Monday Prescriptions – Can you really be a multi-hyphenate actor-director-writer or are you crazy?

Hi Film Folk!!

Hope all is going well with you and your projects?

This week The Film Doctor Team are going to cover one of the most common (but least covered) film oddities…

Multi-hyphenate Film Doctor


We’ve all seen it. The business card that reads:

‘John Smith. Screenwriter-Actor-Director-Cinematographer-Composer’.

Many have been it. Maybe you are it now. But there are key questions surrounding such a bold proclamation. Questions of skill, of interest, of why?

Today our Monday Prescription will guide you through reasons why you would and wouldn’t make such (potentially wild) declarations, the effect it can have on your career and, if you do want to do more than one thing, how to do it!



There is not one doubt in the world that with the right experience, skill, innate talent and training (self-taught or schooled) that we are capable of almost anything. You CAN paint pictures, fly planes, build houses in one life time. Any thing is possible if you believe it is and put the right amount of dedication and effort into it. You can direct, act, write and organise.

But, as you will expect, there are a few hard realities that stand in the way.




The Confusion

Every word or visual communicates something, whether you want it to or not. Obviously, one person’s perception of you is tied to their own personal experiences too but, that aside, your business cards, clothing, piercings, conversation, website all give off a certain impression to people.

Now, many people are scared of the unfamiliar. They need you to be one thing so they can relax in that knowledge. They want you to be a banker who reads the FT or an actress who acts or a painter who only paints. It says to them that you are this one thing and that’s that. End of story!

When they read a business card with all of that information on it saying you can do x, y and z, they don’t immediately think ‘WOAH, that’s impressive! They can do all of those things while I’m a mere executive.’ They think ‘OK, well what are you really?’ or worse ‘they haven’t quite found out what to specialise in yet.’

Now of course, if you’re already proven, if you already have a glittering career in various art forms then you have the track record to back it. The fame, perhaps. But if you are early on in your career then you’ll have a lot of fulfilling to do.


Mixing Below-the-line  and Above-the-line 

(Definitions of Above the line and Below the line for those who don’t know).

If you are pitching yourself on your card, or in person, as a director/assistant director/locations manager, and what you really want to do is direct, then you might find things tricky.

The people on high (producers, executives and star actors) are looking for a person with a vision when they talk to a director.

Say you have been an assistant director on over 40 successful Studio movies. Or an editor on 10 classics. Fantastic. You’ll probably want to communicate your industry experience and contacts in SOME way…but guess what??

Being an acclaimed assistant director does not mean you can tell a story for 90+ minutes. Being an editor might do but it doesn’t prove you can direct a production.

Apart from the obvious contacts and industry respect you’ll have garnered from your years in the business as an AD/Editor, you are still more or less totally unproven as a director and the only way you’re going to prove this is by a.) directing films and b.) setting out to pitch yourself as this and this alone.

Maybe you’ve added the locations manager or assistant director titles because you think ‘hey, maybe I’ll bump into someone who’ll need one of those. I might as well make some cash doing that in the process.’ Great. You might. But you could also be sabotaging your chances of being taken seriously as a director (or screenwriter or whatever it is you’re trying to be/transition to).


  •  Don’t mix above and below the line on your card/presentation
  • Don’t expect to be taken any more seriously in your prospective role just because you have valuable big-time experience in another department.
  • If you don’t want to fully transition to a position and only want to direct/write/act in one project for fun then maybe the above applies less but you still might have some serious convincing to do on many levels (unless you have friends in high places who can sort it all for you).
 Film Doctor

Not Sure 

Many students come out of film school or drop their full time job thinking that, because of their love for Scorsese or another big director, they want to be a director. Perhaps you come to find that it isn’t so much being the visionary that suits you but just being involved in the film process. Perhaps you’re still trying your hand at things (hence the multiple titles).

In that case, explore each area of the film process heavily. Read books, get general experience in pre-prod, prod and post-prod and see what suits you and what you love.  Then choose your target and THEN start proclaiming what you can do!


Below the line

You’ve decided that you’re not after fame and glory and you don’t really have anything to say about the world and you’re happy just to be ‘behind the scenes’.

Technology and methodology is constantly evolving and true specialists keep up-to-date with the changes in software, hardware and general system advances. Don’t think you can pitch yourself as a great DOP and an excellent 1st AD and be taken seriously. There is little chance you will have had the time to truly have mastered both. Have respect for the intricacies and depth of each job and OWN one!

You’re a fantastic AD and love it but you like shooting too? There is nothing wrong with shooting as a hobby! Not everything has to be turned into a career and has to end up on your business card!


Famous Multi-hyphenate Case Studies

So let’s say you KNOW what you want and it’s not a below-the-line technical, creative or organisational job. You are an artist through and through. You want to direct, act and write. End of story.

Again, we ask you why? Is there an element of each process that leaves you unfulfilled in one way, meaning you must do all three to feel fully satisfied? Or are you writing and directing yourself into a project to launch your acting career? Or directing to launch a writing career? Is it ego or practicality? The hunger for credit alone will not do you any favours. The reasons must be much much more valuable.


Here are some examples of the who and why for some leading names:

Vin Diesel wrote, directed and starred in a short film ‘Multi-Facial’ and then a feature ‘Strays’ after years of dead-ends, so that he could get cast in bigger productions.

Billy Bob Thornton also wrote, directed and starred in ‘Swing Blade’ to launch himself as a lead actor.

Orson Welles was head of the Mercury Theatre and said that he wasn’t even really interested in directing a film but would do it if he had total control. This was one of the earliest pre-existing platform deals (Welles had risen to fame through his War of the Worlds radio broadcast and theatre productions and RKO wanted to cash in on his fame).

Louis CK had a similar deal. He was happy with doing stand up. When various TV broadcasters wanting to cash in, he made a deal with FX where he would have total control.

Woody Allen had been a famous one-liner writer for news columns and then a stand up, before becoming enamoured with films. It was, again, for a cash in venture that he got to write and direct ‘What’s up Tiger Lily?’ If Allen had simply started out as a director it would not have made economic sense for him to star. Allen is also seen as a fantastic clarinetist and plays locally in New York every week.

Owen Wilson co-wrote ‘Bottle Rocket’, ‘Rushmore’ and ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ with Wes Anderson to launch his acting career but has not written since the latter.

Quentin Tarantino had written various spec scripts and become a hot writer in Hollywood before pushing forward with his directing dreams. He had initially set out to be an actor and, after Pulp Fiction, tried to play as many roles as possible (From Dusk til Dawn, Four Rooms) to launch his acting career but he had directed his first two films too brilliantly and struggled to find work.

Previous Film Doctor interviewee Dean Craig directed a 10 minute short of his feature spec Death at a Funeral to get industry attention for his film. Read his interview here.

Jan de Bont worked as a cinematographer for nearly 3 decades before making the transition to director. Presumably as years interpreting a director’s vision led him to want to tell his own stories.


It’s important to note three things:

1. That many of the above are/were performers and many have worked on dialogue-driven pieces and/or paired with fantastic cinematographers (Welles with Greg Toland, Allen with Gordon Willis – both cinematographers considered geniuses in their fields. Definitely lightening the load for the multi-hyphenate!)

2. Before becoming a multi-hyphenate each had enjoyed success in another department.

3. Often, each of them are known as better in one department than another (perhaps directing over acting or vice versa). It is only perhaps Welles, Allen, and maybe now Affleck, that have equal recognition in several arenas. A very rare status.

4. Actors have used their star power to bankroll their directing projects or, earlier on, written and directed to kick off their acting careers. Likewise writers have directed to launch their writing name. So neccessity is often the mother!

Here’s a list of other multi-hyphenates.



Tunnel Vision gets you to the light at the end of it

With the above in mind, it is worth considering how one skill, talent or dream feeds the other and that perhaps channeling your time and energy into one singular vision is the best way forward, with a view to then expanding later down the line.

This works in very much the same way any business does, except YOU are the brand. Perhaps, Richard Branson always had dreams of his brand name Virgin, appearing on everything from planes and banks to drinks and gyms but he started with one thing – a record store – until that was successful. Don’t expand until you have a solid foundation first!

As Allen started in comedy writing, Welles with the Mercury Theatre and Tarantino with his writing, what will be your one area to first succeed in??

It might mean a few years not doing your other loves but you can springboard eventually!


Who am I????

As we said at the beginning, you must ask yourself can you do the jobs that you claim and why are you putting all these titles on one card? Perhaps you need to make a tag cloud to see what you really are??



Or perhaps a simple monitoring of your own activity (browsing your bookshelves, DVD library or diary for clues) could help.

If what you are on paper isn’t what you want then start making efforts towards expanding or transitioning. Buy the right books, write more, direct more, act more. Do what you need to fulfill what you say you are or trim back what you are saying!


Go For It!

Remember, The Film Doctor Team never say never. We are here to help and enable you. You CAN do many things. Just ask yourself what you really want, ask yourself if you CAN do those things and know that the best way forward must be considered very carefully so that you can get what you really want with less delay!


‘Monday Prescription’ No.60 – The renaissance man or woman is not a mythical unreachable beast but make sure you really are one and approach things the right way if it is really what you want.


Join the conversation on Facebook or email us for help with your own personal conundrum:


Read Part 2 here.

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Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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5 thoughts on “Monday Prescriptions – Can you really be a multi-hyphenate actor-director-writer or are you crazy?

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Wicked post! I was just discussing this very thing with some folk as Cannes is getting closer. It is so important to be clear and specific about your goals and intentions (even if you do have a multitude of skills/hats in your backpack) or you’ll come across as wishy washy and not-to-be-trusted.
    Thanks for the great summation and each pro and con.

    • April 23, 2013 at 9:59 am

      Thanks Angela. We have a Part 2 of this coming up, including ways you can be a multi-hyphenate from the off. Cases in point include Seth MacFarlane, Trey Parker and Matt Stone and more. Many seem to be either animators, comedians or both! We’re also re-sharing some Cannes posts in a week or so.

      Glad you enjoyed. And hope you have a great Cannes. We’ll be out there!

      The Film Doctor Team

  • April 24, 2013 at 8:19 am

    Interesting article, and I agree with the issue of sending confusing signals to people not knowing who you are/what you really do. I work as an actor, photographer and film maker, but I generally keep the acting side of my work separate (i.e. I leave that off the business cards and in the hands of my agent) – the work I might need a business card for is photography and film making, which are at least related fields in some ways, so I have both of them on my card. (I think people booking me as a photographer may find it interesting that I make films, though people wanting me to film may be less interested in the photography!). I often end up DoP and Editor on my film projects (due to budget) but I wouldn’t clutter my card or website with this information because those aren’t my passions. I think your card should be clearly what you’re good at and driven to do, and your CV can then show the other things you’ve done…

  • Pingback: Monday Prescriptions – How To Be Orson Welles | Film Doctor

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