Spheeris has been fighting for 20 years to become an overnight success

February 14, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Ah, nothing like overnight success.

Especially when the night is 20 years long.

Penelope Spheeris, director of "Wayne's World," has been scuffling on the edges of the Hollywood film industry for so long she still has difficulty believing that she's beaten it.

"I've been going to meetings for 20 years," says Spheeris, 46. "Somehow they never trusted me. It's literally been a 20-year fight. I'd only recommend it to you if you're a hell of a fighter."

VTC Spheeris first made a reputation as a documentarian with a lot of edge. She was the first to document the culture of punk as it was lived out in the alleyways of L.A. in a seminal, bleak film some ten years back called "The Decline of Western Civilization," a no-punches pulled examination of kids and their headbanging music.

From there, her entree into the punk scene ensured, she segued into a number of scary little features, including "Dudes," with Jon Cryer, and "The Boys Next Door," with a very young Charlie Sheen, that have since become cult hits. The films were vivid not only for their awareness of the culture of the young, but for their dark, uncompromising edge.

"No one thought I could do a comedy," she says now, laughing. "They were very dubious about me. But when I went to the meeting this time, I wore bright colors and smiled a lot and said positive things. It seems to have worked."

Then she pauses for the punch line: "Either that, or every other director on the list had already turned it down."

Spheeris can afford her cynicism. "Wayne's World" will almost certainly be a hit given a pre-sold teen market, a weak batch of competitors and generally excellent reviews. She says she's enjoying sitting home and reading scripts sent her by the studios now, instead of hustling to get meetings.

"But," she says, "the funny thing is I now have trouble seeing thrillers and tougher pictures. They think I'm a comedy director and they wonder if I have the edge!"

She explains that she really got the job because "they needed a street credibility and I had it."

She says, "I was able to re-create an authentic environment on a low budget [$14 million]. We had to make Aurora look real," no mean trick when Aurora is really West L.A.

It was very difficult getting along with the producer . . . NOT!

"Lorne [Michaels, of "Saturday Night Live" fame] is some sort of comic genius. I think it's very generous of him not to take a writing credit on the film. That's very modest. But he was there for the jokes and there for the structure, and he guided the whole thing along brilliantly. You see a producer credit on a film, and you think, oh, he's the money man, the studio guy. But, uh-uh. He's the comedy guy."

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