- “Mid90s” is Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, and he talked to Business Insider about why skateboarding was something that was always going to be in the movie.
- He said he previously put off directing because he thought he had to first become mature enough to be a leader on set.
- Hill also explained how he used his acting talent to get performances out of his cast of mostly child actors and nonactors.
The culture surrounding skateboarding has often been negatively depicted in movies, with the movie that perhaps best exemplified that in the past few decades being Larry Clark’s 1995 gritty X-rated indie, “Kids.”
It’s the quintessential “don’t give an F” Gen Xer coming-of-age movie, complete with someone getting bashed in the head with a skateboard. And for a generation since, the depiction of skateboarders in movies hasn’t really changed. They are usually a group of people bent on creating as much chaos as possible and are often a nuisance to everyone in the story.
But Jonah Hill wants to change that.
For Hill, skate culture is a nurturing one in which people look out for one another and aren’t out to cause trouble. He wanted to show that. Though he loves “Kids,” Hill wanted to make the anti-“Kids” movie, something seeped in the 1990s (Hill was about the same age as the characters depicted in “Kids” in 1995) but looking at skateboarders in a very different way. And with that, he was ready to make his directorial debut.
“Mid90s” (opening in theatres on Friday) marks the latest chapter in the evolution of Hill. He’s gone from one of Judd Apatow’s funny discoveries to a serious actor who has earned Oscar nominations working opposite Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) to an unlikely spirit guide for millennials who study everything he posts on his Instagram account. But through all of that, he says being a filmmaker has been his main goal, and after four years of crafting “Mid90s” – which included his toiling over 20 drafts of the script – it has finally come true.
In the film, Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a 13-year-old living in Los Angeles who has no friends and gets bullied by his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), while their mother (Katherine Waterston) works constantly to make ends meet. With a lot of free time, Stevie roams around his neighbourhood looking for anything to do or, more important, anyone to do things with. That’s when he comes across a group of teens at a skate shop. Seeing the fun group dynamic, the cool skate moves, and joy on all their faces, Stevie is instantly hooked. He decides to walk into the shop. And that’s when his life changes.
From the movie’s narrow 4:3 format meant to make you feel as if you have been sucked into a skate video, to its comedy, authentic performances by its untrained actors, and incredible soundtrack (that includes memorable needle drops from Morrissey, Wu-Tang Clan, Nirvana, A Tribe Called Quest, and even Herbie Hancock), Hill has not just succeeded on his mission to make the anti-“Kids,” but he has once more shown that his talents go far beyond the public’s perception of him.
Business Insider sat down with Hill on a quiet Sunday at the New York City offices of the film’s distributor, A24, to talk about the maturity he says he had to gain before he could finally go forward with directing, the reason he didn’t cast himself in the movie, the impassioned letters he wrote to legendary artists to get their songs in the movie, and the emotional moment he had with his cast the first night the movie was shown to the public.
Jason Guerrasio: Do you remember the moment in your acting career when you were on set and began to really focus on what a director does?
Jonah Hill: From the beginning.
Guerrasio: So “I Heart Huckabees”?
Hill: Yeah. David O. Russell was the first filmmaker I worked for. I was 18, and it’s really funny because he has since, definitely, done a lot of work on himself and apologised to a lot of people. But it was pretty publicly known that was an interesting set. And I was like, “This is what directing is like?” [laughs] “Holy s—!” You’re 18 years old and you think that’s what the world is like. But I still learned quite a bit from how brilliant David is. To me, it was all film school. And I love acting. But to me, my goal was always to be a filmmaker. And being a cinephile and studying all my favourite filmmakers, like Mike Nichols and Barry Levinson, is that when they made their first films they had these accomplished careers already. So when they made that first one it really had to mean something. They had done all this incredible work that wasn’t personal beforehand, and, to me, that was my example. Don’t do it until you have something to say.
Guerrasio: Though you have been on set since you were 18, did you still feel like you needed some practice as a director? You did two music videos before “Mid90s,” but would you even make short films, just to do the filmmaking motions before a feature?
Hill: No, because I have been in 10,000 scenes. Blocking and acting wasn’t even going to be the issue of directing, for me. Getting all your crew and your actors to share your vision – leadership was more the thing I had to mature into than skill. I was always the young person on set, and now it’s time to be the adult, so it was more, am I mature enough to lead a group of people? If I’m asking them to believe in me, do I know I’m going to come through for them?
Hill: Yeah. That was practicing with my crew. The Danny Brown video we shot before the movie. And Gus [Van Sant’s] movie [“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”] was just before, so randomly a lot of that crew I had already hired for “Mid90s.”
Guerrasio: Did that form a shorthand with the crew going into “Mid90s”?
Hill: The machine was already pretty oiled up, so it really helped us. But at the same time, I handpicked this crew. They had some connection to this culture and they were also the artists that I admired over my 15-year career and have a deep respect for.
Guerrasio: Why skateboarding? What did you feel you could do cinematically with that?
Hill: Skateboarding had always been butchered in films. It’s always done disrespectfully. So I took on a pretty major task, which I knew would be ready to be pounced on by skateboarders, but I knew I could show it respectfully and not from a place of authority but from a place of love and respect. Something that came into my life and gave me a lot when I needed it. Skateboarding is such a specific thing. The punk, anti-ethic. What draws in people who want to fall over and over again? It’s a community of individuals that find each other. I knew in some form skateboarding would be a part of my first film because it gave me a whole outlook on things.
Guerrasio: That’s what’s fascinating, in the buildup to seeing this movie, like the first teaser, you get the vibe of it being another “Kids.” That Larry Clark/Harmony Korine darker side of the culture. But when you see the movie it’s clear you went a completely different path. You show the positivity of what the culture can bring to an outsider.
Hill: The movie was made with such consideration of “Kids.” I love “Kids.” Harmony [the “Kids” screenwriter] is one of my close friends, and he read the script and gave notes, and he loves the film. He wants to play both on a double bill. To me, I knew people were going to think it’s just a rip-off of “Kids,” but I didn’t care because I had this story to tell in this time period. And I knew if I did it right, then it won’t matter once it comes out. But it’s the anti-“Kids.” “Kids” is so beautiful in its nihilism. That’s the point of “Kids” – the world ends tomorrow, f— it, blow up everything. And I wasn’t like that. I was searching for meaning and connection and a reason to build a life and friendships. This is not a biopic in any way, these are characters I made up, but I wanted to show how hard it is to find a connection. I think my voice as a filmmaker is going to be about the beauty of connection and the difficulty of getting there. Even a little bit gives you the fuel to keep going in a world that’s not always so fun.
Guerrasio: And you’ve also given props to “This Is England,” which I feel is such an underappreciated coming-of-age movie.
Hill: “This Is England” and “Fish Tank” are bigger influences than “Kids” was, for me. “This Is England” was the only film I showed the kids in the movie before we started shooting. [“This Is England” director] Shane Meadows made such a beautiful film and also showing how young kids can give such raw performances. I wanted the kids to see that acting can be like this. That’s the acting I like. That’s the naturalism that I like. So I didn’t show them a lot of movies. The whole thing was to make a reverse skate video. In skate videos growing up it would be all skateboarding and three seconds of these kids causing chaos and really connecting and just hanging out. When I was a kid that’s what I wanted. So this is the reverse. Kids connecting and three seconds of skateboarding. To invert that was really my goal.
Guerrasio: Was the plan always to cast nonactors?
Hill: Yes. To me I knew I was going to turn skateboarders into actors because you can’t fake that and I wanted these kids to feel on-screen like they weren’t actors. But then they became actors, and that’s the most surprising and moving part of the process.
Guerrasio: So that was your master plan going in?
Hill: Yeah. I always knew I was going to find kids and turn them into actors.
Guerrasio: You didn’t worry about finding them?
Hill: Oh, I worried about it. [laughs] I worried about finding the right ones. The most rewarding experience of my life is watching them care and try. They are not playing themselves. They are saying lines that they didn’t think of. They are playing characters that are not them. They could have just gone through the motions and I could have gotten the performances out of them that way, but instead they were so inspired to become actors. Now they are obsessed with film. They want to act.
Guerrasio: The movie has such a free-form feel, but there was a fleshed-out script?
Hill: Oh yeah. Three years and 20 drafts with [producer] Scott Rudin. Writing is my main thing so that dialogue, that’s how they spoke back then, it took me three years to make a script that felt right. My goal to the crew was kill yourself to make it look like you did nothing. Anything that looked effortless took the most effort, so that right there is three years and 20 drafts. [laughs]
Guerrasio: With Scott Rudin looking over your shoulder.
Hill: No joke.
Guerrasio: When a famous person makes a movie often times what happens is they put themselves in it because that’s the only way they can get the money to make it. You are not in “Mid90s,” but did you ever face that scenario?
Hill: Never. No. I don’t want you to think of me. The way I see it, the director is the painter and the actors are really an important colour in a painting. So I have been a “green” my whole life. I can be a pretty good green, but if the director wants to paint purple over it, then that’s up to them. To me, this is my first painting. This is the first thing that represents me. I have only been a colour in other people’s paintings. So I don’t want you to think of me. I want you to watch these kids and watch this film and view this as a film. I didn’t want anyone to take you out of it. I was even hesitant to cast Lucas and Katherine because I didn’t want you to think this is a movie made by someone you’ve seen in movies. I want you to think this is a story I’m watching and these are kids that I’m watching.
Guerrasio: So there was never a point where if you just were in two scenes you could get the money that, say, got you an extra day of shooting you needed?
Hill: It was off the table.
Guerrasio: That’s commendable, because there are a lot of examples where the person in your situation had no other choice but be in the movie.
Hill: But this movie falls apart the second you break the idea of what it is. If you break one rule, you try to cheat one way, the whole house falls down. I could have made a lot of other things as my first film, but I was like, I’m doing this and I am never going to make a false move that breaks the ethic of this movie.
Guerrasio: Shooting it in the narrow 4:3 format, that’s very nontraditional. When did you come up with that, and how hard did you have to fight to keep the movie in that format?
Hill: I had to fight very hard. First, it helps the feel of it being this lost film from the ’90s. But the main reason was originally we were planning to intercut the High 8 footage within the film but when you cut from the normal aspect ratio to the High 8 it was really jarring and it took you out of it. So we knew we were shooting Super 16 mm, and when we tested it in 4:3 and intercut with the High 8, it cut like butter and didn’t take you out of the movie.
Getting it approved is a whole other story and could be its own documentary. [laughs] There is only one film that has made over $US100 million that uses it, and doesn’t even use it the whole time, and that’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” So I gave a whole presentation to A24 with clips from only one movie. I would talk for a while and then show a clip and it’s from “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I didn’t have another film to show them. So I would be like, “And then I have this other idea,” and it would be another clip from “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” But we got it done.
Guerrasio: The soundtrack is another aspect of the movie that sucks you in. Did you personally have to make some calls and write some letters to artists to get songs you wanted?
Hill: We didn’t have a big music budget. I music supervised the movie, so every song in the movie, that song was written in specifically for that scene. And we got every song.
Hill: I wrote Morrissey a letter, I wrote Herbie Hancock a letter. And I just showed people the film and really told them emotionally what it means to have that song at that moment in the movie. Morrissey was the first to say yes – I figured he would be the hardest, and he was lovely. Once I got Morrissey and Q-Tip, then I got Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to score it, people were aware that it was something of quality because I was lucky enough to get those cosigns. Then we went from there.
Guerrasio: You got Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” in the movie. Filmmakers have told me in the past that’s a hard one to get cleared.
Hill: Actually, the hardest, by far, was Herbie Hancock. He doesn’t licence his music for films, and I wrote him a letter about what that meant to me. He was so cool to give us that.
Guerrasio: I have to say that I loved you in “Maniac”; I think it’s the best work you’ve ever done. And I asked Cary Fukunaga how your process is and he described it as this: “He’s not necessary Method, but it’s close to it in really trying to feel what the character is going through.” How can you relate the talent you have and how you know a performance should be done to another actor? Let alone, in the instance of “Mid90s,” kids who aren’t really trained?
Hill: You have to develop a true trust and connection with kids if you are going to work with them. Because you’re asking them to be vulnerable and you’re asking them to do things that people don’t want to do, let alone someone who is going through an awkward time in their life. So for me, I was like, “I will not let you down.” I would just have long conversations with each kid about what’s happening underneath and what they’re carrying with them no matter what they are saying. That’s hours and hours and hours of conversations about feelings, about life experiences, about goals. Just talking about who these people are eventually absorbs into you. That’s how I act. That is just hours and hours and hours of thinking and talking. Yes, it’s not exactly Method, but it’s something close to it. I have to be feeling those feelings and that’s why acting gets harder and harder sometimes because if it’s darker it’s not exactly a place you want to live in for a long period of time.
Guerrasio: How has directing changed you as an actor?
Hill: I don’t think it has. I just think they are so different. But hopefully they can blend in where all I want to do are things that mean something to me. “Mid90s” means something to me, it matters to me, and I hope I just keep doing things that matter to me and that I care about.
Guerrasio: Have you even thought about what you want to direct next? Perhaps something with a higher budget?
Hill: I would never think that way. I would never think, “I want to do this kind of film.” You have to fall in love again. So when I fall in love again I’ll do what’s right for that film. If it’s a $US1 million movie or whatever.
Guerrasio: I was at the world premiere of “Mid90s” at the Toronto International Film Festival. There was a standing ovation for you when you came out onstage after it played. You got choked up standing there. What did that moment mean to you?
Hill: When I saw “Moneyball” for the first time it was at the TIFF world premiere, and I got really emotional after because I had never seen my hard work pay off in that way. So I gave the kids that kind of experience, and I didn’t show them the movie. That was the first time all the kids saw the film. So what you guys didn’t see was backstage the kids were all hysterical crying. Once I saw them backstage I was a mess, so I was trying to hold it together to go out onstage. I realised what they saw, as young people, is if you work hard, here’s what you can accomplish. It tore me up. So I walked out there, and of course getting a standing ovation as a filmmaker is pretty much the biggest dream I could ever have. I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker my whole life. But why I got choked up was I was carrying the emotion of those kids. It was the most surreal emotional feeling of my life.
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