Jonah Hill in our modest publication talking about his latest feature length film you say? Go on then, we all know barely anyone has heard of him and we’re always happy to expose the less acknowledged. After the tenth voicemail from him we organised a phone conversation with our top lad Heywood Ward, e.g. our public relations, international affairs and charisma correspondent who has made more bridges than we’ve burned. In all seriousness massive props to Jonah for his incredible offering that is mid90’s which you should all have the pleasure of viewing as of now.
Introduction by Guy Jones
Interview by Heywood Ward
So mid90’s is your directorial debut, how was it making the transition from being in front of the camera to being behind one?
Well, a dream come true! I wanted to be a director my whole life, a writer-director, and I kind of accidentally fell into this great fifteen year acting career and along the way I got to learn from and watch from a front row seat, my heroes make films, you know. So for me it was just about waiting till I had something meaningful to say and till I felt I was, you know, had the skill set and the emotional maturity to make that transition because I hold the job in such high regard.
What were your inspirations for making this movie and is it reflective of your own youth in any way?
My inspirations for making it were, you know, there are a million answers to that question. First and foremost skating’s always butchered on screen and I wanted to respectfully show something on screen that’s never shown correctly and not that I’m an authority on skateboarding but I skated, you know, my whole childhood and that period of my life, when I spent time, you know all my days at Hot Rod, the skateshop that I went to, for me as a person it forms how you see the world, your sense of humour, your aesthetic, your taste in music.
What kind of reception have you had from skaters towards the movie so far?
I guess its been out in America for a while so it’s coming out in other countries now, but its been amazing because I got so much blowback, which should’ve happened, from the skate community like “What the guy from Superbad is making a movie about skateboarding? Argh it’s gonna be terrible!” you know. So what I love about it is every skateboarder I respect and admire has written or called me to say thanks, you know, and that’s all I wanted, you know?
For me watching it, during and afterward, I had such a massive sense of relief that you’d portrayed skateboarding in such a passionate way, you could really tell your love for it.
(Laughs) Yeah because for me first and foremost it’s for skaters, but you know, I’m done trying to sell it to the rest of the world because anyone who’s not a skater if they see it, they relate because it could be anything that you’re passionate about. But first and foremost I hate watching those movies that butcher skateboarding as much as anyone who skates does. And although I don’t skate anymore because I’m old and have a knee injury and I was never great, it still shaped my life in such a massive way.
How long had you been working on this script for before it became a movie?
From conception to release it was four years.
The level of detail within the writing and the accuracies, it seems really meticulous.
I love writing the most. I’m writing my next movie now and it’s, you know, it’s where the, it’s the birth you know, it’s where, it’s the childhood. But say like a whole movie is from like birth till death, it’s like a lifespan or something.
Yeah, like the life cycle of something.
Yeah it’s a life cycle, the writing is the childhood, you know, you’re figuring out the experiences that are making it what it is, you know. The formative experiences, so it’s like I’m in the childhood of my next movie now and it’s a joy, like having another little kid around.
Did you encounter many difficulties along the way in bringing this movie to its adulthood?
Yeah! (Laughs). There’s a like, there’s a very, like, you just, its like any other thing that you put, you know, I can’t explain it. Like when directors see each other they just laugh because its like no one gets how absurdly challenging it is to just make a film and put it out into the world, but like, not challenging in the way that life is challenging to people with serious life problems, I mean like as a creative endeavour. I’m very aware it’s a champagne problem. It’s not a problem it’s a joy to do it, its just you can’t even imagine the emotional ups and downs of that process.
Did you get a new found sense of respect for directors having become one?
I already had it based on those are my heroes. How Mark Gonzales and Chad Muska were on my wall when I was like 11, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Scorsese are on my wall as well. So it’s like those were my heroes already, but I definitely wrote letters to directors I’d worked with because, you know when they say “when you have kids you’re gonna get back ten times worse than you gave it to your parents”, I finally was like “Oh my god I get it now”, I’m gonna get it ten times worse than I gave it to other directors, I was like “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise I was making your day harder!” (laughs).
How was it casting skaters with little to no acting experience, as apposed to actors with little to no skating experience?
Well that was the first decision I made. The mistake everyone makes is they hire actors and they’re like ‘lets have them be skateboarders!” and it’s like no that will never, ever work. You’ll never capture the ethos of this beautiful community by doing that, you know, and so my first thing was like well, I’ve been acting for fifteen years and I’m a director, I’m gonna turn these skateboarders into actors, and they were incredible. I never had any doubt growing up around skaters, like, there’s now more beautiful, funny, damaged, hurt, joyful group of people you could ever imagine. It was just finding the ones that could play these characters and bring them to life.
I really felt like the characters portrayed in the movie could be found amongst any group of skaters, for good reasons and for bad, were these based on the kind of skaters you grew up with at all?
Well they were just characters I’d created, you know, like, I love my characters even if they’re doing terrible things, like I try not to judge those, you know. I try and just tell the truth of who people are and let the audience decide. It’s individual for each person, like the character ‘Fuckshit’ has so many loveable qualities and so many dark qualities. So it’s not like everything is so black and white. The main thing I took away from my childhood skateboarding was I got into a lot of trouble, I did some things that could’ve taken my life, but ultimately these people were there for me like no one else ever has been and so that’s the core of this film. For better or for worse these people will die for you.
I think that really comes through when watching the film, seeing this journey they go through and the bond that they share.
I noticed little cameo in there from Harmony Korine, writer of the movie Kids, its a movie that yours has been compared to somewhat, how was it having him around and being involved? How accurate are those comparisons?
(Laughs) Ah it’s amazing, I mean, Harmony is a close friend of mine and another director I’ve always looked up to and, you know, someone I collaborate with and to me, look, this movie would not exist without Kids right, and the lazy thing for people to do is go “Oh its like Kids”, well yeah, they’re both about skateboarding in the mid nineties and Kids is one of my favourite movies but they’re nothing alike. Kids is beautiful in it’s nihilism and this movie is beautiful in it’s connections, like it’s so heartfelt and about those connections, in a non-corny way. I’m obviously a huge fan of Kids and I’m also aware that people will try and just be lazy and say that so I’m gonna put Harmony in the movie and I also thought it was funny like who’s the last person on Earth you want to sleep with your mom – it’s Harmony (laughs).
If I wasn’t aware that this movie was made recently, I feel I could be mistaken for thinking it was straight out of a time-capsule from the era that its set, what made you chose to shoot the entire movie on 16mm and in 4:3 aspect ratio and how has that been received?
That’s really cool. The best visual compliment we got was when we did test screening, where you just show a random audience, and we did it at an AMC in Paramus, New Jersey, which is like a mall in Jersey where they’d show like Iron Man right, and the projectionist was like “Wow you guys found an old movie from the 90’s and are releasing it!” and me and my VP Chris were like okay that’s the coolest compliment we’ve got visually, you know?
But, look I didn’t want to make it look “cool” you know. I love Super 16 as a format, I always wanted to shoot my first movie on film, 35mm wasn’t appropriate and I love 16mm, like I hope to use that format a lot. For trying to capture the 90’s in L.A. it was like, there was this mall, colourless, bland feeling that L.A. had in the 90’s and I was trying to show not the Hollywood version but what it was like to live in L.A. at that time, like strip mall culture and Super 16 is really good at saturating stuff you know. And then 4:3 the choice was made because, you know the end of the film, I don’t want to give too much away but the character ‘Fourth Grades’ filming on Hi8 the whole time and originally I was gonna cut Hi8 footage within the film, you know cos he’s shooting those scenes, and the idea is okay maybe we’ll cut to his perspective in the middle of a scene, you know and when we did the film test if you cut from a normal aspect ratio to Hi8 aspect ratio, which is 4:3, it looked really jarring, it took you out of it and so if we shot the film in 4:3 and cut between the Hi8 and the film it was very seamless. Like butter. So that was really informing that decision.
As well, when you show kids, so much of that is unsaid is their body language and how uncomfortable they feel and you know a typical aspect ratio you see a face and a lot of the environment around them because its so wide, this is a square so you really see a persons whole body language.
Choosing to shoot the film in that way, the look of it, feels very akin to watching a skate video shot on VX, where as although HD is readily available it won’t always suit the aesthetic and to me it felt like the way you shot it really suited that time period. What was behind the choice of camera Fourth Grade uses?
Oh yeah, and that’s what skate films were shot on. What’s funny is these Hi8, if you wanna get really dirty about it I can, Aaron Meza our skate consultant, he’s worked for Girl & Chocolate for like 20 years and is an O.G. in skateboarding and is a real good friend of mine, and you know one of the things we realised was like, oh I’d written that ‘Fourth Grade’ was gonna be shooting on VX100 with a fisheye. But what I realised talking to Aaron at the time was all the skate videos from that period are VX1000 with a fisheye because that’s what the professional skate companies like Girl, Chocolate, Menace, Toy Machine etc. at the time were using, but that’s because they have the brand new camera, and that was the brand new camera in ’95. But if you were a kid you wouldn’t have the brand new camera that a professional company would have, you’d have the generation before it, which was Hi8. So like ‘Fourth Grade’ is not gonna have the same camera as like Meza and Tim Dowling and Girl will have. So from the audience perspective we’re used to seeing those mid nineties skate videos on VX, but if you look at the sponsor me tapes its from Hi8.
Yeah, when the kids were making them around that age and at that time, as ‘Fourth Grade’ is, they’re gonna be using what they can get their hands on.
Which is their parent’s camera. So, they’re not going to be using like, the top quality video making equipment. So, I just thought stuff like that, I think about, it makes me happy, that the movie I know is correct is every way.
Well it made me happy! There seems to be constant little hints and nods to skaters throughout the movie, things skaters would only really get or understand, was the inclusion of Herbie Hancock – Watermelon Man a direct nod to Guy Mariano’s part in Mouse or a happy coincidence?
It was 100% a homage and a tip of the hat! To me that’s a great example because I had to try to make the movie work on both levels. So people are loving that song in America now cos the movies out and people are like “Whoa man I’m listening to that song over and over from mid90s where he’s walking through the party – its so cool”. It works cool for that scene because it’s supposed to feel, it’s Stevie’s first party, so when he’s watching ‘Fuckshit’ walk through the party its supposed to feel like a movie cos that’s how it felt for me when I went to my first party like that. But then, so people are like “Wow that songs great, its on my playlist!” but then if you’re a skater you’re like “Oh, great choice!” because everyone remembers that part in Mouse.
Yeah, I instantly had to go back and re-watch Guy’s part.
So I appreciate you even saying that, and honestly like, things like that when they’re called out, it means a lot.
Ah, thank you. So I stayed all throughout the credits and noticed many names from the skateboarding industry, names people outside of skating may not recognise, from Tobin Yelland to Rick Howard to Aaron Meza, was it a conscious decision on your part to have so many people from the skate industry be involved with this movie?
Yes! As much as I’m a film nerd, I’m a skate nerd and a Hip-Hop nerd. So any one from those three things, anytime those things are represented in film they’re all represented poorly. And mostly films – films themselves are butchered more than skating you know (laughs). So for me whether having like Chris Blauvelt shoot my film and Scott Rudin produce and A24 release it, that’s the same thing as me hiring Meza to be the skate consultant, and have Donny Barley and Chico Brenes and Meza and Rick Howard be the cops. With Yelland, you know usually you get to hire a still photographer on the movie right, and how that works is they [A24] go “Here’s the still photographer used on Lady Bird, you should hire her or him” right, so for this film I’m like “Who’s my favourite skate photographer, why don’t they shoot the movie”. So, to have Tobin Yelland be on set everyday shooting behind the scenes stills, it made the whole movie feel like, the whole movie is built to make the kids feel like they’re not in movie world – they’re in skate world.
So every department, whether it was Heidi Bivens who’s the costume designer and was like, you know, from that era of skating and was around all those people to Jahmin Assa who’s our production designer I met on the Gus Van Sant film I’d done right before and he was starting to crew up my film, and Jahmin comes up to me and goes “Yo man I heard your making a movie about skating in L.A. in the ‘90s?” and I’m like “Yeah” and he’s like “That’s crazy!” and I was like “Why?” and he’s like “I used to skate with all the dudes from Menace in East L.A.” and so I was thinking whoa he’s one of the sickest production designers and he skated with the exact crew that is the biggest influence of this movie. So it’s like you need to get people with the correct film making skills but they have to be just as deep in the correct side of skating culture.
Was there anyone from skateboarding that you wanted to be involved the movie that you couldn’t get?
No, I mean, Chad Muska’s in the movie, Gonz is in the movie…
Donny Barley, noticed his name…
So Donny Barley, the one thing that’s upsetting about that although it was amazing, I was like “Meza we’ve got to have Donny Barley” and he was like “Why?” and its because when I worked at Hot Rod, and Donny Barley was always in Hot Rod, he was always so nice to me when I was a kid, and his part in Welcome to Hell is one my favourite parts, and I knew him when I was young.
So Meza got Donny, Donny lives in Rhode Island or something, and Meza got him out here and I was so excited because it was at the Court House and the Court House days were obviously super special, it was like Gonz, Rodney Mullen, Chico, Rick Howard – it was crazy. So Donny is there and I’m like “Oh my god, I’m gonna see Donny, I haven’t seen him in 20 years” and he didn’t remember me (laughs). He was like “Thank you for having me in your movie man, this is awesome, I’m a big fan” and I asked if he remembered me and he was like “What do you mean?!” I was like “I worked in Hot Rod man, I’m Jonah” and he’s like “What?!” he didn’t remember so I was pretty bummed, but then we have a new friendship now so (laughs).
Could we ever expect to see a sequel, or even a prequel to mid90s, set in any other era of skateboarding? Any plans for these characters beyond this movie?
I don’t know. I don’t think that would happen because I want this to exist, but one of the biggest influences on this movie is This is England and that’s one of my favourite films. I know Shane Meadows turned that into a series to watch his characters grow up. I think the only way I’d ever be into it is if it was something reflective of that, you know. And I love Shane Meadows so big shout to Shane Meadows. Is this a British magazine?
I’d love to read it! Lev [Tanju] is one of my close friends, who started Palace, so when we go out there [U.K.] we’re gonna do a bunch of fun stuff with them for the movie. I wanna do some stuff at Southbank and all that stuff, like that would be amazing.
Ah that sounds amazing! How did working with Palace come first about?
Lev, who knew I was into skating and shit back in the day, he hit me up years ago and was like “Do you wanna make this commercial?” and what I love about Lev and those guys, Lev and Stuart are just personal, close friends of mine, but it started through working together. He just called me up, he got my number from someone and was like “Is it true you used to skate, are you into that?” and I was so into it and it was really early days for Palace.
What I like about Lev so much was, you know, with Supreme when I was growing up, before it became this whole other thing, I’d come to New York in the 90’s and my brother and I would go to Supreme right from the plane because we were so excited, we didn’t even have one in L.A. we’d just heard about it and it would be so exciting to go and part of the whole experience is that everyone was an ass-hole to you (laughs). The culture I’m showing in mid90s is like ass-hole culture; you know what I mean, like how Stevie has to work so hard to get into his group of friends everyday because you walk into a skateshop and it wasn’t like this friendly environment, and what I love about Lev and those guys is that they’re as cool as Supreme, they’re as cool as any other great company but they’re nice people, and they’re friendly and they’re funny. They have a sense of humour about themselves and they’re kind, and it makes a big difference, I was like “Wow you’re doing something good for this culture”. People should be nice to each other, the fact that you walk into the Palace store and people were just fucking nice to you is awesome, you know.
Yeah their humour and not taking themselves too seriously in that respect is really refreshing.
It’s great and it doesn’t hurt the coolness, or the style, or the quality of the work. You can be nice and be talented (laughs). Crazy concept! Also you can be nice and be cool – whatever that is (laughs).
Whatever that is they’ve proven its possible to do and that it works. What are some of your favourite skate videos from the mid 90’s?
I mean Welcome to Hell we put in the film, Mouse obviously. One of my favourites, and I think its one of the first skate videos I ever bought, was Rolling Thunder Foundation, and I think it has this impact on me because it was the first video I ever got. I think the case was white and yellow, the VHS case, and I think that’s why I got it originally and then Steve Olson’s part in Rolling Thunder is one of my favourite parts ever. He was just so kooky and creative and he has, like, Buddy Holly glasses and long, curly hair. He kinda reminded me of what the coolest version of myself could be (laughs). He’s kinda like nerdy cool. I was like wow cool I think that guy represents, like Chad Muska represented what I wanted to be but never would be and I think Steve Olson, I was like he kinda reminds me of if Spike [Jonze] had a video part or if I saw myself in a video, like that’s kind of what it would feel like.
How did you feel when Fullfil the Dream came out and you saw both Steve Olson and Chad Muska together?
I’ll phrase it so perfectly for you and it has to do with personal growth as a human being, okay, as a perfect example I’d want to be Chad Muska, beat myself up because I’m not Chad Muska, know that Steve Olson is who I actually am, and then now as an adult, be psyched that I’m Steve Olson instead of Chad Muska (laughs). Did that make sense? (Laughs).
(Laughs) That made sense to me, I get it I’m a skater so I know what you’re talking about.
Grow to love your inner Steve Olson cos its awesome (laughs). Oh and also Memory Screen and Photosynthesis, those movies need to get a lot of love. They inspired a ton of people, you know. Harmony [Korine] says Photosynthesis was a huge influence on him and how weird it was, you know.
Photosynthesis is definitely one of those videos that inspired a lot of people! Who are some of your favourite skaters from this era and who gets you hyped now?
Na-kel [Smith], when Na-kel was going to be in the movie I knew we were going to make a good movie. I just knew because he represents what’s great about modern skateboarding, because he is like Ray in a lot of ways. He’s positive; he’s about hyping these kids up.
So much of skating when I was growing up was, like, trying hard stuff, you’ll land if you if you try hard (laughs). I was really ambitious from a really young age, but wait like, I can’t be honest about wanting to do well, you know. Na-kel is all about teaching those kids, in a cool way, to be like ‘”Yeah go for it” it’s cool to be successful and accomplish things, and that kind of stuff, hearing that from someone who’s actually cool – is very meaningful.