By Martin Popoff
Director Penelope Spheeris chuckles that it isn’t “Wayne’s World” she’s going to be remembered for, but her three “Decline of Western Civilization” movies, or maybe just the notorious metal one, or maybe even just Chris Holmes from W.A.S.P. swigging vodka in a swimming pool and Ozzy trying to pour orange juice. Well, the release of the box o’ three rock docs (“The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection” on Shout! Factory) — the first on punk from ’80, the second sub-titled “The Metal Years” from ’88, and the third, a heartbreaking look at lost hardcore punks from ’98 — should make clear the scope of Spheeris’ work, the director capturing the zeitgeist of L.A. rock history over three distinct periods. Much credit goes to Penelope’s daughter, Anna Fox, who was instrumental in assembling the bevy of extras for the elegant box, as well as the classy 40-page booklet fitting snugly in the Shout! Factory-issued package. Goldmine spoke to the dynamic duo about the grind behind the glory with respect to making something like this swan into existence.
GOLDMINE: So, sure, first question, how did it come to be that we now can have all three documentaries, plus all manner of extra goodies, in one DVD or Blu-ray box?
Penelope Spheeris: Now Anna is really the one that did it. About four years ago I asked Anna to come to work for me on various things that I do, and not just movie stuff. I also build houses and I do lots of different things. And I started feeling overwhelmed and asked Anna to come to work, and she said she would, but only if the first thing that we did would be the ‘Decline’ DVDs. So we spent two years trying to figure out the right distributor, and the last two years putting it together. But Anna did most of the work. She made it happen. I couldn’t do it, for all kinds of different reasons.
GM: And Anna, what were the hardest hurdles?
Anna Fox: The hardest parts were the fact that in assembling the extra footage there were so many different types of elements involved, VHS tapes, three-quarter inch tapes, DAT tapes. So many of the formats are just so antiquated that it was hard to even find a machine to play any of them back on, much less a company that would help to digitize it. So we had to search out these old machines and borrow them and digitize them ourselves.
GM: Were there also any legalities, rights issue?
Spheeris: Everybody always assumed the reasons they hadn’t come out were because of rights problems, but that’s an incorrect assumption. We haven’t had any rights problems. Everybody had contracts, signed their contracts and got paid. We only had fear and laziness problems. (laughs) And that would be me. Anna doesn’t have any fear about it because she doesn’t have all the memories and associations I have. And the laziness… really, I’m not lazy, but I just didn’t want to do it. Because instinctively I felt that it was going to be a tremendous amount of work, and Anna, she said, you know, you were right. It was much more work than I ever expected. And then she would always say, you know, by the time we get this done, we’ll know how to do it. (laughs) Because it’s like, everywhere we turned we had to learn something new.
GM: Beginning with “The Decline of Western Civilization,” which looked at the L.A. punk scene, what do you think you learned about that music by the end of production?
Spheeris: That’s a good and also unique question; we’ve not heard that one before. I don’t have a prepared answer on that. I think what I learned was that there was a seismic shift going on in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. And I, for some reason, felt compelled to document it. To the point that if anybody else had a camera I’d have asked them to put it away, because I was doing this work. I was crazy. But I think what I learned was that it really was an important time to document—and I did it.
GM: You called it “Decline”—was there a feeling that rock ‘n’ roll was going downhill based on what you were witnessing?
Spheeris: Well, the essence of punk rock was to tear everything down, destroy old standards with regards to rock ‘n’ roll. It was to tear down the standards. And, you know, I called it “Decline” at that time, because I thought it was kind of a joke. Because there’s a book called “The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization,” but I left out the fall. But that was such a transition time. There were art bands, there were melodic bands, and there were bands that were kind of rockabilly or whatever. And I think I got a pretty good cross-section there. I think if I would’ve done the film a year later, it would’ve been all this kind of hardcore, with Circle Jerks and Fear.
GM: What did you notice about the birth of the metal scene, off to the side, while doing the first one?
Spheeris: The perception of metal at that point was just that it was highly uncool. And if you didn’t stop with the guitar solos and falsetto voices and cut your hair, then you were a dipshit. That was it. There was a total rivalry going on back then between the punks and metal, and as we all know, metal kind of won out in terms of popularity here in L.A. On the Sunset Strip, you couldn’t even walk down it.
GM: And Anna, you joined your mom as an assistant on “The Decline of Western Civilization: Part II The Metal Years.” What are your fondest memories of working on that movie?
Fox: Oh boy, fondest memories. I’d say was when they were filming the actual performances. And well, another fun memory I have, with all my 17 years, I decided it would be a good idea to steal Alice Cooper’s phone number. And my best friend and I would crank call him. (laughs) I know, and I feel bad now. We were never mean — we were always just being silly. And he always went along with it! He was always so sweet about it. So that was a fond memory.
Spheeris: Okay, Anna, I’m going to bust you out here. You can tell about how you went out with Nikki Sixx during that time as well. I mean, that was really hard for me, as the mom. Actually she did it… did you go out with Nikki right before or during the movie? I don’t know.
Fox: Right before.
Spheeris: Oh God, I hated that. And she was only 17. And he would tell people she was 15 so he would seem cooler.
GM: Any stories of hostility or nastiness from any of the rockers or their handlers?
Spheeris: Well, I’m used to people being nasty. It is kind of the way I was raised in my home. So I don’t mind people being nasty. As a matter fact, I think it makes good celluloid. But, you know, when I shot Chris Holmes, you know, I thought we didn’t get the interview. I remember saying, we’re going to have to reshoot this. Because we didn’t get anything. The guy’s just sitting there screwing off and we didn’t get anything. And then I saw John and Val, who are the producers, and I told them, we’re going to have to reshoot that interview with Chris Holmes. And they said, “Well, too bad, because we don’t have enough money to reshoot it.” So I tried to cut something together and include it. I would never have imagined it would be the most talked about and kind of most memorable moment of the movie.
GM: So what happens in the five or ten minutes after you finish with Chris Holmes? Does he get out of the pool? Do you shake hands and say ‘see you later’? Do you go out? What happens after something like that?
Spheeris: I have to be honest, you’ve got really original questions. I think I was so stunned… you know how when you’re in shock and you don’t remember what happened? I don’t remember! I don’t remember him afterwards. Because I was just horrified that I didn’t get an interview. I’m sure somebody must’ve given him a towel and… you know, most of that, Anna, when she put the DVD extras together, she pasted together all of the interviews from beginning to end. And so you can see in there the entire progression — or I should say digression — of his interview. And most of that clear liquid was pool water by the way.
GM: And of course the third one is even more tragic in the sense of what happens to these people trying to make it in L.A. Tell me about “Decline Part III.”
Spheeris: Well, I thought it was going to be about the new punk movement, the new music movement. And basically the music was quite similar to the original days, although it had more meaning in the lyrics. But it had some of the same kind of posture and aggression going on. But what was significantly different was that the bands, a lot of them, were made up of just discarded orphans from their families. And it was weird; “Decline III” was a documentary about the kids in suburbia, only 30 years later. The whole purpose of the first one… that movement, as I said, the main thing was to tear down tradition. But it was also kind of fun and artsy — it was just a teenage/early 20s kind of fun. But by the time we shot “Decline III,” to me, they had fun, they did, and they do. But so many kids have been just tossed out by their families. That’s why I got my foster parent license so I could try to do something to help. I hope people will look at that movie now and realize that it’s not like a Third World country problem. It’s right in the United States where children are being thrown out in the street every day.
GM: Anna, did you have a role in the third one?
Fox: No, I was having kids at that time.
Spheeris: But she’s a good mom. She’s not the kind of mom we’re talking about that those kids had. But what was hard for Anna was that she had three different editors, three editing machines, and three movies to deal with. And she would bring me down… I didn’t want to look at it. I did not want to go back in my life. It’s like having my life come flashing in front of me, you know? So Anna would drag me down there and say, “Hey, you wanna see this?” And I’d sit there and look at the kids in “Decline III,” all the extras in there, when I was out there behind the scenes directing them, and you know what? I would sit there and cry. Because I love those people in “Decline III.” I have a huge empathy and compassion for them. Those are what I still consider my family.
“The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection” (DVD/Blu-ray)
- New 2K Scan Of Each Film Supervised By Director Penelope Spheeris
- Commentary By Dave Grohl
- Tawn Mastrey Of KNAC Interviews Penelope Spheeris
- Never-Before-Seen Original Footage, Performances and Interviews
- Mark Toscano Of The Academy Film Archive Interviews Penelope Spheeris
- Theatrical Trailers
- 40-Page Booklet Featuring Rare Stills And Text By Domenic Priore
- And More…