PENELOPE SPHEERIS EARNS MILLIONS making comedies like Wayne's World, but the Senseless director is more than the sum of her mindless movies. The black-leather-wearing single mom plows her money into gritty, personal work such as the punk-rockumentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III, which cost a fraction of what Wayne's World did and hasn't yet been released. "I've always been a bit of an outsider and a rebel," says Spheeris, 52.
Senseless, which stars Marlon Wayans as a man who loses control of his five senses, will pay her bills, but Civilization got Spheeris a new boyfriend. Last September, a year after shooting, she spotted "Sin," a "gutterpunk"—her words—who appears in the movie and was still homeless on a Hollywood street corner. "I pulled up and said, 'Hey, what's going on?' " says Spheeris. "He moved in with me that day."
Spheeris has a lot of demons she'd like to explore in film: Her father, Andrew, was murdered in a racial dispute in 1952 after defending a black man; Robert Schoeller, the father of her 27-year-old daughter, Anna, died of a heroin overdose in 1974; and her brother Jimmy was killed by a drunk driver in 1984. "When you have a life like mine," says Spheeris, who is planning a film about her dad, "you become either creative or destructive. If you go to prison, you'll see a lot of people who had lives like mine."