There's always something exciting about an actor or filmmaker who wants to do more, or be more, than the sum total of his or her success. Curiously, this seems to happen less and less frequently, although perhaps a shortage of ambition is understandable when one can play essentially the same role or make the same kinds of movies over and over again and make a lot of money doing so. But when Jonah Hill devoted the lion's share of an interview on the set of Get Him to the Greek last year to discussing his ambitions to write, produce and direct, it felt more than vaguely inspiring to see the successful young comedian and actor admit that being a funny guy on film wasn't enough for him.
Along with two other online journalists, Cinematical visited the set of Get Him to the Greek last summer and sat down at significant length to talk with Hill, who plays a record-label lackey enlisted to shepherd a drug-addled rock star (played by Russell Brand) to a last-ditch, career-saving performance. Although our initial conversation turned to thoughts of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which we'd seen just days earlier, the discussion quickly evolved into a more thoughtful examination of Hill's present and future career, where he hopes to move more actively into working behind the camera rather than just in front of it.
So how much robot fighting is in this movie?
Jonah Hill: There's not a lot of robot fighting in this film, unfortunately. Can I just say how much I love talking to you guys? Because I read all the film websites and when you do the TV interviews they're really stock like, you don't get to talk about films and your thoughts on films and people are like-for me the point is just to get to have a conversation with other film nerds. So it's like, when you're just answering like how do you get him to the Greek, it's like what the f*ck am I supposed to say to this question?
How do you answer those questions again and again?
Hill: Um, I try to think of a new joke or slant. You know, Russell's really good at it like, he's a showman, he's a stand up, and he's an entertainer and like, you know, I see myself more as a, a film fan. Like I got into it to learn about filmmaking and make films and movies or whatever-not to sound pretentious like your shirt says. I just love, I love like making movies, you know. If I was, if it was free I would be doing it. Like when I'm on my off time, I go hang out with directors and DPs and ask them questions, and go on their sets and watch them work because that's what's really exciting-
Does this mean that you're looking to direct?
Hill: Yeah, I think I'm going to direct a movie. Definitely. I definitely want to transition smoothly. Nothing too big. Maybe something really small. You know I've been writing a lot and producing-the first movie I was producer on was Bruno. Um, which is really exciting.
What sort of things do you want to direct? Would you want to stay in comedy?
Hill: One of my favorite directors is Albert Brooks. I wrote a movie that I think I'm going to direct when I have some time to do a smaller movie - not like this crazy movie - that's about my late teens, early 20s. That's called Is This It, and it's a real character movie. I wouldn't want to go in on something before I directed something small and the stakes are low. Because people know who I am the stakes are immediately higher and it's easier to be more judgmental about what I'm doing, but if it's really small and it's just a character movie not everyone in the world will see it but the people who catch it can be into it... I like that idea. But I'm really fascinated. I'm one of the producers of Sacha's movie [Borat] and I wrote this movie we're making at Universal, The Adventurer's Handbook with me and Jason Segal and Jason Schwartzman. I think every movie I'm learning more and more about filmmaking before I make that dive. I want to be skilled in it, I want to learn as much as I can and take advantage of the opportunities I have.
What do you learn from Nick Stoller?
Hill: I learn a lot from Nick. I learn the same thing I learn from Judd, which is that you hire people you trust and that if you hire writers listen to what they say. Actors can have great ideas; everyone can have great ideas. A lot of directors wouldn't like the idea of me pitching a shot for their movie. Most would tell me to screw off, and I would know my place with certain people. These are my friends that I feel comfortable doing that. Some people have very controlled ideas, some people want input from people. I would want input from people. If you think you're the smartest guy in the room you're usually wrong. If you hired smart people, why not use their ideas.
I'm assuming this movie grew out of the chemistry you guys had on Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Hill: I think that's what Nick noticed and then he came up with the idea and we talked about it and he thought our scenes were interesting together.
How does that chemistry change when you're changing your character to be someone much straighter?
Hill: I think he noticed that [Russell] and I have a very interesting chemistry. I think I represent Nick and me and Rodney and Judd - a guy like us who is pretty plain jane when you think of our lives. He saw that we all have this weird thing and I'm the actor out of Nick and Judd and I. Nick is I think taking a step forward with this movie. He hired Rob Yeoman and visually it feels like one of the biggest - there are shots that look like they came from Casino. I think he's growing as a storyteller.
Talking about exercising a little bit of power – is that what got your interested in the producing side of things?
Hill: No, I think I just love movies. I think what's interesting is, did you guys see Observe and Report? I loved that movie. I liked it. It's dark and it's definitely different from Seth or what you would expect from Seth, but what I loved about it was Seth used his power to make that movie a reality, you know what I mean? He believed in Jody [Hill] and Jody's great, and that that is a mainstream Warner Brothers comedy and that's what it was is like incredible that exists. That's a movie at least I think will be a cult movie 20 years from now. For me it's like I'm really lucky that people want me in movies right now; you know, that could change tomorrow or in a year. But I just want to make movies that I would want to see.
After Superbad, Seth had just gone through it with Knocked Up, and he was like, "you're going to have all of this opportunity," and I was like, well, how do you choose what you should do? He said, "well, first of all, you're a writer, so you need to write stuff – Judd [Apatow] always said that to me way before anyone wanted me in a movie" (laughs). So I have the ability and want to create my own stuff based on my own influences, based on what I like, and that I feel like there's a lack of out there. And the other thing was, "never make a movie you wouldn't go see." Sometimes you'll get this independent drama where you have some crazy story where your dad's really your mom or something (laughs). I know I my head I should be doing this; this is like a great director. But in reality, there are prestigious directors but I might not watch their movies. So it's like things like that have come along and I have really applied that rule, to really not to just be in any movie that's offered to me or allowed me to be in it. So I think producing and writing just comes from the fact that you want to protect the director that you hired, you want to make sure to protect your words, or just that the movie ends up the way you want it to be.
You're at an interesting point in your career, because you want to write and produce movies that you like, but this is Hollywood.
Hill: I do have a responsibility.
You have to make movies that make money that ultimately give you the freedom to do those projects. How do you juggle that?
Hill: The good news is I genuinely love comedy [and I'm in a] great place right now financially so it's not like this movie is a big, crazy risk, because our movies are kind of doing well right now. But I genuinely love this movie, so it's not The King of Comedy, it's not Goodfellas, but it's f*cking great. It's really funny and a joy to work on, and I'm proud of the work we're accomplishing. I'll do a smaller movie when I'm lucky enough to have a script like a Duplass brothers script come to me. It all just worked out perfectly; I mean, I've been working really hard – this is my third movie in a row without a break because I did Funny People, the Duplass brothers movie and then this – but it was just perfect timing. And then, next year might be my favorite year of my career; I'll have a Dreamworks movie coming out, this movie, and the Duplass brothers movie. That's pretty much exactly what I want to do – a really interesting smaller movie, and a big comedy, you know what I mean? That really to me, if I could do that as long as people will let me, I will be really fulfilled.
My influences, what I love is I always talk about The Big Lebowski and it's my favorite movie, I think, because one of my biggest – the things like when people say what are you interested in, you assume it's something different than it actually is. Like I think my biggest influence is probably the movie Goodfellas because I look at the comedic moments in that movie, and they're funnier than any comedy I've ever seen. You look at the action and dramatic moments and they're more dramatic and action-filled than any moments you've ever seen. I feel like The Big Lebowski took like the moments of a Scorsese movie and made it like a whole movie, where it's really tastefully in an artistic way done, but it's a f*cking straight insane comedy, you know what I mean? And Observe and Report was great like that because I like Tim Orr, the way he shoots, and I think Lebowski is a beautifully-shot, balls-out comedy, if that's a possibility. If I can make a movie like that – the Coen brothers are pretty incredible.
As a writer and actor, do you make a distinction between tailoring a role to yourself as opposed to tailoring lines you would say to a character?
Hill: Well, it's funny because with The Adventurer's Handbook, we wrote it and there's a fourth character we haven't cast yet, but there's four friends, and it's [Jason] Schwartzman, [Jason] Segel and I, and luckily enough, we got the people that we wrote those two parts for. We wrote this movie, Max [Winkler], Max [Spicer] and I, my friends who I write with, and it was a struggle in certain parts because Schwartzman is the funniest character in the movie. Who knows what it will actually be like when we shoot it, but Schwartzman's character, on paper, is the funniest part of the movie. Every good joke, we had to then go back and do a pass for Segel and a pass for me afterwards, but his character is the funniest character in the movie. So as a writer and a producer and a guy behind the film, I had to go, like, okay, we wrote a great joke – we're giving it to Schwartzman. In my head, after that I'm like "f*ck that! Why am I writing this movie so Jason can become the funniest guy in the movie. But you have to look outside of it, and that's what I really learned from Seth, because Judd and Evan are clearly amazing writers, but Seth had never once since I've known him been like I need to be the funniest character in the movie, or when I write a funny joke, it has to go to me.
That's what it feel like a lot of the problems are with comedies is that there's one guy who kills, and everyone else kind of supports him, whereas if you could make a movie where everybody – in this movie, I pitched jokes for everyone. Because I want the movie to be good, and it only helps me if this movie is hilarious. Ego is the only thing that can ruin that when you're behind a movie because acting in it, you're like, alright, give that good joke to me, but if Russell kills and I'm just standing next to him, it's great.