From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
“I always tell my agent to not give me any scripts that have anything to do with love, relationships or sex because I don’t know anything about those subjects. However, Stratacasters I can deal with.” – Penelope Spheeris
Like Mike Myers, I grew up in the suburban landscapes outside Toronto’s downtown core, in my case just north of a town named Aurora. We’d listen to music in our cars and sing along, hang out at the donut place named after a formerly famous hockey player and dream that somehow we’d find an audience for our own brand of inanity.
Even a casual fan of Saturday Night Live knows the 12:55am slot is usually filled with the weakest skits, only for the die-hards that made it past Weekend Update. On a night in 1989 where (Canadian) Leslie Nielsen hosted and (Toronto band) Cowboy Junkies were the musical guest, Myers showed off a little of his Scarborough self, donning a trucker hat, mullet-like hair, ripped jeans and a guitar. We were entering "Wayne’s World," and it would be party time, excellent.
The skit caught on. Soon Madonna would grind, Tom Hanks would mic check for Aerosmith, and in time Myers would have the hubris to enlarge the scope of the shtick to theatrical length.
Years earlier Penelope Spheeris was cooking an omelette for her friend (and Canadian!) Lorne Michaels while he spoke of a skit-show he wanted to start in New York. He had already asked her to help break up what she called a “boys club,” working with Lily Tomlin at the behest of Lorne. In New York she’d produce segments with Albert Brooks for SNL, crafting a series of interstitial filmed bits that would play during the live show (according to Spheeris, “I taught him how to make movies, he taught me how to navigate Hollywood”). Michaels would promise her a chance to direct, to break through that particular glass ceiling. She would never get her chance on the show.
Spheeris left SNL to direct films about suburban outcasts, be they fictional (1984’s Suburbia) or documentaries (the famed Decline of Western Civilization triptych that launched in 1981). She founded one of the first companies in LA that shot music videos, even directing one for Gary Wright’s syrupy hit “Dreamweaver.” She turned down a request from SNL alums Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer to direct Spinal Tap – “I felt I couldn’t make fun of the music” – and continued to make films that were often championed but rarely seen by audiences.
While at a hospital for the criminal insane location scouting for a doc, she got the call Lorne had promised her, prompting her to collapse to the floor when she heard the news. She knew this seventh film was to be her big break at long last. She was perfect for it, but as we’ve learned of late, being a woman with the perfect resume doesn’t always get you the job.
Myers also knew the ingredients were there to launch his creation to a wider audience, and for him it was the very specificity of his cultural references – the wood-paneled basement, playing street hockey and yelling “car” when forced to move – that brought the character to life. Myers wrote the script with Bonnie and Terry Myers, SNL pros that would go on to enormous sitcom success with 3rd Rock From the Sun and That ‘70s Show. With talents honed in the cauldron of Michaels’ show, they were used to churning out ideas quickly, throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. The goal was to be funny above all, and nothing was finished until the show went to air.
Spheeris meanwhile felt she knew the world of Wayne not as someone looking in but as a person from the trenches. She’d spent years in the underground with these metal guys with their long hair and graphic Ts, finding community outside the plastic mainstream of pop. “I knew more about it than Mike and Dana did,” she says. “They were doing it as a spoof, I’d been on the streets living the life. Heavy metal is dear to my heart.” While Myers and Dana Carvey brought a sweetness and innocence to Wayne and Garth’s enthusiasm, Spheeris helped showcase the charming, slightly unnerving obsessiveness of fandom, where we all feel we’re not worthy.
The shoot was fraught with conflict, with the star and director constantly battling for control. Some battles the star won – the James Bond-like training squad was one Spheeris fought against, and she felt boxers instead of briefs would be best for the scene where Wayne dances distractingly in front of Tia Carrere. With others the director won out – for example, the script called for the big concert sequence to be Aerosmith but she wanted Ozzy Osbourne or Alice Cooper, in part to delineate further from what had already occurred with the SNL skits.
Yet if there’s one scene that illustrates what Spheeris brought to the project, it’s perhaps the film’s most iconic: the gang’s rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Pedaling along in the preposterous AMC Pacer, Wayne, Garth and three other members of the entourage perform the forerunner for all Carpool Karaoke, as Wayne mimes Freddie Mercury singing “a little silhouetto of man,” all building to the crashing, air drumming, guitar-solo magnificence of that song’s third act.
Spheeris wanted the cast to bang their heads to the music. Myers refused. He was worried he’d get a headache given the need to do it repetitively over the night shoot. She knew it’d be funny, and promised him an aspirin. Spheeris won out, and while stiff-necked leads can be seen in later scenes, it’s near impossible now to hear that song in any circumstance and not immediately start bobbing one’s noggin. The song says “no, no, NO!” while your head shakes “yes, yes, YES!”
This kind of headbutting over headbanging fueled much of the filming, and gives the final movie some of its slightly schizophrenic edge. “I had to shoot the movie three different ways,” Spheeris admitted, “my way, Dana’s way and Mike’s way. So I had all these alternatives in the cutting room, and sometimes there was a conflict there.” Yet to her credit the final result feels very much of a whole, merging Myers’ vision with her desire for verisimilitude along with some of Carvey’s own brand of madness (just look to the gadgets on the roof of the car to see the types of things he was obsessed with).
Wayne’s World would go on to make over $180 million, making it, when adjusted for inflation, one of the most financially successful comedies of all time. In part due to the conflicts with the film’s star Spheeris would not be asked back for the sequel, but years later Myers would concede that much of the film’s success was due to the skills of the director. Spheeris would do more TV translations, including The Beverly Hillbillies andThe Little Rascals, and would turn down a chance at tackling another ‘90s post-modern masterpiece, The Brady Bunch Movie.
Myers would create more successful franchises, including his over-the-top James Bond spoof that echoes the scene in the donut shop, but no character was more like where he came from than Wayne. Before YouTube and Snapchat, the idea of a community access show where one could nerd-out without censoring was intoxicating to say the least. Expanded into the greater worlds of rock fandom that Spheeris brought made the film both part of its time and also timeless. “My fascination with youth culture is they’re responsible for changing the world and hopefully making it better,” Spheeris argues, and she tried to bring that to what otherwise would have been nothing more than a simple joke stretched to 90 minutes.
In the end, Wayne’s World thrives on the combination of that Suburban Toronto kid dreaming of a bigger world and an LA veteran knowing the truth of life during the Metal Years. The synergy of these talents, each bringing their specificity to the whole, each respectful of various aspects to near neurotic levels but still seeking out the greater desire of finding the laugh, makes the film what it is. “Lorne thinks comedy comes out of chaos,” says Spheeris, and it’s hard not to agree with the results. The final work is the thing, whatever the drama is behind the camera.
As Freddie would say, nothing (else) really matters to me.
All quotes taken from Wayne’s World DVD commentary.