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Jeff Tremaine and Machine Gun Kelly Talk Mötley Crüe Biopic 'The Dirt'

"At first Nikki Sixx didn’t like the idea of the Jackass guy directing his story," Tremaine tells Noisey of his first foray into scripted features.

by Justin Staple
Mar 25 2019, 6:42pm

Photos by Justin Staple

Director and Jackass co-creator Jeff Tremaine has been trying to turn the Mötley Crüe autobiography The Dirt into a film since 2011 when he made it past a series of intense job interviews with the band, who selected him to direct their memoir’s big screen adaption. The project was personal for Tremaine, who first read the book on the set of Jackass and immediately connected with the trappings of fame, fortune, alcohol, and drugs, having experienced it all with his Jackass collaborators. The Dirt was a story of triumph for Tremaine, who would pass it around to his friends and eventually convince MTV Films that this should be his first venture into scripted feature films.

The rights to the memoir were shopped around to various studios until Netflix agreed in 2017 to finance and distribute Tremaine’s adaptation of The Dirt. The film stars, among others, Colson Baker, better known as Ohio rapper Machine Gun Kelly. In the movie, Baker seamlessly transforms himself into notorious bad boy Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and brings a nuanced and sympathetic performance to an extremely personal and dark film.

On the day of the film’s premiere in Los Angeles, I sat down with Tremaine and Baker at the Andaz West Hollywood (formerly the Continental Hyatt) on Sunset Boulevard, the former stomping ground of bands like Mötley Crüe who would play rambunctious concerts at the Whisky a Go Go just down the street. Around the time Robert Plant declared himself “A Golden God” from the hotel’s balcony in 1975, the place took on the nickname “The Riot House,” and seemed a fitting setting to discuss deep personal connections to The Dirt as a memoir, as well as the passion that two unlikely collaborators share for bringing the true story of Mötley Crüe to life.

Justin Staple: When did you first come across The Dirt?
Jeff Tremaine: It was 2002 when I first read the book, right when we were making the first Jackass movie for MTV Films and Paramount. When I wanted Steve-O to destroy something, I would put on Mötley Crüe’s “Live Wire” or “Shout at the Devil” and it would get him going right away. He was and still is a superfan. But I immediately connected to the story of the band, because it was so similar to what were going through with Jackass. The partying, the drugs, the strained friendships. Plus I was a product of the 1980’s and wanted to show that era for what it really was. I felt like I could tell this story right, and after eight years trying to make it, it doesn’t even feel real.

Colson Baker (Machine Gun Kelly): I first read The Dirt when I was 13 in Cleveland, Ohio. I became a huge fan of the fast lane lifestyle that they talked about. Being a midwest kid sitting in the middle of Ohio, I wished that I could have some of that life that I read about. Then I read Tommyland right after and I got lost in the fantasy of that rock and roll lifestyle in a very inspired way. When I heard that The Dirt was being made into a movie I chased that role for about three years.

How did you convince the band you were right people for the job?
JT: At first Nikki Sixx didn’t like the idea of the Jackass guy directing his story, he didn’t see the similarities at first. But eventually he saw it, and he saw in me the underdog that he had once saw in himself when he was first coming up, and I think we just connected off of that. Tommy Lee fucking grilled me when we met. He sat me down and was like, “this is not a fucking comedy dude!” I really had to work for it with Tommy, and then I got in my car and got this text from him like, “dude this is going to be fucking awesome!”

CB: I auditioned for Nikki Sixx twice, and then they asked me to come back and addition as Tommy Lee. They saw me more as a Tommy and I auditioned six times for the role. On the way to my sixth audition for the role, I got rear-ended. But instead of stopping and getting the guy’s information, I just told him not to worry about it so I could get to the audition on time. I rushed over and got to the audition on time and first met Douglas Booth who plays Nikki Sixx. Right away, he thought I’d be a good fit for Tommy.

The night I got hired Tremaine and I started preparing for the film at the Rainbow Room, and then snuck our way into a Billy Idol concert next door. I watched Tremaine get kicked in the nuts by a mutual friend, and it gave me a sense of how this ride was going to go.

JT: Colson was perfect to play Tommy Lee. On the top of his right wrist it says mayhem, like Tommy Lee has tattooed across his chest. At the top of his left wrist he has the Jackass logo, it’s perfect.

CB: People who know me know there’s a darker side to my personality. And Tommy Lee always had this endearing glow about him, especially throughout the past eras of Mötley Crüe, and that was hard for me to lock onto. But I was lucky to be playing someone that was easily accessible. I could go to his house and throw the script on his desk and be like, “Hey man, how did this go down? How did you say this?” And he was always really open about talking to me about it.

Tommy leaned more towards encouraging me more than giving me specific advice for the role. He would tell me, “that’s exactly what that moment looked like, you look just like I did”.

JT: By 2015, Mötley Crüe did their last show in Los Angeles and were thinking the band was done. But when we starting production in 2018, Nikki and Tommy came to the film set, and they hadn’t seen each other since the Staples Center show 3 years prior. They looked at all the stuff and art direction on set and started to reminisce and get close again. It got the creative juices going for them again and they ended up back in the studio recording new music.

What did the band say to you when they finally saw the film?
JT: I didn’t feel the pressure of making the film until I finally screened it for them at Tommy Lee’s house. I was super nervous because they had left me alone during the whole production and editing. But I screened Tommy and Nikki the film first, and at first Tommy was like, “Hell yeah!” and started high-fiving Nikki in the theater. But then the fun starts to turn dark, and by the end Nikki has a huge tear running down his face and they were both just sitting and watching the film silently. When it was over, Nikki came up and hugged me, so I was relieved that he liked it. Same thing for Vince Neil when he finally saw it. He saw his all the ups and downs of his life come to the screen and it was real heavy.

The attention to detail in the set designs and historical accuracy in the depictions of the band really help elevate the film, and will surely have audiences rushing back to dig up old photos to see if they look the same as the film.
JT: These were well photographed guys and we had a ton imagery of all the instruments and studios they used. We had all the references pulled and made a catalogue of each era in Mötley Crüe history to make it as accurate as possible. We really wanted to capture the essence of each era, it was like a history lesson in Mötley Crüe.

CB: Every day was at least a mandatory four hours of make-up for me to transform into Tommy Lee. And that’s just if we were doing scenes with just my torso. But if we were doing my legs, like in the scene where we’re outside by the pool with Ozzy Osbourne, then they would have to shave my legs, then paint over my legs, and then apply Tommy’s tattoos on top. That process would take at least seven hours.

Did you see any aspects of the Mötley Crüe story in your own career as Machine Gun Kelly?
CB: Mötley Crüe showed me that if you build it they will come. They started out doing arena productions inside the Whisky a Go Go for 400 people. They spent their time and energy doing pyrotechnics and had mannequins with their heads cut off as if they were performing for 10,000 people, when really it was just a small club. But eventually it was this performances that broke them through to the next level in the career. And I’ve always been like that, an artist that is constantly fighting to gain higher levels in his career by breaking down walls that people would not expect of me.

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