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.
Have you been offered the chance to direct before?
Yes, but as I was saying, you only get one chance to do your first film. And when I look at people who are my heroes like Mike Nichols or Barry Levinson, you look at their first films, and they come from very personal place. Something that actually means something. I really was just waiting until I had a story that actually really meant something for me to make my first film, which is Mid90s.
So you did have the opportunity to direct other things?
As I said, I really looked at people who are my heroes. And when I look at their first films, they clearly were personal and mattered to them.
So I was waiting to figure out what my voice was and the story that I really wanted to tell.
You’ve worked with some of the best directors. I know it’s easy to say someone like Scorsese, but who did you think influenced you the most when you actually got to the set? Did that happen?
No. The benefit of an acting career is to learn from so many different, great teachers. There was so much technical and emotional things I picked up through different people along the way, but ultimately you have to make your own film. Ultimately you have to come from your heart, and be ready to tell your own story.
There wasn’t a moment where a director you worked with used one particular trick and you thought, “You know, I’m going to try that”?
No, but I definitely could call people. If you’re having this issue, getting this emotion out of an actor. “What was a good tactic that you would use?” Something like that. More pragmatic, like getting something specific out of somebody.
Was there a specific time when you did call someone? Maybe someone like Bennett Miller and go, “I just can’t get exactly what I want here. What did you do with this person or me or whatever?”
Yeah, I would call Bennett Miller. I would call Spike Jonez. I would, on the weekends usually, let them know where I was at. That’s more how I would utilize my people I seek advice from. In that way of more like, “Hey, I’m feeling this way about this week’s shooting.” And they’d be like, “Oh that’s normal. That’s natural to feel that way. On this movie I felt this way this weekend.” That kind of stuff really helps.
So would this be doubts about a scene or something like that?
It’s not as much doubt as just new feelings. You know? That’s what it is. New feelings and some of the best advice I got was to enjoy the newness of everything. Even if something’s hard or challenging, it’s new. That’s something to revel in.
Did you fully love directing? I’ve never heard someone say, “You know, it just wasn’t for me.”
Well, writing and directing have always been my dream. And I love and stand by Mid90s. And my whole reward will be to get to make another one.
I just assume you’ll get to. Is that up in the air?
Who knows? Life’s crazy!
But you’re Jonah Hill. Make one phone call, “I’m directing another movie.”
I think nothing is handed to anyone in life. You gotta work for what you want. It’s a privilege to get to write and direct a film and I would be honored to get that privilege again.
Where did the name Fuckshit come from?
I just thought of it one day.
Now you get to watch everyone write “Fuckshit” in their reviews.
Yeah, this whole movie is so filled with wonderful things that were private things that I love and cherish that I get to hear people talk about or enjoy.
I’m out of time.
We got to start over!
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.