Written by Patrick VanZandt

About five years ago I started writing what would become my feature film debut, Addy Daddy.

I was a junior in college and had only written one other feature script before, but this was the one I was actually going to make. My goal was to use the budget for my student thesis film to make a “real” movie; a feature film that could unquestionably play in theaters. A film that looked, sounded and felt way more expensive than it was. In hindsight, I think I was about 95 percent successful in doing this—maybe that is why Addy Daddy got selected to screen in the main competition at Dances With Films, arguably the best indie film festival in Los Angeles, ranked as one of the top 10 film festivals in the United States by USA Today.

Most times when I see a video or article from a well-known director offering advice to first-time filmmakers, it’s some super vague thing like, “just keep making films,” or “you can shoot anything on a phone nowadays”. But it’s obviously way more complicated than that, so I’m going to try my best to explain exactly how I did this.

To be clear, I’m not a necessarily well-known director. I have no idea if my film will even be successful or if I’ll ever make another. I really have no idea what I’m talking about, and that’s actually going to be the main point here: if you’re making your first feature on a super low budget, you probably have no idea what you’re talking about either, and it’s only when you realize this that you start learning. After that, you might (kind of) know what you’re talking about… if that makes any sense.

Here is how I made a commercially viable first feature for $25k.

To start, I made several short films (15 to 20 minutes in length) before ever attempting a feature in order to develop a style and tone of my own. If you mess up your tone on a feature film, it’s not going to turn out well and you will have just wasted a bunch of time and money.

Additionally, shorts are great to just practice every single other aspect of filmmaking. Keep the budget to a few thousand dollars—or as low as you can—when starting out, and you’ll learn a lot in a situation where there isn’t a lot to lose.

'Addy Daddy'Courtesy of Dances with Films

Writing the Script

When I started writing Addy Daddy, I knew I needed to write for what money I had. Through making shorts, I figured out that the best way to make something look good with no money is to make it incredibly simple, and then make that simple thing the absolute best it can be. I knew I needed to write something around a small cast in easy-to-access locations. But I also knew this could easily get boring, so I focused on making the story as interesting as I could.

Think about what can make your film stand out: a weird concept, interesting dramatic situations, twists that the audience isn’t expecting…. I believe that standing out is more important than doing something the “right” way, which usually just leads to a generic film that everyone has seen before. To put it bluntly, I think you need to make your film kind of insane. To put it professionally, prioritize innovation over conformity!

What will excite people? What will get them talking on social media (this is annoying, but part of writing is thinking about how you can market the film)? Again, think about the tone. A film with an inconsistent tone always feels amateurish, and I was terrified of my film feeling that way. That is the moment your audience starts to notice your low budget. If the world doesn’t feel real, if the characters don’t feel like they all belong in that world, then the immersion is lost.

As I was writing I watched a lot of movies that were tonally similar to how I envisioned my film. I learned that you absolutely can have crazy moments, absurd characters, and basically anything you want, but it needs to be consistent across the whole film, or consistently dispersed throughout the film so it feels purposeful.

Also, I wrote about something I felt very passionately about. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this would keep me inspired and excited throughout—one of the main reasons why I was actually able to finish the project. Passion always has a way of showing itself and can make the work far more compelling. I advise writing a film that really has something to say, something you can communicate in a unique and interesting way.

I’m grateful that when I was writing, I was pretty aware that I had no idea what I was doing and that I didn’t know how to write a feature film. I had been told by many that it was very hard and very complicated. So I really studied concepts like well-developed and active characters, setup and payoff, story structure, etc. I learned how a generic blockbuster is laid out and then I played with those beats and moved things around to try and make it more interesting. Structure exists for a reason, and I wholeheartedly disagree with people who say “structure is bullshit.” This way of thinking often results in a boring, aggravating, and pretentious movie.

I knew that this was my first film and it needed to have some general audience appeal to have a chance at being successful. The average person needs to be engaged from start to finish, and structure is super important in ensuring that. The more I learned, the more genuine confidence I gained. But my script was still far from perfect when I started shooting, and I want you to learn from this mistake, dear reader! I got extremely lucky with the Covid-related lockdown because I ended up with around ten months to rewrite parts of my script that we hadn’t shot yet. While I acknowledge the struggle many faced during this time, oddly, my movie would have totally sucked if it weren’t for Covid. In short, learn from me and do not rush into shooting until you really feel good about your script.

'Addy Daddy'Courtesy of Dances with Films


Everyone has a different method of shooting, but for your first film I recommend storyboarding everything. This saved me a lot of time on set, which was very important because I had such a limited time at each location. I knew every single piece I needed and how it would all edit together. This allowed me to plan interesting camera angles and movements, which I feel is really important in making your film stand out and look more expensive than it is. Again I’d recommend watching other movies, this time for cool shot ideas and to develop your own style as much as you can.

Casting is extremely important. Do not start filming until you’re confident you’ve found someone who is up to the task, or it could ruin the whole project. Do not be afraid to subsequently rework parts of the script to match your talent. You might scoff at this, but I believe it is more important to have something that works, even if it isn’t exactly what you originally envisioned.

Focus on more subtle emotional moments instead of big screaming scenes where the actor (and you as the director) may not be able to get it quite right; those scenes can become funny really quick. I was lucky enough to know my two lead actors from college, both amazing performers and great with emotionally demanding scenes, yet I still tried to be very aware of their strengths and what I could pull off as a director.

'Addy Daddy'Courtesy of Dances with Films


I learned to keep the crew small and made up of people I trust.

I would take a good friend who is a beginner over a “professional” who doesn’t believe in you and will not care about your film. I was lucky enough, again, to have college friends agree to work on the film for little-to-nothing. However, if you don’t have friends who are interested in film, focus on building a small network of people who have similar goals. The film you make can elevate them (DPs, production designers, producers, actors, etc.) as well.

Also, unless you have a producer friend who is fully committed to the project, and whom you trust with your life, you’re going to want to do some of the more important producing tasks yourself. For my film, I was the main producer and then I always had an on-set producer and AD, but I always thoroughly planned out everything with them beforehand. It’s something I recommend to everyone because they may not care about your film as much as you do—and you can’t blame them for that. What you’re attempting to do is crazy! Any rational person will probably be at least a little bit skeptical, even if they really like you. All that’s to say, at this budget level, the details are important. You don’t have the time or money to deal with mistakes that throw the whole production into chaos, or mistakes that cause you to compromise. One little detail missed can cause your low budget to show itself.

High-end equipment is unnecessary most of the time. You do not need to shoot on an Alexa. How your set looks is not important, but how your movie looks, is. I tried my best to put my budget on the screen and make sure I had convincing PD, costumes and locations.

My DP and I used a Sony a7S II for the majority of Addy Daddy, and we used old 35mm photography lenses to give it a unique look at an affordable cost. Good lighting should always be a top priority, and it is far more important than the camera you use. Find a DP who understands how to make something look good with one or two lights and create a simple lighting plan to keep things looking cinematic, but not waste a ton of time setting up. I tried my best to avoid sets and instead get real locations, because we didn’t have the PD budget to fully dress actual sets and make them believable. If you shoot on an Alexa but your lighting isn’t cinematic and your PD and costumes are sub-par, it will have been a waste of time and money. But if you shoot on a literal iPhone 5 and have real locations, interesting camerawork and simple cinematic lighting, you can get something like Sean Baker’s Tangerine.

This kind of starts in the writing, too. Try to have a couple of big shots or big scenes that maybe do cost a little more money, and have them happen early on in your film, or at the start of a scene. This will give the viewer the illusion of a higher budget.

For example, say you’re shooting a party scene, and you want there to be a room full of, say, 50 people. Have the 50 people come for 30 minutes, get a couple awesome establishing shots, then send them all home and shoot dialogue between two characters in close-ups. Have a shallow depth of field and put one or two crew members behind the actors, extremely out of focus.

I did a lot of stuff similar to this in my film, and watching the scenes back now, they feel big even to me. I would also say, if you can’t recruit enough extras for this hypothetical party scene, just stick to the close-ups. (Again, you don’t want your low budget to show itself, so don’t show things unless you can make them look good.) You can always make the party feel bigger using sound design in post.

'Addy Daddy'Courtesy of Dances with Films


Editing my film took approximately two years. It is an exhausting process, and you think you’ll be done much sooner than you are. I recommend editing the film yourself, if you know how to edit well or are willing to improve, because that alone saves money.

Do a lot of testing with friends and family and make it as short as possible without negatively affecting the story—one of the most important things I learned while editing my film. The script I wrote was very long and complicated; the first cut was two hours and 40 minutes long. I thought I was finished when it was two hours and 20 minutes long, however we ultimately finished it at under two hours (which is also a good goal because festivals rarely ever program films over two hours).

The two most important things I learned in post-production: Pay for a professional color grade and pay for a professional 5:1 sound mix. If you’re going to spend, spend on that. I found this to be extremely important in making Addy Daddy feel like a “real” movie. I did the sound design myself because I simply just did not have the money. This is okay as long as you’re tasteful about it and use high-quality sound effects, but no matter what, if your color grade looks like trash and your sound mix doesn’t sound professional, all the work you did won't matter. The film is going to feel amateurish. Mine did too before this work was done. You can, however, save money by not paying for these things until you are absolutely sure that you have a picture lock. I made this mistake with my film… twice.

Another random thing I’ll throw in here: pick a title that isn’t generic! You should be able to search the title on Google and have your film be the first thing that pops up. This helps a ton in the marketing stage, I am learning. Don’t forget that even during post-production you still have time to change the title! It feels like renaming your child mid-life but it’s not your child, it’s just a movie. It’s okay.

'Addy Daddy'Courtesy of Dances with Films


And now, the production journey is over. Addy Daddy is about to premiere at its first film festival, and I am trying to figure out everything that comes after that. I still don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m always learning. Like I said, knowing that you don’t know really is the most important thing. Self-awareness allows you to better your craft and actually become good.

If there is anything else I can leave you with, it is that you have time, not money, so don’t rush things. Make sure everything is planned out well and take it step-by-step. Practice patience, because you don’t want to waste the opportunity. Like the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race! That’s what I tell myself anyway, because this film has taken so damn long.

Anyway, good luck to all you peers and future peers, and long live cinema!

Multi-hyphenate Patrick VanZandt not only wrote and directed Addy Daddy, but he also produced and edited the indie feature; he assisted with casting, sound and composed the film’s original score. The film will have its world debut at DANCES WITH FILMS on Wednesday, June 26 at 7 PM. For more, please visit: https://danceswithfilms.com/addy-daddy/.