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OFF-CENTERPIECE : MOVIES : Beyond 'Wayne's World' . . . No More NOT! Jokes

March 01, 1992|CHRIS WILLMAN

Director Penelope Spheeris--who currently has her first smash hit with "Wayne's World," expected to top $45 million in grosses this weekend and counting--was described in one recent article as "pure counterculture." On the set, at least, she tends to fit in with the youth milieu of her movies, typically dressing in leather or denim, quickly recognizable for her striking magenta hair.

But when she walks into a borrowed Paramount office for an interview after "Wayne's World" has racked up its second No. 1 weekend at the box office, Spheeris appears to have been transformed into a traditionalist. Her hair has turned a more natural shade of brunette, she's dressed in a staid black business suit with polite white blouse, she has a nice pearl statement around her wrist. . . .

And is profusely apologizing for looking so "geeky."

Spheeris is dressed to impress, she explains, because she's just skipped over from a meeting with studio executives, one of many schmooze sessions she's enjoyed since the record-breaking February opening of "Wayne's World" made her a suddenly hot commodity. A veteran producer as well as director since the mid-'70s, Spheeris feels equally at home in soft-lit studio suites and in unlit rock 'n' roll clubs.

But in suspicious Hollywood circles it was probably a liability, she admits, that she felt such an affinity with the punk-rockers she chronicled in 1980's acclaimed documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization," or the headbangers she spotlighted in the follow-up, 1988's "Decline II--The Metal Years."

Add to that the coincidence that nearly all of her dramatic features to date ("Suburbia," "Dudes," "Boys Next Door") have been sympathetic treatments of disaffected youth--usually of the surly, gun-totin' variety--and it's no surprise that Hollywood had her pegged and written off as someone who empathizes with these punks just a little too closely .

"They thought that I was one of those," says Spheeris. "I would talk even to journalists who would say things like, 'Should I call you in the afternoon? I'm sure you're up all night partying and doing drugs.' And I'm thinking, 'Why do I have this image?' It's because I've just been around those people doing movies, and they think that's the kind of life I have. I'm really pretty straight, you know. I mean, it's quite embarrassing.

"People at the studios have been very afraid of me, because they think I'm like a proponent of the evil and dark forces of both rock 'n' roll and the universe. It's been a long haul here to try to prove I could do something a little more uplifting. Sounds kind of sappy, but it's true. So I wanted to do a comedy, whatever it'd be."

As it turned out, with this new "Saturday Night Live" spinoff, Spheeris finally got her first comedy gig lampooning the type of teen-age wasteland she'd treated more seriously in her other movies, and it paid off. She's hoping that this newfound success will be her ticket to do a film outside of her usual rebel-without-a-clue genre.

"Yeah, I think it's about time for me to do an adult movie," she quips. "I'm 46."

Spheeris is looking at a couple of grown-up comedy scripts as well as a drama that, figuratively, is "about a man who finds God."

Whichever project she takes on next, there's one she's sure it won't be: "Wayne's World 2," the dealmaking for which is in the works. Finally hot, Spheeris isn't eager to repeat herself.

"Do you know how hard it is to walk away from all that bread?" she chuckles.

In her current rounds of meetings, Spheeris exults, "I'm like a kid in a toy store with the scripts I'm getting. . . . It's a pleasure to be able to have people treat me like I always thought they should. And it's a shame that it takes grosses to make that happen. But that's the reality. . . . The thing is, I do understand why there's a difference now. What else do they have to judge by? I'm fine with it.

"It took 20 years. I don't have any hard feelings about how difficult it was or why it never happened before and how I wish I would have been successful when I was beautiful or something like that." Another hearty laugh. "It's cool. At least it happened, right?"

How did her "WW" assignment happen? Given that she'd never directed a comedy, never directed a major-studio film and never had a hit, Spheeris would've seemed to have three strikes against her in landing this plum job.

"God felt guilty for being mean to me for so long."

Actually, producer Lorne Michaels--whom Spheeris knew from her days producing Albert Brooks' short films for "SNL" in the '70s--had an assistant who was friends with someone at her New York agency, and an early draft of the script got passed along. She felt it had "mega-potential," despite having only a fleeting familiarity with the recurring TV skit. "I don't stay up late enough to be a fan, so I had to go get all the old 'Wayne's Worlds' and watch them."

Her landing the job was also surprising in light of how many successful director friends Michaels has in his social circles.

"Penny Marshall. Best friend. She was busy. Ha ha ha! Thank you, God."

Spheeris is pretty high herself now, but hasn't forgotten some career low points. A few years ago the prospect of her having a blockbuster seemed remote.

" 'Dudes,' a year after I was done with it, was released on Hollywood Boulevard for $1 for a week. And I paid a dollar to go see it with some friends. Is that pathetic?"

She also served a stint as story editor on the tumultuous set of TV's "Roseanne."

"That was horrendous," she says. "But it was a good background for understanding the politics on this one, you know what I mean? When I was at 'Roseanne' I was going 'Well, the politics can't get any hairier than this.' Ha! "

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