Earlier this month, Nikki Sixx was put in the awkward position of denying an incident detailed in his own book. In The Dirt, the classic Mötley Crüe memoir written by the band with veteran music journalist (and future so-called “pickup artist”) Neil Strauss, Sixx relates a story about having sex with a woman in a closet during a party. At one point, he gets up to use the bathroom, and then tells his bandmate, Tommy Lee, to go back in the closet with him.
“In the closet, I stood directly behind Tommy,” he writes. “He fucked her while she grabbed my hair and yelled, ‘Oh, Nikki! Nikki!’”
Later, the woman tells Sixx that she was raped the night before. While she wasn’t referring to the incident in the closet, it causes Sixx to conclude that “I pretty much had” raped her.
When The Dirt was released in 2001, it was a bestseller celebrated as one of the most colorful and candid books ever written about a rock band. Eighteen years later, however, The Dirt is under fresh scrutiny due to a new movie adaptation that premieres Friday on Netflix. Suddenly, dishy stories about possible rapes seem a lot more problematic.
While the closet story isn’t depicted in the film version, it does indicate just how different a book like The Dirt plays in 2019. Capturing the right tone with this material seems virtually impossible. Sure enough, in the Netflix movie, the line between a warts-and-all depiction of reality and glamorization of terrible behavior is a bit muddled. This is especially true in the film’s first half, when we meet the Mötley knuckleheads — Nikki (Douglas Booth), Tommy (Colson Baker), Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), and Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) — as they swiftly become groupie-abusing superstars. Pete Davidson also shows up as a record label executive whose girlfriend inevitably is seduced by the band.
Again, it’s not always clear whether the audience is supposed to laugh at or with these shenanigans. It doesn’t help that not a single woman in The Dirt has a discernible personality beyond “wife,” “mother,” or “random hot chick.” (Though this is also true of the book.) By the end of the film, however, The Dirt does take the shape of a cautionary tale in the manner of many rock movies.
For The Dirt‘s director Jeff Tremaine, the rise-and-fall morality tale side of the story is what attracted him to the project. Best-known as the co-creator of the Jackass TV show and the director the Jackass films, he says he saw parallels between Mötley Crüe and his own “roller coaster group of outrageous guys.”
“In the early days of our Jackass shit, when a hotel room got trashed, that was the bar where Mötley Crüe was, right? We were aware that that’s what they did,” he said.
In a recent interview, I asked Tremaine about the challenge of adapting The Dirt in 2019, and why his film is the dirtier alternative to Bohemian Rhapsody.
A lot of people considered this book to be unfilmable, including me. And yet you turned it into a film. How challenging was it?
The book is not linear. The book bounces around [amid] some of the most outrageous and awful stories you’ve ever heard. So to turn it into a watchable movie, it was difficult. We definitely had to leave some stuff on the floor. But we try to make sure that we capture the spirit of the book. It was a process, for sure.
I was surprised that the “Bullwinkle” scene from the book’s opening chapter made the movie. That seemed particularly unfilmable, at least for a mainstream, non-pornographic movie.
From the very first iteration of the script, that was the opening scene. I could never get past that. That had to be in this movie.
I was also shocked that there’s a scene in which Tommy Lee punches a woman in the face. I didn’t expect the movie to delve into his past with domestic violence.
That was sort of their deal going into this. They were going to let this story be told, warts and all. I’m sure that was difficult, especially as the climate has become what it is, [which is] thankfully intolerant of that kind of behavior. But it happened, and we didn’t even actually go further. If we would have told the story further along, there were consequences to Tommy actually doing that.
There’s a lot of sex in the movie, as there is in the book. We obviously live in different times now — 2019 is not the early ’80s, or even 2001, when the book came out. How hard was it to find the right tone for the tawdrier parts of the story that frankly play so much worse now?
Look, it’s definitely documenting a crazy time, where people did crazy shit. You want to get people on the board, on board with the roller coaster. The fun of it, for me at least, in the early days … I wanted to show the spirit without getting it too dark too early. There’s definitely dark, crazy shit through the whole book, but I wanted the movie to escalate into the consequences and the darkness, and reveal it a little bit later. Getting the tone right was definitely a challenge. That book is filled with outrageous stories, so choosing the right ones that told the story — and making sure that we didn’t leave fans of the book feeling like we did a version that they wouldn’t be proud of — it was a difficult balancing act.
The timing of the movie’s release is interesting. On one hand, musical biopics have never been hotter. On the other hand, The Dirt is hardly a #MeToo-friendly book, to put it mildly. How do you think the movie will be received?
It’s definitely not intentional that we’re putting this movie out now. We’ve been trying to put this movie out for almost eight, nine years. But it’s a really interesting time to put this movie out. This movie doesn’t … I try not to pull any punches. It’s a true story of shit that they did and the price they paid for a lot of it. So, I don’t know. It’s going to be interesting to see how the audience takes that.
Are you concerned at all that your movie glamorizes Mötley Crüe’s treatment of women? What do you hope viewers take from the movie in that regard?
I don’t even know. It’s a good question. They did a lot of crazy shit, and I’m sure they regret a lot of it. But it happened. I’m trying not to … I didn’t glamorize it. We showed it as it was.
I remember when the film was originally announced in 2014 with you as a director. That’s five years ago. What accounted for that amount of time? Was it just figuring out how you’re going to tell the story?
I’ve actually been attached since late 2010, or maybe early 2011. We had a deal for a while with Focus Features. Then everybody left Focus. Then, luckily, Netflix came on. I was really excited about that because I think they are doing a lot of exciting stuff, and they let the filmmakers make the movies they want to make. Almost every aspect of it took a long time. Casting took a really long time. Getting the story straight took a long time. We’ve had a lot of iterations between when I started and now of the script. It’s been a long, bumpy, crazy road.
While you obviously didn’t plan it, The Dirt is coming on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody‘s tremendous success. Why do you think there’s so much interest now in movies about ’70s and ’80s rock?
I don’t know. I heard about Bohemian Rhapsody a long time ago, when Sasha Baron Cohen was attached. Then I hadn’t heard a word about it. We made our movie, I’m in the middle of editing it, and then the trailer dropped as we were deep into our edit. And I’m like, “Oh my God, why is this coming out now?” I wanted to be the first biopic in a while that mattered. But then I saw it and I was like, “Oh well … cool.” I actually really liked Bohemian Rhapsody. I felt like it didn’t really step on the toes of our movie in any way. I felt like it was its own thing. If you wanted a more controversial story, then you’ll like ours better.
One of the criticisms of Bohemian Rhapsody is how sanitized it is. There’s not a lot of sex or drugs in that movie.
Yeah, for me, I was kind of glad because my kids are Queen fans and I got to take my little kids to see it. And I want this movie to be the one who delivers on all that dirtiness.
‘The Dirt’ will begin streaming on Netflix this weekend.