In February 1992, when Wayne’s World hit theaters, George Bush was President, Guns N’ Roses was all the rage, and cell phones were as big as shoeboxes. It was a different time. And yet, 25 years later, the comedy starring Saturday Night Live alum Mike Myers and Dana Carvey as two rock-loving, mullet-wearing, basement-dwelling buds still stands up. (Uh, that’s what she said.)
That’s largely thanks to director Penelope Spheeris, who had helmed the music documentaries The Decline of Western Civilization, Parts I and II — about punk rock and heavy metal respectively — and brought serious street cred to the funny film.
Spheeris has “a genuine feel for what it means to be a rock-and-roll fan,” says Steve Waksman, author of This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. “She elevated what could have been a routine comedy about two awkward rock fans into a film that almost feels, at times, like an ethnography of late-’80s/early-’90s rock music and culture set within a commercial Hollywood film. For me, the real charm and even brilliance of the film is in its smaller moments, such as the scene where Wayne goes into a music store to buy a new guitar and is foiled by a sign that prohibits him from playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ — the cliché to end all clichés of wannabe guitar hero-dom.”
We checked in with Spheeris, 71, to talk about guitar heroes, head-banging, women in Hollywood, and what role she would cast Donald Trump in if she had the chance to do it again.
Wayne’s World was your first major studio film, and it also launched the movie careers of Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, who play Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar. What was it like working with them so early on?
When they walked on that set, they didn’t know what it meant to hit your mark. And Mike had to drive through the whole darn film, and he didn’t know how to drive. He’s Canadian, and he always took public transport his whole life. So, we had to give him Sears driving lessons. It was a low-budget movie.
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Were you surprised by its success?
It flipped my life around. I was a single mom. Probably two months before I did Wayne’s World, I borrowed $5,000 from my sister just to stay alive and keep my daughter and me going — keep the lights on. And then after Wayne’s World, I was an overnight millionaire.
The humor is as funny as ever, but in 2017, some of the references are a bit … dated. Like the scene where Wayne shows Tia Carrere’s Cassandra his new CD player in the car.
Right. When we were shooting the film, the only person who had a cellphone on the set was Howard Koch [who executive produced the film; SNL creator Lorne Michaels produced it]. He had one of those shoebox-sized phones, and whenever Mike would have an issue, he would have to go over to [Koch’s] convertible Mercedes with the phone in the console.
You’ve worked with some amazing comedians, including Richard Pryor (in the never-released Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales), who have reputations for being difficult but worth it. Did Mike Myers and Dana Carvey fall into that category?
Well, I think it’s kind of common knowledge that Mike was a little more difficult than Dana. But I always think it’s worth it. Richard was sort of out of his mind and [a] genius. You put up with whatever they’re going to come up with, the good and the bad, because of the reward. I mean, they’re almost struck by lightning or something in that they have this amazing gift. I was angry with Mike when I didn’t get to do Wayne’s World 2, but as I watched his career progress, [with] Austin Powers, I forgave him big time because — they’re so good, you know?
What are the most quotable quotes that you hear when you’re out in public?
I get a lot of, “We are not worthy.” I’ll just be walking out of a theater or something, and people will get in a line and bow down. I’m like, ‘No, no, please. I’m not Alice Cooper.’ And then, of course, there’s the word “not,” which was glorified in the movie, and it’s still part of the verbal culture today. That’s a credit to Mike — he came up with the “shwing!” and the “ex-squeeze me? baking powder?” and all that.
You’re right — that all came from Wayne’s World. And so did, “That’s what she said.”
Exactly. And people twist that around and make all sorts of different kinds of jokes with it. Like I said, it’s Mike, but it was also a very magical combination of chemistry and personalities back then. Lorne’s so good at putting the right people together. [Screenwriters] Bonnie and Terry Turner co-wrote with Mike, and Dana contributed so much on an everyday basis when we were shooting. They had that normal thing with comic partners: They competed with each other. They would always be trying to one-up each other and be funnier than the other.
What was it like being a female director of what is basically a bromance comedy?
Going through my early days in my career, if I thought about being discriminated against as a woman, I probably would have stopped doing the job. But I never let it occur to me, honestly. I think Lorne always felt guilty that he never let me do any of the short films on Saturday Night Live. Really, women didn’t have a big voice back then. Between that and the fact that I had just done Decline of Western Civilization, Part II, I think that’s why I got the job. That and pure luck.
It’s also rare to see an actress of Asian heritage as a leading lady in a mainstream American comedy. Tia Carrere even speaks Cantonese in the film. Was casting her an issue?
This is kind of pathetic, but everybody loved the fact that Mike was going to start speaking Chinese [in the movie]. I believe that we were able to get a beautiful Asian woman because we had to make that joke work. I don’t mean to be too brutally honest, but that’s probably why. It’s like, whatever it takes to get the women in there, fine, you know?
In the end, though, even though it’s a comedy, she’s strong.
She’s very strong. Not just a pretty face. She stepped it way up. I mean, [Wayne] fell in love with her because he saw her kick ass when she was walking offstage. [Tia] is very strong in person, and she and I would go head-to-head over the stupidest things. We disagreed on wardrobe every day. I wanted her to be as sexy as she naturally was, but not in a tacky way. So, we would stand in the lot and argue over which wardrobe she was going to wear. Hers would be a little bit too shiny for me, too sparkly. Wendy O. Williams is my punk-rock queen. We wouldn’t want to do that, where she’s, like, topless on stage with a chainsaw and a V8 engine running. But that’s my idea of a kick-ass bitch.
For her punk-rock scenes, were you coaching her through how to sing, how to scream?
Yeah, definitely. We were right around the old Guns N’ Roses time. I had just done Decline II, and I had been around all of those head-bangers on a daily basis. So yeah, I tried to guide her that way, and I think her energy and mine, combined, just worked.
Is it true that “Bohemian Rhapsody” almost wasn’t used for the head-banging scene in the car, and instead it was going to be Guns N’ Roses?
I had just done Decline II, and Guns N’ Roses were supposed to be in it, and at the last minute their manager decided that he didn’t want them in the movie, so I went and I got Megadeth. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was written into the script when I got it, and then the studio said, “Oh, we got this hot band now. We want to put Guns N’ Roses in there.” And Mike kicked up about it and said, “No, we don’t want Guns N’ Roses, we want ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’” so you can imagine where I was at with that one. I was like, “I don’t want Guns N’ Roses. They didn’t want me.” That’s what that battle was all about.
But the fact of the matter is, when we shot the scene in the car, I had been hanging out with these people, and I know what it’s like in a car when everybody gets in the same beat with a song. I exaggerated it with the head-banging scene, and we shot all night long. These poor guys, their necks were so sore. Mike was almost quitting and said, ‘I need Advil. I have a headache.’ It was a difficult night, and I was actually accused of the scene not being funny while I was shooting it. And I’m like, “Please do it. Please.” I was begging. And, obviously, it worked. It actually revitalized Queen, not just that song, but their career.
Not everybody was a fan of the movie, though.
Cinderella, the band, did not respond well to the movie when I screened it for them on the Paramount lot. I did end up using one of their songs, “Hot and Bothered,” in the film. But when I showed it to them, they said, “We don’t get it. It’s not funny.” They were not nice afterwards, and I felt so disheartened. When we started having these test screenings is when it really came to light that it was something standout and special. Either you get it or you don’t.
Another iconic moment: Wayne’s smart-ass parody of the Grey Poupon commercial.
Now think about this for casting: What if the driver of the Rolls for the Grey Poupon scene was Donald Trump? Wouldn’t that have been good? I think I’m going to digitally maneuver that one around. I don’t know if you know this or not, but I did have Donald Trump in The Little Rascals. [He cameos in her 1994 reboot.] He plays Waldo’s dad.
I also have to ask about the “Foxy Lady” scene — another one of those joyous moments.
I will personally take credit for that one, because I had to fight like all heck to get the studio, the guys, the writers, and Lorne to get on board with “Foxy Lady.” I knew “Foxy Lady” would just bring down the house, and it did. I don’t remember what song they were trying to force me to use, but it would not have worked like this. I was always a Hendrix fan, and I just loved the song.
And the dance: Did Dana surprise you with it?
Oh, yeah. That’s the thing I was talking about when I said how they were always trying to one-up each other. Well, that dance was not in the script. It was just: He sat on the stool, he looked over at [Donna Dixon] — she’s doing what she’s doing — and then we zoom in on his face. He goes, “How about if I do this?” And it got goofier and goofier. He’s so bad at being sexy that it’s hilarious.
What do you think people love so much about Wayne’s World?
It’s all about that joy you have when you are in your late teens, early 20s: Your hormones are going crazy, you’re over the moon, full of love and life, and you don’t think negatively about anything. As you get older, you get a little more jaded, you get a little more negative. But when you look at Wayne’s World now, it’s like, “Life is good, life is fun.”