Jonah Hill, director, finds his voice with 'Mid90s'

The Oscar-nominated actor makes his directorial debut with the 90s-set coming-of-age film

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

When Jonah Hill was growing up, his parents banned him from watching two movies: "A Clockwork Orange" and "Kids."  

Jonah Hill on the set of "Mid90s."

He saw both, of course. "A Clockwork Orange" they were right about, he concedes. "I need you guys to talk me down from this one," he remembers telling his parents. 

But "Kids" left a more lasting impression. 

He didn't understand the film's AIDS subplot at the time. What really struck the young Hill about "Kids" was its depiction of skate culture, which hit home because of his own love of skating. 

That impression is evident in "Mid90s," Hill's writing and directing debut, which hits theaters Thursday. It's a coming of age story about Stevie ("The Killing of a Sacred Deer's" Sunny Suljic), a youngster in 1990s Los Angeles, who finds his place in the world among a group of kids in the town's skateboarding community. 

"This film was made with such consideration of 'Kids,' " says Hill, on the phone earlier this month from the New York offices of A24, the film's production company.

But "Mid90s" is no "Kids" clone.

It's the opposite of 'Kids,' " Hill says. " 'Kids' is so beautiful in its nihilism, and this film, to me, is beautiful in its human connection." 

Hill pays on-screen homage to "Kids" with a quick cameo from the film's screenwriter, Harmony Korine. (Their connection extends to "The Beach Bum," Korine's next film, in which Hill has a role.) 

Hill spent four years working on "Mid90s." The two-time Academy Award nominee, who broke out as a comedy star at age 23 with his role in "Superbad," was kicked into high gear after seeing Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," which he saw with his sister, Beanie Feldstein, and Spike Jonze in 2014.  

Jonah Hill, center, in "Superbad."

"Afterwards Spike was like, 'how old is that guy? He's younger than you,' " Hill says, referring to the then-29-year-old Chazelle. "He's like, 'there's already guys younger than you throwing it down. You better get to work.' "

So he did. Partially fueled by jealousy of Chazelle, Hill went home and wrote that night, and continued to work on the script for months. "This was my best friend," says the 34-year-old Hill. "This is something that was just me, in my room, writing by myself. Whenever I was sad or angry or anything like that, I could just go and work on it and take care of my friend."

While he's been on screen since his acting debut in 2004's "I Heart Huckabees," Hill says it's always been his dream to be a filmmaker. He was inspired by directors such as Mike Nichols and Barry Levinson, who started in comedy and went on to be acclaimed filmmakers, and knew he wanted his debut film to come from a personal place. 

"I thought, wow, you only get once chance at making your first film," says Hill, who has story credits on the two "Jump Street" films, as well as the animated "Sausage Party" and the James Franco comedy "Why Him?" "A lot of my life, and a lot of my career, I was being told who I was, being put in a box. For me, these past few years — creating the art I'm creating now — is me actually coming out as an artist for the first time and understanding who I am as a person." 

He sees "Mid90s" as an animal kingdom tale that depicts how a young cub works his way up through his surroundings. The lens happens to be skating, which Hill was drawn to in his teenage years. Skating brings people together in a family outside of their home, Hill says, and creates a community for outsiders through an anti-ethic. 

Jonah Hill directs Lucas Hedges (left) and Sunny Suljic in "Mid90s."

"Mid90s" is particularly attentive to detail when it comes to hip-hop of the era, and features songs by A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA and more. 

For local viewers, it's hard to miss the film's appropriation of the University of Michigan's Block M logo, which is used prominently as the emblem of the central skate shop in the film. 

"We ripped off the Dodgers logo and we ripped off the U of M logo," says Hill. "Because in skating at that time, you would rip off things that were popular. And in the mid-90s, the Fab 5 and U of M — in hip-hop in particular — was super prevalent. If you liked hip-hop and you were dressing in that aesthetic, everyone was rocking Fab 5 jerseys. It was about the way the culture takes its own spin on popular (things) and makes it more subversive." 

Hill, who was born and raised in Los Angeles into a showbiz family (his father is a high profile tour accountant whose clients included Guns N' Roses), frames "Mid90s" as a skating video turned upside down: where skate videos feature tons of skating and quick glimpses of the skaters' connection to one another.

"I wanted the reverse of that, where it was all about the connection and chaos of them, and then three seconds of skateboarding," he says. 

He hopes to make more films in the future, examining complex characters working through their lives. But for now, Hill is still buzzing off of "Mid90s" and his creative birth as a filmmaker. 

"This is my first thing," he says. "Being an actor is amazing, because you're an important color in someone else's painting. I've been a pretty good green for a long time. But if someone else wants to paint purple over that, that's what they're going to do."

No one is painting over "Mid90s."

"For me, this is my heart," Hill says. "This is what my voice is."



Rated R: pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior/disturbing images -- all involving minors

Running time: 84 minutes

Opens Friday