Jonah Hill Hates Pepsi, but Didn't Mind That I Interviewed Him From a Bathroom
Mid90s is one of the few recent '90s-set movies that's more about people who live in the era than about the decade itself. It's a period piece about teens, skaters, and complicated families, finding its focus in a young boy named Stevie, who aches to build a pack of his own and falls in with a group of boys who fly down the streets on their boards when they're not competing to ask each other the grossest Would You Rather? question.
It's also the directorial debut of Jonah Hill, who first rose to prominence as a side character in Judd Apatow films before becoming an Oscar-nominated mega-star playing roles opposite Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. Hill talked to Thrillist about his first foray into directing, how he found his movie's fantastic young stars, and the immortal anti-establishment creed of skating. But first, he needed to tell me how much he dislikes Pepsi.
How did you know that this was the story you wanted your first film to tell?
Jonah Hill: Well-- [phone cuts out]
Are you still there? Oh boy.
Hill: Sorry, I had to look around for my phone.
OK, it's no problem.
Hill: Oh my god. I'm in a hotel that has Pepsi?? You know when you're in an establishment that's just full of Pepsi? It's insane. Do you know what I'm saying? Is that singular to me?
I -- yeah, that's very frustrating.
Hill: You know what I mean? I obviously would rather have a Diet Coke than a Diet Pepsi. Anyway. Never mind, I'm off topic. It's like the whole hotel is a Pepsi hotel. I always knew skateboarding would be a part of my first film. Originally, I wanted to be a filmmaker my whole life, like a writer and director, and then I fell into this accidental, amazing 15-year acting career and got to learn from so many amazing filmmakers. If I looked at my heroes, people that came from comedy that had amazing filmmaking careers, like Mike Nichols or Barry Levinson or Rob Reiner, if I look at their first films, they all waited to make something that really meant something to them, really came from their heart. So I took four years and waited till I was emotionally mature enough to have my own voice and was confident enough to have my own voice, and not make what other people thought I should be making, and that turned into Mid90s. 'Cause it comes from my heart. It is my heart.
Did you skate when you were younger?
Hill: Oh yeah, terribly. I worked at a shop called Hot Rod and I was there every day for four years, and I'd say I was 100% dedication, 14% skill. I was terrible, but it was definitely, like, a lens that I saw the world through. What draws this kid in [in the film] are these anti-authorities. He's getting the shit kicked out of him at home, but he sees these kids across the street and how they deal with authority, and that speaks to him. He also sees how close they are. It really at its core is this "animal kingdom" movie. This young cub working his way up the animal kingdom. He's getting to see and build a family outside his home for the first time. When you're that age, your friends are more important than your family. It's true. Your friends mean more to you than your family and you're looking for a family that you're building yourself.
What is is about skateboarding that lets that happen? It's an essential part of this movie.
Hill: Yeah, and that's exactly what I said before. It's the anti-ethic of skateboarding that kind of drew me in. It's either for you or it's not. You know, the music, the way you're speaking to people, the way you interact. It gives you a very severe ethic. Is there something going on in the background?
There might be. I'm actually in a bathroom right now because this was approved at the last minute and I couldn't get a conference room for this call.
Hill: I dunno, I just hear someone talking, I can't tell what it is. Maybe I'm just crazy. You're in a bathroom right now?
Hill: You're awesome.
Thanks. So, if there's an echo on my end, I'm sorry about that.
Hill: No worries.
The '90s setting is part of the movie, but it's very much in the background, except when Seal starts playing.
Why set this movie in the '90s and not today?
Hill: Well, first of all, it's just when I grew up. A tried-and-true reason that filmmakers often do coming-of-age films -- it's like a band's first album. What do you have to reflect on? The first 20 years of your life. And that's the era I grew up in. But even the title was meant to be a misdirect, like a joke: You think it's gonna be like that '90s movie, and then it's this really raw, heartbreaking movie. It's not a nostalgia film. There was talk of not setting it in the '90s and the reason I ultimately did was because the characters wouldn't have cell phones. When I was growing up in the '90s, we didn't have cell phones, so what it allowed for was these real connected and intimate conversations to take place. Now, if things seem too intimate or too charged, you just pick up your phone and avoid it by going on Instagram. And these kids, myself included, were, out of boredom, sort of forced to talk about things you don't really talk about.
I remember when a bunch of my friends saw this movie before I did, and they were talking about the language and the kids' gross conversations about whether or not they'd have sex with their parents. But those are the sorts of conversations you have when you're with your weird friends and you're not on your phone listening to music.
Hill: Yes, you actually have to talk to people! When we shot, I took the kids' phones away, and that was the best way to get them into this zone. Everyone hung out. We all hung out all the time. I miss it quite a bit.
It's definitely more stressful nowadays to always have your phone in your pocket.
Hill: It's a stress machine! We were all there in a parking lot in Montebello, California, in 106-degree weather and I've never missed anything more in my life. Every day you'd wake up and know you were going to hang with these amazing kids and we weren't gonna be on our phones, we were just gonna be actually living our lives, and talking to each other and getting to be close. And that felt so special.
And the kids are so good. How did you find them all?
Hill: Through different means. Skate parks, talking to people who were skateboarding, this guy Mikey Alfred who's a co-producer brought in a lot of his friends. And we just found all these kids who were skaters. I knew I was gonna turn skaters into actors and not actors into skaters, because that's a disaster that most films involving skateboards do. And you can feel it. I was surprised, because I spent three years and 20 drafts on the script assuming that these kids were gonna want to improvise, and preparing for that -- and they didn't. They wanted to become these characters that aren't them, and become great actors, and it was so moving.
Are any of them gonna do more acting?
Hill: Yeah, all of them. They all want to act. It's so cool. They're obsessed with it.
Did Sunny Suljic [the actor who plays Stevie] know how to skate?
Hill: Yeah, he's an incredible skateboarder. I found him at a skate park. He was so bummed because he has to look like he sucks, but he's actually, like, on Adidas. Like, he's a serious skateboarder.
Hill: Yeah, he's like, "Everyone thinks I suck!" But that shows what a good actor he is, because that's really hard to do, to pretend like you're learning how to skateboard.
He fell so many times.
Hill: Yeah, he had to really do that. There's no way to fake that. I hope you get to meet all of these kids one day, they're the best.
There are a ton of great, classic songs in here. How did you go about picking the music?
Hill: I was the music supervisor, so I wrote all the scenes to those songs. And I wrote letters because we didn't have a big music budget, and I got all the songs that I had written those scenes to. It was amazing. I love music so much, and I'm such a student of music, as I am of film and skateboarding. In the same way skateboarding's always butchered, I feel like hip-hop is always butchered in film. And to me it was important to make a film that could have an understanding for people that what the Beatles were for my parents, A Tribe Called Quest were to me.
You said before that directing is what you really, really want to do. Are you definitely going to do more?
Hill: Oh, well, I mean, it's what I've wanted to do my whole life. But I love acting, and I love directing. The reward of this would be that I would get to do it again. The only win is getting to be back in this process. So my dream would be getting the chance to do it again.
Well, thanks so much for talking with me, I know you've probably done a million of these by now.
Hill: Honestly, you're so nice and your questions were so thoughtful. It's always good to talk to someone who you can tell just enjoyed the film. It's special to me that people even know what it is, let alone want to talk about it.
I think we're over time, so I'll let you go. And good luck finding something that's not a Diet Pepsi.
Hill: [Laughs] You know what I'm talking about though, right? When you look in and it's all Pepsi. It's crazy.