Monday Prescriptions – Can you really be a multi-hyphenate actor-writer-director or are you crazy? – Part 2

Hi Film Folk!!

After last week’s post about multi-hyphenates, where we surmised that it’s best to succeed in one role first before venturing out into another (the way Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and Ben Affleck did) The Film Doctor Team are now going to focus this week’s Monday Prescription on the alternative:

How to start your career as a fully fledged actor-writer-director..



Now, with our last post, we offered several paths to multi-hyphenate success. All involved short-term compromise for long-term gain.  We had actors who wrote themselves into parts to launch themselves, creatives who dipped in and out of each creative area and stand-ups who became actor-writer-directors.

The options on how to launch yourself as everything all at once…aren’t quite so numerous.


1. Comedians

It seems that multi-hyphenate-ville is most heavily populated with funny people. Whether we look back to classic comedy actor-writer-directors such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin or consider contemporary cases such as Ben Stiller, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Louis CK, the bulk of ‘triple-threats’ seem to be jokers. Perhaps this is because comedy is such a rare essence, gifted to so few people, that studios, producers and the comics themselves just know a project won’t be as hilarious without the creator being an integral part of every stage.

There’s obviously not much you can do if you’re not comically minded but it’s worth noting that there is a major practical reason that comics fill multiple roles in their projects – because they have a specific gift for comedy in mindset, timing and performance that no-one else can match.

Another interesting observation is that many were raised in extremely fertile environments for their comedic/performing growth – Chaplin and Keaton were both onstage by the tender age of 3 and 5 years old! Both sets of parents were performers or artists.

Buster Keaton with Mum and Dad in their show The Three Keatons

2. Animation

Some of the most successful multi-hyphenates work in animation – writing, directing and voicing many characters. Seth MacFarlane, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have all forged careers from their multitude of talents and again (!) are firmly nestled in the comedy department.

Parker and Stone had the benefit of being a twosome, a much less lonely and hair-tearing prospect, and had their University of Colorado short animation Jesus vs. Frosty  discovered by a Fox executive. They were commissioned another short, Jesus vs. Santa, and from there, South Park was born.

Here’s Parker and Stone’s first animation short:


Seth MacFarlane is rumoured to have been a savant at an early age – drawing comics at two years old. He made several animations at the Rhode Island School of Design and was put forward to Hanna-Barbera by his tutor where he secured a place with his short ‘The Life of Larry’. He worked on shows such as Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo and Dexter’s Laboratory before pitching his short projects to Fox with a view to a series.

Here’s MacFarlane’s first animation short:


3. Small Parts

Kevin Smith, Spike Lee and Roman Polanski all enjoyed roles in their first ever films but note the size of the role. Unlike actors who used their first film as a leading man/lady launchpad and then dropped writing/directing, these multi-hyphenates continued to both act-write-direct but only ever acted in undemanding parts. Kevin Smith’s character was SILENT! Roman Polanski tended to play butlers and assistants and Spike Lee’s films were often ensemble. It seems each knew that, to create a good film and act, they would have to take a bit part and no more.

The same went with Ben Affleck in Argo, a film which consisted of many characters and required an understated performance for Affleck’s character.

Edward Burns, perhaps one of the most prolific actor-writer-directors to have launched himself, always scripted his films semi-autobiographically and, although taking much larger roles than most of the above multi-hyphenates, always played characters close to himself. It was not too much of a stretch! He started his career (after a few years working as production assistant and other below the line roles) with The Brothers McMullen.

It could be argued that any other decent working actor could have played those roles and therefore what was the purpose of the writer/director’s participation?? Perhaps they ‘felt right’ for the part. Perhaps it was just for fun. Either way they did not let the acting element of their multi-hyphenate launch overwhelm the overall project.




4. The Sacrifice

So what is the real sacrifice here? What do you lose by doing all three? What do you gain?

  • Writing, to an extent, can be eliminated from the dilemma, since if you have prepared and perfected your screenplay enough beforehand then you should only have to consider visual storytelling, the occasional line-change and your performance on set.
  • As a visual artist you might lose some control over how the picture will look and how the story is told if your acting part is too big. This can be remedied by hiring a cinematographer that you have a great connection with and is highly accomplished in their own right.
  • As an actor you might not have a meaty enough role to get noticed for other acting parts (if that is part of the reason you want to be in front of the camera in your own production). It is unlikely that your peformance will have the depth and nuance as actors Meryl Streep, Joaquin Phoenix, Daniel Day-Lewis or Nicole Kidman (if that is required/is your aim). In this case it might be better to write-act-produce and hire a remarkable up-and-coming director who you think will do the project justice.
  • Perhaps you want a varied creative life? Edward Burns is a perfect example of achieving that balance between doing his own projects, other indie projects and studio movies. He operates in his own sphere and seems to enjoy his life immensely.




As we said to you last week, one of the most important questions to ask yourself is why do you want to do all of these things? What makes it important to you or to the viewer? As creatives we must continually learn about ourselves and the world, either in life or through our work, so ask yourself what it is that makes you want to/think you want to/think you can do all of these things at once and then consider whether your answer is a valuable and healthy one.

Just because you CAN do everything doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Desperation is the stink that surrounds many aspiring creatives. Continued failure/lack of success often leads to trying other outlets. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that but you must know your endgame. You must know where the goal is before you kick the ball.

Be hard. Ask yourself why and be honest. Ask yourself if it is achievable. Is the acting part easy and undemanding for you? Will it ruin your chances of making a good film? Or will directing it ruin your performance/chances of being spotted as an actor? Do you really want to direct or are you just ‘having a go’ to ‘see how it goes’?

Understand yourself so you do not waste precious time doing something irrelevant!


‘Monday Prescription’ No.61 – The key to starting out as a Film multi-hyphenate is self-knowledge, calculation and balance. Be wary of the pitfalls and accommodate. Do not spread yourself too thin or you may experience a huge drop in quality in certain departments.


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The Film Doctor Team
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