Writer/Director Jonah Hill And The Cast Of 'mid90s' On Bringing A Skateboarding Crew To Life On Screen [Interview]

I filed a 9.5/10 review of mid90s following its world premiere at TIFF earlier this fall, declaring "writer and director Jonah Hill has struck gold." (I mention this only because perhaps you've seen this particular quote in ads if A24 has been targeting your Instagram feed as aggressively as they have mine.) A second viewing of the film this month confirmed that my rapturous response was not merely festival euphoria but an enduring endearment to a film populated by deeply human characters who radiate the raw joys and frustrations of coming of age.

When I got the chance to sit down with Jonah Hill and several members of the mid90s cast, it was clear just how much the movie means to him. This protectiveness made him a bit defensive about the project's origins. For example, Hill was quick to swat away any notions of autobiography in the film, as if admitting he pulled from personal experience might undermine the credibility of his original creation.

But, at their best, Hill's instincts unified a group of skaters with varying levels of acting experience into a coherent on-screen clan. The group's innate creativity was clear from the moment I stepped into the boardroom they occupied at the A24 offices, where some of the assembled crew had begun drawing elaborate doodles on the whiteboard. Hill's ability to corral their raw energy and funnel it into a vibrant posse of characters speaks to his talents in shaping indelible performances.

Gathered alongside Hill to talk all things mid90s were:

  • Sunny Suljic, who plays Stevie, the film's protagonist, a 13-year-old who comes into his own by connecting with a group of older skateboarders
  • Na-Kel Smith, who plays Ray, the group's most promising skater and de facto leader
  • Olan Prenatt, who plays "Fuckshit," a live wire among the group known for his incredulous reactions
  • Ryder McLaughlin, who plays Fourth Grade, the group's quietest member
  • Gio Galicia, who plays Ruben, the skater closest in age to Stevie
  • Alexa Demie, who plays Estee, an early love interest for Stevie
  • I promise I'll get to questions with the skaters and the friends because all of you are here, but the relationship between Stevie and Ian [his older brother, played by Lucas Hedges] is the one that really blew me away in the film. Jonah, did your experience being a middle child with both a significantly older and younger sibling allow you to understanding and insight into how both Stevie and Ian feel? I have a brother who's eight years younger than me and I've never seen any movie that captures that very particular relationship of being siblings but not peers.Jonah Hill: Well, I'm glad you connected to the film. My hope is that people connect to the film in whatever way they relate to it or see their own lives. This isn't a biopic. It's characters in a story that I wrote and created, and I hope to create complex characters – if I'm lucky enough to make films for the rest of my life.And how did you work with Sunny and Lucas to develop that bond? Sunny Suljic: Yeah, we did a lot of rehearsing. Lots and lots of rehearsing, so I definitely got comfortable with the script. Jonah explained everything in such a great way, so it really helped when we would just talk about the scene. It was a really fun process, I liked it – I loved the fighting scenes in the beginning.Jonah Hill: Sunny's a beast. Because that opening [scene, where Stevie is at the receiving end of punches from his brother], we had to do in one shot. There's really no other way to do it. They're skaters – they're basically stuntmen, he can take hits. He's tough. It was actually harder to get Lucas to be violent toward Sunny. He's such a sensitive guy, which is why I cast him. If you cast someone who reads as a jerk as a jerk, it is stock and boring. But because Lucas is so sensitive and has such a big heart, I felt if that was beneath the veneer of someone who is unpleasant, it would humanize him, and you'd feel empathy for him. So it was really challenging to get him to be horrible to Sunny. And Sunny's like, "come on, man!" [laughs]Sunny Suljic: The two most challenging things were to get Gio [Galicia, who sports long-flowing locks now but appears with a buzzcut in the film as Ruben] to cut his hair and get Lucas to be mean.Jonah Hill: And we got 'em both done.Speaking of the punches, the sound design is so loud and violent in those moments. Was that always something you had in mind?Jonah Hill: Yeah, I don't believe in movie anything. So, like, anything that feels like it would be in a movie. The thing you would expect to be in a movie, to me, is corny. So I feel the more realistic, the more you'll connect to something. Skip Lievsay, our sound designer who has done everything from GoodFellas to Gravity to the Coen Brothers' films, he's a genius – he helped me achieve that in the film. You want things to be as stark and not as they would be in a "movie." And that discomfort provides reality, provides emotion.Jonah, you've mentioned changing the character of Ray once you cast Na-Kel. How did you do that, and what was the character like before? It seems like Ray is the best-case scenario for how Stevie might turn out and wonder if that was always the case?Jonah Hill: Well, it was based on casting Olan and Na-Kel, both of them being such special talents. It's kind of hard to describe because they brought – I don't know, when I met Na-Kel, it was impossible to ignore his depth as a person and not hang the movie on the things that I saw in him that were so aspirational even for myself. And when I met Olan, I fell in love with this human being, as you can tell. He walks into a room, and you're just obsessed with him. This is such a special human being that I wanted to explore what that dynamic could be like between the two people who represented the older sector of this community that the kids would be looking up to and what the positives and negatives of these two characters would be.Na-Kel Smith: Jonah definitely helped me figure out different angles and different ways to think about certain things. We did a lot of rehearsal. Learning Ray and how he'd act in certain situations, and taking things from certain people I know in my real life – I knew what his role was in the friend group. More focused, he's got a clear vision of the future and what he wants. I had to dig into that. I'm not well-versed in acting, even talking about this stuff quite yet. I just know I had to dig deep inside myself to pull out the older brother figure, whatever it was. I look at it like Ray and Fuckshit's relationship is like the angel and devil on your shoulder. But I guess if you get into it, God and the Devil are kind of friends. That's kind of how it played out to me.

    I feel like even though Ray wanted to participate in some of the fun shit, because of the group of people, he took responsibility over trying to make sure his younger friends were good and not exposed to something too early or too bad for them. I've been in plenty of situations on both sides where somebody's been like, "Bro, chill, no need to be doing this and be around this." And I've been in situations where I'm the one telling people like, "Chill, we're in mixed company, whatever." I'm just taking things that I've learned from real life, other people and everything – and put it all into Ray with Jonah's help. I got advice from everybody on set about how to give off emotion, even in just stuff with my face. It was really fun becoming Ray.

    Olan Prenatt: I feel like, for me, a lot of my performance was the lines that I was saying my head, rather than what I was actually talking. But also, I owe a lot of credit to the character development to Jonah because when I thought I was just talking to Jonah when we were in the same area, he was choreographing how my mind worked and understood the character.Jonah Hill: Thanks, Olan.Olan Prenatt: [chuckles] Sure.Jonah Hill: It was amazing watching young artists just clearly so creative and wonderful learn how to harness those skills and shape into something specific for a purpose. It's so cool watching each of these people do that.I wanted to talk about the use of language in the film, and I wanted to thank you from not shying away from some unsavory homophobic and misogynistic words that are both period-appropriate and also still very common as a means for young men to bond and try to flex power. How did you go about striking the balance of being honest without slipping into glorifying their behavior? Was the full dialogue highly scripted or were you all looser on set knowing that it could get reigned in once you got into the editing room?Jonah Hill: No, it was very deliberately scripted. To me and [producer] Scott Rudin and all the creative people involved, we had lots of discussions, but, ultimately, I made the choice that it was more respectful to show it as harshly and disturbing as it was in regards to homophobia and sexism. And that is the lesson. My job is not to change history in order to appease people's feelings, but it was super deliberate to show how messed up the lessons were that people were learning at that time, and how people behaved, to hold a mirror up to it and hopefully show something that had to be unlearned.It might be most obvious to assume Jonah feels most kinship with Stevie as protagonist, but are there any other personal connections to other characters?Jonah Hill: That's an assumption, my friend. These are all characters I wrote and created. I have my heart in every single one of them. It's not a biopic, it's not some movie about my life. I love all the characters I create from the bottom of my heart. And then once the people bring them to life, they become family to me, and I fall in love with them. To me, I hope to always get to create complex, interesting characters.The character of Fourth Grade is always carrying around a video camera to record things, and that ends up playing a very important part at the end of the movie. How did that collaboration work, because Jonah, I can imagine you had some ideas as to what you wanted to get from the footage?Jonah Hill: Well, Ryder is just a very special artist, just 360°. He drew all these things at the end of the movie – he's going to be embarrassed by me saying it – he's a great actor. He came into the audition fully formed and understanding the character. He's a great musician, he can do anything. But I loved the idea of what Ryder's, in character, point of view would be of each scene. I didn't even know if I would end up using footage within the film that he was shooting. Ultimately, we ended up making it a video at the end that his character created. He did all the titles and graphics, too, which is awesome.Ryder McLaughlin: Yeah. Summed it up really well. Don't think I have anything to add to that.Jonah Hill: Well, he's the best.


    mid90s opens in limited release on October 19, 2018 before expanding nationwide on October 26, 2018.