How Do You Adapt Motley Crue’s Outrageous Memoir Into a Movie?
Inside ‘The Dirt,’ Netflix’s raunchy, no-holds-barred adaptation of the glam-metal band’s riotous 2001 memoir
It’s a sunny spring day in New Orleans, and three men who look like the Sunset Strip coughed them up in 1985 are on a smoke break outside the Saenger Theatre. They’re there to portray Mötley Crüe in Netflix’s unruly new biopic, The Dirt. Inside, fake roadies are setting up Marshall stacks onstage, in front of a backdrop of gaudy black-and-white diamonds and comedy/drama masks.
The resemblance to the band’s Theatre of Pain tour is uncanny, but there are signs that this is a different Crüe. Take the cockroach that Douglas Booth, who plays bassist Nikki Sixx, found in his hotel room last night. Booth says he gingerly guided the critter to safety using a cup.
“He should have called me in with my hairspray and a lighter,” the real Sixx says later with a laugh. “Next thing you know, though, there’d be marches outside the premiere from PETA for killing cockroaches.”
When Booth and the other actors are in front of the camera, they don’t hesitate to go all the way in channeling one of rock’s most shamelessly hedonistic bands. The Dirt, which premieres on Netflix on March 22nd, is based on the 2001 memoir of the same name, which they coauthored with Rolling Stone contributing editor Neil Strauss. It’s a story littered with tales of drug abuse (Sixx was once pronounced dead of a heroin overdose before being resuscitated), recklessness (singer Vince Neil accidentally killed the passenger in his car while driving drunk in 1985) and lubricious sexuality (nearly everything else the band did). The film starts with a graphic scene of drummer Tommy Lee, played by Colson Baker (a.k.a. rapper Machine Gun Kelly), performing oral sex on a groupie until she squirts a six-foot geyser across the room and everybody cheers. In its raunchy, honest tone, it’s the anti–Bohemian Rhapsody.
Despite the darker elements of Mötley Crüe’s story, filmmaker Jeff Tremaine (Jackass, Bad Grandpa) has made a movie that’s fun to watch and stays true to the book’s freewheeling humor. He’s structured the picture so the actors narrate their characters’ stories, sometimes stepping on and contradicting each other. It shows how some of them grew up in difficult circumstances (Sixx once called the cops on his mom) while others, like Lee, grew up in stable nuclear families. And it shows them fighting against the mainstream, playing revved-up heavy metal and shouting at the devil at a time when new wave ruled. The shenanigans that made it from the book to the screen, whether it’s the group attempting to out-crazy Ozzy Osbourne or an over-the-top sequence depicting the madness that was a day in Lee’s life, show just how much joy the four underdogs in Mötley Crüe got out of their rise to fame.
“There’s comedy, there’s tragedy, and it’s a fucking roller coaster emotionally,” Lee says, sounding excited, a few months after shooting. “There’s bummer stuff, some fun, stupid shit, and it’s the whole gamut of what the hell we went through then.”
“I was sitting right behind Tommy and Nikki when they were watching it for the first time, and Tommy was getting so psyched when he’d see things like the Sunset Blvd. sign and all the fun stuff at the beginning,” Tremaine says. “He just keeps going, ‘That’s exactly fucking right.’ And then when it starts getting heavy, they both got kind of quiet, and I could hear them become just really captivated and reminiscing. It’s a crazy responsibility, in a way, to tell their story.”
It’s freezing inside the Saenger Theatre, where the four actors are rehearsing a scene that takes place at the start of Crüe’s Theatre of Pain tour. It starts with Lee showing his love interest at the time, Dynasty actress Heather Locklear, around the stage, much to the chagrin of Sixx, who wants the drummer to focus on the band. Meanwhile, singer Vince Neil’s wife, Sharise, brings their daughter, Skylar, to visit him, and he looks sad. Although Neil wasn’t yet married to Sharise at that point in real life, it aligns with a period when the singer was the only sober member of the band (following his DUI manslaughter conviction), so he was feeling down anyway. Since it’s on a grand proscenium stage, it looks more like an act from a play than a movie, but everyone’s hair is teased perfectly. When the actors aren’t onstage, heavyset stand-ins in similar-looking wigs replace them and stare off blankly.
Tremaine hollers and laughs about the lighting from the side of the stage, demanding that a Rolex held by Neil actor Daniel Webber look “blingier.” (The watch doesn’t make the final cut.) In between takes, he leans back and attempts to answer a few questions. “I’m directing while doing my interview with Rolling Stone,” he says to one of the producers while grinning. “How rock & roll is this shit, right?”
Although he’s admittedly not a big Mötley Crüe fan, after years of working with Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O and the Jackass crew, Tremaine felt a kinship to their history. “I feel like our stories are so similar, in the craziness and antics of a group of guys that is expected to act badly in all situations, as well as the rise and fall with all that fame,” says the director, who signed on to The Dirt about seven years ago. “I can do this. I can tell their story.”
Despite his passion for the project, and the determination of producers Julie Yorn and Erik Olsen, the latter of whom is wearing a vintage Crüe shirt on set, the picture stalled in development hell for nearly a decade. Before Yorn and Olsen came aboard, it was attached to a few other studios, including Paramount and MTV, but Sixx — who’s an executive producer on the film, along with the other three members — tells RS that it fell apart each time for political and financial reasons. “A certain CEO of a certain company said, ‘This movie will be made over my dead body if [the squirting] scene is in it,’” he offers as an example. “Even though it’s childish, immature, raunchy and raw, we felt it was an important way to start the movie. We wanted to set the bar really low.”
Once they teamed with Netflix, the project started moving. Tremaine decided to focus the story on Crüe’s first 15 years or so — the era fueled most by alcohol, drugs and girls, girls, girls, up through Neil’s departure from and return to the group. “That period, to me, was where the heart of the story was,” Tremaine says. “The budget really forced us to boil it down to what mattered.”
“We had the final veto on the script, and we OK’d everything because we thought it was telling our story,” Sixx says. “We felt it needed to be truthful.”
“They all said, ‘No matter how crazy you get in the movie, it’s never going to be as crazy as it really was,’” Yorn says, sitting in the theater’s seats. “It can’t even get that crazy.”
Casting the film was a major hurdle, Yorn says, but eventually they found four actors who could play the roles. Playing the instruments was another matter, so the producers put the quartet through a month or so of “band camp.”
Baker, who’s best known for his rapping but has acted in the Netflix hit Bird Box and Showtime’s Roadies, got a little extra coaching from his little brother, a Lee fanatic, who taught him the perfect stick twirl. Baker himself is a Mötley Crüe super fan, and he cites The Dirt as one of his Bibles growing up. Sitting in the theater’s balcony while plucking at an acoustic guitar, he says he so badly wanted to be in the picture he told the producers he’d settle for a bit part — maybe David Lee Roth’s show-stopping cameo, or “the Hollywood dealer that gives Nikki the heroin that kills him.” While he originally tried out for Sixx’s part, the casting director told him he had more of a Tommy Lee vibe, and he took the role.
The situation was reversed for Booth, a genteel Brit who played Percy Shelley in the recent Mary Shelley biopic and had a role in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: He originally wanted to play Tommy Lee, but the producers pushed him to Nikki Sixx instead. “As soon as I started getting into Nikki’s story, he seemed like he was the one that was filled with so much stuff to explore,” Booth says in an empty VIP lounge between takes. “When you read The Dirt and you meet Nikki Sixx, it’s kind of like, whoa. But he’s such a sweet, lovely guy. Especially compared to the guy who once said, ‘I punch first and ask questions later.’” Other than mastering the physicality of playing bass in giant boots (“I was like, ‘I’m gonna puke,’ my eyes were rolling in the back of my head”), the biggest challenge was dieting enough to get down to Sixx’s heroin weight at the time.
The role of the band’s guitarist, Mick Mars, went to Welsh actor Iwan Rheon, best known for playing the sinister Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones. The real-life Mars is a bit of a cipher, the group’s Yoda, Rheon says. When his bandmates were going berserk, he hung back, possibly because he was suffering from a spinal condition called ankylosing spondylitis. “Mick describes it perfectly,” Rheon says in the VIP room. “It feels like your whole spine is turning into slow-drying concrete, slowly pulling you down. And I thought, for an actor, that’s such a great way of describing it.” He already played guitar, so most of his practice before band camp was walking around his apartment like Mars.
For the group’s blond frontman, Vince Neil, the production drafted an Australian former acrobat, Daniel Webber. He, too, originally wanted to play Sixx, but was steered toward Neil, and he found the singer to be an especially meaty role, even if his own natural singing range isn’t a high tenor. “The journey that he goes on has a very dynamic arc,” Webber says. “There’s a bit of tragedy toward the end of the film and the book. It’s a very attractive role to play.”
Through the producers’ rock camp and their time together in New Orleans, partying at the Saint bar after shooting, the four actors developed their own rapport. When the real Sixx and Lee visited the set, the actors serenaded them with a mini concert of “Take Me to the Top,” “Shout at the Devil” and “Live Wire.”
“They were about two inches from our face,” Sixx says. “Me and Tommy are just sitting in these two chairs, and Daniel was singing right in front of us, and Tommy and me looked at each other. We’re like, ‘He is Vince.’”
“We just sat there with our jaws on the floor going, ‘What is happening?’” Lee says. “I was like, ‘Fuck. I feel like I’m watching Mötley Crüe in 1981. What is happening?’ We were freaked out.”
“It kind of felt like we got permission in some ways to just go balls to the wall and jump right in,” Webber says.
Mötley Crüe have never shied away from telling their whole story. Their book, The Dirt, lives up to its subtitle, Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. From groupie conquests to domestic abuse to the death of Neil’s daughter Skylar of cancer at the age of 4, it can be a painful read. “The Mötley Crüe way was always to be completely transparent in our interviews and the lyrics,” Sixx says. “I think it’s part of our charm, if there is such a thing.”
Lee has a similar view. “We can’t change the past,” he says. “Watching the movie, it’s almost like you have a new appreciation for it, whether it was good or bad. You see things differently now… Everybody’s a little older and wiser now. It’s just a different animal.”
This, of course, is the group that named its box sets Music to Crash Your Car To: Vols. 1 and 2 in 2003.
Booth was initially apprehensive about meeting Sixx, partially because at the time he was in costume portraying the bassist’s worst period with drugs. But as soon as the real Sixx arrived on set, he asked where the fake drugs were. “He was asking, where’s the heroin paraphernalia?” Booth recalls. “Obviously he wanted to make sure it was right, but he seems in such a good place now that it didn’t really affect him. I asked him questions about what it was like, because I’ve never personally taken heroin myself.”
The actor says he struggled with snorting copious amounts of vitamin D, which the production used to simulate cocaine. “By the end of shooting, you’re just completely backed up in your sinuses,” he says. “I had a nasal bath with a neti pot.”
The film’s darker moments include Sixx’s near-fatal 1987 overdose (“I imagine watching himself die onscreen is probably not as bad as actually dying in real life,” Booth says), as well as the 1984 car wreck that left Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle dead. Neil’s blood alcohol level at the time was well above the legal limit, yet he was sentenced to only 30 days in jail and five years probation, along with $2.6 million in restitution. He served only 15 days. Tremaine says he did not reach out to Razzle’s family about the portrayal (he did, however, contact Locklear about hers), but he wanted people to get to know Razzle a bit so that the death meant something more than wanton destruction.
“It was probably one of the most scary stunts I’ve ever watched,” Webber says. “The guy’s doing a 180 slide, and another car is hitting him, and they’re both going at 50 miles an hour. If they hit at the wrong spot, he would have been seriously injured. We were all sitting behind the monitors, and he was praying at one point before the take. It was very eerie getting into the car after seeing that for both myself and the guy playing Razzle.”
There are also many lighter scenes of debauchery, such as a sequence that captures 24 hours in the life of Tommy Lee, which entails waking up handcuffed to a bed, kicking his A&R guy (played by Pete Davidson) in the balls, cheating on Locklear and vomiting on a stripper. For Baker, this was one of the most demanding aspects of the shoot (other than the times he had to wait hours for makeup to be applied to his body to cover up his many tattoos). For the sequence, he had to wear a camera attached to his waist and head. “In one scene, where [Crüe manager] Doc McGhee punches me into a bed, that was me being lifted off my feet and really throwing myself onto my back on the bed with a giant red camera attached to my hip,” he says. “I was taking real hotel lamps and breaking them over my head. I sliced my forehead open on one of the lights. I don’t know if that made it in. I threw up on a stripper the other day. She’s like, ‘Well, why don’t you just puke on me?’ Everyone was like, ‘Whoa, we never thought of that.’”
“That sequence was so fucking real, and it was cool to watch that back,” Lee says. “That’s not me now. But that shit was me, then, every damn day. It’s cool to watch that back. Really cool.”
One aspect of the story that Tremaine and the cast considered was how Mötley Crüe would come across in the #MeToo era. The band infamously treated women like cattle in the mid-Eighties, and this film certainly won’t pass the Bechdel test.
“I was a little self-conscious, like, fuck, am I signing myself up to just be guillotined?” Baker says. So he showed the script to one of his Bird Box costars, Rosa Salazar, whom he describes as “a confident, smart, intelligent woman of today.” Specifically, he wanted her to read that opening scene with Lee and a groupie. “She loved it,” he says. “She just thought it was so cool that everything was consensual and that there was a fun aspect on both parties’ parts during that era. At least what’s in the movie. I can’t speak for all the stuff off-script, or all the things that we don’t know.”
When the time came to film the scene, Baker had fun with it. “Whenever there’s prosthetic pubic hair, it lightens the whole mood,” he says. “No one’s taking anything too serious. It’s hard to not all crack up and die laughing when there’s a squirting device and a prosthetic pube.”
Tremaine maintains that he was not concerned about making The Dirt in today’s climate. “I can’t say that I worried,” he says. “We are telling a true story that happened. You can interpret it however. I don’t think we changed the tone of the movie to fit the times or anything like that.”
Other parts of Mötley Crüe’s legend are less easy to dismiss. The 2001 book contains a passage in which Sixx recalls taking “a thin, tan, huge-breasted girl” into a small, closet-size room and then bringing Lee into the fold, tricking her as to who was having sex with her. The next day, he wrote, she called him and said, “Nikki, I got raped last night.” When she told him she’d been assaulted by a man who picked her up while hitchhiking home from the party, Sixx continued, “I realized that I had probably gone too far… The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I pretty much had [raped her].”
Tremaine pauses when this incident is mentioned. “It gets dark,” he says. “The book has dark moments in it. I think a lot of these stories back then did. The rock & roll lifestyle was a crazy time back then.”
When I bring this section of the book up to Sixx, he demurs. “Yeah, well, yeah,” he says. “There was a little bit of embellishment here and there with Neil Strauss.”
Strauss declined to respond to this, saying that his contract prevents him from commenting. Later, though, Sixx sent Rolling Stone a statement to clarify his thoughts on that part of The Dirt.
“The book was written in 2000 during a really low point in my life,” Sixx writes. “I had lost my sobriety and was using drugs and alcohol to deal with a disintegrating relationship, which I still, to this day, regret how I handled. I honestly don’t recall a lot of the interviews with Neil.
“I went into rehab in 2001 and really wish I would’ve done my interviews after I was clean and sober like I am today,” he continues. “I don’t actually recall that story in the book beyond reading it. I have no clue why it’s in there other than I was outta my head and it’s possibly greatly embellished or [I] made it up. Those words were irresponsible on my part. I am sorry.
“There is a lot of horrible behavior in the book. What I can tell you is that we all lived to regret a lot and learned from it. We own up to all our behavior that hurt ourselves, our families, friends and any innocents around us.”
When the time came for the actual members of Mötley Crüe to see The Dirt, they were somewhat apprehensive. “I don’t like a lot of rock movies, to be honest,” Sixx says. “I think they’re kind of cheesy, like that movie, Rock Star. I’m like, ‘What are you thinking?’ That isn’t even what it’s like. Not even close.” But he’s happy with The Dirt. “It captures the time pretty good,” he says. “If you notice, the cars are all from the Seventies, and people still look like they did in the late Seventies when Mötley Crüe was forming. It didn’t feel like 1981 was being represented by 1989 cars and clothing.”
“I think everything was really spot on, which is frightening,” Lee says. “I still can’t believe it came out that well. I kept going, ‘As a fan, would you freak out if you saw this?’ And it’s like, ‘Yes.’”
In some ways, the movie marks an ending to their story: The band signed a contract promising never to tour again after their 2014 farewell shows, though they reunited to record new songs for The Dirt‘s soundtrack.
“I think that they captured it really truthfully,” Sixx adds. “Of my friends or my wives that have seen it, a lot of people cry at different parts of the movie. A lot of laughter, a lot of crying, a lot of shock. Honestly, I hate to say this, but I think they got every fucking thing perfect.”
Baker mentions learning life lessons from Crüe’s story — “like, don’t inject Jack Daniel’s into your veins directly through a needle.” He says he’s getting a Mötley Crüe tattoo now that the film has wrapped.
“The fact that they are all alive right now, is unbelievable to me,” Tremaine says. “God bless them, man.”
That’s a sentiment that Lee can relate to. “I don’t know if I know four other guys that have been through what we’ve been through — ups, downs, playing fucking stadiums, flying around in planes all the time, that didn’t crash buses,” he says. “Fuck, we went around the world a shitload of times and somehow we made it through.”
Sixx, as always, puts things his own way. “Let’s face it, bands are pretty fucking boring in 2019,” he says. “So maybe this could be a little inspiration for somebody.”