Documentary to Fiction Adaptations

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. Republished from

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.


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.


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.

A Moment of Reckoning on Mass Incarceration

Determined to complete our upcoming documentary, The Return.

The Return takes an incisive look at American mass incarceration following the unprecedented criminal justice reform in CA that for the first time in over 200 years shortens sentences for the currently incarcerated. To accompany the film, we’ve developed The Return Project, a longterm online multimedia campaign aimed at educating and engaging key audiences on the systemic problems that have led to unprecedented incarceration rates in the United States.

Via a range of perspectives: the incarcerated and recently released; their family members; those who work in the criminal justice system including judges and attorneys; reentry providers and experts; students; policy makers and more- The Return Project will tell stories and inform audiences on current mass incarceration and will illuminate healthier, saner alternatives from mental health courts to sentencing reform to viable reentry programs and plans. This dynamic engagement and impact campaign includes a series of short films for the New York Times, Mother Jones and others; an interactive multimedia archive with audio, video, stills and text; educational curricula; a photo essay, and more with the overarching goal of sharing these resources to our partners. All material can be downloaded and used to share on social media platforms including on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Our engagement and impact campaign includes short videos illuminating how harsh sentences against non-violent offenders impacts families. This video is Berenice Cubie’s story, a grandmother who was give life for carrying less than $10 worth of cocaine.

Berenice’s story highlights issues related to various criminal justice components including collateral damage to families, criminalization of addiction, racial disparities in sentencing, the over-incarceration of non-violent offenders, and extreme sentencing in the United States overall.

For more information on The Return documentary and The Return Project, visit Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


The Brutal Ramifications of the Mexican Drug War


Loteria Films is an award winning Bay Area film company founded by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway. Their most recent project is the feature-length documentary, El Poeta. In this moving documentary, they utilize the story of Javier Sicilia, world acclaimed poet, to discuss the brutal ramifications of the drug war.

Sicilia’s son was murdered with six of his friends in Cuernavaca, Morelos. This grotesque act spurred him to form the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, leading to a reunion with then President Felipe Calderón, a Caravan for Peace in Mexico and the United States.

During my interview with Kelly, we discussed the general theme Loteria Films has focused on and how that relates to the El Poeta project; specifically, their focus on the police state, racial justice, politics, and power.

Andrew: What has the focus of Loteria Films been with documentaries such as Better This World?

Kelly: All of our work has to do with the intersection of race, power and politics… we are committed to telling stories that we think are touching on the crucial issues of our time. In our last film, Better This World, we looked at the post-9/11 landscape, the surveillance culture, and what that meant for civil liberties particularly for young activists.

Our film, The Return, now in post production, looks at a historic sentencing reform. A primary area of focus for us is how to shed light on the injustices of and misinformation around the American criminal justice system. People need to understand those who are actually behind bars in the United States, and the humanity of that population.

And within that constellation of forces at play comes El Poeta. Javier Sicilia story and our story in the United States are very interconnected, and for us it was just a different angle on the body of work we are really committed to.

And within that constellation of forces at play comes El Poeta, Javier Sicilia, and his fight to bring attention to the international War on Drugs. Mexico’s story and our story in the United States are deeply interconnected, and for us this story was a different angle on the subject matter we are drawn to – an international storythrough a charismatic poet’s lens.

Andrew: So, it was by already working on these questions that y’all sought out the Sicilia story?

Kelly: Well, my film partner Katie Galloway and I both read about Sicilia in the New York Times, actually. We thought his story was incredibly moving. We knew what was happening in Mexico, and we had been following the tragedies. So, when we heard his story we thought it was a strong vehicle to explore some of the bigger ideas that his movement was discussing. It was our way in.

Andrew: How were y’all able to get the footage from the initial parts of the movement?

Kelly: We collaborated with EmergenciaMX, a collaborative of passionate activists, video journalists, and dedicated reporters who were in Mexico and in close proximity to Sicila and were incredibly dedicated to the story. They shot hundreds of hours of footage – much at low res and always on the go. Much of the film is made up of their footage of the unfolding story in Mexico.

They were close with Sicilia from the beginning of the movement, and when we approached Sicilia to do the story and began to do our research we connected with them, sharing resources along the way. They really wanted this story told, but they weren’t in a position to edit the material – they were doing daily reporting. They had done a lot of short pieces that were very powerful during the Mexican caravans as they unfolded, and we drew on much of their work in our collaboration to make the feature film. We couldn’t have done it without them.

Andrew: What about other footage in Mexico, like in the Cathedral in Cuernavaca?

Kelly: Ya, that was Loteria. We shot the US caravan, and the interviews with Javier, the main subject matter, in Cuernavaca.

Andrew: Thanks for giving me your time to discuss the film further. I think it is important to show how documentaries can play a role in struggles for justice.

Kelly: Thanks for bringing attention to the film. You know, his caravan didn’t resonate as loudly as we hoped it would in the US. Hopefully the film in some way can spread his message on in some small way.

Andrew: One last thing that came to me when you said that. Could you elaborate on the connection between Mexico’s drug war and the recent black uprisings against police brutality?

Kelly: Ya, really it is the legacy of the US & Mexican drug war policies – the criminalization of drug addiction has been devastating to families and communities throughout the United States. And obviously, the drug trade has been also been devastating to so much of the Mexican population. But it’s not just about drug use, or drug sales. It goes beyond that to much larger systemic issues revolving around poverty and lack of opportunities on both sides of the boarder. We really think it is time for people to examine the criminalization of drug addiction. Is that really a healthy way to manage a public health crisis.

Andrew: Thank you for that. I think it is a very important part of the documentary that y’all aired, the connection between the two countries and the drug war. It is important for people to recognize that.

Watch El Poeta at:

Kelly Duane de la Vega is a filmmaker. Check out Loteria Films work at

Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

The Brutal Ramifications of the Mexican Drug War” appears republished here courtesy of Counterpunch.

Better This World nominated for Gotham Award

Better This World was nominated today for a Gotham Best Documentary Award!

The Gotham Independent Film Awards, selected by distinguished juries and presented in New York City, the home of independent film, are the first honors of the film awards season. This public showcase honors the filmmaking community, expands the audience for independent films, and supports the work that IFP does behind the scenes throughout the year to bring such films to fruition.

Better This World nominated for Grierson Award

The 55th BFI London Film Festival has announced the shortlist and jury for 2011 Festival Awards including The Grierson Award for Best Documentary. The Awards will take place at LSO St Luke’s on 26 October.

A partnership between the Grierson Trust and the Festival, The Grierson Award for Best Documentary recognises outstanding feature-length documentaries of integrity, originality, technical excellence or cultural significance. The Award is presented in commemoration of John Grierson. Two-time BAFTA winner Adam Curtis will chair the jury, which also includes documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto, and Grierson Trustees Mandy Changand Charlotte Moore.

This year’s shortlist is:

    Lelia Doolan, Ireland
    Katie Galloway, Kelly Duane de la Vega, USA
    Goran Hugo Olsson, Sweden/USA
    Tristan Patterson
    Carol Morley, UK/Ireland
    Werner Herzog
    Don Argott & Demian Fenton, USA
    Michael Glawogger, Austria/Germany

“Better This World” Wins Two Out of Three Top Documentary Awards in San Francisco

Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s documentary “Better This World” topped the 54th annual San Francisco International Film Festival Awards Thursday night.

The film won two of the three Golden Gate Awards for documentary features, taking a $20,000 cash prize for Best Documentary Feature, and a $15,000 cash prize plus $2,000 in EFILM Digital Laboratories services, for best Bay Area Documentary Feature.