'Wayne's World' director Spheeris to discuss gender, music

By Grace Prosniewski , Daily Arts Writer
Published March 26, 2014

The Penny W. Stamps Speaker Series aims to bring the best emerging and established artists to engage with the University and the community as a whole.

Penny W. Stamps Speaker Series: Penelope Spheeris

Thursday March 27, 5:10 p.m.
Michigan Theater

In conjunction with the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Penny Stamps Speaker Series will welcome director, writer and producer Penelope Spheeris.

Spheeris is best known for directorial works, including the highly influential “Decline of Western Civilization” documentary series and comedy films like “Wayne’s World” and “The Little Rascals.”

Recently, an effort to restore Spheeris' work has begun, including her student films from UCLA, some of which will be shown at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. As part of her Stamps lecture, Spheeris will be talking about her films unique relationship with music.

“We called it ‘Rock and Roll Anthropology’ because my career really was started and based in music from the very beginning,” Spheeris said. “And music has had a real big part in all of my films. So we’re really talking about how music has inspired me as a filmmaker to make movies.”

While Spheeris’ filmography — with a healthy mix of independent, feature and documentary film — makes it seem like she’s had the pick of her projects, that’s not necessarily the case.

“When people say I have an eclectic body of work, yes it’s very, very true, but it’s because I took whatever job I could get,” Spheeris said.

Surprisingly, that didn’t change after she directed 1992’s massive hit “Wayne’s World.”

“Once I got ‘Wayne’s World,’ I was only offered comedies, and goofy comedies at that.”

Spheeris spoke about the gender issues that underlined her situation and that continue to affect women directors today.

“When you’re a woman in this business,” Spheeris said, “You take what work you can get. It’s really difficult.”

“Guys have the luxury of picking and choosing,” she continued. “Male directors can make a film that fails big time and then get arrested the next week for drunk driving and they can keep making movies. But women have to really walk the line and take whatever they can get.”

Compounding these difficulties, Spheeris said there was a dearth of female mentors when she started her career.

“There are more women directors than when I started,” Spheeris said. “I mean, I really didn’t have any role models to look towards. When I was a 25 year-old starting out in the business, I didn’t have a 40 year-old woman director to use as a role model. There just weren’t any.”

Unfortunately, the uptick in female directors has not balanced out the power dynamics in Hollywood, and Spheeris doesn’t see it happening any time soon.

“Are there more of us?” Spheeris said. “Yes. Are we equal? Far from it. Do I ever see in the crystal ball a time when women would take over the world of film directing? I can’t imagine, and it’s really too bad.”

When talking about her favorite movie she’s made, Spheeris touched on the difficulty her films have faced in regards to distribution and music rights.

“My personal favorite is Decline of Western Civilization Part 3,” Spheeris said. “That’s the one no one’s seen, because the only way I could get it distributed was if I gave away rights to the other movies and I wouldn’t do it. So no one’s seen it and it was heartbreaking. But you know I did a movie with Sharon and Ozzy called ‘We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and it’s never been seen either because of rights issues.”

Spheeris also spoke about the financial difficulties facing new directors trying to make it in the industry.

“Right now it’s sort of the same thing going on with the class in America,” Spheeris said. “The upper class is doing very, very well and that will equate to high budget studio temple movies, and then you got those little tiny movies that are doing kind of ok, but everything in the middle is just lost. And it’s too bad because there are a lot of good movies in there that we just don’t get to see.”

The situation is so dire that Spheeris expressed doubt as to if she would even become a filmmaker today.

“If it were me starting out today, given the landscape and the calamity that’s going on out there because of the technology, I don’t even know if I would do it today, honestly,” Spheeris said. “You had to be very committed back then, especially if you were a woman, but you have to be a 1000 percent more committed to do it today. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but I feel like I have to be honest about it.”

While her main goal is getting the “Decline” films distributed, Spheeris is also in talks for several other film and television projects.

“I’ve got a lot of things going. I always do,” Spheeris said. “You’ve got to in Hollywood, and just hope that one of them sticks to the wall.