Saturday, November 16, 2013

Penelope Spheeris

Penelope Spheeris is arguably one of the coolest women in Hollywood.  She’s a director/writer/producer whose major works include:

The Decline of Western Civilization Series
Wayne’s World
We Sold Our Souls for Rock n’ Roll

Here’s a little bit about her:

1.  She’s a woman thriving in a man’s world in more ways than one.

               We know very well that is hard to be a women in the man-dominated world of filmmaking. Lack of interest, respect and funding are all hurdles women face when trying to get their stories out there.  Penelope, although she has faced some of these issues, has done pretty damn well for herself and has been able to more or less rise above these roadblocks.  She has spoken about how lack of funding has hindered the distribution of her documentary films, but the irony is that the shortage of money needed for mass distribution (married with her artistic style) has made her early documentary work highly sought after, even achieving cult classic status (  She may not be a household name like Spielberg or Aronosfky, but she has earned a tremendous amount of respect and a significantly large underground fanbase for her ability to tell a story.  She recounts to release of her first documentary film:

             “In 1980 when I made The Decline of Western Civilization, it was impossible to get distribution. The theater owners said no one cared about punk rock, no one would come to theaters to see a documentary. I finally convinced one unsuspecting Hollywood Boulevard theater owner to give us a single midnight showing. So many punks showed up that the LAPD sent out what appeared to be the entire force. Edward Colver, a brilliant photographer that had himself documented the scene in still frames, captured the moment as proof. Had he not no one would have believed it — hundreds of cops… astounded and bewildered by the sea of Mohawks, leathers and studs. I soon received a letter from Police Chief, Daryl Gates, requesting that I not show the film ever again in Los Angeles.”

You could say that from there, she was golden-- the underground world loved this incredibly honest, brave, cool woman for telling the story of those whom society left behind.  

Since she’s developed an impressive career, spanning 30+ years, she’s also recognized by Hollywood an expert in her field, and even produced a segment for 75th Oscars, dedicated to documentary film (    

So, she may have had a hard time with funding, but she's got respect and public interest-- and as Meatloaf says, two out of three ain't bad.

But it gets better!  The majority of her writing and directorial work is about music culture.  And not just any music, but punk and heavy metal-- both territories usually considered too aggressive for a woman to understand or be a part of.  She managed to insert herself into that world and gain the trust of a group of people who aren’t exactly overflowing with it.   

2.  She takes pride in being a female in film, but doesn’t want be know as a “woman filmmaker”-- she has other interests.

              We did a bunch of readings on why it’s important for female authors and auteurs to tell women's stories.  And yes, it's important to have a feminist’s point of view in film to start a discussion and create an understanding of the lives of women across the globe.  But this doesn't have to be the only role for female filmmakers.  As I mentioned before, the majority of her documentary film work has been in exposing the lifestyles surround certain music scenes.  Her specialty is giving the public an understanding of the disenfranchised youth who form and keep punk culture alive.  We tend to see punks as defiant societal outcasts, but we don't stop to think of how and why these kids became so rebellious.  In Decline..., Penelope interviews these misunderstood people, getting into the heart and sole of why they use this form of music as an outlet for their aggression, and enter into the lifestyle that often accompanies it.  This is the main theme in all three films within this series, as well as her narrative film, Suburbia.  She likes to expose the humanity behind “the monster, giving these “others” a voice.

3.  She has range.

            Just when you think she's this uber-serious documentary filmmaker, she goes and directs a major motion picture comedy-- Wayne's World.  And then she does a kid’s movie-- The Little Rascals. And then a stoner movie-- Black Sheep. And after doing that, she can still effortlessly go back to making award-winning documentary films.

               So is she a filmmaker for women?  No.  But she’s a woman in the industry who can serve as a model for other women who see their dreams of big, Hollywood success as out of reach.

                                             An in-depth interview with Penelope

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