Film festival interviews can be a bit of a circus. Time with your subject is limited, and once your conversation is over, you’re running to talk to the next filmmaker or catch your next screening. While at Fantastic Fest last month, I had the opportunity to speak to several impressive creatives. Each conversation was unique and offered insight into style, influence, and process. However, none were more fun or off the wall than the one I had with writer/director Jonah Hill and his young cast of skateboarders: Sunny Suljic, Olan Prenatt, and Ryder McLaughlin.
I met with the Mid90s crew in the Joysticks karaoke room above the Highball bar attached to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar surrounded by 8-bit images of Super Mario Bros. I sat across from the gang as they hovered around a platter of breakfast tacos atop a cocktail table arcade machine. They were laughing before I entered the room, and they didn’t stop when I sat down.
They had already gone through a few other journalists, and the teens were feeling antsy. Jonah was yanking phones out of their hands and attempting to wrangle their attention for another round of questions. The room had a scattered energy to it, and maybe not the ideal vibe for an interview. No matter, you work with what you got.
I was apprehensive as I pressed record, but the concern quickly evaporated. Jonah was not the taskmaster of the room, but he knew these kids, and he was happy to steer them into delivering quality content for our quick chat. We talk about how he fed his cast the iconic sounds and films of the 90s in an effort to plant them in that time and place. We discuss his desire to avoid nostalgia-porn, the challenge of capturing an authentic performance, and how the 4:3 ratio was necessary to seize that authenticity.
Here is our conversation in full:
Jonah: Put your goddamn phone away.
Sunny: I’m just looking.
Jonah: [Snatches the phone from Sunny and flings it across the Joysticks karaoke room] I feel like I’m 100 years old. I’m like, “Kids and their goddamn phones.” Then I’m like, [Old Grumpy Voice] “God dammit.”
Sunny, you mentioned yesterday during the Q&A, how Jonah gave you all a playlist of music to listen to and films to watch. How helpful is that to you guys to get into character or to feel that time period?
Sunny: Well, I mean everyone honestly helped each other as well. Jonah didn’t really do anything. He’s not really that good. Everyone was really just super committed and I feel … I’m being honest though.
Jonah: [Publicist enters with a tray of tacos] Thank you.
Sunny: No, I’m joking.
Jonah: I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to her [the publicist] about the fucking tacos. No one cares what you have to say. [Laughter from all around]
So yeah, you’re listing to that music, watching those films of that era –
Sunny: Yeah, that definitely got me into character…
Jonah: Sick answer.
[Laughter] Good to know. Did any of the songs or films stick with you beyond the shoot?
Jonah: Sorry we’re just – look, all of our coffee just kicked in and now we’re all just like talking shit.
Olan: Wait what’s the name of that song? “Put It In Your Mouth.” Yeah, that one.
Jonah: You know the Akinyele song?
Jonah: We were just actually reminiscing. I had Olan and Na-kel memorize that song. We shot a scene of it and it’s not in the film, where they’re rapping it to each other. Then we also just realized we handed an iPod with that song on it to an 11-year-old and didn’t even think about it twice.
Actually, Christopher Blauvelt, our DP, who’s amazing, who worked for Harris Savides (Elephant, Zodiac) for 20 years, just the coolest guy. He’s like an old punk. He has a studio downtown, and we screened This is England and a bunch of old skate videos for the kids.
This is England certainly came right to mind when watching your movie. Very much so.
Sunny: I love This is England because I’m not good with names and I don’t remember names of films, but when I remember the name of the film, that means I really enjoyed it and I really liked This is England.
So, you’re being fed all of this 90s nostalgia-
Sunny: [Jonah staring down Sunny] What? I’m just –
Jonah: How do we get that coffee down here again? [Laughter]
This is going to be great to transcribe. [Laughter]
Jonah: I’m sorry. We’re in like a real shit talking state. [Pointing to Ryder across from him] Ryder just started smiling. [Laughter] But This is England was a big one because it was a youthful cast full of kids that the acting was so raw and so – I love Shane Meadows. It was an amazing example to them, my cast, of what acting can look like in a film. We watched that and we watched a ton of skate videos. Elephant was a big influence for me, for sure.
How do you balance nostalgia with the obvious sincerity for Mid90s?
Jonah: The rules of the film were no skate porn and no nostalgia porn. I hate nostalgia porn. I didn’t want it to be that ’90s movie. To me, the idea was if at the last second, if you took it out of the 90s, it just would work anyway. Nothing was overt. If he wears the Street Fighter T-shirt or something and if you zoom in on anything, it’s like super correct, but we try and lay back and go wide and not really push in on things and make a big deal out of everything. My favorite scene in the film is where Olan and Na-kel are talking to the homeless guy at the courthouse. That’s Del the Funky Homosapien, but it’s not like, pushing in on him or making a big deal out of him. You have that kind of stuff kinda be textural.
Same thing with skateboarding. The issue with movies that involve skateboarding is they make them so overt and you kind of really just need to make it textural. That’s what they’re doing. That’s who they are. It’s not like “Cowabunga dude,” and let’s put the camera under the skateboard and watch it flip around. They don’t land tricks. They’re wearing the clothes that are correct, but it’s not a big deal.
But it is very clear that you have a lot of love for the era. Again, in the Q & A, you were talking about Mid90s versus Harmony Korine’s Kids and how you’re looking for something warmer than what-
Well, I want to say that I have the most reverence for Kids. This movie was made with such consideration for Kids even having Harmony be in the movie is such a symbol of respect for that film. It’s one of the informative films for me. Kids is beautiful in its nihilism and my goal is to show how much – you that that film was all about, “Fuck the world. This moment ends right now, so let’s burn it down.” But for me, I was searching for hope of what a good future would look like. I was so emotionally connected to the family I made outside of my house that I wanted to put that on the screen, and that’s what skateboarding was for me.
Did the cast know each other before making the movie?
Jonah: [Pointing to Olan and Ryder] You guys did.
Ryder: I knew Olan, Na-Kel, but I didn’t know Sunny or Gio.
You already had the bond but you had to bring Sunny into that relationship.
Ryder: Yeah, Sunny and Gio had to work their way into our friend group. Still hasn’t worked. [Laughter]
Jonah: That’s also the dynamic of the animal kingdom within the film. The younger kids would want to be in, they knew these guys were ’cause they all skate together and stuff, and these guys are all like amazing well-known skateboarders. For the younger kids, it’s like, they actually were wide-eyed [nudging Sunny] not to put you on the spot, but they actually were wide-eyed to be like, “Wow I do want to be a part of this group of people.” You use that kind of stuff, and the movie is essentially just an animal kingdom. These guys totally knew each other.
Ryder: We used to skate for the same company, Na-k is friends with our friend Mikey Alfred who’s a co-producer on it, and then
Sunny: Yeah, I hopped on there –
Ryder: Sunny tried really hard to be cool and hang out with us.
Sunny, you have to become that skateboarder with this crew and we get to see your process in the film and developing that skill. Practicing around the clock on set.
Sunny: Um, I actually-
Jonah: I’m going to answer this for him. He’s an amazing skateborder.
Jonah: Oh yeah. He skates on their team.
Olan: He’s better than me.
Jonah: He’s not better than Ryder, but he’s a really good skateboarder.
Sunny: I’m not better than Ryder.
Jonah: He’s incredible.
Sunny: Well people say that I’m better than adults. That’s just showing that I’m not bad, but it’s not, in reality, not actually better.
Jonah: Hold on, just real quick. Let me clarify because we’re just going to jump over this. He is an incredible skateboarder. He can do handrails, and crazy tricks, and stuff like that. Him having to pretend that he was learning is incredible acting. That is really hard to do. To look like you’re actually bad without it, it’s like a great skater looking like they’re pretending to be bad. Then these guys had to, who are also incredible skateboarders, had to learn how to skate within the period, which was very different because it’s elevated and evolved so much since, in the past 20 years that they had to skate on different boards and skate at the skill level that good skateboarders would skate at at that time period. Which is truly a testament to their dedication to their acting. I just want to give them the props on that because that’s something an audience might not know but it’s actually remarkably difficult to do. For Sunny, it’s also legitimately heartbreaking because he’s actually a really good skateboarder and has to look like he sucks in the movie.
But now you’re performing for the big screen, not just skate videos. What is that experience, to have your acting out there to be judged by critics they way someone might critique or comment on a trick?
Jonah: They’re just playing characters. That’s not them, they know that.
Sunny: Uh…okay, okay…uh…
Jonah: He wants to hear an adult speak about real things. [Laughter] He doesn’t want to hear fucking, talk about finger painting and-
Well, you know, we have a finger painting contingent at Film School Rejects.
Jonah: “I like blocks!” [Jonah kicks back and laughs hard]
Sunny: Yeah, Jonah’s laughing hard at this. [Dejected amongst laughter]
Jonah: Sorry, sorry.
Sunny: I completely forgot what I was going to say. What was the question?
You’re putting your fake bad skateboarding out there in the world. What is it like to have that captured onscreen?
Sunny: Oh, I definitely couldn’t put my full skating potential in the movie, which was actually the hardest parts of the movie, to act and make it look realistic because the way you fall. It’s hard to make yourself not look comfortable. It’s not even the tricks in general. It’s just the way you stand on a board so that was really difficult. Ryder didn’t do much skating either. Ryder was the filmer and Ryder’s really good. Olan’s all right. [Laughter] Na-k was good too.
Jonah: The day we cast Ryder, he busted his face open on the handrail, remember that picture you sent me?
Jonah: We surprised them. The day we cast Na-k and Ryder, I hid in a 7-11 and I surprised them and we filmed it to tell them they got the parts. Then Ryder sent me a picture about an hour later, just with his face completely busted open. [Laughter]
Sunny: Oh, that was that eye thing?
Jonah: It was so sick but it was also like, “Oh no.”
Ryder: That whole day was just ugh.
I don’t wanna leave the conversation without talking about the look of the film. Super 16, the 4:3 ratio, the opening down the hallway. It’s worth the ratio just for that hallway. All the hallway stuff. I love that.
How’d you settle on that look?
Jonah: I hired Christopher Blauvelt literally when I was 10 pages into the script. He was on the movie for three years before we started shooting. We would just constantly talk about films and a lot about Decline in Western Civilization Volume 1 or Elephant or This is England and also originally, we were going to intercut the HI8 footage with the film. That was a thought I had, so if I was to do that, how do you make it interchangeable without it feeling…
Jonah: Yeah, distracting, or taking you out. When we did those tests, the HI8 in Super 16 really cut together like butter. It didn’t take you out or distract you and then for me I always thought with ratio wise, with kids, their body language is far more important to me than going close. Every movie about childhood, it’s always so focused on people’s eyes or their faces and to me it’s like, when you hire non-actors or first time actors, their body language is far more representative of who they are as people and that ratio covers their body language as opposed to just capturing atmosphere which isn’t really that important to me. These people are what’s important to me.
They don’t get lost in the frame. They are the frame.
Jonah: They are what you’re supposed to be watching. Who they are is the film and that’s what I care about the most.
[Publicist gives the wrap it up motion] All right, well, thank you guys. This was one of the most fun conversations I had this week.
Jonah: You want some tacos for the road?
I cannot say no to that. [Grabs a fistful of free tacos from Jonah’s plate and skedaddles]
Mid90s is in theaters in New York and L.A. on 10/19 before opening nationwide on 10/26.