One of the great injustices of modern cinema is rectified this week with the long awaited release of Penelope Spheeris’s stunning and acclaimed Decline Of Western Civilization films (1981 – 1998). The three documentaries cover iconic and infamous movements in Los Angeles music culture and deliver fantastic insights into social and cultural histories, as well as being cinematically powerful and energetic movies. The first two films are the most famous and they look at the early and mid 1980s rise of West Coast punk and Heavy (Hair) Metal respectively. All the films are personal but it’s the third one that has the deepest emotional heft. It’s a look at the ‘gutter punks’ of the 1990s and sees the series depart from music primarily, into more obvious social issues. All three films are available, with a delightful, gluttonous buffet of extra materials, from Shout Factory in the US and Second Sight in the UK. To coincide with this momentous release I spoke to director Penelope Spheeris and her daughter and project producer Anna Fox about the films, about working with family, and about rescuing dogs.
The first two films regularly appear near the top of lists regarding the best music documentaries of all time. What is it like to have them out in the world, readily available now and collected together, after such a long time?
The most amazing aspect about it for me is the fact that I feel I’ve had a big burden taken off my back, because it has been horrible in the last fifteen or twenty years, having that not done, not finished. It never would have been done had I not asked Anna [Penelope’s daughter] to come and work for me four years ago. She said, the first thing we have to do is the Decline movies and I said “Oh God no” because I knew how much work it was going to be. To have it done is such a big relief.
What was it like revisiting such a big part of your personal and creative past, particularly with your daughter?
I think you’re smart for observing that there may have been issues there. I describe it like being at the shrink for a year and a half and not taking a break. I had to watch my life flash in front of me. These movies are very important to me and I was perfectly willing to just go ahead and die without putting them out because I knew it was going to be emotionally difficult, psychologically stressful and a lot of work. It was all those things.
Anna, what was it like for you?
I enjoyed it much more because I’m much more nostalgic about it. I didn’t really have anything negative attached to it and it actually brought back some great memories for me and I’ve remained friends with a lot of the people in all three movies, so it was enjoyable. It was also great because we made a DVD box set but we also made an incredible relationship, my Mum and I. We became much closer friends than we ever were, so I got two things out of it.
This was the first thing you worked on together; do you have plans to work together more, either on archive or new projects as a team?
From my perspective yes, and we had already started on two other movies. Two of the four years we’ve been working on the Decline project was looking for a distributor for them. During that time we would go to meetings with various distributors and we’d go back to the editing room and Anna was working on two other documentaries. I was producing and that was ongoing before we finished the box sets. Those two years of looking, even though it was stressful and frustrating, was well-used time because to have ended up with Shout Factory is amazing. They are so cool, unbelievable. That’s one reason we never did it before. I couldn’t find the perfect home for it.
So part of the reason was trying to find a place that would really do it justice?
Part of it yes. Anna says she doesn’t have any negative memories of it but my negative memories are also what stopped me. It’s not like the films were extensively distributed on a legitimate level. They were extensively bootlegged, so they looked terrible and I felt awful about that. I felt horrible because I could never get them released. That’s also why it was hurtful to go back through everything.
Do you think the time is right because music documentaries seem to be going through a period of heightened awareness culturally, that people are more interested in them than ever before?
I think interest has definitely increased and it’s magical timing because all the people I know in the business were saying I should put the DVDs out because they are going away, and there aren’t going to be any more DVDs, so I almost gave up and thought I’d blown it. But Anna said no, you didn’t blow it, there are still collectors who care and want them, so please put them out.
I think it’s really exciting to have all that material collected in one place for musical, historical and cultural reasons.
Well you can thank my little girl for that because it would never, ever, ever have happened without her. She had three editors and three editing machines and she was on all of them at the same time. She would ask me to look at stuff and I’d be like “Oh God, do I have to?”
Anna, that makes it sound like you were an objective head in the editing room. Was it hard to remain objective given your nostalgia?
No, because I just put everything in. Every single thing I could find, except one thing that was excluded, which was minor, and that was any sort of additional offensive or not politically correct references that I didn’t think were appropriate. Yes they are in the films, but the people that said them I know are not that person today so I didn’t think it was fair to throw in more sensationalism like “hey look at these awful things that somebody said”. Those are the tiny little things I excluded, other than that we put anything we could find in there.
What I find interesting, about both original US and UK punk, is that so many people went out and documented the scene as it was happening which is quite unusual. Is there anything about punk that you think drove people to go out and film this stuff? Was it the sense that this had to be captured?
It was definitely a time in music where there was a seismic shift. All of a sudden things were different. The premise was to tear down all tradition with regard to music but also fashion, behaviour, everything. To go against everything. I don’t know where that came from. That’s why I was compelled to shoot that period of time. I always hear that there weren’t a lot of other people shooting at the time. Not that I’m trying to set myself apart, I hope there is a lot of footage to preserve what happened. I know there was Don Letts and Julien Temple who were shooting everything [In the UK]. We’d never seen anything like it before, that’s why I picked up the cameras.
Do you think music has that capacity nowadays that it could lead to that kind of response, to document culture and society and embrace and push for change in the way that you did?
I don’t know. Who can predict the weather? I hope so. I’m a proponent of change. In Wayne’s World [which Penelope directed], Garth says “We fear change” and that I think is the common mentality, especially here in the United States. Everybody wants to keep the status quo. I personally like to take chances and I like change so if there could be another of those shifts and a different kind of revolutionary music that would be fantastic. The problem is, and it’s a word Anna uses a lot, is everything is homogenised lately. It’s hard to break it out into something that stands out.
The Decline films changed a lot of people’s lives and how they saw the world. Which films and filmmakers had that impact on you both?
You’re right. A lot of people have said that those films changed their life and that’s very gratifying as a filmmaker. Mostly with regard to the first one, and Suburbia [Penelope’s debut feature]. When I was in school I was extremely struck by Costa Gavras’s Z, I would later find out I was related to him. Also, the work of Cassavetes. Music documentary wise I am not a fan of the straight Woodstock type, you know just shoot the music and people sleeping on the ground. I’d rather try and get into the minds of the participants.
I think those influences are apparent in your work, an interest in people and not just spectacle.
If I had to say whether I did the movies because of my interest in human behaviour or because of my interest in the music? I’m totally in love with both subjects but if I had to choose, it would be my interest in human behaviour.
I’d say that’s why the films are still as resonant as they are.
I think because the people whose lives you chronicled resonate with people who consider themselves outsiders in this day and age. One final question for Anna. My dog Bailey is a rescue dog and I know that you take in rescue dogs. I wondered if you had any at the moment that you are looking after?
This is the best question I’ve been asked so far. Yes I do. I have three right now. Two Saint Bernards and one Ridgeback mix. I rescued the Ridgeback when it was on the verge of death, emaciated, blind and so diabetic that the vet said I should just put him down. I took him to a second vet and he is now completely regulated with his diabetes. I raised $6000 to restore his eyesight, he can see now. He needs to find the right home once he’s done with his eye drops. My main focus though is the Saint Bernards.
Mine is a big Labrador, Akita mix that I rescued as a stray. He isn’t sociable though so I can only have one at a time. He’s my best friend.
AF: It’s great you acknowledge that and you live your life accordingly.
AF: You make the adjustments to accommodate the fact he’s a great dog he just needs certain things.
The rewards are massive. Why wouldn’t you want to make them the focus of your life?
AF: They know they’re rescued.
Thank you for your time, it was so lovely to talk you both.
PS: That was great. I love that you asked her that question. You’ve made her day.
When I saw that whilst researching I just had to. It’s such a beautiful thing.
AF: Other than raising my kids it’s the best job I’ve ever had and I don’t get a penny for it.