You might say there are three unspoken rules to becoming a punk or metal fan: Hear the music. Go to the shows. Watch The Decline of Western Civilization.
The seminal Decline trilogy, directed by Penelope Spheeris, documents the height of the Los Angeles punk scene (in 1981’s Part I) heavy metal scene (in 1988’s Part II) and community of “gutter punk” homeless teens (in 1998’s Part III). The movies feature memorable interviews and performances from artists like Black Flag, the Germs, Circle Jerks, Ozzy Osbourne and Aerosmith, as well as quotable moments from fans and aspiring rock stars.
On June 30 Shout Factory! will release a deluxe Decline of Western Civilization Blu-ray box set, complete with never-before-seen footage, commentary from Spheeris and Dave Grohl and many more extras. It marks a long-awaited achievement for Spheeris, also known for helming scripted fare like Wayne’s World, Suburbia, and Black Sheep.
I chatted with Spheeris about The Decline as well as her negative experiences in Hollywood and intriguing plans for the future. (Also on the line was Spheeris’ daughter, Anna Fox, who played a huge part in finally getting the cult films on DVD.)
What made you say, “OK, it’s time to do this box set”?
Spheeris: [To Anna] That would be your fault. It started four years ago…
Fox: Yeah, she asked me to come work for her. And I said, “The only way I will agree is if the first thing we do is work on getting the Decline DVDs released.” So she reluctantly agreed, because she knew it was going to be a huge job.
Spheeris: We spent the first two years trying to find the right distributor and the last two years putting everything together. It’s just been so much work and so much psychological agony to go through all this stuff.
So many fans have been waiting decades for this. Did you realize how much of a demand there was?
Spheeris: I actually thought we would be too late, to be honest with you. I had a sense of some kind of awareness about it, but there was a day when Anna said to me, “Mom, you don’t realize how much people want this. And you don’t know who you are.” [Laughs] And I was like, “Really?”
Watching the films again after so many years, I pick up on the sadness and heartbreak much more than I did when I was younger. What was it like for you to re-watch the footage?
Spheeris: It was hard. I was actually dreading watching it, and Anna literally forced me to do it: She’s like, “Okay, now we’re going to sit here and watch the first film.… We’re gonna figure out how much you want to have on the extras.” And I’m like, “I don’t know, just figure it out and show it to me!” And I would leave the room. But since she started all this, I’ve become more familiar with the movies and remember having done them. And the freaky thing is [in high-definition], we saw things I think I’d never seen before.
One thing I love about The Decline is that everyone seems so comfortable and honest on camera. How do you create that sort of atmosphere?
Spheeris: Well, first of all, I tried to put them in situations they were comfortable with, like Darby (Crash of the Germs) in the kitchen of his own apartment making breakfast. With Decline II, I asked Gene Simmons where he wanted to be filmed, and Gene said, “I just don’t want to do anything tacky. … How about Trashy Lingerie?”
With Paul Stanley, I asked him how he wanted to be filmed, and he goes, “I want to be in bed with three women.” We set the whole thing up, and he takes me aside and he goes, “I don’t like the way these women look. Can’t you get me prettier girls?” And I said, “No, Paul. These are the girls we have.” And he goes, “I’m gonna call the Playboy Mansion and get some good-looking girls over here.” And that’s what he did.
So most of the artists suggested their own settings.
Spheeris: Yeah. Alice [Cooper] was rehearsing with a full-stage setup, so he put his costume on. And Poison wanted to be filmed in their rehearsal place, so that’s where we shot them. With the light bulb kids, I tried to not make it too uptight, you know? And a lot of the times — not with the big stars, but with the other people — I knew them already, so it was comfortable because they were my friends.
Were any of the folks you interviewed uncooperative or suspicious of what you were doing?
Spheeris: From my perspective, when we shot Chris Holmes in the pool in Decline II, he was being uncooperative. See, I thought we didn’t even get the interview — I told the cameraman we had to shoot it over again, but then we didn’t have enough money. Then it turns out to be the piece that everybody remembers the most.
And also Lemmy, honestly. Somebody said the other day, “Can you believe that Lemmy is the voice of reason?” [Laughs] He’s a powerful force. I thought he did a great job in the film, and I hope he’s proud of it — or he probably doesn’t even care anymore. I have a picture of him with his arm around my throat doing a chokehold on me.
Anna, how old were you when your mom started making the Decline films?
Fox: When she shot the first Decline, I was eight or nine. She didn’t bring me when she was shooting it, but when she was just going to shows, she would bring me sometimes. I have very fond memories of that.
Spheeris: She worked on Decline II, actually.
Fox: Yeah, I worked for the producers and helped in the editing room and helped on the shoot of Decline II.
Penelope, have any of the people in the films kept in touch with you over the years?
Spheeris: I’m in touch with Eugene from the first Decline; he and I email, like, every week. But Anna’s in touch with most of the people in all three films and tells me what’s going on and everything. I think if I had to say that I feel a closeness to the people in one of the films, it would be The Decline III. For me, that was the best time of my life and the most critical time, just in terms of my perception of filmmaking and the world and everything else.
That’s a particularly hard film to watch. How were you able to return to everyday life after that experience?
Fox: The fact is, I don’t think you have.
Fox: I think it definitely permanently affected you. I think that’s a lot of the reason why you got your foster license. [Spheeris been a foster parent to five children since making The Decline III.]
Spheeris: It was a very difficult time for me. I didn’t want to be a part of Hollywood anymore at that point. It didn’t hold any meaning for me anymore.
Do you think you’ll ever make another big-budget Hollywood movie?
Spheeris: No. I don’t think they want me to, and I don’t want to. So that’s good. A lot of my contemporaries who aren’t working … I think they feel bad about not working. But I don’t. I’m fine with it. I mean, I was lucky enough to be able to make some money, so I’m sort of comfortable, but just in terms of a creative outlet and everything, I’d rather build a house than make a movie.
I heard you’re working on a fourth Decline.
Spheeris: Who said that? We’ve been talking too much. [Laughs] I can say that it’s in the works. I would love to be able to tell you the subject matter, but I feel if I do, it would make us vulnerable because, you know, anybody can do it.
There are so many music documentaries out now, and I think your films have influenced independent filmmakers as well as musicians. When you talk to young directors, what advice do you offer?
Spheeris: I get a lot of people asking me, “How did you do it?” That’s the big question — like if I tell them a certain thing that they’d be able to do it. But we’re talking apples and oranges here, because the landscape has changed so much. Maybe the only thing that would apply is, “Don’t do it for the money, do it for what you really love and believe in.” Because I never did it for the money. I never thought I was gonna get rich or famous or any of that crap.
Fox: You were just trying to keep a roof over our head and keep us fed.
Spheeris: That’s all I was after. I never expected anything more. So for people today, young people, to get into the business for the specific purpose of getting rich and famous is ridiculous. And it’s one of my biggest gripes, because it’s just going lead to disappointment for 98 percent of them. I sound like I’m talking about The Decline II here, but it’s a rampant disease today that people still think that. They don’t talk about it as much, but they still think it.
But honestly, I still don’t see live performances captured as well as you did, where you truly feel like you’re in the audience.
Spheeris: I had had a music video company all through the ‘70s called Rock ‘N Reel, and I was shooting music videos for the record companies way before MTV. During that time, I learned so much about shooting music. I realized that if I was going to shoot a live performance that I would have to shoot the rehearsal first and get a whole bunch of cutaways. So then, instead of looking like I had three cameras, it was like I had 12 cameras, you know?
I think I kind of came up with innovative ways of doing things way back then, so when I did the Decline movies, I applied what I had learned. After MTV was born, people would ask me things like, “Why did you copy MTV in the shooting and the cutting style?” And I would say, “Well, you got that backwards.”
A lot of the musicians in the Decline movies are still playing shows today. Does that surprise you, that bands like X had a lot of staying power?
Spheeris: I didn’t think about that then, but in retrospect, I will say that it totally makes sense. My thing is this: If you’re really a musician, then that’s what you have to do. You can’t do anything else. Keith Morris is really a singer, so he’s still up there and he’s still doing it. So is Lee Ving. So are John (Doe) and Exene (Cervenka).
Anna, how do you think the Decline movies changed you?
Fox: I often say I was raised in a mosh pit, because she brought me to so many shows. I learned a lot of survival skills. My mom is a teacher, and me going with her to shows at a young age was her teaching me, “This is what the world is like. This is how you need to take care of yourself.” And I am eternally grateful for that, and I have since passed many of those traditions on with my own 15-year-old daughter who loves to go to shows, loves to get up front and close. She knows how to take care of herself.
And Penelope, what about you? How did making these films change you?
Spheeris: Well, I think I probably would’ve been okay with never having put out the box set. I probably would’ve gone to my grave thinking, “Okay, I did those movies, and whatever.” But I think the fact that Anna pushed me has changed my life now, because people seem to be so appreciative and receptive to it. And that … I’m kind of astounded by it.
Fox: I guess I answered how the films changed me, but the actual box set has changed me. … I spent many years raising my kids and didn’t have a bad relationship with my mom, it just wasn’t really strong; it wasn’t being nurtured. As a result of doing all this work with her, we have also gained an incredible relationship, one that we never had. I’m so grateful for that.
Spheeris: I feel like I ignored you for a long time.
Spheeris: But you know what? I think what happened is Anna had to spend a lot of years taking care of kids. She didn’t have time for me, and I was doing all my studio work and everything, so we weren’t as close. But this has definitely brought us close together. If I have any advice for you, I’d say, “Do a job with your kid.”
Whitney Matheson is a pop-culture writer based in Tennessee, where she currently serves as the Journalist in Residence at Middle Tennessee State University. Follow her on Twitter at @whitneymatheson.