Making the Un-Musical

Filmmaker and musician Mack Hoskins abandoned his job in advertising to reinvent a form he loved and hated. He’s happy about that now.

Mack Hoskins

By Ron Wagner

Mack Hoskins hated working in advertising and has never much cared for modern musical films, either. Changing one meant changing the other.

“I came to the conclusion if I’m making money doing this thing that’s secure but I’m not happy, then what is the point of doing it?” he says. “I’ve always been creative, especially musically, but it really wasn’t until I knew I wanted to make a pivot that I thought about becoming a filmmaker. I hadn’t made any films on even an amateur level. So, I was going to take a risk, I guess, and go to art school. And it was the best decision I ever made.”

Hoskins quit his job, enrolled in the Watkins MFA in Film program, and started swinging for the fences artistically. The culmination so far is Ollie, his thesis production, and a completely different future on the horizon.

Ollie follows Daniel, a shy musician, as he returns to his childhood home in small-town Kentucky. Ollie, the beloved family dog from his youth, has died, and Daniel learns that his estranged, neglectful mother is in poor health and needs live-in assistance. The two must try to reconcile the “familial demons of past and the present” as they deal with their grief.

The film is inspired by Hoskins’s own upbringing in rural Kentucky, though he stresses it’s not based on actual events.

“When I started out making Ollie, I wanted to make a musical for me,” Hoskins says. “That idea kind of turned into I’m going to make a musical that subverts the tropes of musicals at every step.”

The subversion starts with very long takes, and instead of “bright colors and city lights, it’s a small, dismal town with a very stark and cold feeling.” But the most striking departure from the norm is how the music is used narratively.

“A lot of musicals use the musical numbers to kind of put the story on hold. The plot’s not progressing. We’re just watching an entertaining dance number,” he says. “And there’s some entertainment value to that, but I really wanted to use music in a different way. Just because we’re watching a musical number doesn’t mean the story has to stop, so I used the music to try to get into the interior lives of characters and kind of explore how these people are feeling and thinking.”

I was going to take a risk and go to art school. And it was the best decision I ever made.

That decision allowed Hoskins to experiment with the type of music he would incorporate into the film, which was perhaps the most subversive part of his genre-bending. To honor the material and the tones, he created a score made up of the “indie, folk-rock kind of stuff” he likes, citing the likes of Radiohead and Dirty Projectors as examples.

“Those are artists who are taking these late-classical period ideas and incorporating them into pop and rock music. What I find really interesting is when I hear a song, or there’s an unconventional chord change, and I can’t quite place how it was put together,” Hoskins says. “Classical Hollywood musicals, when they started becoming popular in the early 20th century, basically used pop music … and it kind of never evolved past that largely. I just didn’t love the music. I love music as an art form, but musical films didn’t grab me for that reason.”

Hoskins was a quintuple threat on his project: He wrote the Ollie screenplay, composed three of four original songs and lyrics, all while co-producing, directing, and editing the film. Maybe add a sixth and seventh skill, too: He was the singing voice of the lead character and played several of the instruments on the studio recordings for the musical numbers. But even with that Prince-like level of control and versatility be couldn’t do it alone.

Hoskins still needed a Daniel, and the bar was pretty high for whoever took on the role. In addition to being able to act, he had to be able to sing and play the guitar and piano.

“I had to find someone really talented for that. I was worried. I sent e-mails to the deepest crevices of Nashville actors and reached out to everybody I could,” Hoskins says. “Luckily, I found Rusty Enger, who did an incredible job. I couldn’t have asked for a better lead.”

As is so often the case in life, a bit of serendipity was involved. Enger, a professional musician, had just dipped his toe in the acting pool at the Nashville Acting Studio when he saw Hoskins’s advertisement. And then he decided to play a Radiohead song at his audition.

Done, and done.

“That was actually the first film I’ve ever been in, but I was a music major so I’ve been playing instruments my whole life,” Enger says. “I feel like in a city like L.A. where there are a ton of actors someone else would have landed it, but it was just good timing.”

“He definitely brought this detached nature to the piece that I really liked,” Hoskins adds. “The casting process was difficult, but it was absolutely worth going through all the headache because I ended up coming out with a small ensemble who were so dedicated and talented and gave so much of themselves.”

Hoskins was a marketing and French double major as an undergraduate, and while music being his “No. 1 hobby” growing up made him an accomplished singer and guitar and bass player, he never considered an artistic career until stumbling upon video editing in his advertising job. That made him think about film school, and once at Watkins film department chair Richard Gershman proved to be a valuable mentor.

“He challenged me in some ways,” Hoskins says. “There were times when I didn’t take his feedback, and there were times when I was frustrated with his feedback. But at the end of the day it helped me think about so much.”

Now Hoskins turns his camera to what’s next. He plans to submit Ollie to film festivals while continuing to handle video production for a Nashville startup, and he and Enger are working together on a comedy script Enger wrote.

But Ollie will always have a special place in his bio.

“It’s the thing in my life that I have put the most into, [and] I wouldn’t change it for anything,” Hoskins says. “I think I succeeded. I think it feels like me, and it feels like my hometown, and I’m glad that it was so much work. There were times that I didn’t want to work on it and forced myself to work on it anyway, and at the end all of the effort paid off. I have this little piece of my life on a screen and to listen to that other people can feel.”