“A Tribe Called Quest is what the Beatles were to my parents—the backbone of my youth.”
You might call it a filmography. Jonah hill calls it an education. “I was privileged enough to have this 15-year film school from some of my favorite directors,” the actor says of the leap from acting in comedies, like 2007’s now-classic Superbad, to directing his first feature film, Mid90s. He lists the filmmakers who’ve taught him most: Bennett Miller, who directed him in 2011’s Moneyball, for his first best supporting actor Oscar nomination; Martin Scorsese, who turned Hill into the pump-and-dump stockbroker (another Oscar nomination) in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street; and Spike Jonze, whose screenwriting wisdom helped shape the narrative of Mid90s. The warm, nostalgic coming-of-age film, set against the Los Angeles skater scene of Hill’s youth, took three years to write. It’s not an autobiographical story, Hill tells Newsweek, but it is “my heart. I looked at my heroes, people like Mike Nichols or Barry Levinson, who started in comedy and became great filmmakers—their early work clearly meant something to them.”
What did you learn from Scorsese?
I mean…do you have a few days? To watch someone on that level run a film set, tell a story, fix problems— the highest level of directing skills I’ve seen are high-end problemfixing. I’ve seen master directors take an hour to fix a problem that takes Scorsese 30 seconds. I think he’s the greatest living filmmaker.
The film is set in the ’90s—could it be set today?
No, because of [cellphones]. At its core, it’s a movie about a group of friends at a time when it was you and your friends versus the world. The reason those close friendships were able to form was because we didn’t have phones. We were skating around, waiting for the bus or just talking—we didn’t have gadgets to break the connection.
The soundtrack includes great ’90s hip-hop, like the Pharcyde and GZA. Did you handpick the music?
I was the music supervisor, yeah, and I’d written the scenes to those songs. Skateboarding is often butchered in film, which was a big reason I made Mid90s. But so is hip-hop, which is often used to show “’hood stuff” or “balling.” To me, A Tribe Called Quest is what the Beatles were to my parents— the backbone of my youth. It was important to show that elegantly, and as an art form deserving respect.