‘Stormy’ Doc Is a Portrait of a Messy, Complicated, Courageous Woman

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Stormy Daniels - Credit: Peacock
Stormy Daniels - Credit: Peacock

Five years ago, Stormy Daniels found herself in the bizarre position of being one of the most ostensibly powerful, yet simultaneously vulnerable, women in America. The former porn star found herself in a nationwide tabloid maelstrom when it was reported that she had had a very brief sexual relationship with then-President Donald Trump in 2006, after the two had met at a golf-pro tournament in Lake Tahoe. (Daniels says it was one single encounter, and that it was consensual, albeit unpleasant.) It was later revealed that his attorney, Michael Cohen, had paid Daniels $130,000 to stay quiet after a tabloid magazine threatened to publish the story. What followed was a double-sided media maelstrom: while Daniels briefly became an unlikely totem for the #Resistance movement, with liberals crossing their fingers that she could be the key to Trump’s eventual downfall, many of the former president’s supporters targeted her, calling her an opportunity and a “slut,” with some even sending her death threats.

Years later, after going on a nationwide strip club tour and publishing a book, Daniels seemingly dropped off the face of the earth, only for public interest to surge after Trump was indicted in 2023 by a New York grand jury for the payments. (Trump has denied having an affair with Daniels, though he has conceded that he did reimburse Cohen the money.) At the time of the indictment, director Sarah Gibson was working on a documentary film about her life, and they were a year into production. “We couldn’t believe it when it happened,” Gibson tells Rolling Stone. “It blindsided her. And her life turned upside down all over again.”

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Premiering on Peacock March 18, Stormy, Gibson’s documentary about Daniels, is a complex, deeply compassionate, often frustrating portrait of a widely misunderstood individual. Produced by Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest, Britney vs. Spears) and Judd Apatow, Stormy tracks Daniels’ impoverished childhood to her days as an adult contract star to her worldwide infamy after the Trump story broke. Using interviews with prominent figures who worked with or covered Daniels, such as Rachel Maddow, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Rogen, as well as archival footage from a documentary film shot by Dallas Nicks (who wrote about Daniels for Rolling Stone shortly after the story broke, and, as is reveled in the film, later had a brief romantic relationship with Daniels), Gibson’s film demonstrates how a single sexual encounter with the then-reality TV star has virtually destroyed Daniels’ life, wreaking havoc on her family, her relationships, and her career.

Stormy does not yield easy answers about its subject. It’s an unflinching, in-depth look at a person who appears to be motivated by multiple competing interests, who saw an opportunity in having been thrust into the limelight and sought to take advantage of it. But it also presents a scathing look at the myriad men who took advantage of her, from Trump to Cohen to her former attorney Michael Avenatti, who is currently serving a total of 19 years in prison for attempting to forge Daniels’ signature and defraud her out of her book advance, stealing millions from clients, and attempting to extort $25 million from Nike.

Rolling Stone talked with Gibson and Carr over Zoom to discuss Daniels, Trump, the ethical issues raised by the film, and what the hell happened to Michael Avenatti.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Stormy has been in the public eye for a pretty long time. Why do the documentary now?
Sarah Gibson: We were actually making this documentary for over a year before the indictment happened. I met Stormy on a comedy project in 2019, and right after she left the set, she went to the Canadian border and was stopped there by Canadian border patrol. She was texting me telling me she had 17 bogus charges on her FBI record, and it was dangerous for her to leave the country until these charges were removed from her record. And I was really disturbed by that. It seemed unfathomable, like a conspiracy theory. And we just kept in touch after that, because she knew that Erin and I made films about women in the justice system. When Stormy saw Britney, it was around the time she was in court with Michael Avenatti after he had stolen her book advance money. And the line of questioning on the stand that Avenatti was engaging in with her really disturbed me. It really felt like Stormy was being bullied by so many men, dehumanized, made out to be crazy. There’s so many similarities with Britney. And I said to her, “if you ever want to make a documentary, [we should make one together], and that was in early 2022. We started working together shortly after that.

We were making a documentary about her reinventing her life, in the aftermath of the Donald Trump story and the Michael Avenatti situation. The indictment happened when we were already a year into production. We couldn’t believe it. It blindsided her. So we thought it was really important to document how her life is turned upside down now because of the indictment, and then look back at how the story all unfolded, because so much has happened in the news cycle, and we thought it was really important to remind the world what she had gone through.

Erin Lee Carr: Sarah and I, as a team, we like to think about the things that can come back into the zeitgeist: what is the story that could come back into being a part of the national conversation? We had these gut instincts, like, something’s finally going to happen with Britney or something is going to happen with OneTaste [the alleged sex cult that inspired Gibson’s 2022 documentary Orgasm, Inc.] With Stormy’s story, we believed it was far from over. On a very human level, as a woman on the internet, I’ve seen death threats before, but seeing the death threats that Stormy faced — the amount of it was pretty unfathomable. And it’s not just a threat. These are real things that could happen to Stormy. We saw in Jan. 6, the violence that could take place against people. We want to be in the zeitgeist, we wanted to do Stormy and give her her due, but also this was a scary time and continues to be a very scary time.

What is Stormy like, as a person and as an interview subject? I’m always curious, as a journalist myself: is she forthcoming? Is she cagey? Is she controlling? Is she more easygoing?
Gibson: Interesting question. She hadn’t been interviewed by a lot of women along the way. There were the women on The View, the woman from 60 Minutes Australia, and I think maybe a few ladies in Europe — [also, New York Magazine reporter] Olivia Nuzzi. It was a lot more men interviewing her. Because I had developed this familiarity with her and hung out with her socially before we sat down to interview, we found a lot of commonalities in our stories as women, having been single mothers gone through divorces, mothers of teenagers, women working in a predominantly man’s world as a director. There was a lot of kinship there. So I think when she she sat down with me, she revealed a lot more in her interview with us than she had in the past, and it was a lot more emotional. And I think she felt safe to do that.

Erin, you seem to have this theme in your work of profiling misunderstood women. How does she compare to other misunderstood women you have interviewed?
Carr: Stormy is somebody who was reduced to her occupation. People say she’s a porn star, I like to say she’s a porn director because she has made some of the top amazing adult films of all time, and she was the second highest paid director in all of porn. With Michelle Carter from I Love You, Now Die [about a teenage girl who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for coercing her boyfriend to take his own life via text message], with the gymnasts, with [Mommy Dead and Dearest subject] Gypsy Rose Blanchard, with Britney Spears, they were allowed to have layers. And we, as an American public, really didn’t want Stormy to have layers. We wanted her to be reduced to this one night of consensual, but really uncomfortable, sex. So for me, I wanted to understand why we put this one person in this role.

I was scared to do the film. I’ll be honest. I’m not somebody that does a lot of political work. I do a lot of criminal justice work. But as a journalist, you know when there’s more to the story. It felt like if we could, at least in part, reduce the stigma and not have Stormy known for this one thing, then we would be successful in our goal.

One thing that I think about a lot as a journalist is reliability of the subject. There were a couple points in the film where I felt that Stormy was not being entirely truthful about her motives — her saying she didn’t reach out to In Touch [about selling her story], for instance, or that she never had any intention of profiting off this. Did you guys have that experience?
Carr: What was reported was that she did try to sell the story with Gina [Rodriguez, her publicist at the time]. And in her book, and in other things, she totally maintains that that was not the case. For me, yeah, I really believed that there was some rewriting of history when it came to that. I think all subjects are a little unreliable at times, and sometimes the stories we tell ourselves become the facts in our head. But [on] the whole, we really believe what Stormy was talking about and had a lot of evidence support it. It’s not a puff piece. It’s not a hagiography. There are things that happen that are not concurrent with what how Stormy has said the story. And that’s why I included [them].

Gibson: Yeah, at the very beginning, when we started working with her, we told her we’re not making a puff piece, we’re making a truth piece. And she signed up to for us to discover things that were at odds with her story versus others stories. Specifically, she admits to selling the story in 2016. In 2011, she claims it was leaked, because everybody knew about it. So many people on the set of Judd’s films [including Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, both of which feature an appearance by Daniels] knew about it. Seth Rogen [knew about it]. The story was out there in the zeitgeist, it wasn’t a secret when Donald Trump was toying with the idea of running for president in 2011. Was there a possibility in our minds as filmmakers that somebody could have leaked that story to a tabloid? Absolutely. The question of who reached out first was something we could never really get to the bottom of. But you have to remember that you’re also trying to fact check supermarket tabloids who literally deal in salacious stories. So at a certain point, we were kind of like, who are we going to believe? Are we going to trust a supermarket tabloid story over Stormy’s story? We kind of left it as, it didn’t really matter how the story got out there. It more mattered, was there a crime that took place? And was this woman’s life in danger? And the answer was yes to both.

Carr: Stormy did not have creative control over the project. And you see a lot of films that are biopics where the person is an executive producer. And I think that it took an enormous leap of faith for Stormy to not have that.

You guys have all this great footage from this previous attempt at a documentary made by Denver Nicks, who wrote about her for Rolling Stone shortly after the story broke.
Gibson: [Nicks] was someone she trusted after the Rolling Stone piece to come in and start filming with her. And when we were making this film about Stormy reinventing herself after Trump, the indictment happened. And I said, “Is there any footage from 2018, or 2019, when all this was going on?” And she said yes, there was four filmmakers that had footage — Denver being one, one that we cannot name and two others. And so we gathered all this footage from all these different sources. There was no editorial control — they just handed over these hard drives to us that were full of over 150 hours of footage from from these four sources. And Denver said to me on the phone, “I’m going to tell you something, I’m not proud of it. But Stormy and I had a brief romantic relationship while all this was happening.”

The way he described it to me was a situationship, which was two people in isolation, dealing with the unfathomable. She was going through this really messy divorce, and they had a brief romantic relationship that ended up in a really positive friendship. Today, according to both of them, they’re on really good terms. And so we were looking at this footage, and we knew that it was really special because there was so many different cameras on her and she was filming herself a lot of the times too, she would set up GoPros and she would film herself calling her husband or calling her literary agent or calling Michael Avenatti. The film is really a tapestry of all this footage. [With] the Denver of it all, he at a certain point in the film becomes part of the film, he becomes part of her entourage, the cameras turn on him and he is interviewed. It’s really an interesting exploration of what happens around these stories. It’s truthful, it’s messy, it’s life. And it’s fascinating.

I’m curious as to what actually happened to the plans for that documentary. And I’m also wondering, from a journalistic perspective, I imagine that you guys sat down and had a conversation about whether or not using this footage would compromise the film ethically. What was that conversation like?
Gibson: Again, this was always set out to be a biopic that was made with Peacock, through their entertainment division, not with 60 Minutes or CNN. So this was always supposed to be a biopic about a person’s life, not an investigative documentary held to the same standards of 60 Minutes. This isn’t a news division we made this film for.

Carr: To be clear, there was a big fact check. Not a 60 Minutes fact check, but we fact checked the film.

Gibson: And ethically, Stormy filmed a lot of this footage herself. She gave us her blessing to use all of Denver’s footage with no editorial control, which not a lot of documentary subjects would ever do. I think she really trusted me and Erin and Judd, that we make very truthful, very authentic, and very compassionate films. The footage was was part of the story, and we never tried to hide that. But it is a biopic. It’s not an investigative news piece.

I wanted to ask about Judd, because most people when they see Judd’s name listed in the producer credits, would be like, “Why is Judd Apatow a producer for a Stormy Daniels movie? Why is Seth Rogen interviewed? Why is Jimmy Kimmel interviewed?” Can you talk about that and his involvement and Stormy’s intersection with with that world?
Carr: I’ve known Judd since I was 22. I was assigned to him as his PA on the show Girls. [And] we kept in touch. He’s always been this great man who has talked to me about my films, he sent me his films to go through, and he is a well known, outspoken activist about politics, about what is happening in our country. [He’s] a proud dad, proud feminist. He’d been asking to work together for a while. And I was like, well, this kind of seems like the right one to do.

Gibson: He’s also known Stormy for over 25 years because of Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express. She’s in all of those.

I found one of the most powerful parts of the film the interviews with Glen, her ex-husband, and how profoundly he says this impacted him and their relationship and their family. Was it difficult getting him to talk to you for the film?
Gibson: Oh, my God. So when I first started this film, Stormy said, “Glen’s never going to participate. And you can’t you can’t have my daughter in there at all anywhere.” And I was like, “Cool, I totally get it.” Then, at a certain point, after we interviewed Stormy for the film, she said to me that [I should] reach out to Glen, and just give him a call. And what happened after that was three months of phone calls between me and Glen just talking as much as we could, at least once a week for months. And finally, he said, “Okay, I’ll do it. I’m ready to do it.” And so I did those interviews with him over Zoom.

It was really incredible to hear his version. So many people who know Stormy — she’ll break your heart, right? She could hurt you and break your heart into a million pieces, and you can go through this journey with her and still love her when you get to the other side of it, because she she is so vulnerable and impulsive and says all the things in a room that everybody else is afraid to say. And you can still come out championing her, loving her, on the other side of it. And that was Glen’s experience. I mean, she shattered this guy, and he still had the awareness to know that she’s a special person. I’m really grateful to him. I think he comes across as a sleeper hero for the story.

Stormy has this great quote about why she went on a strip club tour after the story broke, where she’s kind of defending capitalizing on her infamy. I think she says, “if you drive an ice cream truck, and you’ve been driving the truck for two years, and you don’t drive it during the week of a heatwave, you’re an idiot.” But from Glen’s interviews, this tour arguably led to the dissolution of their marriage. So why do you think she went on that tour? Do you necessarily believe her ?
Gibson: For years before the story broke, Stormy had been the breadwinner. She’d been the working mom. Glen was on tour a lot with his band, and she was at home holding the fort, directing films, making most of the money while he was off on the road, and I think when the story broke, she saw a real opportunity because she wasn’t getting any directing jobs anymore, so she had to support her family. She was the main breadwinner. She went on a strip-club tour to cash in on this moment, because she didn’t have any other work. No one would touch her after the Trump story broke. She also had the threat of a potential $20 million lawsuit Donald Trump was suing her and she was terrified. And the only way that she had to make a living at that time was doing the thing that she did to get herself out of poverty in the first place, and that was dancing in strip clubs. And when you think about it that way, stripping saved her life and got her out of Baton Rouge, and stripping was saving her life again. It’s something she can always count on — shaking her moneymaker, literally.

No one talks about how Glen was going on the road with his band, and barely making any money. But Stormy goes on the road stripping to pay for his life. And she’s the villain. Like, what is this double standard? It’s just so demeaning to her, and there’s such a double standard in this story. I’m pretty sure that if this movie was about Michael Cohen, and he was sleeping with the camera woman, people would be like, “hey, high five, bro.” We show that, and we as women filmmakers are irresponsible and unethical. Like, give me a break. Let’s just stop with the double standard already.

What is Stormy like as a mom? You guys didn’t show her daughter on camera, but just from your perspective, having spent so much time with her, what is she like as a parent?

Gibson: She is really playful, really creative. She creates a really artistic space for her daughter to exist in. It’s very feminist. Her daughter is really academically strong like Stormy was. And she really has raised her daughter to be aware, and and also just a fighter, and not accept being put in her place in the world.

There’s a point in the film where she’s talking about how much she wants to reveal to her daughter. Her daughter is obviously older now than she was at that point. How much is her daughter aware of what her mom has been through?
Gibson: She is more aware than a lot of kids her age. Her daughter’s a teenager now. But I think after this film — Stormy plans to show her this film this weekend — she’s going to understand a lot more of what happened.

I wanted to ask about Michael Avenatti. It seems like they had this really weird relationship that sort of started out tender and supportive. And then, as he got more exposure, it kind of morphed into something harder, where she became more suspicious of him. Is that perception accurate? What does she think about him now?
Carr: Michael Avenatti is so close to Icarus. He started off on Earth, and then flew very close to the sun. In so many interviews, he was speaking on behalf of Stormy that he forgot that he’s not the story, that Stormy is the story. And that has a lot of salience to us all as we cover these things. [Stormy] had been looking for people to represent her best interests, to help take care of her, to make the things that are bad go away. You had somebody that wasn’t going to charge her this insane retainer, but wasn’t scared of the opposition, and she was at a point in her life where everybody around her didn’t want to touch it, because it was so explosive, it was so difficult. And here was this guy that was not going to financially take advantage of her, who’s going to fight the bully with her, so she didn’t have to do it alone. That’s what she thought at the time.

And then for him to end up stealing from her it to fund his lavish lifestyle — that, to me, was one of the most incredibly upsetting, wild parts of the story, that those that say they’re going to protect us, ultimately fail us. And here was another man doing this. I found it to be unbelievable. We weren’t able to include it in the film, because we were thinking about length, but he wanted to defend himself and be the lawyer in his criminal trial against Stormy. The audacity that it takes to say, “I’m not going to let my lawyer speak for me, I’m gonna do it” — but that is the Michael Avenatti way. With the Glen stuff, with Michael Avenatti, with the people that failed her in her childhood — all this created this mechanism for her not to be believed, and the American public also thought that she shouldn’t be believed. That was so key to our understanding of Stormy as a whole.

Did you guys talk to him at all?
Gibson: I did. I spoke with him in prison.

What was that like?
Gibson: He was about a year into his sentence in federal prison. He had four years for the Stormy situation, and then he had 10 years from all the Nike stuff, and the extorting them and tax evasion and defrauding clients, including a disabled person. And so he was very spicy, I would say, on the phone. He’d been through hell. He’d been in solitary confinement for a time. So I definitely think that all played into his emotional state when I spoke to him. But I asked him, “Michael, I hear you talking about Stormy in this way now, but I’m very confused. You wrote the foreword to her book, Full Disclosure, and you spoke about her so beautifully and so lovingly. How did you go from that to this?”

Carr: He maligned Stormy inside the discussion points with Sarah. He’s one of those sort of angry — in my opinion, he was incredibly angry about the circumstances that brought him to prison. And he continued to tell Sarah bad things about Stormy and it was like, you’re in prison, bro, for stealing from this woman. Don’t blame her for your actions.

Gibson: He apologized to her in an email [Stormy reads out loud] in the movie. I think he was just frustrated that he was in prison. And she was making a documentary with Judd Apatow, and it just felt like sour grapes to me. And then he wrote me an email afterwards that was fascinating, and directed me to all of his positive press coverage from 2018, before any of the the criminal charges happened.

Why was that conversation not in the film?
Sarah Gibson: We couldn’t record it, because he would not allow that. And he wouldn’t agree to an interview on camera. So he sent us a statement over email, and at one point, we were gonna put the statement in the film, but we feel like he’s very alive in the footage and the narrative.

Carr: We didn’t want him having the last word. This is not about Michael Avenatti. It’s about what Michael Avenatti did to Stormy. After being on 82 talk shows, he doesn’t get to have the last word in our film on the subject.

I came away from the film feeling very much as Stormy does, which is just jaded and exhausted and feeling like none of this will actually make a difference. I feel like a lot of Americans feel that way right now. So I’m curious, considering it ends on that note, of this woman just feeling like everything she did was for nothing, how do you think viewers should should feel about that?
Gibson: For me, what I hoped the film would achieve was a humanizing of this woman that had been reduced to a headline “porn star Stormy Daniels,” a one dimensional character. And I hope that they would watch this film and see that she went through hell. She made a lot of choices that I don’t agree with, that the viewer might not agree with. But still, [I hoped viewers would] go through this journey with her and still really care what happens to her and really agree that this woman deserves to live in peace and safety with her daughter in this country and deserves a fair shake in the legal system, just like every taxpaying American citizen, and she doesn’t have that. And so that’s what I hoped we would achieve.

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