Sunday, April 7, 2013

Penelope Spheeris, Jan. 18, 1991

Standard-Examiner staff

For the past year or two, filmmaker Penelope Spheeris has been smack-dab in the middle of it.

She spent a year working as a story editor on the TV sitcom "Roseanne," then segued into a gig as director of the rap band 2 Live Crew's long-form video, "Banned in the U.S.A." It's as though she went mining for showbiz controversy and struck the mother lode.

Of her experience on "Roseanne," a TV series now legendary for battles between writers, producers and stars, Spheeris likens it to "having a belated Hollywood boot camp. It was pretty horrendous."

And the matter of her touring with and filming 2 Live Crew, the music industry's bad boys? Well, we'll get to that later.

First of all, who is this Penelope Spheeris, anyway?

Not a household name, that's for sure. But she is a unique talent in terms of Hollywood filmmakers, and a breed apart when it comes to most female directors. She began as a producer of Albert Brooks' short films in the early, heady days of “Saturday Night Live,” then produced his comic pseudo-documentary, “Real Life.” She's worked with Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor.

And her first directing credit was “The Decline of Western Civilization,” a documentary chronicling the rise of punk music in Los Angeles clubs.

Her latest work, “Prison Stories: Women on the Inside,” will air later this month on HBO, and is scheduled to screen at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City ... .

The "Prison Stories" project -- a collection of three episodes directed by three women – appealed to her, she explains, because "when I was a teenager, I hung out with girls like that – I could have been one of those girls, you know what I mean?"

Another reason she liked it: The made-for-cable movie wasn't “one of those women-in-chains kinds of things." A film about women in prison made by Spheeris is hardly surprising, if you know anything about her career in film. A common theme in Spheeris' dramatic work has been how dysfunctional families and relationships fray into violence and pain. It's something the director knows from her own upbringing.

“That is what I know as a personal experience," Spheeris said last week by phone from Los Angeles. “I personally was raised in a very chaotic family, had seven stepfathers, most of whom were violent alcoholics. "

She's used the anger of her early years to compete with others in her field and to fulfill her ambitions, she says, rather than to destroy.

“But now I'm coming to the point where it's a bad motivation, and you just have to do the work because you love the work, not because you're mad and vengeful."

Having achieved critical success, her new goal is to have a box office hit. To that end, she has written two scripts -- one a comedy, the other a thriller -- both of which she feels are commercially viable. She sees other female directors like Penny Marshall ("Big," “Awakenings") and Amy Heckerling (“Look Who's Talking"), and it fills her with hope. But that hope is tempered by the knowledge that Hollywood is still a club run by men who like to hire other men to make their films. Doors are opening for women, but they are swinging ever so slowly.

"In general, I would say now that I'm getting older it's fine, because I've acquired a little bit of respect from the various crew members, et cetera," Spheeris says in her husky, often downright scratchy voice. "Early on, it was really, really difficult, because it's like you're guilty until you're proven innocent with them – because you're a woman. So you have to really prove yourself. Now it's OK, though; it's one of the few advantages to getting old."

And there are ways around it, she says. "There certainly is a group of very powerful men who are chronic misogynists that are making films. ... However, I won't work with those people, and they probably won't work with me. But you can pick and choose who you deal with, and there are certainly a lot of people who don't think that way."

Which brings us back to her work with 2 Live Crew. Why, oh, why would a woman sign on with a record company to make a film that promotes a band many criticize as aggressively misogynist?

Initially, she says, the band members' behavior and beliefs didn't matter to her.

"I didn't care whether these guys talked like that or not," she says. "Whatever." She just went about the business of doing her job, and the band members went a long way toward doing themselves in.

"What I try to do as a documentary filmmaker, which is my first and foremost love, is to present a subject in a very objective way. And I believe that I did that with that band – even though I was working for the record company that was trying to make money on these guys.

"It was received very well critically, for which I'm very appreciative. And for that very reason, I think there was plenty in there that made them look as stupid as they are."

(Penelope Spheeris will discuss issues related to being a female director, along with fellow directors Donna Deitch, Joan Micklin Silver and Nina Menkes, at 1 p.m. Monday at the Prospector Square Theater in Park City.)

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