It might surprise people to learn that Penelope Spheeris, the director behind classics like “The Decline of Western Civilization” trilogy, “Suburbia” and “Wayne’s World,” doesn’t listen to punk rock anymore. “It’s either Zen meditation music or Creedence Clearwater Revival,” she says. Spheeris, 77, who is often called a “rock ‘n’ roll anthropologist,” is also open to a little Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Her days of blaring Black Flag and Fear might be in the rear-view mirror, but Spheeris still lives by a punk rock ethos, even if that means spending more time at her home in L.A. than she does out at clubs or on movie sets. Although best known for her big-budget comedies, it’s the films like 1983’s “Suburbia” that are closest to her heart. Depending on who you ask, the movie, about a troubled teenager who finds community when he joins a pack of homeless L.A. punks, is either crude and unwatchable or, as co-star Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers phrases it, “the punk rock bible.” Vincent Canby called Spheeris’ first feature “probably the best teenagers-in-revolt movie since Jonathan Kaplan’s ‘Over the Edge,’” comparing it favorably to “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish,” and its wild, raw portrayal of teen angst still resonates 40 years on.
Over a video call from her home office, Spheeris spoke to The Times about her battles with producer Roger Corman, her legacy and how the 1980s culture of “Suburbia” foreshadowed the Los Angeles of today.
“Suburbia” feels like such an L.A. movie, because you captured the feel of the streets and the loneliness that can happen in such a sprawling place so well. You’ve lived in Los Angeles a long time, so do you ever pass by locations from that shoot and get nostalgic?
I once picked up a rescue dog in Downey, and that’s where the abandoned houses in the movie are. We used to call it Downer. I drove through and thought, “Man, I can’t believe it.” We would shoot all night long. I ran off the road one time driving home because I fell asleep at the wheel. I was trashed from the shoot.
Did your upbringing inform the script for “Suburbia” at all?
I had a really rough upbringing, like a lot of the kids in “Suburbia.” I mean a violent upbringing. My mom would always say, “Penelope, you’re too stupid to know how smart you are.” I was always just trying to understand people’s behavior, and teenage angst goes across generations. I think that’s why the movie has stood up for so long. Teenage angst is just part of that age. It’s not just here, it’s worldwide. Flea says he goes all over the world and people call “Suburbia” the punk rock bible. I was working as a waitress in Orange County, and I used to always say, “There’s something better, somewhere.” I was in suburbia and my whole thing was, “Man I gotta get out of here.” I think I was working out my own teenage angst with that movie.
You directed a few short films, including one with Richard Pryor and the first “Decline” documentary, before you got “Suburbia” financed. How did producer Roger Corman come into your life?
I had been in one of his movies, and my sister worked with him. He was always a straight-ahead businessman. Bert Dragin [one of the film’s producers] owned a furniture chain in the Midwest, and he made a bunch of money and decided to move to California and make movies. He wanted to put $250,000 into the movie after he read my script, and he asked me to get the other half. So I approached Roger. When you had money in pocket, Roger would talk to you.
What was it like asking him for financing?
Back then as a woman in this business, I was intimidated by everybody, and he was a bigger-than-life figure. He agreed, but I didn’t realize he had a certain formula that I had to go by, so I had to rewrite the script. He said there would have to be some sex or some violence every 10 minutes or every 10 pages, and my script wasn’t like that. There was a bit of violent behavior among the punks, but the whole scene with the girl getting her dress torn off and the scene in the strip club, those weren’t in there. I had to make up some sexy thing or a fight to get it financed. I remember Roger tried to rename the movie because he said people wouldn’t understand the word “suburbia,” but I argued.
How do you look back on that decision to rewrite the script today?
If I had not made those compromises, I’m pretty sure he would not have financed the film. You might call that selling out, but it’s nothing like selling out after I did “Wayne’s World.” I really sold out then. After that, I couldn’t get my “Suburbia”-type movies made. I have a file cabinet full of scripts I’ve never been able to get made. I had to stick with the comedies, and that was the only gig I could get. I feel stupid complaining because so many people don’t get to make movies and they don’t get paid what I got paid after “Wayne’s World.” I feel bad complaining, but if I was on my deathbed, which sometimes I feel like I am, I would have spent my career not making money and doing movies like “Suburbia.” Now about all they think I’m good for anymore is podcast gigs, but they’re wrong.
You’ve said you cast Flea after seeing him at a party, is that right?
I saw him at a dinner at Lee Ving’s house. Lee’s Italian and prides himself on being a good cook. He made lasagna, and Flea had come over because he was talking to him about being in Lee’s band Fear. He was 19 years old, and I looked into his really blue eyes and the crack in his teeth and I said to myself, “This kid’s a star.” I asked Lee to talk to him later about being in “Suburbia.”
Was he on board from the start?
Spheeris: He was totally on board. He thought I was going to make him a movie star. I didn’t really, because “Suburbia” didn’t get released. He became his own star, obviously, as an amazing bass player in the Chili Peppers.
How did you find the rest of the cast? A lot of them weren’t actors, but kids on the street, right?
Bert was a straight businessman like Roger, and I told him, “Take the tie off, let’s go down to a few clubs and try and spot some people that might be good as the characters on the page.” We would go down to clubs like Blackie’s, Club 88 and Madame Wong’s and look around. I already knew Chris Pedersen [who played head punk Jack Diddley]. That role was supposed to be Henry Rollins. I had interviewed Henry and thought he was going to play Jack Diddley, but he refused. I was so mad at him for years. Years later on his talk show, he explained that Black Flag told him that if he took the role in the movie he couldn’t be the lead singer in the band, so I’m not mad at Henry anymore.
Forty years ago, did you have any sense that “Suburbia” would continue to be important to so many people?
No, I didn’t. It’s kind of shocking that people are still interested in the film and still acknowledge it. I don’t even think it played in any theaters except maybe a festival or two. It won an award at the Chicago International Film Festival [Spheeris won best first feature]. It’s an example of the kind of movies I should have been making for my whole career and I wasn’t able to.
How do you feel about the fact that you’re often called a “rock ’n’ roll anthropologist”? Does that feel right to you?
Spheeris: The only thing that is a little off about it is that my interest in doing music documentaries is, yes, the music, but it’s more about studying human behavior and the social aspects of it and why people act the way they do. I went from being an art student to studying biology to studying what they call Spheerisychobiology. For me the music is the backdrop. I’m flattered by the tag and I do know a lot about music. It has saved my life over the years. But it’s really the social aspects I’m most interested in.
When was the last time you saw “Suburbia”?
It has been at least 20 years. I don’t like to watch my movies. They were showing “Wayne’s World” for some anniversary and I couldn’t sit through it. I did the movie, it’s over. It would be torturous to watch them, I’m not kidding. Been there, done that. I always like to keep moving forward. If I could be remembered for “Suburbia,” though, I would be happy.
Are you working on any new projects?
Spheeris: I’m making a documentary about my dad’s carnival. I was in a different school every week and lived in a trailer until I was about 15 years old. I have boxes and boxes of photographs from the time and a little bit of moving footage. It’s quite a story, it really is.