THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION: THE BEST TIME OF MY LIFE
Penelope Spheeris: Ha—’destroying’ it? I don’t want to take credit for destroying anything. I will say this: I wouldn’t want to live it again but it was an enjoyable, entertaining period of my life. My daughter was going out with Nikki Sixx, weren’t you, Anna? Were you too young to go into fucking clubs? And he made you stay in the fucking limousine? Is that right, Anna?
Anna Fox: No.
Penelope Spheeris: Yes, it is! You don’t remember that? Anyway—point being, the whole Decline II time was a very enjoyable time. Never want to live it again. It was Caligula, man. Let me tell you where I come from. When we shot the [infamous/harrowing poolside] Chris Holmes interview, I took [director of photography] Jeff Zimmerman behind a tree and said, ‘This guy was so fucked up that we didn’t get anything.’ So for all those filmmakers out there who may be reading this interview, you never know when you got it—that is the most memorable scene in the whole movie. The point is, I never sit there and go, ‘Oh my God, I’m such a fucking genius. I just got gold here.’ That’s what people say to me. They go, ‘Are you excited the DVDs are coming out?’ And I’m like, ‘Dude, there’s a really thin line between excitement and fear—I think I’m on the fear side.’
What kind of effect did these movies have on the cultures they documented once they were released?
Penelope Spheeris: I think what you’re hitting is something I’ve thought about quite a bit—how much does our creativity affect the general public? How much do they take their cues from that? When I was a teenager listening to Bob Dylan, man—he was fucking God! I’m doing whatever Bob Dylan said! Those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to hit a nerve and tap into being able to sway public thinking … that’s cool. But it reminds me of when I couldn’t get the first Decline distributed and I wrote Suburbia, and I never stop marveling how I look at those kids in Suburbia and I look at those kids in Decline III … and it’s almost like they watched the movie and they did that. I don’t know if I saw it coming or if they saw the movie and did it. It’s like I saw it before it happened. There’s a flipside to that, cuz what we do as filmmakers or musicians or artists … we have a responsibility cuz we do have that power! Mine was not the only film about punk rock that did make a difference. There are certainly others. We were just fortunate to catch a moment in time and let people know about it. Sometimes I feel that I accidentally named and identified a burgeoning trend that exploded when it became distributed and integrated into the backlands, you know? I feel really thankful that I was able to do that because there were very credible elements about true and pure punk rock and if more people can think that way … meaning less commercially oriented and less selfish, more tolerant of people … The punk ethic to me is where ultimately I think we’re going to get, but we’re not there yet. I’m glad I was able to spread the seed a little. I didn’t want to put them out for so long because I felt it went against that punk ethic—you know, it’s not about making money and making a coffee cup with The Decline on it. That’s why you don’t see that. I’m trying to respect the ethic. Luckily I was able to make money selling out other ways with the studios and shit.
Why did this seem like a serious subject to you? At the time, the mainstream perception of these cultures—each of them—is somewhere between a novelty and a threat.
Penelope Spheeris: I was born in a carnival. Every city we traveled to, I was an outcast. I was used to that. I knew the people who were on the carnival were all outcasts as well and I knew they had a lot of heart and soul and they banded together and they, in a way, had their own punk rock ethic going on. I felt comfortable in that environment. As far as the cops go, yeah—they shut us down on the first screening.
Why did you make sure to get cops in every film? You always sort of check in with the ‘opposition.’
Penelope Spheeris: I think it’s better to have a balanced perspective. My favorite filmmaker is Frederick Wiseman. His forte is to present the material, and the way that you know it’s successful is when opposing sides find it correct. Like the cops would look at their portrayal in Decline and go, ‘Yeah, that’s the way we feel.’ And the punks would say that same thing. It’s just a matter of being objective and fair and letting the viewer decide. Controversy has a certain edge to it that helps propel any movie forward—that does have an appeal. I also like to always have the underdog fighting the authorities.
Why does each film end the way it does? Fear playing the national anthem after a violent and ugly show, and Megadeth doing a stripped-down set, and the gutter punks talking about how they’ll survive as they walk together through industrial ruins. What are you saying in the final scenes?
Penelope Spheeris: I think they end that way because I want people to know that you just gotta keep on fighting for what you believe in. That’s what I think all three of those endings may reflect. I want [the kids in Decline III] to be heroic and admirable: ‘We’re the cockroaches. We’re gonna survive. We’re gonna be there when everything else is gone.’ That’s kind of admirable. That’s kind of heroic. Every day, each of us feel deceit in some way or another and at the end of that day you have to say, ‘I’m going to keep going.’ That’s the essence of our troubled existence. We have to fight that all day long.
Is survival without compromise heroic?
Penelope Spheeris: Absolutely. My favorite of the three is Decline III—the reason being that they are superior examples of people who don’t compromise even though they end up with zilch out on the street. They’re OK with that. They’re fucking drunk as hell but they’re making it. I just have a lot of respect for them for not selling out and being unhappy and trying to be a Kardashian or something.
You also show the price that comes when you don’t compromise, however. Everyone in these movies is paying a price in some way, even the people in Decline II—like Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. talking about his success and gold records and coming off absolutely miserable. Are these films supposed to show us that you can do whatever you want, but you can’t do it without paying for it?
Penelope Spheeris: Some people can. But they’re not interesting. The struggle is interesting. The people I’ve known who’ve had horrible things happen to them are far more interesting and deep people than people who’ve had that perfect existence. I don’t even know what to say to those people. I can only relate to the ones are in the struggle. I really have to stop myself to not object to people with that sweet lovely life! People think, ‘Penelope, you’ve been so successful with all these movies!’ And I’ve done well for a girl from a trailer park. But I don’t live that. I’m still a dirty punk rocker! A dirty trashy kid from the trailer park! I didn’t make any money til I was 45 years old and I did Wayne’s World. I identify with total struggle and poverty. And I like it there! I can’t live with power, success and money. It sucks!
Penelope Spheeris: When you reach to the outside world to find satisfaction, you’ll always be disappointed. You have to find it in yourself. For me, it’s about having a simple life and not expecting anything, taking each moment as it happens. That’s what I like about these punk kids in Decline III. They live moment to moment. This is a compliment, not an insult—it’s animal survival. I really respect that. It’s so immediate. That’s my favorite movie I’ve ever done. I learned more on that movie than all the others combined.
Do you relate to the people in the films differently now that time has passed?
Penelope Spheeris: There were slurs—anti-racial, sexist, homophobic slurs. Anna would go, ‘Mom! Come down and look at this! This really should not be in there.’ ‘Fine, take it out.’ But that’s the way they talked back then. The worst it got in Decline is when he goes, ‘I’m not gonna kill a Jew—maybe a hippie, though.’ I left that in cuz I thought killing a hippie was funny. We did do some politically correct editing and I don’t regret it. My father was murdered while he was protecting a Black man in the South. And the guy didn’t go to jail cuz my dad was wrong for protecting a Black man! So I got this torch to bear on that one. Anna was like, ‘Mom, keep all of the stuff that’s just not right these days out.’ And we did. It wasn’t that much! But I think she did the right thing. By the time I got to Decline III, it was weighing really heavy on me. There would be times I would film and come back and have a very difficult time integrating this. It’s really heavy duty to see kids on such a destructive track.As a result, I became a foster parent so I could try to help. I’ve had five foster children. I don’t have any right now but I understand that whole scenario where these kids are so messed up by parents who were so ill-fitted to be parents. [And] there was a lot less heart and soul, if you ask me, in the whole 80s scene. It was all about ego and how pretty am I and how much Aqua Net I need to buy. But I have to say of all the three movies. the kids in Decline III are still my family, OK? I’ll always be Eyeball’s sister, you know? I met my boyfriend when I was on Decline III. If you look at the credits that we have for all the extras on Decline III, there’s a guy giving the finger. That’s him. Underneath it says ‘Spheeris Films.’ He was my boyfriend for eighteen years—the smartest guy I ever knew. That was the best time of my life, making that movie. I wish I could go back and live that forever, you know?
PENELOPE SPHEERIS WILL APPEAR FOR A Q&A AT A SCREENING OF THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART 1 ON THURS., JUNE 25, AT THE ARCLIGHT HOLLYWOOD, 6360 SUNSET BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. 7:30 PM / $16 / ALL AGES. ARCLIGHTCINEMAS.COM. GET TICKETS HERE! THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION 4-DISC DVD / BLU-RAY BOX SET RELEASES ON TUE., JUNE 30, ON SHOUT! FACTORY. MORE INFORMATION AT THEDECLINEOFWESTERNCIVILIZATION.COM.