Western Civilization Declined

Paste talks to Penelope Spheeris, director of The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, about the the impacts those films had on her extraordinary career.

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Since the first in the trilogy premiered to a severely limited audience 35 years ago, The Decline of Western Civilization has been one of the most anticipated series of films to finally see an official release on the home video market. Now, thanks to some major cajoling from her daughter Anna Fox, director Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World, Black Sheep, The Little Rascals) has finally made her longtime passion project available to the public in the form of a beautifully assembled box set released on the Shout! Factory label.

The box set is comprised of the influential 1980 original documenting the skid row vibrancy of the Los Angeles punk and hardcore movement in its infancy, followed by the 1988 sequel that chronicled the androgynous excesses of Hollywood’s hard rock and metal scene, and then a 1998 sequel to the sequel that returns to the city’s punk roots. To add to that, Shout!’s set includes a bonus disc of never-before-seen cutting room floor footage, extended interviews and other assorted ephemera, not to mention an informative 40-page booklet featuring an excellent essay on the films by Los Angeles rock historian Domenic Priore. It’s everything fans have been waiting for all these years, and then some.

So, to celebrate the release, Paste had the opportunity to speak with Spheeris about the trilogy and its impact on her extraordinary career.

Paste Magazine: In watching all three films in succession, the thing that really strikes me is the way women are depicted in the first and the third Declines, and then how they are portrayed in the second film: It’s a disturbing contrast.
Penelope Spheeris: It’s night and day, totally. I think punks are much better in the way they treat women. And, what can I say, the women in the punk movement are much more respected than obviously they were during the metal movement back in the ’80s. I just look at it like: Over the decades we, as a culture—we try different things. And basically what we wind up finding out is that nothing works. (Laughs.)
Paste: The most staggering instances of that dichotomy are clearly the segments with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons in The Metal Years. How did the concepts of those shoots come about?
Spheeris: Well, I wanted to respect those guys and say, “How do you want to be filmed?” And then Gene said, “I don’t want to do anything tacky.” So I said, “Well, what do you wanna do?” And he said he just wanted to go to Cache Lingerie, so I told him, “OK, Gene, we won’t do anything tacky!” (Laughs.) With Paul and the girls, that was his idea, too. Paul has always joked that I had just picked out the most exploitative moments, and I’ll cop to that. But he’s a good guy; I like Paul. And I like Gene, too, even though a lot of people don’t. But they both wanted it to be seen as something of a joke instead of something serious when they were shooting [their scenes] for the film.

Paste: In regards to Poison’s interview segments from Decline II, you get a vibe that they were being a little obnoxious to you at first, but then you slowly seemed to break them down until they finally dropped the front.
Spheeris: I think once you get right down to earth and just talk naturally and honestly, people can’t put it on anymore. A lot of times the English guys will be like that. I used to hang around with John Lydon a lot, and I’d watch him and his buddies take the piss out, as they’d call it. They’d just tell you stuff that’s not true and mess with your head and … blah blah blah. And I don’t operate that way, I’m like, “Oh really, what’[re] the facts here?” (Laughs.) Then they are a little more down-to-earth. And with Poison, those guys were cool and, in my opinion, totally hilarious. You put C.C. [DeVille, lead guitar] and Rikki [Rocket, drums] together, you have an instant comedy team.
Paste: Yeah, that was really funny when you told C.C. he looked like an accountant.
Spheeris: (Laughs.) Oh yeah. When he started trying to calculate something, forget about it.

Paste: Speaking of comedy, the first major break in your career came about when you directed those little Albert Brooks shorts for the first season of Saturday Night Live, and you were friends with a lot of the cast. The parallels between punk rock and that SNL style of comedy are really interesting. Who can forget John Belushi’s role in getting Fear on the show right around the time the first Decline had come out?
Spheeris: Exactly, and also he loved The Go-Go’s. Two days before John died, actually, he called me up and left a message for me. He was jammed on you-know-what and was like, “Penelope! We gotta make a movie together. We gotta make a punk rock movie together, and I’m gonna act and write in it and you’re gonna direct it!” And I’m like, “Boy, he’s off the rails here. Let me just wait until he calms down a little bit and I’ll call him back.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t.

Paste: Did that message provide the seeds for Suburbia?
Spheeris: The thing that brought Suburbia up really was the fact that I couldn’t get good distribution for the first Decline. Everybody was saying to me, “You can’t put a documentary into theaters.” So I thought I’d better write something about this punk scene, because I really like it, and that’s when I wrote Suburbia. And I wasn’t able to get that in the theaters either, but luckily through the years it has remained in peoples’ minds and a favorite among those who favor that way of living.

Paste: Going back to the first Decline, perhaps the most sobering thing about watching it after all these years is seeing how young the guys in, like, Black Flag and Germs were back when you filmed them. Darby Crash [co-founder of Germs] seems like such a kid seeing it now. You think of him as this menacing punk guy, but there he is just a boy cooking breakfast for his girlfriend.
Spheeris: He was such a sweetheart. He just had a little problem. I think it might have been genetic. His brother died before him of an overdose. Darby’s poor mother lost two kids to drugs, and I was at the funeral sitting next to her. It was a serious bummer.
Paste: It really would have been interesting to see how Darby would have evolved as an artist had he lived through the ’80s and ’90s.
Spheeris: It would’ve been something I’d love to have seen. You know, you see guys like Lemmy or Keith Richards or Chris Holmes even, they’re still surviving. I’d imagine Darby would kind of be like that…or something, I’m not sure. He could have cleaned up like so many of them had done through the years.
Paste: Who knows, perhaps he could have gone in a more singer-songwriter direction the way John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X had done in their solo careers?
Spheeris: He was very malleable with regards to his tastes, because when he went over to England that was the first time he had ever seen a mohawk. And when he came back, he had gotten the mohawk and the feathers and was wearing the facepaint like Adam Ant (laughs).

Paste: So that burning X on the cover of Los Angeles was from the film…how did that come about?
Spheeris: We went out to the desert to film that burning X, and the guy at Slash was like, “Well, let’s find one frame that would work well for the album cover.” And we did, and that frame kind of looks like a person burning in some weird way. If you watch the extras on the box set of the footage of the burning X, you can actually inch forward and find the exact frame that was the cover.

Paste: Having made so many studio films through the years, did you ever have any instances of actors or actresses you’ve worked with declare themselves fans of the Decline films?
Spheeris: That’s happened before, for sure. Not everybody, but every once in a while you’ll have someone come up to you and say, “Oh you did this and you did that.”
Paste : Who would you say was the biggest fan of the films that you’ve worked with on a movie?
Spheeris: I’d say Chris McDonald; he was a really big fan of the first Decline and talked to me about it when we were shooting The Boys Next Door. But see, also, I haven’t made any of those studio movies since the ’90s, you know? And what’s freaky is that even though I made the movies a long time ago, it’s not until now that they’ve gotten the notice that they have.
Paste: One would think Decline II would have had some kind of influence on the outcome of Wayne’s World...
Spheeris: Actually, no. None of the actors really knew it, because when we filmed Wayne’s World it was so close to when I filmed the second Decline and, again, I had a difficult time trying to get distribution for that one as much as I did the first one.

Paste: It’s surprising Criterion didn’t approach you to put out the Decline box set.
Spheeris: We actually approached them. But what I realized from talking to people is that Criterion charges a lot for their box sets, which is understandable because they really are nice pieces of work. But a lot of my audience couldn’t afford that, and that’s why I didn’t do it. We wanted to make sure it was affordable to the fans.

Paste: You mentioned on the Marc Maron podcast [“WTF”], you are seeding for a fourth Decline film. Surely it will be a much different experiences than the ones you had in ’79, ’88 and ’98, for sure.
Spheeris: You know, the cool thing now was that it was a lot of work to shoot those movies back then. Now everyone has an iPhone and 1080 hi-def on cell phones with capabilities to film, whereas back then we didn’t have that kind of technology. Somebody called The Decline of Western Civilization films an alternative history of music in the late 20th century, and I thought, “Wow, I never thought I was doing that, but that’s cool.”

Paste: Do you have any plans to compile those experimental early films you did before your stint at SNL?
Spheeris: The Academy of Motion Pictures restored them. I didn’t even know I had them, but then some guy from the Academy came down to my vault and was like, “What’s this?” I told them they were these things I did in college and he asked if they could have them and I said, “Sure!”
Paste: That could be something you could hit up Criterion about.
Spheeris: You know, I never thought of that, maybe I could. That’s a good idea.

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