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Video Days: How Jonah Hill Got Skateboard Culture Right in ‘Mid90s’

The first-time director talks about the challenge of accurately depicting the skater lifestyle—something very few feature films have succeeded in doing—and the influence of ’90s skate videos on his new film

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A half-dozen skateboards sit on the ground in coat check in the otherwise tony Crosby Street Hotel on the Lower East Side, where an advance screening of Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, has just let out. Hill—in black, from frames to his feet—mills about the hotel bar, fielding questions from skaters in loose tees and Rodman hair. I, however, am in office clothes, and do not skate—at 22, I once managed a single ollie before taking a spill on a wobbly driveway, sending a Craigslist-bought deck into a gutter in Texas, where it probably still lies. I took it as an omen to remain land-bound.

But, as a fan of skateboarding, even I can see that Mid90s aces the world-building of the era’s skate videos: their small-budget creativity, the atmosphere drawn from music, the ever-present threat of violence if a rent-a-cop pulls up or a skater loses his footing. Usually made up of about a dozen parts of pros choosing their own soundtrack and their nicest gear, companies like Toy Machine, Girl, and Blind released these videos every other year or so, ostensibly as a promo tactic. But the true motivation was for a skate brand and its signees to make their stamp on the moment in skating—to volley it forward with a milestone trick or a stupid-long rail, or to introduce some new tone in filming. (Spike Jonze, skateboarding’s first Oscar winner, was the reigning champ of ’90s directors with his videos for Blind and Girl.) In Hill’s careworn attention, it’s clear that he knows the significance of these videos too. That a tape full of music and clothing and lust for youth could represent, for a teenager before the internet, not a subculture, but a worldview.

“I wanted it to be like a reverse skate video,” says Hill. “A skate video shows three seconds of life in between skate parts, and I wanted to show bits of skating revolving around a kid’s life and his friendships.”

That kid is 13-year-old actor Sunny Suljic, who’s also at the bar. He plays the protagonist Stevie, a kid from a single-parent household who’s adopted by a skate-shop crew of teens who took to the sport to get away from their own less-than-satisfactory home lives. As if to mirror the film, most everyone at the bar around Suljic is older, a head taller, and inhaling beer. But he’s been on a board for over half his life now and is more than comfortable with the vernacular and lifestyle of the adult skaters in the room.

“It’s the OG era,” Suljic says of the Mid90s period in skateboarding, a white leather fanny pack over his shoulder. “It’s not super technical skating, but it’s not stuff you can hate on. And the videos are so sick.”

That’s pretty much dead on. In the middle of the last decade of the 20th century, street skaters took the stale urban planning of Southern California and turned it into their stage: empty parking lots and tumbling staircases became venues for wild balletic movement. If Mark Gonzales—widely considered the most influential person to ever get on a board—set the bar for the decade in his “Video Days” part in 1991, the skaters of the mid-’90s hurled themselves over it, throwing their gangly limbs and Crayola-graphic decks at an ever-bigger series of stairs and rails, with skin on the line if their focus waned. (Of course, skateboarding is built on the progress of older peers, so today’s heaviest achievements were considered moon shots way back when. To argue that a skater from the ’90s is technically better than today’s Skater of the Year is to be clouded by the same nostalgia that permeates the LeBron/Jordan debate.)

If the skating has advanced, the videos, as Suljic suggests, don’t get much better than mid-’90s staples like Toy Machine’s “Welcome to Hell” and Girl’s “Mouse,” both featured in the background of Hill’s debut. Most shots from the era are a single camera, as if by decree a fisheye, chasing behind a kid in roomy Dickies hurling across gaps and rails in empty schoolyards and office parks, bringing life and consequence to these dead spaces. Between parts are little glimpses of unadulterated youth: bad parties, earnest skits for the camera, and hard falls on pavement that make clear the young men and women are professionals. Who else would slam like that only to do it over and again? There’s something about their no-budget grit that suggests that you—or a more athletic, artistic cousin at least—could put together something with a flash of that quality in the very same parking lot.

At the Mid90s gathering, a 20-something kid with an overflow of good hair—the kind that allows you to waste a few years pursuing some frivolous but honorable thing like skating—asks Hill if his movie’s party scene is a “Harmony Korine thing.” It’s a fair question. There’s a similar fete in the 1995 movie Kids where a group of baby-faced skaters and the girls who run with them trade sex stories in gossipy detail. Written by Korine and directed by lowlife master Larry Clark, Kids, like Mid90s, hired real skaters to act and laid the joy and danger of youth out on the table without moral judgement.

“It’s a me thing,” Hill says. “A Jonah thing. You mean that long shot where we go into the party, and it jumps back and forth between the girls and the guys? You know teenagers at a party in a kitchen aren’t gonna talk to each other for the first hour.”

Ed Templeton—the owner of Toy Machine and a ’90s skater dripping with relaxed style on a board—saw a different connection to Kids. “That wasn’t a skate movie so much as a movie about kids who skate,” says Templeton. “Jonah moves further into the territory of potential pitfalls, but he did a good job of keeping it authentic. I don’t think anyone can walk away from this and think it’s over-sensationalized or some kooks skating, like ‘Here we go again, someone’s gonna make a skate kid look stupid again.’”

Hill felt that anxiety to represent. “It’s like ‘Great, another skate movie, made by the kid from Superbad,’” he says, following up in the office of the independent distribution powerhouse A24. “Skate movies are always done incorrectly; I was well aware of that going into it.” For confirmation, stream Thrashin’, the fantastically bad 1986 movie starring Josh Brolin, who leads a ragtag skate crew against the bad guys in a plot that’s essentially Karate Kid on wheels. Or Grind, from 2003, featuring another ragtag crew in extremely-2003 clothing with dialogue such as, “Hey, yo, this is a professional skateboarding event dawg—bounce!”

“Skateboarding gets fucked over in movies all the time,” says Na-Kel Smith, a pro sponsored by Supreme and Adidas who plays Ray, the most experienced skater in Mid90s. “You’ll see xXx, and Vin Diesel will wall ride on the side of a fucking bus on a mountain board. But Jonah’s very meticulous; he took great care not to portray skating in a corny light. If he wasn’t sure on something, he’d ask, ‘Is this weird?’ or ‘Would this happen? Is this natural?’”

Hill, who worked as a teenager at the Hot Rod skate shop in West Los Angeles, reached out to companies like Toy Machine and Chocolate to get all the T-shirts and era-appropriate decks—not a sticker or a trick out of place. (“The Chocolate guys, to me, were just the James Deans of skateboarding. There’s no one cooler.”) He hired industry vets like associate producer Aaron Meza, and skaters like Smith and listened if they called BS on an out-of-place detail. “It’s not just me thinking ‘Oh, that’d make a cool aesthetic,’” says Hill. “It just happens to be the period and the culture I grew up in—in L.A., in the mid-’90s, skating. You can’t fabricate that, I don’t think. You had to at least been there, have it as part of your DNA, to put it up respectfully on screen.”

The most labor-intensive effort to set the tone was the recreation of the West L.A. courthouse, a skate spot with a four-stair set and ledges for days, located just off Santa Monica Boulevard. The place was a prime destination for Los Angeles skateboarding: Eric Koston hit it in for Girl’s ’93 classic “Goldfish,” and Ronnie Creager jumped the fountain in his ’96 part in World Industries/Blind/101’s “Trilogy,” skating to the Eurythmics. “It was everything,” says Hill. “I skated every day there for four years. It was like the bad kid island in Pinocchio. It was illegal to skate there, you’d run from cops, it was exhilarating. We’d be 12 among people of all ages skating, but just living life. You were exposed to things probably a little too early on, but it felt like paradise, it felt dangerous, and it felt great.”

The Courthouse closed in 2013, but Nike rehabbed it for Go Skateboarding Day two years later, decking it out in clean paint and swooshes. For Mid90s, Hill got the OK from the city to grime it up a bit, using Girl’s “Mouse” video as a template. “It was hell on me and Jahmin Assa, the production designer, but we matched all the graffiti and even the trash back to how it was in ‘Mouse.’” The garbage is back, and so are the courthouse skaters: In a cosmic twist, pros like Rick Howard and Chico Brenes play the cops that chase the Mid90s kids out of the spot.

Foraging for Clinton-era trash and T-shirts is all fun and good, though in the wrong hands, this exercise could just amount to an 84-minute checklist of nostalgia. But, like a Stranger Things in which the gang is faded half the time, this architecture of references was built by Hill with raw emotion, setting the stage for the hard bonding of youth. (Often this comes in the form of ritual beatings: young men who have not learned to hold back, swinging gangly arms with everything they have.) “The idea was that, if at the last minute we decided to not call this film Mid90s and put it in the present day, that it would still be a valid story,” says Hill, in an interview with TIFF.

With ’90s fashion thoroughly in vogue, Hill wouldn’t have had to mix things up too much to set the movie in 2018—maybe pop a Juul into the scene where Stevie smokes his first cigarette. But a key difference in those 20-odd years is pop culture’s approach to skateboarding. In the Mid90s period, skating was in its last days of subculture, still a little left of mainstream cool. Skaters “felt discarded and looked down on,” said Hill. There was an industry in place, but a cottage one—before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was in every living room in the country, before Chad Muska and Paris Hilton, before skateboarding hit the billion-dollar mark, and decades before skating’s entry to the 2020 Olympics. For the kids in the movie, their clothes and boards and tapes bought on minimum wage and cash stolen from their moms, it was a flash of something different. “It was a lens you saw everything through,” said Hill. “It’s you or it’s not.”