PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.
With 15 years in the film business behind him, 34-year-old actor Jonah Hill has made the transition to directing with “Mid90s,” a raw, personal story of his youth brought to life by an array of actors and non-actors. Inspired by filmmakers like Mike Nichols and Barry Levinson, who moved from comedy to drama with equal aplomb, Hill says he held out on tackling his first feature behind the camera because, after all, you only ever get one crack at it. The result is a work that has been compared to the cinema of Larry Clark and Richard Linklater, but nevertheless pulses with its own distinctive voice.
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“I really wanted to take time and have patience to wait until I was mature enough emotionally, had my own voice and had a story that really meant something to me,” Hill says. “I was writing a play with Spike Jonze and we would do this exercise where we would talk about the screenplays we were writing and walk each other through the story. Originally [‘Mid90s’] was about something else and it kept flashing back to when the kids were young and skateboarding together. Spike wisely pointed out I was far more exuberant about the flashbacks, the B-story, than I was the A-story, so I kind of just made it all about that.”
Hill has treated his career in the trenches of acting as a sort of cinema studies excursion. He’s worked with filmmakers like David O. Russell, Judd Apatow, Bennett Miller, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers along the way, and he’s soaked up everything he could to help inform his own work as a filmmaker.
“My dream my whole life was to be a writer-director,” he says. “I accidentally fell into this amazing acting career and my life went in a really wild, other direction, but it ended up being incredible, not only because I love acting but because I got this incredible 15-year film school and I got to work with most of my heroes. As an actor, you have the ability, if you want it, to be in a front-row seat to the filmmaking process. I’ve also had the good fortune of being in a lot of bad movies, which you can learn as much from as the good ones!”
Hill lights up when asked about the nuts and bolts of putting “Mid90s” together, something he’s not often able to get into with the usual grind of promotion. He zeroed in on an aesthetic that took cues from films like Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” Martin Bell’s “Streetwise” and Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization,” and fought a bit of a battle maintaining a 4:3 aspect ratio (while also shooting on 16mm). Ultimately he tapped Christopher Blauvelt (“The Bling Ring”) as his director of photography, who came up under Hill’s all-time favorite in the field, the late, great Harris Savides.
“In the new generation I feel like apprenticeship and that kind of thing is lost,” he says. “I believe in it and the idea that I did have 15 years of apprenticeship before I went out or Blauvelt had 20 years under Harris before he started DPing his own films with Kelly Reichardt — it means something to me. I believe in that. It’s emotional to me. He speaks of Harris how someone would speak of a god or a father or a mentor. Blauvelt and I designed an ethic that we didn’t break. The camera wasn’t going to move unless it absolutely had to, and it was for a deep purpose. It wasn’t to show how fancy we are. It was mostly still. We stayed wide a lot. The best compliment Blauvelt gave me, he’s like, ‘Most directors, we design this ethic and they break it out of fear, and we didn’t break it.’ That’s something I’m proud of.”
For more, including thoughts on the musical identity of the film, from a slew of era-specific needle-drops to the direction he wanted to take Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.
|Jonah Hill photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety