The trailer for Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, has set the internet ablaze with feelings of nostalgia for the days when pants were baggy, Lunchables were the most exciting thing you could eat, and kids spent only 50 percent of their time staring at screens, occasionally venturing outside with friends.
Hill’s decision to explore ’90s Los Angeles’ skate culture isn’t a stretch. He’s a self-professed skater from the city who interacted with Donny Barley at Hot Rod skate shop and points to both Chad Muska’s part in TransWorld’s Uno and footage of Steve Olson in Foundation’s Rolling Thunder as having had an impact on him when he was younger.
While there are plenty of recognizable homages in the Mid90s trailer based on skateboarding alone, there are also smaller stylistic choices that reflect Hill’s time in show business and the first-time director’s own taste in movies. Read on to discover some of the films we believe informed Hill’s approach to writing, casting, and shooting Mid90s.
In addition to both movies’ subject matter and raw shooting style, Hill’s casting of real skaters such as Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, and Ryder McLaughlin mirrors director Larry Clark casting Jefferson Pang, Peter Bici, Mike Hernandez, Justin Pierce, and Harold Hunter in his own debut feature, 1995 cult classic Kids.
But Mid90s is no Kids rip-off. Whereas Kids focused on the sexual pursuits of its young protagonists, the Mid90s trailer follows Stevie, played by 12-year-old skater Sunny Suljic. Stevie is quite clearly at a point in life before the hormones have kicked in, described by a girl in the trailer as “at the age before guys become dicks.”
Clark admitted that the characters and content of Kids were foreign to him, saying in 2015, “I wanted to make a movie that wasn’t about me, that I knew nothing about. I was 47.” By contrast, given Hill’s background as a young skater in LA, it’s clear that Mid90s is a very personal project.
While many will jump to Richard Linklater’s more heralded indie flick Dazed and Confused, the aesthetics of 1990’s Slacker seem to have influenced Hill’s decision to shoot on 16mm film, adding a grainy warmth and patina to the cinematography. Other prominent films to utilize 16mm include Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale Station, Half Nelson, The Hurt Locker, and Moonrise Kingdom.
When Darren Aronofsky discussed his own choice of 16mm, which he used on The Wrestler, Black Swan, and mother!, the director compared its look to “a perfectly made crust of a tiramisu,” adding, “You just don’t get that aesthetic from these incredible video cameras that kind of make everything look the same.”
Set initially to a combination of Wendy Rene’s 1964 Stax Records single “After Laughter Comes Tears” and Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 track “Tearz,” which sampled the former, the Mid90s trailer follows the musical lead taken by the promo for 2015 French-Belgian thriller The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun. The Mid90s trailer finishes to the soundtrack of 1969 song “Gyöngyhajú Lány” by Hungarian prog rockers Omega, which was sampled in 2013 by Kanye West on “New Slaves.”
Jonah Hill named Mark “Gonz” Gonzales’ part in Blind Skateboards’ Video Days as one of his favorite skate clips of all time. In addition to the obvious skate connection, the “Gonz” clip in Video Days also starts with footage from 1971 Roald Dahl film adaptation Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, in which Gene Wilder as Wonka quotes from Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s 1873 poem “Ode”: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams,” (see also: the stellar Aphex Twin track that samples this key phrase).
That statement seems to be at the crux of the conflict between Stevie and his aggressive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who is apparently threatened by Stevie’s new-found freedom among his skater friends.
While the fisheye lens is a hallmark of skate films, its usage in feature films is still relatively rare. Here, Darren Aronofsky crops up again as a possible influence. The director used a fisheye lens in 2000’s Requiem for a Dream to illustrate how Ellen Burstyn’s character, Sara, spirals out of control after becoming addicted to weight-loss amphetamines.
The Mid90s trailer is presented in an old-school 4:3 ratio, which had been the standard for movies pre-’60s until television — at the time also presented in 4:3 — frightened the movie industry into shooting and screening movies in widescreen formats. TV, video, and computer monitor formats started transitioning from 4:3 to 16:9 widescreen with the advent of new technologies in the ’00s, becoming the standard for home and portable viewing today.
While the 4:3 ratio evokes the VHS era in which Mid90s is set (in the trailer, you see Stevie’s skater friends filming themselves with a camcorder), it could be argued that Hill’s choice stems from his relationship with director Gus Van Sant, with whom he’s just completed Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Van Sant used 4:3 to shoot his 2003 film Elephant, which chronicled the events leading up to a school shooting in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. Mid90s cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt was first assistant camera on that film, as well as director of photography on Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.
The ratio was also used in flashback scenes and to highlight different time periods in films such as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Although, technically speaking, the latter’s 1930s scenes were in 1.37:1 ratio, a touch wider than 4:3.
While doing press for War Dogs in 2016, Hill teased Mid90s and its influences, saying, “It’s sort of like a coming-of-age drama — it’s the most boring elevator pitch in the world, but it takes place in a skateboarding scene in the mid ’90s in LA… Skateboarding’s always been put on screen as a joke or an ’80s ‘cowabunga’ kind of trope, and it’s more in the tone of Kids or This Is England. Those are kind of the movies that I’m influenced by the most.”
The Mid90s trailer seems decidedly less like Christian Slater’s 1989 skate action flick Gleaming the Cube and far closer spiritually to This Is England, Shane Meadows’ 2006 film about an outcast boy being taken under the wing of a group of skinheads in dreary small-town England in the ’80s.
In a memorable exchange in the trailer, the gang of skaters can be seen trading insults with a security guard (played by Jerrod Carmichael). It evokes a similar exchange across a chain-link divide in 1986 coming-of-age classic Stand by Me, when protagonists Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern lob insults at a junkyard owner.
For more Jonah Hill, The Dropcast traces the history of his style.