I started the ’90s in prison. We were scouting locations for a TV movie, Prison Stories: Women on the Inside. Location scouts are awesome because they bring you to places you would never normally experience. A few years earlier, I had directed [the 1991 documentary] Lifer’s Group in a men’s prison. It was about a rap group in New Jersey’s Rahway State prison. All the guys were in for life or on death row. Harsh.
I am often asked, “How did you get the gig to direct Wayne’s World?” In the late ’80s, I shot The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Because I had worked with Lorne Michaels, the producer of Wayne’s World, and I had just done The Metal Years, I got the gig. (Wayne and Garth thought they were headbangers. Sheah… as if). I recall the moment I found out I was hired. I was yet again at a prison: Patton State Hospital for the criminally insane. I was scouting locations for a PBS special called Asylum and I dialed my agent from a pay phone. Since my contract was not yet signed, I had to decide: make a movie about a group of poor lost souls and try to make sense of insanity or…do a studio comedy. Not a hard decision.
I found myself with a parking space and an office at Paramount Pictures. I was required to join the Directors Guild of America, for which I am grateful, as it provides lifelong residuals. I even had health insurance for the first time in my life. Wayne’s World was my seventh movie. I was 45 years old.
I hear a lot of young filmmakers boo-hooing about how difficult it is to make it in the movie biz. A director’s best virtue is tenacity. It took me until I was middle-aged to have my first successful film. Before Wayne’s World I was borrowing money from my sister to pay the rent and keep the lights on.
Despite heavy-duty heart palpitations and wicked acid reflux, the 34-day shoot was actually really fun. Whenever we had to wait for the cinematographer to light a dark street, Mike [Myers] would entertain us by doing impersonations of crew members. He mocked the meticulous cinematographer using a bad Euro accent: “I am going to light every leaf on every tree on every block of this street. Maybe the entire city. Sit back, relax.” He mocked me by donning my punk rock leather jacket and black-black shades, then running around with his butt sticking out calling, “action, cut, dammit, do it right! Faster, funnier, you stupid shits!”
The studio never imagined that Wayne’s World would go through the box office roof. Neither did any of us. We just thought we were making this cute little movie that might not even get a decent release. With the studio not imagining a success, my agent was able to negotiate a generous percentage of the box office for me. I became a millionaire overnight.
When we had the test screening for Wayne’s World, the studio was buzzing. I didn’t really know what it all meant, because none of my other movies had the budget to even have a test screening. The opening night in Westwood Village was way-awesome… One thousand people laughing their asses off! It was really gratifying to see that many people having such an uplifting experience. In the lobby, the studio execs and the producers formed an impromptu circle to congratulate one another. I started out as part of the prestigious circle of revelers, but somehow they scooted me out, and I found myself standing on the outside, looking at the backs of all the proud dudes in suits—gender discrimination at its finest. The funny thing is that if that movie had been a flop, all those guys would have been running like cockroaches. I was the last one to get credit for the success of the film. Who directed Wayne’s World 2? Not me. They didn’t want to give me the job. Welcome to Hollywood. Are we having fun yet?
I got multitudes of mega-offers to do multitudes of mega-movies after the success of Wayne’s World—all wacky comedies. I never really wanted to do those kinds of movies; I just happened to have my name on one that was crazy successful. Men and women probably both get pigeonholed after a highly successful film, but it’s a lot worse for women. I finally caved and took the gig to direct The Beverly Hillbillies at Fox. The salary was humongous. Only huge action movie directors get those kinds of salaries these days. I knew the Hillbillies very well from watching every episode on TV as a kid. I’m actually kind of a shitkicker, having spent most of my young years in the South, in trailer parks.
This was the largest budget for a film I ever had, at million. Interestingly, one of the Fox execs told me, as we walked to a test screening in Texas, “Don’t ever expect to have another hit as big as Wayne’s World. That only happens once in a lifetime.” His smirk seemed to say…“for a woman.”
The other movies I directed in the ’90s did very well, but none ever reached the jaw-dropping success of Wayne’s World. And at the recent 25-year anniversary, I was shocked to see that the film still has a massive following and lifelong devoted fans. In the mid-’90s, Universal asked me to write and direct The Little Rascals. The studio wanted Spielberg to produce, but he wasn’t interested. I told the Uni execs I could easily pull it off without Steven’s help, but they insisted his name would bring in the family audience and I should do everything in my power to get him onboard. With another nice salary on the horizon, I followed instructions and wrote a pretty damn cool script, if I do say so myself. After Steven read the script, he came onboard—he was a total pleasure to work with.
Even still, the studio had concerns. “How do you cast a bunch of unknowns and make a movie that people would want to see?” The solution was twofold: first, cast small part cameos with big star names (yes, Donald Trump played Waldo’s Dad) and then do a nationwide search. Thousands of videocassette auditions were sent to us. A daunting task for me to review them, but we found our Rascals!
Untrained 4-to-5-year-old actors don’t comprehend the concepts of “standing in frame” or “hitting your marks.” At times, the assistant directors had to hold their feet in place so they wouldn’t walk out of the frame chasing a butterfly or heading for craft service cookies. The Rascals also loved to look at their reflection in the big Panavision lenses, which of course meant that I couldn’t get their screen directions to be correct. I came up with the idea of holding a mirror up wherever I wanted them to look. It worked like magic, but most of the scenes had to be shot in short, quick clips. The Uni execs got nervous again. They said with all the short takes, the little pieces, there was no way this film could cut together. I, however, knew that it could. They asked me to edit the courtroom scene to prove it. Even though that is against the director’s creative rights established by the DGA, I accommodated. It was a matter of keeping my job. The scene cut together beautifully, as I knew it would. Another memorable moment on the shoot was when my assistant complained to me that while she was walking across the lot, a transpo guy hit on her and upon her refusal, verbally insulted her. I complained to the transpo captain on her behalf, and both of us got in trouble. To avoid accepting responsibility, the captain turned it around on me and erroneously accused me of doing damage to my trailer. My assistant was told she had to stay in the office. I doubt that any of that has happened to a male director. They are given more trust and respect.
Like Wayne’s World, The Little Rascals has enjoyed a lasting popularity. A 30-year-old told me the other day that my films were his babysitters and now they are his kids’ babysitters. I have yet to fully understand why most of my films have such a lasting quality, but I am very grateful for that. Even my earlier, pre-studio films still have widespread cult followings.
Having a few successful studio pictures under my belt was probably the reason I was offered such a large salary for Black Sheep. It was at Paramount again, with Lorne. When Sherry Lansing called me on a Sunday afternoon and asked me to direct a film, the studio didn’t even know what the film would be. All they knew was that they had an option for Chris Farley to do another movie with Paramount and the option expiration was Monday morning. I kept asking her and John Goldwyn if I could read the script before committing to it or at least if they could tell me what the film was about. They did not know. I knew I wanted to work with Chris Farley, so I took the gig not even knowing what movie I would be making.
Once the Saturday Night Live writer got started, he had quite a few ideas for spectacular on-set special effects scenes. I knew they would never fit into the budget and besides that were probably not necessary to make an awesome comedy. In an early preproduction meeting, with the studio and Lorne in attendance, the writer and I got into a bit of a tiff. We both looked to Lorne. However, he always protects his writers first. Feeling dejected, I slithered out of the room and told them to keep the mega-salary they were paying me. As I walked to my car, I thought, What an idiot I am. I just blew million in 10 seconds. Then I heard the click-click-click of the low-heeled slides worn by the studio executive. She begged me to come back and I did. It was only later that I realized without me they probably didn’t have a movie. My guess is that Farley had director approval.
Obviously the script came together and to my surprise Black Sheep was one of my most joyful filmmaking experiences. Farley was such a pleasure. He was pure sweetness and his honest, vulnerable character touched us all. I think Spade felt a bit upstaged by him, but Chris had something that made him rise above: heart. Either you got it or you don’t.
I was offered quite a few big-budget comedies back then: The Nutty Professor, Legally Blonde, George of the Jungle, Dr. Dolittle, The Ladies Man, etc. And there were a lot of movies that I really wanted to do, but did not get the job: Liar Liar, Ace Ventura, Men in Black, etc. The producer for Ace Ventura told my agent he didn’t think I could do a comedy. Obviously that was before Wayne’s World.
It was working with the Weinsteins on Senseless that made me want to quit the business. Marlon Wayans was attached and I had really wanted to work with him. The original script was hilarious and I felt I could make a big fat comedy hit. However, we kept getting scene rewrites from Dimension, Bob Weinstein’s company. I would argue that they did not work, but Bob said, “It’s my fuckin’ money and I’ll spend it any way I want.” Then, to top it off, he and Harvey came up with a new ending, which I was contractually obligated to shoot. Their input really messed up the movie, in my opinion. Wayans and Spade made a great team, but my concept of comedy and Bob and Harvey’s were from different planets. While shooting, we got all kinds of crazy calls, notes, and rewrites to the point where we started calling Dimension “Dementia.”
After that awful experience, I got a lot of calls for interviews, but I could never seem to get the gig. I naively concluded it was because of the lack of success of Senseless. However, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure it was because the Weinsteins were bad rapping me. Producers and studios always call the last company you worked with to get a recommendation. Thanks guys. I’m like many others: the Weinsteins wrecked my career. It was the end of the ’90s and none of us knew the evil we were dealing with.
I don’t know what came first: that Hollywood fired me or I quit Hollywood. I do know that after my pretty-damn-good track record I should have been able to get a job. I turned my creative urges back to documentaries, the truly gratifying endeavor that got me started in the first place. I shot The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III and We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’n Roll, produced by Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne. Neither film got a release back then. The only offers for Part III stipulated I give over the rights to the first two Decline films, which I refused to do. I was originally told by Sharon’s team that all the music rights were cleared for Sold Our Souls, but then found out, after working on it for two and a half years, that it could not be released because the music rights were not cleared. The ’90s were a lot of highs and a lot of lows. I build houses now. And I’m really good at it.
prev link: https://www.crfashionbook.com/culture/a23110340/penelope-spheeris-cr-men-issue-7/
createdAt:Thu, 13 Sep 2018 03:34:08 +0000
displayType:Long Form Article