Penelope Spheeris is happy. The accomplished director and radical documentarian is on the phone talking about the movie that threw her into the world of Hollywood age 45, Wayne’s World. The movie is out now on 30th anniversary Steelbook Blu-ray edition.
For Spheeris, it’s something of a full circle moment. “When we were shooting there was a moment when the producer came to me and said, ‘We’re going to have publicity on the set today,”’ Spheeris recalled. “And having been an independent film director before Wayne’s World, we didn’t really have any publicity, you know? And so I thought, ‘Oh, publicity, cool. Everyone will get to know why I’m a film director!’ And here’s the thing: they wouldn’t talk to me. So, 30 years later, speaking with someone like you and other people that care about the movie who are in the press is so gratifying. If you wait long enough, life will work out. Let’s put it that way.”
Those three decades have given Spheeris perspective on a lot of things. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that having a big ego can really be your enemy,” she told us. “So I try to avoid that ego stuff. When I was working on Wayne’s World, I had a bigger ego than I do now. I needed more reinforcement, more people acknowledging me, all that stuff. And it’s funny, once you give that up it all comes to you,” she laughs.
Spheeris hasn’t made a feature in a decade, but as she reminisces about making Wayne’s World something that’s clear is how much people’s love for it means to her. “It’s very, very gratifying, but I have to say that I don’t like to take most of the credit for the film,” she clarified. “I truly believe that the success of the film and the endurance and longevity, it’s really a matter of all of us. All of us should have credit for that. The beautiful combination of different personalities and different talents and history coming together all at the right moment. It really astounds me that something like that could happen in my life.”
Even at the time it was pretty astounding to the director. Most well known for her punk rock documentary series The Decline of Western Civilization, Spheeris was brought on by Lorne Michaels to direct the quirky comedy, which was her seventh movie. Arriving on the set was nothing short of a culture shock. “I remember the first day, it was the first movie where I ever had a driver, a limo. Usually I would drive my old Mustang to the set myself. So the teamster pulls up onto set and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all these trucks. We’re in the wrong place. We don’t need all of these to make a movie.'”
Soon Spheeris was juggling her years of filmmaking experience with collaborating with people more used to making TV. But the bigger lesson that she learned was about navigating the politics of Hollywood. “I had to make a lot of people happy,” she shared. “And a lot of times they had conflicting questions! So I didn’t wanna make anyone angry, but I’m very diplomatic when I need to be. For the first part of the shoot of Wayne’s World, we had to rush into shooting it. I think I was hired because they were in such a rush to find a director!”
That tight window of shooting—to make sure everyone could get back to shoot SNL—led to one of Spheeris’ most hilarious memories and one of the most famed scenes of Wayne’s World. “There was a limo waiting outside the soundstage on the last day of the shoot. We were shooting the guys laying on the car at the airport. And this limo was waiting outside to take these guys to the airport, and the guy kept honking!! I had to cut around the honks! And Mike and Dana just started laughing so hard because they were so tired and the limo guy was honking, so they were just being so funny. They were just improvising then.”
Though the shoot might have been rushed and under the constraints of SNL schedules, when Wayne’s World hit screens it became a global smash. For Spheeris, it was a literal life changing moment. “I don’t know how to describe it. Shocking is one word. I was raised really, really poor. My sister used to melt down soap bars to make another bigger soap bar, that’s how poor we were. I didn’t have any money! And the independent movies I made before that were paying me like 50 grand or something, which would be like a year and half’s work. So I was really flat broke until I did Wayne’s World. And Paramount was generous enough to give me some points, so all of sudden not only was I hit with the success and the critical kudos, but I also had all this money!”
Though she’s working on a new documentary and a book, 30 years later Spheeris has a new passion which has taken precedence in her creative life: building houses. “I had no idea that I was so good at building houses! There was a place that became empty from a house that I bought years ago in Laurel Canyon, and I bought it and started building and I have seven houses now. I didn’t build them all, but I sure have elevated them.”
So how does it feel to have gone from being incredibly poor to having multiple homes? A security that she never thought she’d have? “It feels fantastic, because I can help other people. I don’t shop at Neiman Marcus. I don’t shop at Tiffany. I don’t spend money on clothes. My accountant says to me, ‘Penelope, you spent more money on dog food this year than on clothes!’ But what I do is I help my family and I help my friends and that to me is the most gratifying thing.”
In the past, Spheeris has spoken about not being asked to direct Wayne’s World 2, the followup to her massive studio comedy smash hit because of creative differences between her and Myers. But on the 30th anniversary, Spheeris has a final message of unity for fans of the film. “I think after all these years I would like for everybody to not only enjoy the movie but to enjoy the fact that Mike Myers and I are friends and we love each other,” Spheeris shared. “Stop making something bad out of something that should be totally joyful!”
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures