An Interview with Penelope Spheeris

DECLINE Producer Anna Fox and Director Penelope Spheeris
DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION Producer Anna Fox and Director Penelope Spheeris

One of the most heralded home video releases of the year has been the long overdue appearance of director Penelope Spheeris’s underground music trilogy, The Decline of Western Civilization. Spheeris is touring the country in support of the release and will be at SIFF Cinema Uptown on September 18 as part of their “Women in Film” series. SIFF will be screening the first installment of Decline, which features performances from seminal L.A. punk bands Black Flag, X, and The Germs. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Spheeris moderated by director Lynn Shelton. Afterwards Spheeris will introduce a screening of her mega-hit Wayne’s World.

Penelope Spheeris was kind enough to answer a few questions via email in advance of her Seattle appearance.

SSS: What song is stuck in your head right now?

Penelope Spheeris: “Spirit in the Sky”, by Norman Greenbaum. Weird, huh?

SSS: Each of the Decline films, while focused on similar subcultures, are very different from one another. From my perspective, the first film is about the music, the second about the business, and the third about the actual lives these kids lead. Was that a conscious decision to distinguish them or was that just where the material lead you?

PS: The latter. When I make a doc I let it lead me and try not to impose a bias or outcome. I would never have thought that Decline III would be about gutterpunks, homeless kids. But once I saw what was happening, I could not ignore it. I have since become a licensed foster parent in California so that I may try to do something to help with the growing problem of homeless youth. Also, whenever we travel on our DECLINE tour, we bring posters, sell them and donate to the local youth shelter.

SSS: That third Decline film, released in 1998, seems in some respects more of a spiritual sequel to the devastating documentary Streetwise  (also criminally underseen) about homeless youth in Seattle in 1980. Are you familiar with Streetwise?

PS: Yes, very much so and you are right, it is criminally underseen. People like to ignore this problem that is swiftly becoming out of hand in the U.S. Homeless children is no longer a third world issue. It’s a devastating problem right here.

SSS: You’re a great chronicler of underground scenes. What movement that you weren’t able to document — hindered either by location or era — would you have liked to witness firsthand?

PS: Well, I know you are in Seattle, but grunge was not one of them. I view that music as anger diverted inward and I don’t think that is healthy. It’s better when expressed (non-violently) and that’s why I love punk and metal. And it’s not rap even though it is very clearly expressed anger. It’s just not a sound that ever tickled my fancy. I was offered $1 million to do The Rap Years and said no because I think someone else could do it better.

SSS: This appearance at SIFF is part of a larger program focusing on women in film that is taking place at many venues in Seattle and around the world. Do you see more opportunities available to women in cinema now than when you started?

PS: No. It was bad enough as I was coming up. I think it is great that there have been those working on trying to bring women directors into the forefront, but I don’t see any jobs resulting from it. Anyway, who wants to be hired out of guilt? We want to be hired because we know what the “F” we are doing. If you think women have it bad getting employed as directors, throw “old woman” into that mix. Ha! At least I made some coin when it was possible. Thanks, Wayne!

SSS: What was the first record you ever bought?

PS: Can’t remember, but the first concert was Blue Cheer.

SSS: What was the last record you bought?

PS: Willis Earl Beale – Acousmatic Sorcery.

SSS: Seattleites cheered when local heroes Mudhoney appeared in Black Sheep. Be honest, that was the highlight of everyone’s career. Any Mudhoney memories?

PS: All I remember is it was a last minute decision because someone convinced the producers that Mudhoney was the hottest new band ever in the whole wide world. Huh? Studio Politics?

SSS: Are there any current film directors or other artists that you think deserve more attention?

PS: Freida Mock and Fred Wiseman.

SSS: Is there anyone flying under the radar you’re a fan of? 

PS: If they’re flying under the radar, how the “F” do I know who they are? Just being honest.

(Penelope Spheeris will be at SIFF Cinema Uptown on Friday, September 18. The Decline of Western Civilization box set is available now through Shout! Factory.)