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My Breakthrough Moment

Sweetshop director Jim Hosking looks back at the experimental MTV film that got him hooked on directing and world-building, for Creative Review's 'My Breakthrough Moment'.

My Breakthrough Moment: Director Jim Hosking

On top of his feature films including The Greasy Strangler, comedy director Jim Hosking has worked on ads for Skittles, Cadbury and Xbox. He looks back on how an MTV competition steered his path into comedy.

I had been working as a copywriter at the agency Mother in London when I got the chance to work at MTV in New York as a writer and director of ‘on-air promos’. I think ‘on-air promos’ are those short commercials on MTV that have an MTV logo at the end and can be about anything.

So I was excited to go to New York and to start directing at MTV where they would let me do whatever I wanted.

But it didn’t work out exactly as I had hoped.

I arrived in New York on a snowy April night, placed in a corporate apartment in the deserted financial district where everything was wrapped in plastic apart from my bed.

The next morning I went to Times Square on the subway. I saw a policeman and asked him where MTV was. He pointed at the huge Viacom building opposite. As I crossed the road, I thought: how did I come here and have no idea where MTV was? How could I be so ill-prepared?

On the first day, in fact on the first morning, I was asked to write a bunch of ideas for a generic MTV campaign. I handed them in to the creative director. And then I went for lunch.

When I came back from lunch my stack of scripts was back on my desk with a post it note stuck on top. The post it note read: Enough of this lame-ass Monty Python shit already.

I thought it was strange that he had said ‘enough of this already’ when I had only been there about three hours. I thought he could have allowed me to indulge in at least one solid day of my lame-ass Monty Python shit. But apparently not.

So from the get-go I felt like I didn’t fit in. They didn’t like my ideas. I had gone there to direct. And that didn’t seem to be happening. I was apparently being employed as a copywriter again.

Incidentally, in a power move, they had also put me in the one room in the department with no windows. It was a quarter of the size of the other offices. I think it was previously a broom cupboard. Or maybe it housed a vacuum cleaner and a mop. It was tiny. Also every office had to have a TV in it playing MTV 24/7. Even my mop cupboard. I don’t think I had ever watched MTV previously. I couldn’t stand it. I started to wonder what I was doing there. Yes there were compensations such as riding in the elevator with the tiny topless singer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers in his silver trousers as he went to the 7th floor to record a show with Carson Daly. Wait, with who?? But I was feeling completely out of my element and unwanted.

Until there came word of a glorious competition! A glorious competition open to all MTV employees!

Whoever could come up with the best short film idea to the title ’The Story Of Max and Harper’ would then be able to make this idea into an actual short film that would run across North America on The MTV. Incidentally, everybody in the Viacom building called MTV ‘The MTV’. I didn’t. Which was one of my many problems.

Now, as much as I couldn’t stand the title ’The Story Of Max and Harper’, I wanted to make a short film that would run across North America on The MTV.

I came up with an idea about a man called Harper who has such a massive nose that a construction worker tells him that he needs to give the nose a name. So the film is about Harper trying to name his nose, with the help of the customers in a coffee shop called Bosom Bagels. Eventually, after four minutes that feel like a lifetime, Harper decides to call his nose Max.

For some reason MTV liked my lame-ass idea. And so it was that I came to make ’The Story Of Max and Harper’ and it ran on MTV across North America.

It’s an absolutely unholy mess of a film. But I was allowed free rein to completely experiment and the film is a forewarning of many of my obsessions. And I got hooked on directing and world-building. The buck stopped with me. For good or for bad. And that’s what I wanted.

I also found I didn’t think about what anyone else thought about it. I just did it. I focussed on what felt right when I was doing it. So that’s what I did.

The film starts with Harper walking along the road past two construction workers. One construction worker shouts ‘Hey! You’ve got a massive nose! You should give it a name!’

Harper then walks into a coffee shop called Bosom Bagels to complete this mission. And he is confronted by the most eclectic cast I could find. Something I have always held onto. To me absolutely everybody who is on camera is an opportunity. Background, featured or lead.

I cast two chefs. One was huge, one was tiny. Each one made the other look even stranger.

I cast a white man as a sausage maniac, gave him some joke teeth (something I reprised in my film the Greasy Strangler now I think of it) and gave him a doo rag, which is a kind of hip hop hairnet. And I gave him large gold chains. I think I did a lot of that because we were filming in Brooklyn, what I believed to be the home of hip hop. I cast a professorial looking older man and had him naked from the waist down. I cast a sweet looking older woman and had her flick her tongue in and out with demonic lust when she looked at the older man’s naked bottom. I painted a two-way arrow as a moustache on an Asian man to make him seem magical. I then finished the film off with a fist fight with an old man who compliments Harper’s nose, but Harper is angered because the old man doesn’t refer to the nose by name. Because the nose is now called Max. And then finally the mole on the nose starts talking. The mole reveals that Max is not actually his name. And that his name is in face Uncle Loobin King Of The Boobins. But he says that Harper can call him Max, and that they can save the name Uncle Loobin King Of The Boobins for ceremonial occasions.

Now, if you have found this exhausting to read, imagine how it was to edit this film. Please may I never go back to revisit this edit whether in a dream or in a reality.

But the point I am trying to make is that it was during the making of this film that I first experienced some kind of creative freedom. And so in a way I was able to get closer to finding my voice. Of course my voice and your voice both change over the years. But the specifics of our voices also include such attributes as decision-making, confidence, boldness, fear of failure and the desire to take risks. And I think it was here, as I jumped into the deep end, that I first exposed myself and had no fear of failure and also loved that feeling of taking a risk. That’s what directing is about. it’s about making decisions. And having to live with them and accept them. Films, like all artistic statements, are markers in time. They are reminders. They don’t have to be perfect. In a way they’re much more relatable when they aren’t. I’ve never sought perfection. I seek some kind of honesty and genuine expression. And that can be found in completely absurd or surreal work like this as much as it can be found in the 1970s films of Ingmar Bergman such as Scenes From A Marriage. Yes, I am going to end this article with the words Ingmar Bergman.

As told to Megan Williams.

This article was first published by Creative Review on 27 August, 2020.