jonah hill discusses fragile masculinity and skate culture
We talk 'Mid90s' with the first time director.
Film stills from 'Mid90s'
Jonah Hill is on the line from Los Angeles. Today Vampire Weekend dropped their Jerry Seinfeld-starring video for Sunflowers, which Hill directed. “I texted Jerry, and said, ‘You’re a massive Vampire Weekend fan, right? Do you want to be in their new video or come for dinner?' Jerry turned around and said, ‘Be in the video. I would never go for dinner for you. Tell me where I need to show up.’”
Jonah Hill has no shortage of famous pals. He’s been working with the best in the business since he shot to fame as the sex-obsessed Seth, in Greg Mottola’s coming-of-age comedy Superbad. From gross-out Judd Apatow comedies, Jonah graduated to more dramatic roles, earning himself two Oscar nominations, first for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and then for Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. He has become a cult style hero in the process, popping up in Palace adverts, and there are swathes of articles and mysterious Insta accounts critiquing his much-debated and much-loved style. He even has his own annual celebration, Jonah Hill Day, in his adopted hometown of New York.
But Jonah has always had a hard time getting people to separate his on-screen personas from who he is IRL. Recently, Jimmy Kimmel opened an interview promoting Mid90s by saying, “You smell good, which is surprising”. Behind the tinted sunglasses it was easy to see Hill wasn’t impressed. Does he gets tired of being pigeon-holed by Hollywood? “If I see someone dunk a basketball in an amazing way, I assume that’s what they are good at and I want to see that person dunk a basketball,” Jonah says. “If that person turns around and says they want to play golf now, you’d be like, ‘Hey! why don’t you just dunk a basketball, I saw you just do that, and it was great!’ I understand it.” He’s being diplomatic, but you get the feeling that it doesn’t make it any easier. When Jonah’s long-time friend, director Spike Jonze, said to him “You have to make a really good movie to get to zero,” he listened. He knows he’s got 15 years of baggage from another career -- “you have to earn your stripes.”
That’s why he waited for the right time to make his directorial debut. Jonah has amassed over a decade’s worth of knowledge, learning from the likes of The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Cary Joji Fukunag, and the previously mentioned Scorsese -- not a bad list of mentors. But with Mid90s, Jonah has created a film that draws from his experiences growing up around the skate culture of Los Angeles. Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a young kid, trapped between his struggling single mum (Katherine Waterston) and an older asshole brother (Lucas Hedges), who finds an escape from his home life when he’s taken under the wing of a group of older skaters. It’s refreshingly candid, and while there have been comparisons to Harmony Korine’s Kids, it feels fresh, even among the wave of recent skate films such as Minding the Gap from Bing Liu, and Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen.
Hill knows skate culture has been used and abused by Hollywood over the years. “When things are always done so poorly, you have a window to do things correctly,” he says. “My job first and foremost was to make a film that I could show to a room full of skaters and they would feel respected.” Judging by the critical reaction from the skate community, he’s done his job. He even had Illegal Civilisation’s Mikey Alfred come on board as a co-producer, as well as asking Aaron Meza -- Spike Jonze’s videographer -- to help recreate the right graffiti of the time.
But it wasn’t just about authentically capturing the skate scene. “I wanted to look at the flawed masculinity I grew up with,” he says. “In my generation, and the generations before, a lot of bad male behaviours were a result of not being able to express pain or emotion.” In one scene, Stevie hooks up with a girl. It’s his first sexual experience, but the scene shows how this private moment is immediately sullied by the flawed masculinity of the era. “His first sexual experience is defined not by the girl he was with, but the currency it gave him with his friends afterwards,” Jonah says. “You see this kid terrified by the experience, but then immediately understand the respect it gave him among his older friends.”
Jonah wanted to show that these young men are unable to express their emotions in a healthy way, and instead manifest it in aggression. Mid90s is full of such emotionally rich moments, moments that bring back the worst memories of adolescence. It wasn’t exactly fun to plunder and pillage the memories of his youth when writing the screenplay. “It was painful to try and remember to be that young. To feel judged all the time.”
It might have been difficult, but Mid90s shows it was worth the pain. The film thrusts you uncomfortably back into adolescence, and Hill isn’t afraid to put you there. If his next movie is being judged on the success of Mid90s he doesn’t have much to worry about. It seems the Seth-in-Superbad image is fading quickly. We close by discussing what he remembers walking on set for the first time as a director. “I think when I pulled my car outside of Sunny’s house I was just like, ‘This is it, this is the moment I have wanted my whole life’.”