Lost ‘DUDES’ found at Oak Cliff Film Fest: An interview with director Penelope Spheeris
Preston Barta // Features Editor
There’s a scene in 1985’s BACK TO THE FUTURE where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) plays a heavy-metal guitar riff for the people of the ’50s. They don’t exactly appreciate it.
“Guess you’re not ready for that yet,” Marty sheepishly apologizes. Then he adds: “But your kids are going to love it.”
Every once in a while, there’s something so ahead of the cultural curve that it’s misunderstood. It can take years (sometimes 30) for it to find an audience who considers it to be an influential piece of art that makes sense today.
“All of my films get talked about 30 years later. I swear. That’s just the way it goes,” Spheeris said by phone from her home near Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills.
Spheeris’ seventh film, 1987’s DUDES, starring Jon Cryer and Daniel Roebuck, will screen at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas on Sunday as part of the four-day event’s repertory features. It’s a film that somehow got lost in the shuffle, despite having great talent and a story that celebrates the relatable concept of being young and confused with the track life has you on. Whatever the cause, DUDES arguably had an appetite for innovation, and now it can be seen again.
“I worked with a lot of great people on that movie who went on to do some really great work. They’re so thankful now that people are finding it and are being able to see it again. [DUDES was released on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time last year through Shout Select.] It’s so weird, because when it plays with contemporary audiences, they seem to get it,” Spheeris said.
DUDES follows two city-dwelling punk rockers named Grant (Cryer) and Biscuit (Roebuck) who are on a journey into the great expanses of America. When they cross paths with some rednecks, the guns come out and their friend Milo (Flea, bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) loses his life. With what little money and fuel they have, the duo set out to embrace the Western ethos and seek revenge.
“I don’t want to pat myself on the back and say my film was ahead of its time, but I do think it was an out-of-the-box film for its time,” Spheeris said.
Before Spheeris came on board to direct DUDES, Randall Jahnson (screenwriter of THE DOORS) meant it to be “a darker, more serious film than it became.” Spheeris found elements in the material that were ironic and funny, and she capitalized on them to make an enjoyably quirky movie.
“The tone was not as known then as it is now. I think it was a little difficult for [Jahnson] to see his film morph into something else entirely,” Spheeris said.
Spheeris saw DUDES as an opportunity to shake up the formula. To go along with the tone, Spheeris points toward Cryer’s involvement as a way to subvert expectations. The TWO AND A HALF MEN star wasn’t known for his comedic work before then.
“He was more a serious lover-boy type,” Spheeris said. “He has said in interviews [found in the special features of the Shout Select disc] that DUDES is where he learned his comedy, and Lord knows he’s made a chunk of change on being funny.”
DUDES not only changed the life and career of Cryer, but it also had an impact on cinematographer Robert Richardson (THE HATEFUL EIGHT and THE AVIATOR), who is now a three-time Academy Award-winner.
“I’m currently sitting in the house right now where [Richardson] walked up to my door, because there was no social media back then and I don’t know why he didn’t call me, and said, ‘You’re an amazing filmmaker. I would love to work with you.’ And I thought, ‘What the hell? Really?’ He had white hair back then, too. It was freaky,” Spheeris said. “I’m looking at the door right now and it was some freaky looking young guy with white hair. So I told him, ‘Well, I’m about to do this movie. Let’s party.’”
Spheeris and Richardson found a shooting style that mirrors the anxiety and tension of the film’s plot. Even the editing in DUDES (done by Andy Horvitch) has a calculated pace that’s full of energy and doesn’t slow down.
“Maybe [the style] just says a lot about me, because I live in constant anxiety and tension. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. I’m really jealous of people who live without it,” Spheeris said. “I have that, and I think that may be the reason why I might appeal to certain audiences: They have it, too. It all feeds into the punk lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that is very tense and anxious, and I’m a punk rocker at heart.”
As much success as Spheeris had directing WAYNE’S WORLD, THE LITTLE RASCALS, BLACK SHEEP and THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, she’s more engaged with the rough-edged movies she made about social outsiders, like DUDES and THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (a fascinating trio of documentaries about the underground music culture in Los Angeles).
“I honestly could care less about making any sort of narrative film today. The whole landscape of moviemaking is so different than it was back then,” Spheeris said. “I’m interested in movies that talk about social change and understanding human behavior.”
Spheeris teased she has two, maybe four, documentaries she’s working on that fall into this bracket. She hopes to get them made soon.
DUDES screens Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Texas Theatre, 231 W. Jefferson Blvd. in Dallas. Spheeris and actor Daniel Roebuck will attend. Individual screening tickets are available for $11.50 each or in voucher bundles of four for $35. They can be purchased through oakclifffilmfestival.com, or at each venue during festival operating hours.
You can also purchase the special collector’s edition of DUDES in a Blu-ray-DVD combo pack through shoutfactory.com/shop. The release comes with all-new interviews with the cast and filmmakers, a vintage making-of, still gallery and an original theatrical trailer.