Jonah Hill: 'We want black and white because we want certainty but real confidence is living in uncertainty'

Jonah Hill: 'We want black and white because we want certainty but real confidence is living in uncertainty'

As he makes his directorial debut with Mid90s, which opens this year's Glasgow Film Festival, Hill discusses his connection to the skateboarding scene

It seems like it's only a matter of time before Hollywood's biggest stars make the transition from being in front of the camera to behind it. Actors like Clint Eastwood, Angelina Jolie, Ben Affleck, George Clooney and, most recently, Bradley Cooper, have fitted comfortably into the director's chair. The latest to make the apparently effortless move from acting to directing is Jonah Hill with his directorial debut Mid90s, a tender coming-of-age skateboarding story set in Los Angeles during the (you guessed it) mid-1990s.

Starting out as a comedic actor in Superbad and 21 Jump Street, Hill has moved steadily towards more dramatic projects like The Wolf of Wall Street, War Dogs, and last year's Netflix series Maniac. In some ways, Mid90s is a surprising first feature for Hill to helm: it's funny but it's far removed from the raunchy comedies he's known for. Yet, it's the film Hill felt destined to make.

'I always wanted to be a writer and director,' he explains, calling from New York where he now lives. 'I accidentally fell into a great 15 year acting career which allowed me to have a front row seat to watch all my heroes make movies.' Although Hill studied playwriting and was making films from the age of 18, he calls working with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Bennett Miller, and Todd Phillips, his 'film school'.

So, why move to directing now? 'It was the coinciding of a lot of things,' Hill says. 'I didn't want to do it prematurely. I didn't want to do it just to do it, I wanted to do it when I had something to say. I wanted to wait until I had the skillset and I was emotionally mature enough.' It soon becomes apparent that Hill is a serious film aficionado; we spend five minutes discussing the intricacies of shooting on Super 16 (to make Mid90s' LA look like the desaturated, grey city of his adolescence) and the film's square 4:3 aspect ratio ('I can't bring myself to watch it on iTunes!,' he laughs).

Jonah Hill: 'We want black and white because we want certainty but real confidence is living in uncertainty'

While Mid90s isn't an autobiographical film, it does touch on elements of Hill's own experiences within skate culture. 'I grew up skateboarding [and] I was terrible at it,' he reflects. 'But it definitely shaped who I was. Skateboarding brings people together and it got me out of a racial and socio-economic bubble I would have been stuck in otherwise. [Skating] shapes your sense of humour, your musical taste, your ethic, the way you see the world.'

When asked why so many artists, particularly filmmakers, come from skating backgrounds, Hill replies: 'Every skateboard deck is blank and then people make art on them. Skaters take a city that was designed for something else entirely and turn it into their own piece of art. It's just such a creative way to look at the world.'

While Hill speaks with great admiration and fondness of skate culture, it wasn't always reciprocated. 'Skateboarding is always butchered in movies,' he says. So when Mid90s was announced, 'the whole skate world was rolling their eyes and there was blowback like, "the guy from Superbad is going to make a movie about skating? It's going to suck." And rightly so.' To ensure skateboarding wasn't butchered in his film, Hill was careful to cast real skaters. 'The big first mistake skating films make is they take actors and turn them into skateboarders and that's just never going to work. Skateboarders are some of the most beautiful, funny, damaged, broken, inspiring, unique people I've ever met. For me, it was about finding the people who could bring the characters I had written to life and doing months of work to get them there.'

Hill also wanted to use Mid90s to tackle the darker side of the skate culture of his adolescence. 'Personally, I had to unlearn a lot of the lessons [from] the toxically masculine skate culture of that time,' he says. 'Sexuality was taught to me as an achievement, not as something about love and respect. The way [the characters] talk about gay people and women, personally I find it disgusting. But I also think it would have been an offensive choice to not show it as it was then because that's saying that it didn't happen. In order for things to change, we have to acknowledge what we learned.

'For me, that was the hardest time in my life and I wanted to show how confusing it was. I wanted to show that nothing is black and white. Every good person does fucked up things and every fucked up person has done really great things. We want black and white because we want certainty but real confidence is living in uncertainty.' He laughs: 'And it scares the shit out of us!'

Mid90s is the opening gala of Glasgow Film Festival, Glasgow Film Theatre, Wed 20 Feb.

Mid90s

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 25min
  • Directed by: Jonah Hill
  • Cast: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie, Katherine Waterston
  • UK release: 12 April 2019

Stevie (Suljic) is a 13-year-old whose brother beats him up, and in an escape from his domestic woes he starts hanging out with an older crew of skaters. Hill’s debut feature shows plenty of creative daring and is pleasingly non-judgmental, a witty and compassionate portrait of adolescence.

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