Shock Director Penelope Spheeris Documents the Wild Side, but Her Life Is Wilder Than Her Movies
Mom is in the sunny, modern kitchen of her Laurel Canyon, L.A., house putting the chicken soup on the stove to simmer. On the counter sits a bowl of plums, fresh from a neighbor’s tree. Daughter is baking brownies. Out in the backyard three ducks paddle around in a baby pool. Mom pauses and stares into space for a moment. “I’m like a normal person,” she says softly.
Have we walked in on a scene from The Donna Reed Show? Hardly. Mom—she’s the the 42-year-old with the pink leggies and Vampira hairdo—is Penelope Spheeris, director of the controversial new documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, The Metal Years. The film is a shocker about L.A.’s raunchy heavy-metal club scene, with Spheeris playing tour guide. Here’s the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll—all but the drugs viewed with affection. “I don’t want in any way, even inadvertently, to infer that the drug s—works,” says Spheeris. (Her 1981 film, The Decline of Western Civilization, took the documentary approach to the punk world.) “I like the music, even if I’m not supposed to,” she adds.
Between songs the movie features Spheeris’ interviews with heavy metalers, including Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons of Kiss and Chris Holmes, 29, of W.A.S.P., who swigs a quart of vodka while his mother sits nearby, glaring. Spheeris asks the head bangers about such touchy subjects as sex with groupies, and presses for colorful answers. “This is an R-rated movie,” she said recently, “not a TV talk show.”
No argument. For Part II, which won her another collection of enthusiastic reviews, Spheeris abandoned her comfortable life in Laurel Canyon for some of the seediest turf in Southern California. In preparation, she spent six months going to metal clubs on the Sunset Strip, dressed in black leather. Her daughter, Anna, 18, herself a club crawler, often went along to help set up interviews. Anna used to be in an all-girl group called Feline and is dating a bass player for a group called Kill for Thrills. Though metal has been described in the film’s press release as “the bane of fretful parents,” Spheeris clearly does not belong in that category. “I think if you give your child enough attention and love, you don’t have to worry,” she says. “Anna is a great kid.” So much for Tipper Gore.
Anna, who graduated from high school last year and is now studying fashion design in L.A., returns the compliment. “Mom’s not a nag when we’re out,” says Anna. “There’s no ‘Don’t do this.’ She’s like, ‘Hey, party! Just watch yourself.’ I hope to be as strong.”
“If I make films that are on the heavy side,” Spheeris says reflectively, “it’s because that’s what I’ve been dealt….I was born into a collection of freaks.” Her father was the strongman in a circus, her mother was the ticket taker, and Penelope grew up traveling with the troupe and attending “a new school every week.” Then, in October 1952, when she was 7, her father was shot and killed. Penelope’s mother later married and divorced seven times (grand total of marriages to date: nine) and drifted into alcoholism. Penelope and her three siblings grew up in abusive households. “It wasn’t a Father Knows Best kind of upbringing,” says Spheeris, “although I’m trying to do that for my daughter.”
If Spheeris’ daughter has benefited from her mother’s longing for security, Penelope’s six films are marked by the rootlessness and violence of her early years. They include 1984’s Suburbia, about a group of runaways who live in an abandoned house, and 1986’s The Boys Next Door, an ultraviolent epic about two high schoolers, played by Charlie Sheen and Maxwell Caulfield, on a random killing spree. Violence is a theme that runs through her work. Her father was killed, she says, “defending a black man in Alabama.” The perpetrator served no jail time. “So I was raised with a poor sense of American justice.” None of her stepfathers stuck around long enough to make her feel wanted. Surprisingly, she is still close to her mother, now 68 and a barmaid in Santa Monica. “My mother had been abused herself as a child,” says Penelope. “She had it rough. But she always told me, even when I was bleeding, that she loved me.”
Penelope’s escape came at UCLA, where she planned to study behavioral psychology. She eventually switched to film “because I liked the fact that I could express myself that way.” After college, and a short stint as an actress, she found work as a film editor and then as a director of music videos. While producing a series of shorts for Saturday Night Live in the mid-’70s, Penelope met Albert (Broadcast News) Brooks, who asked her to produce his feature Real Life. After the film opened in 1979, Penelope says, “I had to decide if I was going to make mainstream pictures or say goodbye to the money and all the influential friends and do the weird stuff.” She opted for the weird stuff, raising $125,000 to make the first Decline. (Part II cost $1 million.)
What’s curious is that Spheeris ever managed to make her first movie. In 1974 a heroin overdose killed Anna’s father, cameraman Robert Schoeller. Though Penelope had lived with Schoeller for seven years without marriage, Anna keeps his last name. Penelope admits having dabbled in heroin, cocaine, LSD and marijuana until she discovered that she was pregnant. Schoeller’s death, at age 29, scared her straight. “Robert died in a lawn chair,” Penelope recalls, “watering flowers. Someone found him at 6 in the morning with the garden hose still in his hand. I had a total nervous breakdown about a year after he died.”
In 1979 she went into analysis. (She still goes once a week.) Tragedy seemed to hound her. The elder of her brothers, Jimmy, a singer, died in an auto accident four years ago at 34. (Sister Linda, 40, is a film set decorator and brother Andy, 36, writes screenplays.) “Are they screwed up?” she asks of her siblings. “Yeah. I said to my shrink one time, ‘I can’t believe we all survived.’ And she said, ‘You didn’t.’ ”
Because of her background and the nature of her films, Spheeris says, the “yuppies” who run the film business still don’t understand her. “People think that I’m really dark and depressing, that I’m sort of flailing through life. But the fact is that I’m very much in control.” She has lived in the same house for 11 years, in order to provide Anna with the kind of secure upbringing she never had. “Anna has always been my top priority,” Spheeris says. “Anna is not screwed up. I’m thrilled about that, and I deserve it.” Their household also includes Penelope’s boyfriend, Simon Steele, 35, an aspiring musician she met two years ago when he approached her about scoring one of her movies. “I think all her films deal with kids and how you need to have good parents to have a stable home,” he says.
The movie on which Spheeris and Steele collaborated is called Dudes. Due this month, it tells the story of three young misfits who leave New York for L.A.—one gets murdered halfway there, and his buddies plot a bloody revenge. It is not a musical. “People think I’m nuts making movies about these strange subjects,” Spheeris says good-naturedly. “But, jeez, somebody’s got to do it.”
And as for critics, the only one that counts is in her corner. “Are you ashamed to be my daughter?” she asks Anna.
“No way, man.”
—By Fred Bernstein, with Michael Alexander in Los Angeles