Penelope Spheeris on Suburbia, Flea, Roger Corman, and a civilization in Decline

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      Full disclosure: I am writing this because, for my 50th birthday celebration, my favourite punxploitation movie, Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, is going to screen at the Vancity Theatre, on a “Music Monday” (March 12).

      I picked it not only because it is an under-heralded classic, boasting performances by D.I. (“Richard Hung Himself,” later covered by Slayer), the Vandals (with original vocalist Stevo), and two songs by T.S.O.L.—not to mention a cast that includes future Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, as a rat-loving street punk named Razzle—but also because my birthday (March 7) happens to be the day when Vancouver punk vocalist Todd Serious, aka Todd Jenkins, died in a rock climbing accident three years ago. (Read my final interview with Todd, from a few months prior, here.)

      I miss his presence on the scene plenty, and wanted to a) play a movie that I thought he and his friends would like, and b) would work well with an opening musical act by a collaborator of his, Jeff Andrew—who, in addition to writing some great songs of his own, collaborated with Todd on “The Tsilhqot’in War”, off the Rebel Spell’s final album, 2014’s Last Run

      That’s exactly how it’s going to happen—though I might also play a clip or two of the Rebel Spell, as well. Director Penelope Spheeris—most famous to non punks for Wayne’s World, but revered among music fans for the Decline of Western Civilization documentaries—was kind enough to take time to answer several earnest fanboy questions about the film. 

      By the way, you know that meme that circulates that says “I was punk rock when it was called, ‘Hey faggot!’? The image is taken from Suburbia. (That’s Flea on the far left; the kid with the bleach job next to him is future NASCAR driver Chris Pedersen). 

      And now: Penelope Spheeris…

      Georgia Straight: Suburbia feels really kind of underrated and under-seen. (Even Ron Reyes, who lives up here now, tells me he hasn't seen it!) Why is that? 

      Penelope Spheeris: When I wrote and directed the film in the early 80’s, the general moviegoing audience didn’t even know what punk rock was! So, in a way, I guess it was ahead of its time. Like many of my films (Wayne’s World being the exception), it did not get a release at the time it was made. Roger Corman had co-financed it and he kept trying to make it into an exploitation movie because that genre was his specialty. I kept trying to make it into a meaningful coming-of-age movie about social outcasts. There are some scenes I would have not included, but I had to in order to get the movie made.  Roger’s orders were that there had to be either some sex or violence every ten minutes. Hard to deal with that when I was trying to make a movie with some substance.

      I wonder about starting points for the film, and how the project developed. Did you want to make a documentary about the kids in the film, and then decide to write a story around them, or did the story come first? Where did the location—the squat they're in—fit in?   

      When I made The Decline of Western Civilization in 1979-80, I could not get it released—the story of my life! A theater owner told me, ‘If you want to make a movie about punk rock and get it into theaters, it can’t be a documentary, it has to be a narrative film, has to tell a story.’ So I wrote Suburbia.  Having been a part of the scene for quite a few years, I had heard many stories, seen many incidents that I put together fictitiously when I wrote the script. The stray dogs, for example, were in fact running around because a guard dog training school had closed down and they just let the dogs run wild. The location was in Downey where the government had used Eminent Domain to buy up a housing tract in order to build a freeway, but they never built the freeway. They just took people’s homes. I did not see kids squatting back in those days. That was something I made up. 

      Really? Wow. I’ve heard the film described as “prophetic” because of that—and of course, by Decline III, most of the kids in it seem to be squatting, if they aren’t sleeping outside.  

      There’s a lot that Suburbia and Decline III have in common. I always wonder if kids watched Suburbia and then lived that lifestyle, or if I had some kind of premonition of how some punks’ lives might be in the future…?

      Penelope Spheeris and Eyeball, from The Decline of Western Civilization III.

      I’m even more impressed now, knowing that it was actually a fictional gesture back in 1983. 

      I just thought it was a natural tendency to have kids that had been rejected from their own biological  families form new families. In retrospect, Suburbia was ahead of its time, but in an unfortunate way. The homeless population of both old and young has soared. Dysfunctional family numbers have soared. A very sad comment on a society truly in decline.

      Was the name "TR" something actually used by the punks in the movie?

      I made up the term “TR.” I needed a name for them as a group and I thought “The Rejected” fit just fine. I still have the BBQ fork they used in the film to inflict the ‘brands’ on themselves.

      When casting the film—particularly the punks, of course—what criteria did you have? (I know you had said that you could train a punk to act easier than you could train an actor to be a punk, or words to that effect, but did you have characters that you were casting for, or were you writing based on the people you wanted to cast, or...?) How much room did you give them to be themselves?  

      Of course, Roger wanted me to cast recognizable stars of the moment, but as you said, I knew that teaching an actor to be a punk would not work. The punk movement was just too new and people didn’t understand it. I insisted on using kids that were actually a part of the movement and understood the attitude, the music, and the lifestyle. Certain things were improvised, such as Flea stuffing the rat down his own throat. I would have never asked an actor or a punk to do that, but I guess he just had a moment of inspiration while the camera was running! 

      Was Flea in Fear at the time of shooting? 

      I met Flea at Lee Ving’s house and I think right after we filmed Suburbia, he joined Fear. I recently had occasion to interview Flea (for the extras on another of my movies that never got released, Dudes). Flea said that wherever he travels in the world, punks come to him and say that Suburbia is the ‘punk rock bible.’ Far away, odd places. Punk is a worldwide movement that is quiet but powerful. It is the nature of true punks to not promote or publicize themselves, but they are there! Unfortunately, there are very loud posers out there that confuse things.  

      I love the moment where some of the kids in the car are calling him Flea, and he corrects them, that his name is Razzle. It’s weirdly funny, because in 1983, it meant absolutely nothing, because he was just a punk in the movie. Unless you read the credits, where he appears as “Mike B the Flea,” you didn’t think of him as Flea at all. I should imagine it stands out quite a bit now. Why was his character called Razzle, anyhow?

      Razzle was the name of the kid that actually owned the rat!

      Are the kids mostly wearing their own clothes and stuff? Did you make any adjustments to their "costumes?"  

      You have to have ‘doubles’ on wardrobe when you shoot, so we might have used some of their own wardrobe, but we always had to duplicate it. Reason being there were fights where clothes get ripped, and scenes where clothes got dirty.  

      What are the drugs the kid is selling, "black triangles?" I have only ever heard of them in that film. Is that a real drug of some sort? 

      Having experienced the tragedy of my daughter’s father dying of a drug overdose in 1974, I had become familiar with most street drugs. I thought about what kind of drug Keef might be selling and I didn’t want to use a real one. So I made up the term “black triangles.” Kinda worked, no?

      Yeah, I had always wondered if it was a real drug. We actually see them at one point; what are we looking at?  

      The people in the prop department in any movie are quite clever. They can make anything! Remember the licorice dispenser on the roof of the Pacer in Wayne’s World? That one had me stumped for a while, but like I said, the prop department can make anything!

      Another detail: Jack Diddley’s line about how his father is going to “shit Twinkies.” Was that an improvisation too, or scripted, or…?

      It was just something I heard on the street.  

      There’s lots of memorable lines like that, though. Like, “I hate buses.” My friends and I would sometimes use lines from the film in our conversation, we’d try to copy Chris Pedersen’s deadpan. 

      One of my fave lines is: “Guess what? Chicken butt.” Ha!

      How did you find Chris? He’s kind of great, his character is very memorable. Had he acted before?

      Not to my knowledge. I had tried very hard to get Henry Rollins to play the part. However, I was to find out later from Henry that Black Flag would not allow him to be in the movie. It was 30 some years later that he told me that's why he wouldn’t take the part! I think Chris did an awesome job with it.  And I think Henry really wished he could have done it.

      So what was your approach to the concert footage? Did you shoot more than one song of the band’s sets? Like, are there clips that might surface as extras, someday, of the bands doing other songs?

      Back in the day—before digital video—it was virtually impossible to shoot ‘extra footage’ on the budgets I was working with. I had to use almost all the footage I shot in the actual film, so no, there is no ‘lost’ Suburbia footage. My approach to concert footage came from my experience with having the first music video company in LA. Back in the day, in the early '70s, no one was shooting music videos, so I started this company called ROCK ‘N REEL. I worked for quite a few of the major record companies. CBS Records gave me a plaque in 1975 in which they named me ‘The Queen of Rock ‘n Roll Filmmakers!’

      The songs really work with the film, though. Like, “Richard Hung Himself” really fits with the suicide that happens. So did you have songs in mind when you got the bands to perform? 

      What I usually do is ask a band to provide lyric sheets so I can decide which of their songs best fit the movie, which best helps tell the story. As you know, oftentimes punk lyrics, especially in the early days, were difficult to understand because they were sung so fast and the instrumentation got in the way.  That's why I ask for the lyric sheets. And yes, obviously, “Richard Hung Himself” fit right in with Sheila's suicide.

      I also really love the Vandals’ footage of “The Legend of Pat Brown”. I gather Stevo had a bit of an unfortunate later life, and that there are people who have some issues with the current version of the Vandals out there. Anything you’d care to weigh in on?

      It’s a great song. I love the simplicity and power of it. Ironic that there was a governor of California named Pat Brown. (Jerry Brown, our current Governor’s dad). I also loved Stevo and he did have an unfortunate life. In my life, I choose not to judge ‘what happened to whom when’. I would never ‘tell stories’ or repeat hearsay. Stevo was a good soul, a man with a great talent and a kind heart. That’s what I have to say.

      Do you still have a fondness for punks? Would you ever make another punk rock movie?  

      Yes and yes. Once a punk, always a punk. Born a punk, die a punk. Just—sorry, there are so many posers who look the part but have no idea about the moral standards and decent values that real punks represent.

      I agree. One final question: I always forget, but the paper this is for kinda likes it if we tell readers where the interview took place—like, where someone is when we talked, for example. And, uh, are you doing anything I should mention, wherever you are?

      I am living and working in the hills of Hollywood. I have three films I'm working on, but two are documentaries and they take forever. One of the docs is Decline: Part IV, and, no, I won't tell you what it's about!

      This interview and the film screening itself would not have been possible without the help of Tom Charity of the Vancity Theatre. Thanks, Tom! 

      Event listing for Suburbia, with musical guest Jeff Andrew, here.