Stormy Daniels Documentary Filmmakers Warn: “This Is Life and Death for Stormy”

The saga of Stormy Daniels vs. Donald Trump probably seems like a story you already know. Yet the new documentary Stormy intimately delves into the actress-director’s turbulent battle with the former president and brings to life her day-to-day reality behind all those sensationalized headlines. It shines a light on Daniels’ fateful meeting with Trump in 2006, inadvertently becoming a scandalized household name in 2018, the downfall of her legal champion turned fraudster attorney Michael Avenatti, her financially devastating defamation case and more.

Below, the film’s director and producer Sarah Gibson (Orgasm Inc: The Story of OneTaste) and producer Erin Lee Carr (Britney vs Spears) discuss their film (trailer below) which is set to have its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film & TV Festival on Friday. Together, they make a case for Daniels’ story being more relevant than ever.

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“Stormy’s story is timeless because what happened to Stormy is going to happen to women forever,” Gibson said. “It’s looking at this woman’s life — irregardless of Trump — and just seeing her in a way that we’ve never seen her before. We know the political backdrop to the story was important, but we really wanted to focus on her emotional journey through all of this.

Peacock will premiere Stormy on March 18, just days before Trump (the “orange hobgoblin,” as Daniels calls him) is set to begin his first criminal trial — the hush-money case where Trump is accused of illicitly using funds to pay off two women, one of them being Daniels.

How did this documentary get started? And did you have any trepidation about telling this story, or was doing this a no-brainer?

SARAH GIBSON I met Stormy in 2019, and then she was detained at the Canadian border for 17 [bogus] FBI charges on her record. She was texting me throughout that whole thing, and it just seemed unbelievable. Then, when the Michael Avenatti trial was happening, and he was representing himself in court and asking her really awful questions on the stand, it really hurt my heart. I remembered him promoting her book, and it was shocking that he was treating her this way in court after he had obviously tried to capitalize on her. I said to her at that time, “Erin and I just did a film about Britney Spears and the justice system not working for her. If you ever want to talk about this in a documentary, let me know.” And she was like, “I just saw your Britney documentary, let’s do it.” But we tried to get it made, and it was really tough before the [hush-money] indictment happened.

ERIN LEE CARR I was a little nervous. It’s an incredibly thorny issue about many things. We’re feminists, and the way that we saw men treating this woman — and we’re not just talking about Trump, we’re talking about a lot of people — it felt really, really wrong. Additionally, when you brought up her name to people, they had this knee-jerk reaction that she’s a gold digger, or a hustler, or any of those things. But when you take a look into the story, she’s just not that.

There’s so much out there about her already. What surprised you about Stormy Daniels?

GIBSON For me, it was her endless ability to find humor in really dark moments. We’ll be talking about really intense stuff, and she’ll come up with the funniest joke. And how she’s able to survive through the news cycle — the attacks, the death threats. She’s just so resilient and doesn’t have a victim mentality. She has this incredible courage and strength to stand up for herself. Also, she’s really a tender-hearted person and has really close relationships with her daughter and her animals and her community.

CARR For me, I did not know that allegedly Michael Avenatti filed that defamation suit and would later go to jail, but now Stormy has to pay Trump’s legal fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars. How can this be, when we see in evidence that this person was found guilty of basically defrauding her and stealing money from her? People think they know the facts of the case, but it’s really shocking. There’s a great line in the film about how the weight of justice is not measured equally.

What parts of the film do you expect to get the most attention?

GIBSON That someone like Stormy Daniels, who is painted a certain way, doesn’t get a fair shake in the legal system. That’s a really important topic that hasn’t been explored enough. We explored it in Britney, and we’re exploring it again. I think there are a lot of parallels, and I’m hoping if a lawyer like Michael Avenatti goes to prison for criminally mismanaging his client that she should not be on the hook for the case that he mishandled for her and be about to lose her house because she owes Trump’s lawyers all this money.

CARR And in terms of takeaways, the fact that there was a camera near her when these things were happening — like being on the phone with her publisher and discovering her check was missing. Do you know what happened in Canada? Or what happened in Ohio when she was arrested? Some of these things are out there, but it’s another thing to see the contemporaneous footage. People will get this new insight into what happened, what it looks like, and what it felt like. Also, the desolation of her marriage in real time, in excruciating detail.

And a lot of this footage predates you guys coming on board?

GIBSON So, there were four different film teams who shot footage with Stormy over the years. One of the filmmakers actually was filming her in 2006, right around the time she met Trump. So we’ve got scenes of her from way back, months before she met Trump, so we could really get a sense of what her life was like leading up to their meeting in Lake Tahoe and who she was — how naive and wide-eyed in Hollywood she was. When the story broke in 2018, Stormy, being a savvy filmmaker, she knew history was unfolding in her life. She called up some of her friends who were journalists and camera people and asked them to come and film with her. So there was almost a relay of footage that this film was made from. … When I first told Stormy we should make a documentary, she said, “Sarah, so many people have tried to make a documentary about me. No one will touch it because I’m a porn star and because of Trump. No mainstream outlet will give me a chance.” And I said, “Well, had women ever tried? Give us a shot at this.”

And the indictment added fuel to it. But one of the thoughts I had while watching it is that — from a storytelling perspective — it sort of feels like the ideal end point of this story is after the conclusion of the trial. Stormy might be going on the stand to testify against Trump, yet the film is coming out now instead after that. Was that a Peacock stipulation? Was that what you guys wanted? Why release this now and not later?

GIBSON We had no idea the hush money trial was going to go first. We were convinced the Georgia election interference trial was going to go first, like everybody else, and we assumed that this was going to get pushed. We actually never thought the timing would coincide [with the trial], it just worked out that way. I think Peacock really wanted to get it out around the time of the primaries. It’s free advertising for a documentary when [the primaries are] unfolding. So it was lucky that way, but I also think it’s important for people to remind themselves about this story because so much has happened since then.

CARR On a serious tone, this is life and death for Stormy. Stormy gets daily death threats. And one of the best disinfectants is sunlight. We feel like it’s important to get this information out there as quickly as possible to show what the current stakes are as we lead into the indictment. I know people will be curious about the timing, but it felt incredibly important to be able to get this out sooner rather than later to show what is she is up against. Also, one of the things that really upset us all the way along is just how much the media continues just to refer to her as “porn star Stormy Daniels,” and it just feels like it’s this constant diminishing and dehumanizing. We would love for there to be a shift in consciousness and language around how she’s portrayed in media articles.

I found it interesting how much the film feels like a profile piece — “Here’s what it’s like to be Stormy Daniels going through this extraordinary time” — rather than what some might assume is a politically charged polemic. It’s almost disinterested in Trump other than when his actions directly impact your subject, and I was wondering if that was a deliberate choice.

GIBSON Yes, it was a deliberate choice. We really wanted to show what it’s like behind the headlines for a woman going through something like this. You never get to see that. You never think about the impact on people’s lives behind the clickbait. We really wanted to reveal how relatable she is. Even though her career choices are unorthodox for a lot of people, her day-to-day life, marriage, being a mom, being the breadwinner, is something a lot of people can relate to. But then, when a bomb goes off in your life, as it did with the Trump story, she was trying to just fight her way through it and keep her career. She had a 20-year career before the story broke and was directing between 10 and 12 films a year. She’s a very skilled filmmaker, and people just didn’t know that. They just saw this seductress or a woman who was just out for fame and money.

I’ve gathered there’s a certain amount of attitude when it comes to Stormy where pro-Trump people probably assume by this point that he did everything she said, and they just don’t care. While anti-Trump people definitely assume he did everything she said, but at this point think, “That’s minor compared to everything he’s done since.” Does that dismissive attitude frustrate you? The question of: “Does this still matter?

CARR It matters. I think people are sometimes dismissive of political stories because there’s a fatigue that happens. But these are real human beings whose lives hang in the balance and along with their happiness and ability to live freely, we all know someone who’s struggled and gone up against a bully. And so I would hope that these are the stories that are told time and time again because they’re worth telling and promote continued action. I don’t know that I would have been able to do what she did and throw my life into so much franticness. It would have been very easy for her to recede into the background. I think it helps us as a society to think about being brave enough to do this.

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