“Wayne’s World” director Penelope Spheeris He knows what scene comes to mind first for most fans of the movie: the moment when Wayne and Garth rock out to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as they cruise around town.
But 30 years on from its Valentine’s Day opening, Spheeris also remembers it as the source of the biggest headaches, literally, of the whole production.
“It was two long nights shooting in Covina,” Spheeris says of the movie’s stand-in location for the film’s setting of Aurora, Illinois. “We were towing the car, and I would place the cameras in different positions, and then just played back the song over and over and over again.
“The guys really had to bang their heads a lot,” she says. “You know, if you’re in one of the real metal bands, you bang your head all the time. If you’re Flea from the Chili Peppers you bang your head all the time. I mean, their necks are strong.”
The actors’ head-banging skills were sorely tested, however.
“These guys were in total pain,” Spheeris says. “It got to a point where, like, four in the morning they were complaining, and needed Advil, and were telling me, ‘Stop doing this; it’s not funny!’
“I’m like, ‘I’m not stopping; it is funny!” she says in an interview a week before the release of a limited-edition 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the film. “I didn’t know it was going to end up being one of the most iconic scenes in comedy history.
“But I knew it was going to work.”
A lucky break
For Spheeris, “Wayne’s World” was her first studio movie after such acclaimed indie films such as the 1981 punk-rock documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization” and “Suburbia,” a 1984 feature set in a similar milieu.
“I was friends with Lorne before he even started ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Spheeris says of “Wayne’s World” producer Lorne Michaels. “Then he and I had worked together on the first three years or so of ‘Saturday Night Live.’
“And then I think also, the fact that I had done ‘(The Decline of Western Civilization Part II:) The Metal Years’ right before, and that obviously focused on heavy metal.
“Wayne and Garth might kind of thought of themselves as headbangers, even though they were not, they were kind of poseurs,” she says, laughing. “But that’s what made it funny.”
But the thing that might have cinched the deal for her to direct was simply a matter of timing and luck.
“It’s a terrible thing to admit, but there was such a small window of time they had to hire a director, that they didn’t have time to go through interviews with so many people,” Spheeris says.
“I was able to get it because the guys had to go back and work on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” she says of the sketch comedy show that from which “Wayne’s World” sprang. “So we had to finish in 34 days.
“They didn’t have time to get anybody better, so they got me. I lucked out.”
The studio way
“Wayne’s World” Spheeris introduced to a whole new way of working. Instead of the scrappy independent films she’d made before, this was a studio picture with all the Hollywood trappings.
“I do remember having a driver for the first time taking me to the set on the first day,” she says. “They were like, ‘Well, here we are,’ and I’m like, ‘Why are all these trucks here? We don’t need all that to make a movie. I can make a movie without everybody.’
“It made it a little more complicated but more efficient ultimately.”
Because Myers and Carvey had so strongly established Wayne and Garth on “Saturday Night Live,” Spheeris also learned to work with her cast in a way new to her, too.
“They knew their characters, and I was always trying to be really careful not to give them any direction that would be out of character,” she says. “And never question their deliveries and representations of those two characters, because they knew them so well.
“I had to direct the other actors and answer questions about, ‘Why am I doing this?’ You know, what actors ask: ‘What’s my motivation?’ You’re getting paid!”
Occasionally she’d offer notes to Myers and Carvey, letting them do their takes, and then capturing a different look, too.
“Sometimes they would get a little broad, a little over the top,” she says. “I remember when we were doing that Suck Kut scene in the beginning, you know, the hair (cutting) machine.
“Dana was on the moon there with his reactions. I’m like, ‘Let’s bring it down a little bit; it’ll be funnier if you just hold it in a little.’ Just little tweaks like that.”
Three decades later, “Wayne’s World” has a kind of innocence in the goofy charm of Wayne and Garth and their dreams of rock and romance. Spheris thinks its simplicity is part of its enduring appeal.
“You know, life today is so much more stressful and challenging than it was back then,” she says. “Those were sort of carefree days compared to these days. I think when people watch the movie now, young people and old people alike, they get their head into a time that life was a lot simpler and easier and more fun.
“The exuberance of youth, it makes you feel sort of, I don’t know, just euphoric,” Spheeris says. “I think that’s why people like it, because it makes them feel that kind of thing that we, unfortunately, don’t have to experience as much anymore.”
In recent years, Spheeris felt she needed a break from moviemaking and Hollywood.
“So I started building houses,” she says. “I didn’t know I could, but then I did, and I’ve got seven houses now.”
But lately, in part because of the conversations she’s been having about “Wayne’s World,” she’s been thinking about getting back behind the camera, possibly to finish a fourth installment of “The Decline of Western Civilization” and a documentary on the unusual life of her mother, Spheeris says.
“I’m going to go back to the movies soon,” she says. “Because after talking to you and some other people, I’ve realized, I can make people feel good when I make a movie. And that’s what I’d like to do.”