By Katie Galloway, Loteria Films
Based on a workshop session for filmmakers at Chicken and Egg Pictures and a conversation with Radhi Taylor of Sundance documentary filmmaker and Loteria Films principal Katie Galloway shares her advice on adapting documentary films to fiction.
Fiction adaptations have the potential to get stories and issues documentary filmmakers care about well beyond traditional doc audiences. While not without potential pitfalls, adaptations are an exciting prospect, and more possible than many doc filmmakers think. I’ve learned a few lessons while adapting my film with Kelly Duane de la Vega Better This World (POV, 2011) as a narrative feature, and my film Prison Town, USA (POV, 2007) into a dramatic hour series for IFC, co-writing the first three episodes with Po Kutchins. Learning the world of adaptation is a process and filmmakers who dive in will undoubtedly have a range of experiences. Here are some useful lessons I’ve drawn from the road so far.
Retain some creative control. Before beginning the process of adapting, think through to what degree you’d like to be involved and fight for the role/s you want. Regardless of role, retain some control of and stay in close contact to the project. If you choose not to write the adaptation yourself (or don’t have that option), negotiate and build in the right to review drafts, consult on story, etc. Get an Executive Producer, Producer, Writer or other credit and build a “story based on” your documentary into contract.
Get paid for your work. Unless there’s some good reason it should not be — make sure your work and involvement is compensated. We were paid WGA rates for the first three episodes of Prison Town…. a huge help in buying time and space to think about next docs. For films, percentages generally have to do with size of budget… but bigger budget almost certainly means less control for filmmaker, a tradeoff we’ve so far been reluctant to make. Consider whether you’re entitled to back end money at film or series completion. In our case we all get percentages of an agreed budget and different phases of distribution, production, post, and release. Our subjects also got a little money in the back end. As an executive producer, we didn’t get back end money. The amount we get paid at each stage is proportional to the overall budget with a base and cap designated in the contract.
Representation. I’ve often heard people say doc filmmakers should get representation and or an agent but my film partners and I have worked on adaptations without one so far and without problems — though we have worked with entertainment attorneys to hammer out contracts. My pitch sort of came after a relationship with a producer and network executive.
Rights. If the project doesn’t go, retain the rights to shop it elsewhere. It’s preferable to do this without needing to pay broadcaster or investors back. Be careful of clauses in the contract that call for this especially with interest. This is the part where you have a lawyer review the contracts.
On Collaborations When adapting, think small. This is subjective, of course, but I lean towards approaching small or independent fiction folk to minimize chances of facing potential pitfalls described above. If you’re with a big studio or a big budget project you’re likely to have very little control over the final product. In terms of sharing your creative influence and ideas, walk the line gracefully. Successful film adaptations are true balancing acts that depend on the relationships you’ve formed with collaborators who know fiction film / TV. Don’t become so high maintenance or difficult in your demands that you and your project get dropped. Most important from my perspective: if you intend to maintain/fight for the integrity of your story and want to protect your characters and their representations, work with people you trust and/or who have solid reputations.
On Protecting Your Subjects In terms of how your documentary subjects will be represented in fiction: be on top of this and look out for your characters. Beware of selling out your characters or your story! If you can help negotiate life rights money for your subjects, do it. Our documentaries tend to feature those who have struggled against systems and barriers, and despite the trauma and stress they’ve undergone, have demonstrated a willingness to share their experiences with your audience. Looking out for their well-being and appropriate representation is, I believe, the only ethical way to go. If you burn your subjects, you also burn other doc filmmakers who may now be more suspect because of your actions.
TV or Film? Some projects are better for one-off films and some may be better suited to TV. Consider whether your story has series or serial appeal. More character and multiple long interconnected narratives that wax and wane over time are arcs that can continue over seasons are good for TV. There’s more money in dramatic TV series than in films; and some of the very best writing is in TV, so consider that option. Going the series route can lead to great storytelling, reach huge audiences and be much more lucrative than films. Documentary filmmakers are sometimes offered first crack at writing the pilot. With Prison Town USA I wrote the pilot with Po Kutchins, my film partner on Prison Town USA, and IFC ordered two more hour episodes. We were paid WGA scale for all three episodes, which was great and helped support other projects.
Cast & Crew. Think about whom you’d like to direct and produce the project and what actors should play the roles. Our fiction partners have been very open to our thoughts and ideas. As documentary filmmakers, we know our stories and characters better than anyone. Think of yourself as the incredible resource you are and try to capitalize on the value in that. For Prison Town we spent years on and off in Susanville, California and had loads of great stories and details that didn’t make the final cut of the documentary but that provided deep, rich and specific stranger than fiction detail.
About the author: Katie Galloway is a director, producer and writer whose films explore the intersections of institutional power, civil & human rights and political activism. Her films include EL POETA (VOCES, 2015),the award winning documentary BETTER THIS WORLD (POV, 2011 & 2012), and PRISON TOWN, USA (POV, 2007) broadcast nationally on POV/PBS and was developed as a fiction television series by IFC. A two-time Sundance Fellow, Galloway taught documentary production at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and teaches in Media Studies at UC Berkeley, where she was also recently the filmmaker in residence at the Journalism School’s Investigative Reporting Program. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley with emphases on Political Psychology and Public Law.