EXCLUSIVE: After knocking Gravity back to earth and capturing the top box office spot last weekend with Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, director Jeff Tremaine will next helm Dirt, a feature film that tells the decadent coming-of-age story of 1980s rock band Motley Crue. The film is based on the band’s bestselling autobiography The Dirt: Confessions Of The World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. The members of the band — Vince Neil, Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee and Mick Mars — wrote the book with Neil Strauss. The logline? Big hair, big sound, big money, big brawls, scandals and debauchery, and the inevitable big problems caused by drugs, drink, and living and breathing the rock-and-roll lifestyle as the quartet rose from playing local clubs on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip to touring the world as global rock stars.
The film will be produced by LBI Entertainment’s Rick Yorn and Julie Yorn, along with 10th Street Entertainment and Erik Olsen. Amanda Adelson is co-producing. Californication scribe Tom Kapinos is polishing the script, and the film is being set up independently by CAA to shoot early next year, with the agency repping domestic distribution rights.
I guess it is not surprising that Tremaine would feel a kinship to Motley Crue. He has spent most of his career as the behind-the-scenes ringleader of the Jackass crew. The guys who’ve sacrificed their bodies and dignity for raucous comedy on the MTV series, and in three films that have been cheap to produce, and have been massively profitable both at the domestic box office and on video. Like Motley Crue, the Jackass success just kind of happened. Tremaine was running the skateboard magazine Big Brother back in the ’90s when Johnny Knoxville had the idea to write a first-person story of how it felt to get tasered, and, among other things, to be shot with a small caliber handgun while wearing a bulletproof vest. Tremaine wouldn’t attend what could have been Knoxville’s snuff reel, but he gave the future star a camera to preserve the experience. Back at Variety, I got hold of that tape when it was circulating around Hollywood. I was the first to write about Knoxville and this meld of extreme sports and humor. Much like South Park took root from the circulation of the bootleg tape The Spirit Of Christmas (which Trey Parker and Matt Stone did as a video holiday card), Knoxville’s crude reel became the basis for the Jackass TV series. Tremaine learned how to direct through that show.
“That bulletproof vest Johnny used was the best one he could afford, which was the cheapest one on the market,” Tremaine recalled. “I was a little nervous about being there so I just gave them a camera and said, you should film this. They were really just going to write about it for the magazine. But goddam, when he came back with that footage, I couldn’t believe it. You saw how compelling it was.”
Even though he has directed nothing but hits, Tremaine hasn’t gotten many accolades for his directing resume. Still, he took a major creative leap forward with Bad Grandpa, a film that grossed around twice its budget with a $32 million opening weekend. Tremaine wrote Bad Grandpa with longtime Jackass cohorts Spike Jonze and Knoxville. While Jackass consists of perpetrating outrageous physical stunts in front of unsuspecting people, Bad Grandpa is a closer cousin to what Sacha Baron Cohen did in Borat and Bruno. The stunts are laugh-out-loud funny — and so, so wrong — but they are employed to tell the narrative road trip bonding story of an 86-year-old morally bereft grandfather named Irving (Knoxville) and the 8-year-old grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) he is escorting to live with his loser father. Irving has second thoughts when the lad proves to an irresistibly funny traveling partner who’s a perfect match for gramps.
“This was definitely me getting my feet wet in longform storytelling,” Tremaine told me. “It was a challenge for us, trying to make a real narrative work in the real world.” That meant staging scenes and if they didn’t lend themselves to the story, discarding them and figuring out other ways to move the story along. One major casualty: director Jonze, under prosthetic makeup and a house dress, played a starring role in the film, only to see his storyline dropped completely.
“We had a more complicated story that didn’t really work, with Spike dressing up as a woman who was supposed to be the one that got away, with Bad Grandpa rekindling things with her, which becomes a complication in the growing relationship between Irving and Billy. Spike did some really funny stuff, but it muddied up the story. As we were cutting, we decided it was best to simplify and just make it about Irving and Billy — that plot was strong enough.”
How did Tremaine give that news to Jonze? Is there a sympathy code between filmmakers who have to make tough choices that leave actors with performances that will never be seen? C’mon, these are the Jackass guys, who sleep with one eye open when they are around one another, or else wake up bald or worse.
“Basically, I said, hey Spike, guess what? You’re on the cutting room floor. Eat shit,” Tremaine said. “I grew up with Spike, we’ve known each other since I was 13 years old, so it wasn’t that hard. I certainly did make fun of him.”
As Tremaine has been taking progressive steps as a filmmaker, chronicling a decadent traveling pack seemed the right place to make a real narrative that has its share of drama, and isn’t reliant on staged stunts.
“I’ve been careful to make this a natural progression,” Tremain said. “I’ve been offered a lot of scripts but Dirt is something I pursued with everything I had. I’ve wanted to make this going back to 2001, when we were just planning the first Jackass movie and I found out that David Gale at MTV Films had just optioned the book. First of all, I had no idea how to make Jackass into a movie, but I said to him, let me direct that movie, too. He said, yeah, of course! He was being sarcastic, because he had the same level of confidence in me as a director as I did at that time. Luckily for me, the movie never got made, and when this project became available, I put everything I had into chasing it and convincing everyone that I am the right guy for it. I really feel I am.”
When first published, Dirt was almost a how-to guide for misbehavior for Tremaine, Knoxville and the other Jackass guys when they started to get famous and were living as outrageously off-camera as onscreen.
“We were deep into doing Jackass on TV and about to start doing Jackass: The Movie and we were all passing the book around and going, holy shit,” Tremaine recalled. “We thought we were being crazy on the road. You read about these guys and it was like 10 times worse, though I think we’d done stuff that stands up to anybody else. I connected with that book on so many levels. From a band of brothers that gets ripped apart and then pulls back together, or being part of a group that is expected to behave badly, and what happens to you when that becomes your expectation. What happens when everybody encourages you and gives you money to be the worst behaved you can be? You can do no wrong, and the worse you do, the more you’re celebrated. It is a story that is somehow familiar to me.”
While the decadence probably makes those days a blur for Motley Crue, they worked for years to get the property back from Paramount, which had several drafts of a script Rich Wilkes wrote when David Fincher was aboard to direct. The band managed to keep hold of the rights to all of their songs and publishing. Clearly, somebody was sober. This will allow Tremaine full use of the band’s songs and lyrics. Whether they use the band’s recordings or find actors to replicate the Vince Neil vocals, that will depend on a casting process just getting underway.
“It’s the spirit we’ve got to get right,” Tremaine said. “It’s important to get actors who play, or who understand how to deliver the charisma it takes to be onstage. Rock stars have a swagger. Some of what they went through is funny, but overall this movie is not going to be a comedy. It’s pretty dark. I think fans of what I’ve done will like this movie, but it’s not going to make you fall out of your chair laughing.”
Tremaine, Strauss, and Kapinos are represented by CAA. Tremaine is also represented by attorney Warren Dern and Kapinos by attorney Patti Felker.