Between December 1979 and May 1980, director Penelope Spheeris shot The Decline of Western Civilization, documenting the exploits of Black Flag, the Germs, X, the Circle Jerks, and the denizens of L.A.’s early punk scene. The film spawned two sequels, 1988’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, and 1998’s The Decline of Western Civilization III—each offering a look into the lives of musicians in various states of desperation. Spheeris’ Decline trilogy changed the world’s perceptions of punk and metal forever. Although she achieved mainstream success directing later films such as Wayne’s World, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Little Rascals, it is her work with Decline that defines her career.
Spheeris took a few minutes to talk about the pain of reliving the past, reconnecting with her daughter, and the noble cause of helping other people.
The mark of a truly timeless work of art is that you can revisit it 35 years later and find new meaning and relevance, maybe in wholly different ways than what you originally intended. How has the meaning of The Decline of Western Civilization changed for you?
Having done the films so long ago—I really shied away from watching them for so many years. I asked my daughter if she would come to work for me. She said she would but only if I released the Decline movies first. I thought, ‘Oh God, what a nightmare.’ But what has been very gratifying is to experience other people watching them 20 and 30 years later. That, for me, is astounding. When I look at them, I don’t think that I did something profound, but that is what other people say. I was just making movies about subjects I was interested in. They kind of turned out, all these decades later, to be interesting to other people. It’s been a real weird trip, I’ll tell you that.
I get the impression that you feel some anxiety over these films. Why do you say it was a nightmare to revisit them?
Anxiety … That’s an understatement. I have a lot of anxiety over these films. If you think about it, as a filmmaker or as any kind of creative person, you want to have the product of your creativity seen by other people, and hopefully appreciated. For me, so many of the movies I’ve done—certainly Decline I and III, not so much with II—were not really ever seen on a legitimate platform. Decline I was bootlegged to death. People passed it around like underground contraband for decades because it wasn’t in distribution. It was extremely painful for me to go back and deal with these movies because, on a subconscious level, they brought up a lot of pain. That pain was that people couldn’t see my work; people who seemingly were interested in it.
That happened with a film I did with Sharon and Ozzy, We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n’ Roll. Nobody got to see it. It happened with Dudes, which I did with Jon Cryer and Flea. It happened with The Boys Next Door that I did with Charlie Sheen. I had a long history of making movies that didn’t get seen. On the other hand, when I would do a comedy, it would definitely be seen. Especially Wayne’s World.
The thing to be said is that it’s hard to hide truly brilliant work. Even without distribution, I found a bootleg of Decline I in Omaha, Neb., in the early ’90s. That film put a face on punk rock for me and many others. It also made my relationship with the music more complicated—I had to put my life’s situation into context. I learned more about myself from Decline than I did from Wayne’s World—even though Wayne’s World is a fun movie.
Yeah, and the anxiety that comes along with putting out a box set is that, like you, I personally identify a lot more with the Decline movies than I do with the studio comedies. So I wanted it to be done right. When I am dead and gone, I want the right piece of physical items there to represent what they are. Once you do it, it’s done. It’s not like I can redo that. So that’s why there was so much trepidation involved with doing it. Now it’s like okay, you did it. Now you can die.
That has to be sort of rewarding.
What’s rewarding is that it’s no longer bearing down on me like a big dark cloud. For that, I really have to thank my daughter. Without her, I would have just died without doing it. I swear to God. It was just painful. Just watching the movies brought up so many memories, and she kept coming up with more pieces for the extras, which included a lot of interviews with me and with people I know from way back in the day. It was just hard to look at it. It’s like having your life flash before you. I just like to keep moving forward. I don’t like to look back. That’s why they never got put out before.
When you look back over the films—all three of them—are there subjects that stand out for you, or that you walked away from with some insight?
For Decline I, when I look at that movie I think, jeez, it’s pretty amazing that so many elements of today’s young people’s lives originated way back then. Now everybody has their tattoos and tight jeans and they have their haircuts, and it all started back then. So many social trends and philosophical ways of thinking started back then. So, for those reasons, I’m glad I was able to document all of that.
I don’t think there’s a profound lesson to be learned in Decline II except for trying to make it for the wrong reasons is stupid. That’s a pretty easy one.
For me, Decline III is the most important film of my entire career. It made me realize that I don’t want to be working in Hollywood anymore. There are more important things in life, and I should go help homeless kids, which is what I have done. If you go see it, bring a Kleenex, because it’s a heartbreaker. It was so hard to get it released because it is extremely sad. It reveals some really terrible domestic situations that happen with young kids that make them leave their homes and go live in the streets. Those are my buddies. Those are my family — the Decline III kids. Those are the people I’m close to.
There’s a kid named Eugene in that first film. I don’t have the same kind of anger in me, but I found him to be such a compelling character. How did you find him, and do you ever cross paths with him? Do you know how his life turned out?
He was friends with the HB kids—Huntington Beach, surfer punks. I saw Eugene up on the Slash office’s roof and I asked if he would be interviewed for the film. He kept saying no, but finally I talked him into it. He was 14 years old at that time. And he is very compelling. That’s why he starts the movie out. Today he lives in Berlin. I just sent him his 50 year-old birthday present. He’s a very good friend. He’s a folk singer. He’s known now as Euge From the Coast. He’s very happy in Berlin, and we email each other about once a week.
How have these films played a role in your relationship with your daughter Anna?
We sure do know each other a lot better after spending four years in the same room together!
Were the two of you estranged before this project?
In a way. When she was Four years old, her father died from a heroin overdose. So I raised her as a single parent. I think it wasn’t until it hit me in the face that addiction is extremely genetic. Five years ago, she had a drug problem that could have ended very tragically. We were fortunate enough that it didn’t. She wrecked a car with a kid in it. But she did a really good job with rehab and I said, “You have to come to work for me.” I wanted to keep an eye on her and make sure she didn’t relapse. She said she would do it, but we had to do Decline. You never know if something is bad or good until some time has passed. It was the most horrible thing in my life to deal with my daughter having that problem. But from out of that mess came this thing that people appreciate quite a bit—this box set for the DVDs.
She had been in touch with so many of the people who’ve been in the movies. She’s quite in touch with the people from Decline I and II. Whereas I’m the Decline III woman here. Those are my friends.
Honestly, Anna deserves 90% of the credit for the movies being seen again. I did the movies way back, but they would have never been seen in this form by so many people if she hadn’t virtually put a gun to my head and said you have got to do this. It was daunting and horrible. I would avoid it at all costs. She was down there with three editors at one time, sorting things out. She would have to drag me down to the editing room because I didn’t want to deal with it. For that, I am extremely grateful that she made me do it. She was so smart about so many things. She uncovered a lot and was like an archaeologist. A lot of the old tapes and old formats wouldn’t even play. She had to go and borrow chunks of equipment from friends—a DAT player—because nothing else would play them. She just kept going and going and going.
I could definitely see the evolution with the punks between Decline I and III. In Decline III, each individual was so much more tolerant, and kind, and not mean to the people that might be different from them. So there was some sort of evolution going on there. Flea is in Decline III and describes the original L.A. punk scene as being like an experimental art scene. Whereas in Decline III, even though everybody looks the same, physically, it’s not an art scene anymore. It’s pure and dire survival, and there ain’t no room for art in that world.
I think about those scenes from the first film and how all of the Black Flag guys lived in that church. That seemed dire…
It was fun dire. They were embracing their homelessness. They just had a different take on it. It wasn’t hurtful for them. It was fun. For the kids in Decline III, it’s painful.
What I learned from Decline III in getting to know those kids and their background: We don’t have any more noble assignment in life than helping our children and doing the right thing for them. These kids come from alcoholic and drug-addicted families that fought all the time and threw them out in the street.
It doesn’t make me feel good to sit down and have lunch with some major studio executive. Who gives a shit? It’s so vapid. What makes me feel good is being a foster parent. Staying in touch with my Decline III buddies, and going to these various cities and selling posters and donating the money to homeless shelters for kids. That, to me, is what makes life good. The rest of that jerk off stuff is so unnecessary. It’s funny to me that people get into such a frenzy to come to Hollywood and say “I have to make it in Hollywood!” Are you kidding me? No, you don’t! I guess I can say that because I kinda sorta made it, but not really. It doesn’t have any meaning next to helping people.
— Chad Radford
A version of this interview previously appeared in Creative Loafing.