I left the screening unsure of how to feel. It was a lot to take in.
Men are not raised to be sensitive, vulnerable beings. Jonah Hill explores this concept through the antics of a particular crew of skaters 13-year-old Stevie becomes involved with. You witness the contributions, both small and large, made throughout that latch onto Stevie's innocent mind, brainwashing him into believing and perpetuating the toxic behaviors and ideals that men so often celebrate each other for. And you can't do anything but watch.
While Stevie is the main lens from which we view this world, every character has their own specific narrative. We see the layered complexities of racism, homophobia, toxic masculinity and other problematic normalities we still experience within the skate community, and society at large. But at the same time, we see how these boys support, and help each other, serving as safe havens from various levels of abuse at home; as coaches and teachers when it comes to skating, music, girls, life. Like the characters’ own personalities, life, and most often, the truth, can be messy and of course, hard. But that’s the beauty of growing up. And Mid90s captures all of it.
office got the chance to sit down with Hill, surrounded by his crew of teenage skaters, to talk about the film and overcoming people’s perceptions. Read our interview, below.
First of all, congratulations!
I’m 23, so I have this flashback memory of being on my porch at home watching Superbad with my friends when I was 13. It’s amazing to see a film so starkly different from where you come from.
Long journey, guys.
So, how did this process begin exactly?
I mean, I guess you could start there in some ways. That was a seed planted for me. That was a group of filmmakers—Seth Rogen and Greg Mottola—that made a movie that was their exact voice and different from what they had seen, what had been missing. So, it was sort of a seed planted in my mind that you can make something that’s truly in your own voice. What’s interesting is that people do expect certain things from you, but as an actor, you’re a color in someone else’s painting. I’ve been a good green for a long time, and I love being green—it’s awesome—but if someone wants to paint purple over it, they’re going to do that. I spent my 20s kind of doing things that people thought I should do as opposed to who I genuinely was. I’m my own person, I have my own voice, and what do I want to say? What kind of filmmaker do I want to be? And when I look at my heroes, like Mike Nichols, or people who started in comedy and went on to be amazing filmmakers—you only get one shot at your first film, you only get one swing at it, and from the people I love and admire, it came from a very personal place. So, I waited until I really had something to say and knew what kind of filmmaker I wanted to be, and that’s why I chose Mid90s.
Have you always been interested in skateboarding?
Yeah, I grew up skateboarding in LA in the mid-90s.
I spent every day at the courthouse for four years—that’s a place featured in the film—and I never got great. Like, even being around these guys—becoming friends, making a movie—it’s exciting because I still would trade all of my filmmaking skills for Na-kel [Smith, who plays Ray]'s tre flip, you know? It gave me a real point of view and aesthetic, a group of friends, a family. It taught me about music, because everyone liked the right kind of music, dressed the right kind of way. It’s like, you either have that outlook or you don’t, so I knew it would somehow be a part of my first film.
How did you go about casting the project?
It was an unbelievable process. A friend of all of ours, Mikey Alfred, who I originally hired to just shoot skateboarding for the film and shoot behind the scenes, but he did a really great job and became a co-producer—he knew a lot of these guys and girls and brought them in. But Sunny, I saw a photo of him and then I saw him at his local skatepark. Then I brought Lucas one day to see what the vibe was like between them. I mean, it’s a long individual story for each person, but each one of these people brought this movie to life. Each one of them. And I’m so individually proud and excited to be a part of their journey in this way.
The film had a really organic, authentic feel to it.
The hardest acting really is naturalistic acting. They weren’t just playing themselves—they really had to become these characters, and that’s acting. So, to do that, and have it look like they’re just talking, and hanging out—that’s so much effort on everybody’s end. But that’s what makes you an artist—going out of your comfort zone. Man, I just can’t tell you how amazing it is to watch everyone here do their thing because the main thing about this movie, especially, is that if you give 99.9%, it’s a failure. If you don’t give 100% vulnerability, it’s corny as fuck. So, I’m just grateful for everyone giving that 100% because it’s really not easy to do.
Yeah, and this is most of their first time, right?
It blows my mind. Even watching it last night—it’s funny because I’ve seen it a bajillion fucking times, but I was watching them watch it, and it just fills my heart in a way I can’t even describe.
What’s really incredible is that you took so many actors and gave them roles that were totally different than everyone would expect—especially with Lucas Hedges.
Well, look at my career! I’ve made a career out of it myself.
Honestly, the film is uncomfortable to watch in some moments. Was that intentional?
100 percent. I mean, I’m actually glad you brought it up because we’ll have these amazing screenings, everything will be so positive, and there will be one person that misunderstands the blatant homophobia, toxic masculinity, the abuse—they view it as me celebrating that, and obviously it’s shown so explicitly to hold up a mirror to how we were in the mid-90s, and all the things we have to unlearn. The way they talk to and about women, the homophobic slurs—it would’ve been so disrespectful to have retouched it with a modern lens because that wouldn’t be the truth. The more poignant thing to do is to show how ugly it was, and have it be that blatant. In fact, I could have left that all out of the movie, but it was the only reason to do it.
I’m queer myself, and obviously hearing the word ‘faggot’ every other line at times, was not enjoyable for me. But you’re right, it’s the way it was and needs accountability.
Especially 20 years ago! When I grew up skating and people were saying that so regularly, one or two of those kids was actually gay. But the uglier it is, the more honest it is. And in regards to sexuality, the scene between Sunny and Alexa—he’s not even enjoying the experience. He’s terrified! It’s not like, ‘Hey, I’m about to go fuck this chick.’ He’s shaking. He only enjoys it when he realizes it’s currency to raise up within the group. Popularity, you know? That’s another important lesson to unlearn. To me, some of that stuff is the best stuff about the movie. So, it’s nice to have a thoughtful conversation about it.
Right, and there’s also, like you said, the fact that some people might see the film and think it’s totally normal. So, it’s really nice to hone in and flesh it out.
When Wolf of Wall Street came out, there was some major uproar. But we were making fun of those douchebags when some people thought we were celebrating it. I mean, I’m just here to tell the truth, and I respect the audience enough to take away what’s important. I think it’s ugly, I think it’s bad, but that’s what the truth is, and I need to it and have you walk away with something to really feel. Then, hopefully, we can get to a place where people realize, ‘I don’t want to be like that.’
Now that you’ve made your first film, what do you want people to know about you as a creator?
This is my first creation; my first album; my first painting. This is it, and all of my friends and family helped bring it to life. Hopefully, I’m lucky enough to make another one. But what I’ve learned, having had this long career and doing a lot of things that didn’t come from my heart, I just want to continue making art that means something to me. Living a human life is painful and joyous enough to write about constantly. I don’t need superheroes, or anything like that. To me, the human experience is a lot. It’s like, facts: I’ll always have a job because life will always be hard.