Jonah Hill never really dreamed of being a comedy star or an Oscar-nominated actor, and he certainly never could’ve imagined becoming a style icon beloved by Instagram users. Instead, Hill always wanted to be behind the camera, a goal he finally got to achieve with his directorial debut Mid90s.
The 34-year-old star, who both wrote and directed the coming-of-age tale, felt nothing but unbridled joy as he worked on the project, as it was truly a dream come true.
“As an actor, you’re a very important color in someone else’s painting, and I’ve been a pretty good green for a long time – and I like being a pretty good green,” Hill tells Metro. “But it was my dream to get to paint my own painting.”
As the title suggests, the film is set in the ’90s and centers around Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old boy who’s trying to find his place in the world and grows up a little too quickly after befriending a group of older teens. Stevie and company bond over their mutual love of skateboarding, a pastime they use to escape the horrors of their family lives.
According to the cast of relative newcomers, Suljic and the other young actors featured in Mid90s felt extremely comfortable working under Hill, who did everything in his power to make them feel at home. Ryder McLaughlin, who plays the quiet videographer of the group nicknamed Fourth Grade, compared their relationship with Hill to that of “good friends,” as he would often offer them advice on everything from navigating publicity to “girl problems.”
“It felt like he’s always been a director,” says McLaughlin. “It didn’t feel like a new thing for him.”
“The times I’ve given my best performances is when I trusted the filmmaker the most,” says Hill. “All I knew was I had to spend as much time as I could before we started shooting, understanding that I need to let these people know that I have their back. I would rather die than embarrass them.”
Mid90s was a dream come true for Jonah Hill
As for why Hill decided to set his directorial debut in the ’90s, he was simply following in the footsteps of other great directors like George Lucas, Richard Linklater and Barry Levinson, who looked back on their early lives while making their first feature films. While Hill is quick to note that Mid90s is far from being an autobiographical story, it does reflect back on the era he grew up in and fondly remembers.
“That was the time period I grew up in, and I hadn’t seen it reflected back upon yet,” says Hill. “There is a 20 year thing, usually, where it takes about 20 years to reflect back on an era properly. Usually it’s a lot of filmmakers or films reflecting on themselves growing up and the feelings of growing up.”
While Mid90s marks Hill’s first turn in the director’s chair for a feature film, he’s effectively been in film school under the tutelage of Hollywood’s best filmmakers throughout his career as an actor, working with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Judd Apatow and the Coen brothers, just to name a few. So it’s no surprise that Hill was excited and filled with “bliss,” rather than nervous or surprised, when he finally got to the set on the first day of filming.
“I’ve been in so many scenes in so many movies over the years, that to me, it was just pure excitement,” Hill says. “I always say to anyone in the film business or anyone starting out in the film business, ‘It’s not real until you pull up and the trucks are there.'”
“Because everything before that, they didn’t pour a bunch of money into, so once the trucks are there, you at least get one day to shoot,” he adds. “When I pulled up and I saw the trucks, that was probably the best moment of my life.”
At times, Mid90s can be crass and comedic, while at other moments, the film is a punch to the gut, particularly with its graphic portrayal of adolescent male anxiety.
“It’s an animal kingdom movie,” says Hill. “You’re really trying to show what it’s like to try to find a group of people and how you fit in and maneuver your way into a family outside of your home.”
“I was just trying to create diverse, interesting characters that were complicated emotionally,” he adds. “There were things like male self-abuse in certain elements of certain characters that I thought could be shown on screen in a very intimate, respectful way.”
Mid90s also serves as an homage to Hill’s love of skateboarding culture from that era. The cast revealed that the actor-turned-director landed an impressive kick flip during filming, which almost made it into the movie, but was axed since the footage was shot on a GoPro and didn’t work with the film’s old-school, 4:3 aspect ratio.
As Suljic notes, Hill was “super invested” in showcasing that world in an authentic way, dispelling the myths and clichés that tend to surround skaters.
“It just felt like he was another skater and we were all just talking, hanging out,” says Suljic. “When it came to like the directing part, it didn’t really change. It just felt like he was giving us tips, as if we were skating.”
“This film really explains what the skateboard community is,” says Olan Prenatt, who plays a character who’s nickname is a pair of expletives. “It’s not only just something fun to do, but it’s also like a community. Skateboarding saves a lot of people.”
Mid90s is now in theaters.