IT DEPENDS: The Power (and Responsibility) of Hyphenates

From low-budget to high-budget films, there are filmmakers who take on multiple roles. These individuals are known as “hyphenates.”


Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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Purists might scoff, but doing one thing exceptionally well isn’t the only way to get ahead. In these days of ultra-low-budget productions, it might come in handy to be able to wear a couple of hats. Even high-budget forays can benefit when people understand multiple roles in what it takes to achieve the end result. These individuals even have an established nomenclature for their split personalities. They are known as “hyphenates.”

If you think about it, you are probably already familiar with some of these multitalented individuals. I’m sure you can think of a few writer/directors, writer/producers, actor/directors or actor/producers, director/editors and the like if you just think about it a bit. The moniker is relatively easy to acquire. What’s more difficult to ascertain is just how good at each of these multiple roles the individual truly is. The ability to juggle those responsibilities and tasks will impact greatly the quality of the end product. As is nearly always the case in these columns, it depends.

Hyphenates are everywhere and at every level

It’s not just the Hollywood big-budget players that get in on the hyphenate game. In actual fact, you are much more likely to find hyphenates on a low-budget indie set where you might see: cinematographer/camera operator, script supervisor/continuity, grip/electric, set photography/craft service – and that’s just on my last short film shoot. Heck my own role could have been hyphenated as writer/director/producer/editor/colorist and that’s if you just hit the highlights.

The fact that sometimes a single individual will fill multiple individual roles on a film is a very likely potential on every set. Even though guilds and unions try to discourage this practice for the roles they govern, insisting that only legitimate union/guild members fill one and only one defined job at a time to ensure the fullest employment for their members, you can still find places where those rules don’t apply (or are allowed to be bent) to get the jobs done.

But the use of hyphenated titling hasn’t always been the popular way of marking these multitasking individuals’ roles in filmmaking. Let’s go back a ways and look at where it might have started and why.

The early days of the hyphenates

Back in the days of the silent movies, even before the names for each job title was completely settled upon, you could already see some of the beginnings of the allure of the hyphenate. A great case in point is looking to the early days of the young comedic actor, Charlie Chaplin. Starting out as a successful stage and vaudeville act, his film career began with Mack Sennett at the Keystone Film Company, a famous comedy studio know for its Keystone Cops schtick. Chaplin’s talent was quickly recognized and exploited for the studio’s gain. As soon as his contract would allow Chaplin sought better opportunities and more control over his career and livelihood. Eventually he was able to become an independent producer and form his own studio to have full control over his films. He even did his own composing for the music to accompany his works.

Chaplin wasn’t the only one seeking a stronger hand in controlling his creative endeavors. In response to the tightening of creative and financial controls by the studios in a move that would result in the “studio system”, Chaplin joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith and the lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo to form United Artists in 1919. The goal of the new company was to allow actors to control their own interests instead of the studios. In today’s parlance Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks would be recognized as actor/producers. The taking on of these business roles as well as acting in the pictures was to ensure creative and financial control. The more hats you wore the better you could control the creative vision reaching the screen. That’s still the perspective today driving many hyphenates.

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The writer/director hyphenate and the auteur theory

The hyphenated terminology really came into vogue alongside the idea of the auteur theory. Started in French cinema in the 50s with the likes of New Wave writer/directors François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, the concept encapsulated the sense that the bulk of creative cinematic control could originate from one individual. In this sense, having one person wear all the production hats they could would result in that one person’s vision being best represented in the final product. From that perspective being a hyphenate was a distinct advantage in that you were recognized as being more in control of the creative output.

If your mindset had a positive attitude towards the single creative control theories, the advantages of wearing multiple hats in the production was an asset. The more roles you could perform the better you would be able to reach for the ideal. But the auteur theory and its ilk had their detractors. Many felt that the Hollywood system worked best with collaborative input from many different players. The all-from-one approaches could end up being thin, showing the weaknesses of all but the very best and greatest talented souls.

Still, the hyphenates survive and thrive often in our industry. Having additional skill sets seems to be a benefit, whether you always utilize them or not. And the variety of hyphenate combinations seems to keep growing to no end, extending even beyond the traditional roles of filmmaking.

Modern hyphenate combinations

At one recent film festival (Telluride) there were hyphenates galore. There were: an Actress/Executive Producer in Natalie Portman with Eating Animals; Actress/Directors Greta Gerwig with her debut effort Lady Bird and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father; the artist/writer/director Guillermo del Toro with his very painterly The Shape of Water; the artist/activist/documentarian Ai Weiwei with Human Flow; and in the most intertwined hyphenate of the bunch the artist’s art docudrama direction and oil paintings of Dorota Kobiela & company’s Loving Vincent. And they were not the only hyphenates at the festival.

Any well-talented individual who forays into new fields of endeavor could be considered a hyphenate. The fact is that we all bring our prior experiences and talents into our creative works. How much we let that influence that creativity determines what name we (or others) can assign to our role(s). As writers, we may understand this better than most. Where do you think the adage, “write what you know” comes from?

Being a hyphenate is not either/or but rather on a spectrum

There is a balance to being a hyphenate. And the balance is not always in equilibrium. In fact, it is rare that one individual is equally talented in everything they do. But there is power in the fact that there are multiple skillsets at play. A writer/director understands the interplay and serendipity that happens on the set while sitting behind the keyboard. The director/editor uses their knowledge of what they will and won’t need in the months to come sitting in the darkened suite to influence just how much time is spent on set deciding which set-ups are necessary and which can be ignored. The actor/producer understands the business side of capturing the performance while the clock is ticking and money going out the door. But also knowing the capabilities of what better rendition is still within reach of the actors if given one more take. A significant power of hyphenates is in understanding those other jobs that you can also do, but aren’t at the moment.

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The responsibilities of hyphenates is in making sure that extra knowledge isn’t getting in the way of something better or allowing your ego to stymie progress. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you can always do it better or have the best approach. Being open to collaborative input, even in an area whose hat you could wear alone, will encourage the best from everyone. Even if you know a lot you don’t know everything. Acknowledging that can be difficult, but, essential to achieving the very best.

And if you decide to only use some of your skills and leave the rest to others, remember which hat you are wearing when (but don’t forget your hat collection). Just because you’ve ceded the role to some talented individual doesn’t mean they also couldn’t benefit from appropriate, collaborative input occasionally. The fact that you also know how to do what they do means their receptivity might be a bit more keen and productive. Just don’t step on their toes. You aren’t wearing that hat for this production. And wearing two or more hats at the same time is not a good fashion statement no matter how well you wear them individually. Think more of a quick wardrobe change rather than a stack of hats and you will pull it off better.

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question

If you have multiple skills should you label yourself or allow yourself to be labelled a hyphenate? What does it get you? What impression does it leave?

If a hyphenate has a meeting with an executive that doesn’t believe in the strength of a single mindset, or wonders how good the person is in any of the multiple roles having to split attention between them, it could be a disadvantage in that scenario. But oppositely, if a multi-skilled individual puts themselves out as only going to do a single role in a film when the executive knows you’ve got the other skills in your back pocket are they going to think you’re just phoning it in, not giving all you can to the project? You really have to know who is across the table from you to know how to represent what you can and will be bringing to the project.

In the end, the question of whether being a hyphenate helps or hinders you depends on the circumstances. The one thing that won’t change is your various abilities will still be with you. Some closer scrutiny may be needed to determine whether a multi-skilled individual is truly serving the story best by trying to do everything they have the skillset for instead of picking one and concentrating. The fact that they understand the other roles well should mean better communication with the person they get to fill that role for them. While working for someone who could also do your role means that you are less likely to encounter difficulties where the production gets in a fix or makes your job harder because they didn’t know better. Or it may be best for you to lead the ship, take on each of the roles you do well and parse out the rest to talented compatriots. Each approach has its advantages. As to which you should choose, it depends.

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