True Penelope Spheeris fans may prefer her as the director of cult music-doc trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization or ’80s punk gems like Dudes, The Boys Next Door, and Suburbia, but everyone else knows her work as the director of ’90s comedy staples Wayne’s World and Black Sheep. Spheeris’s refreshingly candid attitude toward these two types of projects is simple: If you’re offered a ton of money to sell out, you better be ready to sell out. While Wayne’s World is a departure from Spheeris’s earlier films, it’s aged so well since it was initially released 25 years ago, thanks in no small part to Spheeris’s fruitful collaboration withSaturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels and stars Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey. To celebrate the film’s impending rerelease, we talked with Spheeris about all things Wayne’s World, as well as This Is Spinal Tap, Albert Brooks, and Mean Girls.
When you got the call to direct Wayne’s World, you were working on a PBS documentary about psychotic killers, right?
It was a documentary that was actually made by Joan Churchill, who took the gig after I stepped away. It was a documentary about the Patton State Hospital for the Criminal Insane. I was actually in that place when I went to a wall phone, and called my agent. That’s when I found out that I got the call to do Wayne’s World. So it was either something on the criminal insane or Wayne’s World. Not a lot of difference, mind you. [Laughs.]
Another project that almost but didn’t come to pass was your version of This Is Spinal Tap. You turned that one down because of how attached you were to that world. Were there specific gags or characters or an experience that made you want to turn that down?
Yeah, in a way. The guys that were doing the movie … what’s his name, David Jablin. He was friends with Chris Guest and Harry Shearer. I knew Harry from back in the day with Albert Brooks. We all sat down and discussed the film. I brought in some notes, and the part that bothered me was that those guys were not really into metal music. It’s so … weird, because I thought they were going to make a mess of it. But I was wrong! They got Rob Reiner, and did it right. And I’m pissed at myself for not doing it.
Your pre–Wayne’s World relationship with Lorne Michaels seems to have begun with your collaborations with Albert Brooks. What was working with him like? He seems very fastidious.
Working with Albert … I was mentally pretty stable before I met Albert. And he … was the most neurotic person I had known in my career until that point, although I had worked with Richard Pryor as well. But Albert was a hybrid of neuroses. He was hypochondriac, and all these shakes, and twitches, and shit. I actually became neurotic from being in the same room with Albert Brooks for four years. But I’m not going to complain because I really did learn a lot about comedy from Albert. I really learned a lot about Hollywood — because I was a babe in the woods when it came to what Hollywood was about. And Albert learned how to make movies. That’s why everyone called me, because they didn’t know. I just got out of film school, and I kinda knew my shit. But Albert didn’t have an idea, and I taught him.
Thank you for helping him to make Real Life.
No, no, I don’t like taking too much credit, or even for Wayne’s World. Although for Real Life, my boyfriend at the time did design the headset cameras in that film. But I did show Albert where to put the camera tripod, and when to get another camera and put it there, and make sure your eyelines are right. Not too many people could have done what he did with his first feature: He was acting in it, and writing it as well. That’s a big deal!
The sign of a great collaborator, too.
And the sign of a great producer, too. One of the funniest thing happened on that film: I don’t know if you know this, but Albert likes to cast leading women he’s infatuated with. So he cast Frances Lee McCain, and they were kinda flirty, kinda going out. Kinda. Then she decides that she doesn’t want to be his girlfriend about halfway through shooting the movie, okay? He’d given her a couple of points in the movie. And he says to me, “Go get the points back.” And I said, “You can’t do that!” He said, “You just go ask her. We’re breaking up now, I want my points back.” It was like two points on the back end, whatever. So I went and told her and she started throwing shoes at me in her dressing room. Crazy stuff like that. I gotta write a book, right?
In your DVD commentary for Wayne’s World, you say that Metallica and Megadeth “brought weight to metal” music. From your perspective, how would you say you observed that turning point in metal?
Oh, yeah. Before that, what was really flourishing here in L.A. was the glam metal, hair metal, poofy metal. Metallica, Guns N’ Roses … well, Guns N’ Roses was pretty on the fence, because that guy [Axl Rose] got his hair pretty poofy sometimes. But Metallica and Megadeth really signaled a turning point. I was glad of that, because I’m not really a frivolous person. I probably would have been better off making more serious movies. I would have been better at that, but I would have been poor still. So there you go.
Which was more of a boy’s club: the metal scene or TV and movie producers?
They both didn’t treat women all that well. The metal scene was a little more overt about their transgressions against women, and minorities. But the executives were more subtle about it. Sneaky bastards, what can I tell ya? It’s okay if I insult them these days because none of the people I was working with are still at the studios … I don’t think. So I don’t care anymore, I’ll say whatever. Mama done passed that age. That whole thing with me and Mike [Myers] on Wayne’s World 2 … I was just telling the truth, but then I got into a lot of trouble for griping about not getting hired. I’ve always had kind of an unfiltered voice, as it were.
So you didn’t turn down Wayne’s World 2?
No! No, that’s not true. They didn’t want me to do it because I wouldn’t do the cuts that Mike wanted on the first Wayne’s World.
Can you talk a little about those cuts?
That whole thing, they don’t want me to talk about it. But Mike didn’t want me to Wayne’s World 2 because I wouldn’t do requested cuts on the first Wayne’s World. I got shit on right there, but that’s cool. Honestly? There were 11 pages of suggested cuts. I don’t know if I’m exaggerating when I saw that the pages were singled-spaced, but there were a lot of notes. It’s not his fault! It’s not his fault, because he wasn’t around when we had the test screening, so he didn’t see what happened with an audience. His dad had passed away, and he was a mess because he loved his dad so much. He went back to Toronto, so when he came back and we kept saying, “Hey, man, it’s perfect,” he kept saying “No, here’s all the things we have to do.” It was just bad timing. If he had been there for that test screening, there wouldn’t have been a problem.
Can you give an example of how you had to essentially plan the film three ways: your way, Dana’s way, and Mike’s way?
[Laughs.] See, the great thing about Mike and Dana — and all great comedy teams, really — is that part of the way they get their jokes and energy is by trying to one-up each other. So it got to a point with a lot of comedy teams where these guys downright hated each other. Mike and Dana had their disputes, but really, it had a lot to do with Mike getting an idea, and then Dana feeling compelled to one-up him. Then the other way around. So I had to shoot it my way, then Dana’s way, then Mike’s way, then sometimes the studio’s way. But I knew all along that I would be okay because I had it my way. Sometimes their way worked better, you know? Use whatever works. But when I get in the editing room, there’s nobody saying, “Hey, do it this way.”
Was editing the most challenging phase rather than preproduction or shooting?
Well, now you remind me … I’m going to have to give equal anxiety to those three sections. Because the preproduction really was difficulty. Everybody was freaked out: “Oh my God, how are we going to turn this five-minute skit into a 90-minute movie. Oh my God, it’s never going to work.” Then: “Oh my God, Mike has to have the perfect house to live in.” I mean, every house looks the same out there in the Valley. You can pick any house, it works. But it had to be the perfect this and the perfect that. So everyone was nervous. Production was actually the most fun part. There wasn’t a lot of dissension or stress. I only 32 days in Los Angeles, and two days in a distant location. Postproduction was freaky because my editor [Malcolm Campbell], who is the sweetest guy in the world, was going through a divorce. And he was oftentimes so sad, and just emotionally wrecked that he couldn’t edit. So I felt really bad for him, brought him coffee and cookies a lot. And I wound up editing the film with Earl Ghaffari, the editor of Decline of Western Civilization II. I like editing; that’s my forte, I believe. So while I felt bad for Malcolm, it helped me out, a little bit.
What was the hardest product that you had to get clearance for?
I remember them going back and forth on Nike versus Reebok shoes. There was a lot of problems there. I think the pizza was okay. Mike had to have “Bohemian Rhapsody” in there, and I agreed with him. That wasn’t a problem. Of course, we couldn’t get any clearance on any more than two notes on “Stairway to Heaven,” so that was funky. And I fought like hell to get the Jimi Hendrix song …
“Foxy Lady,” yeah. They wanted something else, I don’t remember what right now. But I won that. And I was right, because it works.
How did you choose your battles? Where did you draw the line and say, “Well, this is worth fighting for, but I gotta give ’em this?”
Well, you can’t piss off your actors, you know what I mean? I ultimately did, I guess. But that was in postproduction. It’s a real fine line to walk. There was a point where John Goldwyn, who was a Paramount executive on the picture, came to me and said, “Penelope, you’re going to get fired unless you stop being so wishy-washy.” And what he didn’t know is that my agent told me that my contract wasn’t signed yet. Because sometimes you start prep without having a contact signed. So my agent tells me: “You cannot rock the boat until your contract is signed.” So for a while there, I really had to walk on thin ice. I could have been booted at any moment if I pushed the wrong person the wrong way. I’m not a wishy-washy person. I know how to make decisions and I know how to stick by them. Still, it was tricky in the beginning.
How hard was it to get Alice Cooper to replace Aerosmith during the big concert scene?
Funny, I was just talking to Alice about that today. Mike was extremely adamant about Aerosmith. The band had to be Aerosmith. Then, from my recollection — and I’d love to have somebody prove me wrong — but Aerosmith didn’t want to do it. So when you get close to the day when you gotta shoot … whatever? Decisions get made. That’s when I brought up the idea of Alice Cooper. And he was available, he wanted to do it, he knew me from having done Decline of Western Civilization II. He has that radio show now, and he and I were just laughing about it today. Aerosmith did Wayne’s World 2, so they made two bad decisions there. [Laughs.]
One more: How hard was it to get them to clear saying “sphincter boy” and “penis” during the Brian Doyle Murray product placement interview?
Yeah, I know! The one that I’m always astounded about is when they’re in Rob Lowe’s apartment, and they’re ordering Chinese food, and Mike orders “Cream of Sum Yung Guy.” That’s a really dirty joke! We got a PG, didn’t we? Or did we get a PG-13.
Let’s check … PG-13.
It must have been that darn language. I was surprised that we got that in, and sphincter boy, and penis. I thought “[The MPAA] isn’t doing their job down there …”
On the commentary track, you say that you should never go out with your extras. Is there a story here?
Oh, did I say that?
I wouldn’t doubt I said that. I don’t think I ever … oh, I think I know what it means. There was a film I did … I think it was The Boys Next Door. We were filming on Hollywood Boulevard, and this gorgeous guy came out of the extras truck, and I fall in love. I regret it to this day, believe me. To this day … that guy’s like a stalker.
You’ve said previously that Lorne Michaels taught you to scale back the violence of certain slapstick gags so that viewers knew that nobody got hurt, like when Lara Flyn Boyle crashes through the skylight or flips over the car hood.
Big confession: That wasn’t Lara, it was a stuntwoman both times. But we had a really good look-alike. And honestly? The girl that hit the car … I forgot her name. But when she hit the car, she actually got banged up pretty bad. You always feel bad when something like that happens. We did a panel discussion about the film a little while back at the Academy, and Mike mentioned that there were two jokes that he thought really would not work. One was the Terminator cop joke.
It’s a great joke!
I know. But the other joke was when Lara hit the car. Mike’s cool enough to acknowledge that it takes a village, and all of us together, picking the right things for the movie, made the movie work. He wasn’t right 100 percent of the time, and neither was I.
Were there any specific alternative projects that you wanted to make post–Wayne’s World but couldn’t?
I had written scripts over the years that are still on a shelf, that have never been made. But to answer your question, there was one movie at Paramount that they were shooting right after Wayne’s World that I really wanted to direct. It was called Leap of Faith, and it was something I felt I could do very well, about a traveling evangelist dude. I’m from a carnival, so I get the roadshow thing. But I was shocked because when I went in to meet with John Goldwyn, I was so confident and cocky. “Oh, hey, man, I’d like to do this movie which you got, okay?” I’d just made him $185 million, so I thought they’d let me do anything. But they wouldn’t let me do that.
That’s a bummer of a note to end on!
Oh, no, no, not at all. I look at every one of those situations where a door gets slammed in my face … Lorne calls me and tells me to talk to Tina Fey about directing Mean Girls. And I do that, but I get the door slammed in my face. I’ve had so many doors slammed in my face. But every time I look at it as a time to learn a lesson. And I do learn. I’m fine with it. So many people want to make movies and weren’t able to, like my contemporaries. But I was not only able to make movies, but make a bunch of money doing it. So I don’t want to complain. It’s been a rough road, and it made me jaded. I saw this term the other day … I’m not sure if Trump came up with it or not, but the phrase is “Hollywood Secret Society.” Have you heard that term?
You’re doing a Wayne’s World! Way! Hollywood Secret Society. Let me tell you something there’s no way — ha, no way — that there’s a Hollywood Secret Society because nobody likes each other enough to be in a secret society. You gotta like the people you’re in the cult with. Everybody’s out for themselves here.