '80s on the USA Network as an alternative to MTV. Stuart Samuels produced the show and is now a filmmaker (with his own Silverdocs entry, "Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream").
Samuels points to Spheeris's ability to capture the scene as it was exploding.
"[Punk] was not made for music videos or commercial consumption," says Samuels. "So if you weren't in the audience at the clubs or the venues, you weren't going to get that. So she was there to catch that rawness about it and that directness of it."
Spheeris followed "Decline" with punk-oriented narrative features such as "Suburbia" in 1984 and "Dudes" in 1987. A year later, "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years" focused on the excesses of Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne and Kiss. Then, because of her relationship with "SNL" and fluency in the metalhead culture, Lorne Michaels offered her "Wayne's World."
Six years later, with her career speeding along in reverse on the wheels of mainstream comedies, Spheeris made a spontaneous trip to revel in counterculture art at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. She went to sleep there and awoke with a new mission.
"I woke up the next morning and said, 'You know what? I'm going to get out of here and finish my documentaries,' " she says, recalling the experience. "At a certain point, I kind of have to do the work I think is most important, and if money comes out of it, fine."
That same year, she made "The Decline of Western Civilization Part III," which caught up with the punk scene -- now a somber, suicidal shadow of its 1981 self. And she turned down every lucrative picture the studios dangled: "George of the Jungle." "Dr. Dolittle." "Legally Blonde." She kept out of the Hollywood scene as she made "We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n Roll," though she remains "heartbroken" that it hasn't been released.
And her aversion to the mainstream remains strong.
"Ten percent of the people that are very powerful that are making movies really are good human beings and do it right, so I don't mean to blast the whole industry," she says. "But generally, it's a snake pit. . . . It's almost like the more experience you have and the more you know, the more distasteful the environment is."
Spheeris has created her own environment on three acres in Studio City, where she lives and works. She has a daughter and grandchildren, but prefers not to talk in detail about them.
So it's a nice life. But what if there were no "Wayne's World," the film that's made the current phase of her career financially possible?
"I think I'd be better off," she says after a pause. "I do. I'd probably be living in a nice little house in Laurel Canyon, very contained, not a lot of people bugging me. I'd have a lot more friends."
Spheeris plans to hit a few local clubs between Silverdocs events. She'd probably fit right in, with her black long-sleeve shirt from a thrift store ("How 'bout that -- the millionaire in a thrift store!") and chunky black sneakers that add four inches to her wispy frame. Her hair used to be jet black, and once it was blue, but lately it's blond and silver with brownish tips.
"Wherever I go, I like to find that pocket of punks," she says. "Especially the gutter punks and the crusty punks, and they travel a lot. And they're a really strong underground network. I like them, I relate to them."
Later Wednesday night, Spheeris showed a montage of her old music videos and a selection of new ones by promising filmmakers who don't get play on MTV. She was an appropriate curator, with her liberal use of "dude" as an interjection.
Sam Jaffe, 21, and Joe McGlew, 20, came to see Spheeris. They've seen "Decline Part I" and are fans of her narrative films, especially "Suburbia." Jaffe, who's studying film at the Purchase Film Conservatory, has a decidedly Spheeristic take on the current talent in the music and movie industries.
"There are people coming out with really crazy [stuff]," Jaffe says. "But on the whole, it seems like the same thing over and over. No innovation."
It's a view Spheeris addressed earlier at brunch. "The problem is sorting through the bad music and sorting through the ego trips and getting to find something of meaning and substance," Spheeris says, finishing her sandwich. "And it takes a long time to sort through. Just like with directing. Everybody wants to be a rock star or a director."
Spheeris says she's thrilled that documentaries have a new lease on life because of people like Michael Moore, who have made it a marketable art form.
"But [so many people are] spending all their time preserving and recycling the old stuff, that no one's coming up with any new stuff," she says. "It'd be cool if we found the time to do that. I'm getting tired of it. So someone else has to do it."
She looks distracted for a second, as if she hears the teakettle whistling in that nice little house in Laurel Canyon.