Jonah Hill is an interesting interview subject for a few reasons. He has a bit of a reputation for not being the easiest person to interview, but he also seems to know that and also seems to be going to great lengths to change that perception. He greeted me in the common area at A24’s Manhattan offices with a very polite, “Hello, I’m Jonah,” before he and I ducked into a small conference room – joined by a woman who is never introduced and would take notes on literally everything I said. (Which, admittedly, made me uncomfortable. Maybe that was the point?) But even with Hill’s pleasant demeanor, he still keeps you at arm’s length, never entirely putting it all out there. What’s interesting about all this is it’s in such sharp contrast with his directorial debut, Mid90s, which is both raw and unfiltered.
Mid90s (which just had its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival and opens this Friday) has drawn comparisons to films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Harmony Korine’s screenwriting debut, Kids (even though Hill says he hasn’t seen any comparisons). Mid90s is low on plot and heavy on characters. Set in the decade in its title, Young Stevie (Sunny Suljic) wants to fit in with an older group of skater kids (which include Ray, Fourth Grade, and Fuckshit) and spends all of his free time trying to impress his new friends. There’s conflict (Stevie’s mom doesn’t like his new friends; another kid in the group thinks Stevie is replacing him) but most of the movie is just kids hanging out in the mid-1990s. Again, it’s raw and it’s unfiltered and it’s a look inside of its creator, Jonah Hill, that he’s not about to give us any other way.
How are you?
I’ve interviewed you twice before. I’ll admit, you can make me anxious…
Oh, well, let’s start fresh.
I always just assume it’s my fault.
Life is hard and constantly changing, and why don’t we start fresh.
Compared to 1980s’ nostalgia movies, there seems to be a dearth of ’90s movies. Even ’80s movies like The Wedding Singer were already happening in the ’90s.
I think we’re just getting to a 20-year perspective mark. If you look at American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused, they are people reflecting on the period they grew up in, twenty years later. And I think we’re just starting to hit that period and that was the era that I grew up in. So it was a natural setting for my first film.
What parts do most people tell you are the most accurate? As in, “Oh yeah, that happened to me.”
It could be anything. I think mostly the film is really about a time when it’s you and your friends versus the world. And it is really about that part of adolescence where your friends are more important than your family. And that sense of community and rising your way up through the animal kingdom and that kind of thing.
“Animal kingdom” is an interesting way to put it.
That was kind of the thought behind it, just because there’s this young cub and there’s the alpha and there’s all these people – and he’s trying to figure out his route through all of this emotionally, and how to gain momentum through the group.
A scene that stuck out for me is when Stevie does his first ollie. I remember trying to do one over and over in our driveway.
People who seem to relate to it have no idea about skateboarding. It’s just about something he’s been trying over and over again. You’re trying to reach a goal. And it’s repetition and it’s failure and even the smallest light at the end of the tunnel gives you so much joy because you earned it.
The other one is everyone else making fun of him for his shitty skateboard. During my very brief skateboarding phase, I had a Nash, which was very uncool.
Yeah, there’s a broad idea of certain subcultures, and then you get the one from Walmart or Target and you start to discover the nuances and how important the little minutia of a culture is. You realize I have the broad, neon one as opposed to the one my friends will respect.
Do you like the Richard Linklater comparisons you’re getting with this movie?
I don’t see any comparisons. I mean, I haven’t heard them. Sorry.
There have been comparisons to movies like Slackers. Basically, here’s a movie low on plot and more about characters. It’s interesting because you’ve never worked with him.
Yeah, I’m just happy that people care about these characters. They care about my characters I write. That’s amazing! But yeah, I love Richard Linklater movies…
Right, it’s not like that’s a terrible comparison.
To me, I just made a film. You know, when I look at all the filmmakers I love – my heroes like Mike Nichols, and people who started out in comedy and became great filmmakers – you look at people’s first films, and you only get one chance at a first film.