One of the north stars for the film, Mid90s, was “authenticity”. From the superb direction of Writer/Director, Jonah Hill, in his debut film to the incredible acting from newcomers like Sunny Suljic and Na-kel Smith, everything in the film feels real. In fact, to describe it as “real” would be an understatement considering its multifaceted level of purity shown on screen.
Thus, the masterful production design goes hand-in-hand with what is shown on screen and Mid90s is able to present a reality that feels intimately familiar and truthful.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we spoke with Jahmin Assa, who is the Production Design for Mid90s.
INT: First off, we were curious how the opportunity to do the film, Mid90s, came about? What was it about it that made you want to work on it?
JA: I met Jonah Hill on a movie I designed for Gus Van Sant called Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot. I had read his script the year before and told him I loved it. We are both from Los Angeles , and I had grown up in the world and time and with a bunch of the actual kids that were the inspiration for the film. I guess he liked what I was doing on the Gus Van Sant film and asked me to work on Mid 90’s. I started scouting a week after the other film ended.
I think we really connected from our taste in music, art , and growing up in Los Angeles. It was a movie that spoke to me in a very genuine way.
Latchkey kids, pre Internet, pre cell phone, skating or the bus as the only real transportation of the time. Growing up with a single mom with no guidance and an angry brother who wants to beat the shit out of you all the time. That’s what skating and that time was about. Finding something and someone to connect to, something that didn’t judge you in a conventional way. The script had a simple honesty that really depicted those feelings without being heavy handed.
INT: Jonah Hill, the Film's Writer and Director, has mentioned in Interviews the amount of research that went into making sure that items and settings were accurate and represented the time period. From a Production Design standpoint, can you explain what that process was like for you and your team?
JA: It’s strange to think of 1995 being more than 20 years ago, but it is , and this made it a period piece. However, it’s the closest to now that a period piece could be. We wanted to be a simple accent and background to the kids and the time. Jonah and I talked at length about not making some “ode to the 90’s” with all kinds of obvious props and dressing. For a period piece, you have to include things from before the era of your story, and then sprinkle current dressing on top. The houses needed to feel like they were decorated in the mid 80’s and had been slowly adding things here and there. We wanted the skate shop to feel like skate shops felt back then: like it could close down the next week, like the shop graphics were done by whoever they knew that could draw the best.
The movie was originally set in West Los Angeles, but as cities change over 20 years, places don’t look the same. We found a defunct karate studio in East LA and built the skate shop into it.
The characters were so well-defined. However, the subjects and culture of skating and hip hop in general has always been bastardized in a very obvious way. We wanted to make sure everything was completely authentic to the era and the people we were representing. The skate shop was the toughest, because we knew if we made any mistakes, it would be called out as phony immediately. Luckily, we were based in Southern California, where many of the original people were from, so we we were able to get the blessing from some.
INT: Stevie's Residence is a memorable location in the Film and there are notable scenes inside the house (Stevie’s Room, Ian’s Room, Backyard, etc.). Was there a specific house/layout that you had in mind beforehand? Was there anything that drew you to that location?
JA: Los Angeles in the 90’s was pre-gentrification. There was a middle class and lower middle class of working people with simple houses in the city. I wanted a simple ranch house, that was slightly run down and stood alone. Most houses in Los Angeles, in the style we were looking for, have been torn down with larger modern ones replacing them.
Two things were essential: a long hallway that connected the bedrooms for the fight scene between Stevie and his older brother, Ian, and a curb for Stevie to learn to ollie while being able to see into the living room where he could see his mom, lonely watching TV. I knew the perfect house in the Reseda area of the Valley that I had scouted it for a previous project. The woman who owned the house was over 100 years old and most things hadn’t been updated since the 1960’s.
The rooms were the perfect layout with Stevie’s, his Mom’s and Ian’s all being connected by one long hallway with a bathroom in the middle. We wanted to keep the palette of the house very low-contrast with lots of creams, beige and light woods. We wanted Stevie’s life to feel very vanilla, suburban and bland before he is opened up to the more rich world of the city and the skate shop.
Ian was the loner - an angry, suburban, OCD, hip hop kid. Every CD, cassette, Jordan sneaker, hip hop poster, baseball cap, and polo shirt was organized and curated in a precise way. Then we gave him samurai swords and a weight bench to express his anger.
Stevie’s room started off as the typical 90’s kid’s room. It was messy, before you really care, filled with Pogs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Beavis and Butthead and Space Jam posters. This ultimately gives way to his new individuality and character. Gone are the toys and video game posters, replaced with tear-outs of Big Brother and Slap Skate Magazine plastered on the walls.
For the sequences of Stevie learning to ollie, the house had a carport and a lot of feral bushes so we cut back the bushes, poured a real cement patio and built a garage next to it.
INT: It was revealed that a famous skate spot near the West L.A. Courthouse was recreated for the Film and that a Girl’s “Mouse” Video was used as a template when trying to recreate the location. Can you explain what that process was like?
JA: The courthouse was a seminal illegal Los Angeles skate spot. Mouse immortalized it. Of course, when we went to scout the location, the City (with the help of some sponsors like Nike) had turned it into a legal skate park. They had painted the stage and amphitheater and all the cement benches a very modern red and black. They had also put up brand new shiny chain linked fencing around the entire perimeter to try and keep out the homeless and the drugs. The City was cool and allowed us to paint it all back to Los Angeles’ municipal beige, take down the fences, and bring in a ton of trash and trashcans. We researched and copied some of the graffiti tags and signage that we saw in Mouse, and littered the place with period correct skate stickers. We made hundreds of period correct boards with the smaller wheels of the time. It was fantastic to see the hundreds of background kids just skating all day in the end.
Jahmin Assa is a Production Designer and has worked on various Films, Music Videos and Commercials.