While filmmaker Penelope Spheeris is probably best known as the director of cinematic Saturday Night Live-related projects like Wayne’s World and Black Sheep, she is also to punk cinema what Agnès Varda is to the French New Wave. Spheeris collaborated with producer Roger Corman on punksploitation gems like Suburbia (1983) and The Boys Next Door (1985), the latter starring Charlie Sheen as an angry young man who goes on a violent post-graduation spree. But Spheeris’ crowning achievement is the Decline Of Western Civilization trilogy, a trio of incisive, formally innovative documentaries about punk rockers and metal musicians in California. Released in 1981, The Decline Of Western Civilization chronicles the L.A. punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, via bands like Fear, Germs, X, and Black Flag. The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years followed in 1988, capturing the height of the 1980s’ L.A. metal scene.The Decline Of Western Civilization III followed 10 years later, and focused on the gutter-punks of the 1990s. At the insistance of (and with production help from) Spheeris’ daughter Anna Fox, the long-hard-to-find Decline trilogy has been given a beautiful 2K digital restoration, and released on Blu-Ray by Shout Factory. The Dissolve spoke to Spheeris and Fox about the restoration process, filming punk icons like The Germs’ Darby Crash and Fear’s Lee Ving, and a possible Blu-Ray release for Spheeris’ underrated 1987 film Dudes.
The Dissolve: One of the main reasons it’s taken so long for these films to be released is that you would have had to give up your rights to the first two Decline films if you wanted to get Decline 3 released. Can you talk a little about that?
Penelope Spheeris: Well, back when I did the third Decline—which was ’98, I guess—I did shop it around a bit. There weren’t major offers on the table, but there were a few. Because the film’s a little bit depressing. I thought that may have been a contributing factor. But the couple of offers I got were only if I also included the rights for [Decline 1 and 2]. But these licensing agreements are for 15 years, 20 years. I’d be dead by then, know what I mean? So I never made a deal.
The Dissolve: So what then precipitated Shout! Factory’s current release?
Spheeris: Well, I tell ya: There has been a lot of communication by fans over the years. And I started and stopped things; I had never really done anything like this before. And four years ago, I asked Anna, “Won’t you please come and work with me?” Because I do a lot of things, you know? I write, I make movies, I build houses… I do a lot of things. And she said, “Sure, I’ll come work for you, but the first thing we have to do is the Decline box set.” It was Anna that made it happen.
The Dissolve: You filmed Decline 1 with a three-person crew, standing in mosh pits with kids slamming into you and breaking your lenses. How did your technique of filming the concert scenes change, if at all?
Spheeris: What was great was, when I looked at the footage from the first concert, it was all over the place. Because the cameras kept getting bumped. Steve Conant was the primary shooter on that film; I shot one as well. Steve said “Oh, you’re gonna have to give me a shark cage.” He actually said that. And I said, “No, no: I like the way it looks,” all bouncing around like that. I think in those days, which was way before MTV, we came up with a shooting style—and afterward, an editing style—that made it as crazy and chaotic as punk rock itself.
The Dissolve: Those concert scenes, and the scenes featuring Darby Crash, show why the gutter-punks from Decline 3 were so eager to talk to you. They knew you by reputation. But have you noticed a difference in the way people reacted to Crash’s scenes in Decline 1 based on whether they identify with your subjects?
Spheeris: You mean early audiences vs. present-day audiences? When early audiences saw Darby onstage, they’d gasp, and cry, “Oh my God,” and, “Isn’t that terrible?” But today’s audiences—and Annie, you could probably speak to this, too—they laugh at that. And I don’t think it’s a laughing matter. Anna, is that what you see?
Anna Fox: Uh… I guess. I don’t know what I’m looking at anymore, to be honest with you. [Both laugh.]
Spheeris: Well, [Anna’s] seen this stuff so much. And we’ve watched [Decline 1] recently with some live audiences. But I do know that they laughed at Darby. I don’t know if it’s an uncomfortable laugh, or just that times have changed.
The Dissolve: It’s hard for contemporary viewers to look at those concert scenes with Darby—positioned after your interview footage with him—and feel comfortable knowing that you’re distancing yourself from your subject, but are also clearly fascinated by him. Maybe a modern audience doesn’t know how to register concert footage that isn’t mocking, but isn’t fawning either.
Spheeris: Darby was a very charismatic person. Back in the day, whenever anybody was around him, he was the focus of the room, no matter if he was talking, if he was straight, if he was loaded, if he was silent. He was the focus of the room. That’s a bizarre intensity to have. To attract that kind of attention without even trying is pretty amazing. People really, really loved Darby. He was the shit! [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Did Darby give you a Germs Burn?
Spheeris: I do! I have a Germs Burn. I have one about 5 inches above my left wrist.
The Dissolve: Do you think criticisms of the first Decline film were class-based? Like when the Wall Street Journal said, “The scene isn’t large, nor is it artistically influential.” These kids spoke with an unpolished syntax, and pursued self-destructive activities. But pushback against the film wasn’t against them, but rather against your distanced view of them.
Spheeris: More of an opinion, yeah. Not so objective, maybe. Well, I tried to be very objective when I did the film. All the films, really. Frederick Wiseman is my guru when it comes to documentary. Both sides can look at Wiseman’s Boot Camp. The guys that were going to war loved the movie. And the guys who hated the war loved the movie. That’s how objective [Wiseman] was. He would put the camera down, let it roll, and let the audience interpret, you know?
But as far as the Wall Street Journal goes, I will say this: They could have written an entire article that slammed the movie, and I would have been thrilled. Just the fact that the Wall Street Journal wrote about punk rock? That’s revolutionary! A friend of mine works at CBS Records, and she told me to check out an album review of a recent record. He would take out a ruler, and measure the length of the column: “How long is the article? Oh my goodness, it’s 12 inches long! What a great article. Doesn’t matter what it says in it.”
The Dissolve: Decline 1 has a handful of scenes where it’s clear that you find these kids kind of funny, that you take them seriously, but are aware of how they sound. When you were editing it, how did you keep from imposing a viewpoint?
Spheeris: I like people to be both kinds of things. When I look back, I find that movie had a lot of humor in it. It was shocking in the day that it was first shown, to the extent that they said I couldn’t show it in L.A. anymore. That’s how different life was back when punk rock was born. I tried to bring out the humor and the tragedy. It can’t just be one or the other.
The Dissolve: Was there a line you didn’t want to cross? It seems like you were reluctant to show drug use.
Spheeris: No. We could only shoot so much film, so we had to use everything we had. There are, however, extended interviews that Anna put together for the Blu-rays’ extras. And she would find things in these interviews that were, shall we say, rather politically incorrect. So I would come down to the editing room—I tried to stay away as much as possible. And she would ask me, “Do you want this in the movie?” And I would say, “Sure, that can go into the extras.” And she would go “No. No, you don’t, mom. You don’t want people seeing that today.”
Fox: Well, it wasn’t just because the material was politically incorrect, but also because I’m in touch with a lot of people—in all of the films, actually. And they aren’t the same people today. It would be sensationalistic to throw all of these offensive things out there when I know they don’t represent the person that they are today.
Spheeris: We didn’t want to piss ’em off.
Fox: That too.
Spheeris: You don’t want to make Lee Ving angry. [Both laugh.]
The Dissolve: What kind of offensive material are we missing?
Spheeris: I told Shout! Factory that there were certain scenes I would cut out. I’m not going to name them, because I don’t want to make anyone feel bad. But Shout! Factory was extremely good at knowing what fans, or collectors like. They said “No, you cannot touch the original films.” But I was directed not to add more to them.
The Dissolve: Was representing violence and aggressive behavior—which is different than aggressive thinking—a concern when you made Decline 1? I know that you consciously avoided skinheads when you made Decline 3.
Spheeris: That whole skinhead thing was just beginning [around the time of Decline 3], I think. I know in Suburbia, there was a guy who called himself Skinner. He was the pissed-off dude that hated all the black cops. That was my representation of that aspect of punk life. But honestly, when I did Suburbia, I didn’t get that the guy in the military outfit with the shaved head named Skinner coulda been a white supremacist. I didn’t get that then, honestly, because it was such a new and different concept back then. But by the time Decline 3 came around, I thought “There’s no way one of those guys is going to get in my movie.” Like I said, I don’t want to give ’em the screen time.
The Dissolve: What was it like going back and forth with the MPAA on The Boys Next Door and Suburbia? What kind of language did they use, and what underlying issues do you think really concerned them?
Spheeris: I know that on Boys Next Door, I had to go back to the MPAA at least five times to get an R rating because of [Angie, Patti D’Arbanville’s character], the one who gets killed in the end. I wouldn’t do a movie like that today, because I really am against violent films. But today, you see far, far worse.
The Dissolve: One reviewer of Decline 3 describes the subjects’ sardonic mood as “gallows humor.” But the term seems to apply more directly to the first Decline. It implies a level of self-awareness. How self-aware were the subjects of Decline 2?
Spheeris: Not so much. I don’t think they saw themselves as being all that humorous. I think they took themselves pretty seriously. Decline 3’s kids, they had to pull the humor out of life.
The Dissolve: You said in an earlier interview that Decline 2’s subjects were shocked when you asked them stuff like, “What’s your backup plan?” Were they oblivious?
Spheeris: [Laughs.] Well, that’s probably the only way to put it. Yes, but I will say this in their defense: That was just the mindset at the time. It was sort of what I call “the common consciousness.” I just stumbled across from Muhammad Ali from back in those days, in the late 1980s. And he said something similar: “You fight really, really hard. And if you think you can make it, you can make it.” That was just the common consciousness of the time. People thought that your mind was so strong, if you think you can do it, you can do it. But that didn’t happen for most of ’em.
The Dissolve: The age difference between Decline 2’s subjects and Decline 1 and 3’s subjects also necessarily makes for different tones, no? These metal guys were adults—could their actions be judged on a different level than what the younger punks are doing?
Spheeris: No. I mean, the unknown bands in Decline 2 were younger. The older people—the bigger stars—were older. But the performing bands were approximately the same age. They were in their 20s, you know? Just like the bands in 1 and 3. I really made these movies to understand human behavior. That’s the main reason. I had music in the backdrop, just to have an excuse to make a human study.
The Dissolve: Does the fact that that the kids in Decline 1 and 3 came from the California suburbs affect the way their backgrounds of domestic abuse drove them to form their own surrogate families? Would the New York punks have grown up differently based on the ways domestic abuse is treated by California law enforcement?
Spheeris: That would be something you might know better than me, since you’re from New York. I’m very unfamiliar with the laws or the system there. But I’m very familiar with the California laws, because I became a foster parent after I did Decline 3. And I became extremely familiar with the laws, and the reasons children get taken away from their parents, why children run away, and what had to be done to correct them and help them. I’m not so familiar with the situation in New York. I will say this though: If I had to guess, I’d say [runaways that flee domestic abuse are] a pervasive problem across the entire United States. And it’s a problem that people don’t want to acknowledge or do anything about. And the government doesn’t want to do anything about it either, because it would take a lot of money to fix it.
The Dissolve: Have you watched the Decline films on Blu-ray? With closed captioning on I caught a lot in Decline 1 that I missed when I first saw the film projected... Like the way that that heckler steps on Derf Scratch’s lines during his horribly insensitive jokes. Did anything leap out at you during the restoration process?
Spheeris: I’ll let my daughter talk about that, since she found things I had never noticed before.
Fox: Once the first film went through the 2K scan, and we were able to watch it in the digital format, I noticed so many things I had never seen before. For a while, I played Spot The Director. Because [Spheeris] is actually visible throughout the movie for quick little seconds. That was either left in by accident, or the scenes had to be edited that way. That was always fun for me, as far as as how clear it was. I’m glad we didn’t restore it with a higher resolution, because it would have gotten us into a zone that wouldn’t have fit the film. Getting us to a higher resolution and picture quality would’ve made it, I dunno, creepy. [Both laugh.] We weren’t trying to make it look modern, we were just trying to make it look clean.
As far as the extras go, I can say that some of my favorite things that stood out were things nobody had ever seen before. It was fun seeing the Black Flag interview from beginning to end, and see everything in the film now in context with how it was originally shot. There was also things like [nightclub owner] Brendan Mullen giving us a tour of [punk-rock club] The Masque. That’s incredibly rare, as well as X signing their first record contract. Things like that were my favorite.
The Dissolve: In light of these films’ restoration, do you think we’ll ever see an official Blu-ray release of Dudes?
Spheeris: [Laughs.] I would really love to do that. I have spent the last three or four years with [producer Miguel Tejada-Flores] and [screenwriter] Randall Jahnson—he also did the Doors movie—tracking down the film’s rights owners. I think there are none; we’ve been looking for so long. So I would say we’re just about to ready to take ownership of it, and if anyone owns it, let ’em go for it.
The Dissolve: If anyone’s reading this, please help. [Laughs.]
Spheeris: Yeah. If someone owns it: Go ahead, put the darn thing out, or let us do it. I think at this point, we would be able to do it. We’ve looked everywhere. We put ads in the paper, we’ve done everything we can. So I think we may go for it. So the answer to your question is: Yes. And you’re so sweet for asking about that film, because I really love that movie.