“Stormy”: Examining a Flawed Feminist Icon

Stormy editors Inbal B. Lessner, ACE and Ben Kaplan each brought their considerable experience in unscripted storytelling to this timely and unique perspective of a woman who dominated the headlines throughout and following the presidency of Donald Trump.

Stormy summary

Directed and produced by Sarah Gibson, Stormy follows Stormy Daniels as she navigates being a mother, artist, and advocate working hard to reinvent herself following the Stormy Daniels–Donald Trump scandal. Judd Apatow serves as an executive producer under his Apatow Productions banner.

In our discussion with Stormy editors Inbal B. Lessner, ACE and Ben Kaplan, we talk about:

  • Making the most of the Miro board
  • “If you can’t sum it up, you must cut it out”.
  • Motorboating your way to authenticity
  • Deconstructing one documentary for another
  • Stringing together the spine of the story

Listen while you read…

Editing Stormy

Matt Feury: Ben, if the information is correct—and it often isn’t—you worked on The Game Show Show with director Sarah Gibson, so I thought we should start with discussing how you got this job. 

Ben Kaplan: Like you said, I worked on The Game Show Show with Sarah. She was my director and showrunner on that project. I moved from Toronto to Los Angeles in the middle of that project, so Sarah was jumping back and forth between L.A. and Toronto to cut. The moment I moved here, she said, “I’m not flying to Toronto anymore. Let me just cut the project out of your apartment.” So we spent every day editing together. 

We were sitting in my office when the Trump indictment happened, and she just went a little frenetic. She started making calls and then came back in my office and said, “Something good is about to happen. I’ll have to fill you in more.” A week later, she was in my living room selling the film to Peacock.

Once that was official, Sarah came into the edit suite and said, “I have the Stormy Daniels doc and I want you on it. We’re trying to figure out all the pieces, but know that this is happening. And when it happens, we’re going to be jumping right into the edit.” So that was my foray into it. I was working with her on another project, I was in the apartment as it was sold, and then I was just dragged immediately into it. 

MF: Inbal, you’ve worked for over a decade with director Cecilia Peck. Most recently, you did the Netflix docuseries Escaping Twin Flames, for which you won an ACE Eddie Award. Congratulations on that. But I don’t believe you’ve ever worked with Ben or Sarah before. Tell me how you got Stormy and what you talked about with Sarah in that process.

Inbal Lessner, ACE: As I was finishing Escaping Twin Flames, I had a meeting with Olga Hamlet, who is an editorial agent at UTA. I told her about my work and what I’d like to do next. She put me up for a couple of jobs and she told me to go meet with Sarah. Then she sent me the Stormy sizzle reel and I was immediately intrigued. There was something very captivating about Stormy that reminded me of some of the other protagonists I have worked with in the past. She is completely fearless and outspoken. I liked the vibe of the few moments that I saw. 

I walked into that room just to interview for the job. I didn’t know who was involved. I didn’t have much time to prepare because we were finishing up a series. Sarah had just done the documentary Orgasm Inc: The Story of OneTaste for Netflix and she was familiar with my work. It was a friendly room to walk into.

I asked her, “What is the status of the edit?” My understanding was they tried to make this feature-length doc on an impossible schedule. It was brutal. It should be illegal, I think. Ben, you would know better, but I think they were trying to finish it in three months. 

Ben Kaplan: Yeah, I got my first rough cut done in six weeks. So it was tight.

Inbal Lessner, ACE: I thought I was walking into an insane situation mid-process, and I asked Sarah who was working on it. She mentioned there were four guys and I said, “Oh, there wasn’t a woman editor in town available to help cut the film about Stormy Daniels?” I think I kind of shamed her and maybe falsely used my gender to my advantage. But we hit it off and I was hired. Pretty quickly it became just Ben and I taking it forward. 

I said, “Oh, there wasn’t a woman editor in town available to help cut the film about Stormy Daniels?”

MF: What did you two talk about in terms of tackling this project? How do each of you like to work?

Inbal Lessner: In the beginning, there was no time to even talk, right Ben? 

Ben Kaplan: No, it was just cut. 

Inbal Lessner: I don’t think we had a conversation until a couple of weeks into it. Sometimes I would knock on the door bashfully and say, “Hey, do you mind if we assign this a stereo track or use V2 for just photos” or whatever it was. We tried to align at least on the technical organization. 

Ben Kaplan: Yeah, they were very tech-heavy organizations. We used color markers so that we could have consistency across the Avid in identifying what was good B-roll, a good soundbite, or a fun scene. There was a lot of, “Let’s just cut.” To build off Inbal’s mention of our impossible schedule, when we made our initial edit before she came in, it was quickly realized that we needed time to dig into the footage. I feel like the moment Inbal and I truly started working together was when we had to go through all the vérité and start cutting and figuring out what we even had to work with. It was a minute before we could sit down and say, “Hey, this is who I am. It’s so nice to meet you.”

MF: Do you have a shared process for how you do that stuff or do each of you have your own technique for organizing timelines or color coding assets? Is that something where you have to be in lockstep, or can you both just sort of do your own thing? 

Inbal Lessner: Everybody can do their own thing, but isn’t it wonderful when there is a symbiotic shared workflow? I learned a very basic color coding system from Greg Fenton, an editor I look up to, when we collaborated on a project. I use that system on all my projects. 

Normally I’m on a project from the beginning, but this one was a little tricky. I inserted myself in the middle and tried to not step on anybody’s toes. But I asked things like, “Are you open to discussing this logging workflow and organization techniques?” and “What do you have in place? What can I do to help organize it? How could we all get on the same page on the Miro board?” Things like that.

Ben Kaplan: I give a lot of credit to Inbal for bringing in that system. I come from a world where I primarily work alone, so I tend to think, “This way is fine. I can operate. I know what’s what.” When Inbal came in, she came with her expertise in Miro and in giving certain markers and certain colors to things. I feel like that helped us work quickly and efficiently. I only just realized last week that our marker system was red, white, and blue, which feels very patriotic to an American story, especially a political one.

MF: In a scripted project, you want the audience to feel a certain way. But when in a documentary, it’s almost like there’s a call to action in there. You want the audience to think a certain way and hopefully be motivated to do something. What kinds of discussions did you each have with Sarah about that?

Everybody can do their own thing, but isn’t it wonderful when there is a symbiotic shared workflow?

Ben Kaplan: One thing that seemed to infuriate Sarah was the labeling of Stormy as “porn star Stormy Daniels.” You just do not see a headline that doesn’t say “porn star” in front of her name. I think Sarah was looking for ways to humanize her and ways to get beyond that headline and learn about this woman who is a mother and a successful director. She has things beyond the porn industry, yet that’s the one thing the media wants to use to define her. I think in my talks with Sarah, everything boiled down to humanizing this woman that’s portrayed only one way in the media. 

Inbal Lessner: Certainly dimensionality, as Ben said, going beyond the headlines and seeing what happens to somebody who gets caught up in the eye of the storm. And the biggest storm at the time was going against the President of the United States.

They’re accusing each other of lying. It was a terrifying time for her and so easy for people to click-bait and write nasty commentary on social media. But to see the real people affected by this is fascinating. You get a peek behind the scenes. You go into the green rooms of talk shows, into her home and her car and her family life, and you see the impact that this big political scandal has on her personally.

MF: Was there anything that evolved as you were making it? Was there anything you wanted to punch up or something you wanted to minimize? 

Inbal Lessner: In the beginning, there was a week where I took the whole Tahoe story out. That was the story of the first night when Stormy met Trump at Lake Tahoe during a golf tournament. What happened, the way she describes it in that hotel room that night, was a cornerstone. It was a building block of the documentary. And I thought, “What if we don’t tell it all in one scene? What if we break it up into three pieces and learn something additional each time we come back to it?” That way, the viewer’s understanding of the dynamic evolves as her understanding evolves. 

You see, the way Stormy understands what happened that night in 2006 and the way she understands it in 2018 are different. And the way she understands it today is different too. Society is different. The way we see coercive and controlling relationships between men and women is different. So the world is a different place now and our understanding of the dynamic is different. 

I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to break that up?” I think we started with breaking it into three sections, which ended up more like two sections and then a coda at the end of the film. I thought that was an interesting discovery process. Where would those pieces fall and when are we ready to learn about them? 

There were early iterations of the film that were more non-linear. The scenes were more non-chronological. As we worked at it, we realized the film needed to have a strong chronological spine in order to stay on track.

Ben Kaplan: For me, it was her marriage. That storyline specifically was something that got more fleshed out as we went along. Those initial six weeks before Inbal came on were focused on cutting this fast getting the story in. And it was very well scripted by our story producers because we knew we had to have such a tight timeline.

But then we were able to open up the timeline and ask, “What can we explore about this dissolution of a marriage?” We started to think, “What are Stormy and her husband Glen going through?” and “What are these behind-the-curtain moments?” where she’s on the phone with him, whether it’s on the tour bus or in a hotel bedroom. We finally got Glen Crain on Zoom to expand on their marriage. We realized we were able to also tell a story about this marriage that was falling apart, which is a personal element that you don’t get when you focus on the Trump side and her reaction to Trump’s team. For me, the marriage storyline is one that opened up fully in a way that we never started with.

MF: Hearing you talk about the separate storylines, were you thoughtful about how you were going to divide up the work amongst each other?

Ben Kaplan: At first, it was very much about discovering what stories we had and what stories we could tell with the footage we had. We divided and broke down all of our archival vérité footage into sequences and said, “I’ll cut this, you cut that” and together we compiled a huge master timeline of vérité.

The more we went along with it, the more we took certain elements separately just to try our crack at it. Like when Inbal took the Tahoe segments and divided it up or when I took the Wall Street Journal investigation and tried to crack it into a succinct story. But it got to a point where we were swapping arcs back and forth or swapping halves of the film as a way to see, “What can you do with this?” and “What can I do with this?” and “What are you seeing that I’m not seeing?” There was as much interplay in the process as there was ownership of the smaller elements. 

Some of the best work experiences for me, certainly in documentaries, have been collaborative teams where I have at least one partner.

Inbal Lessner: Some of the best work experiences for me, certainly in documentaries, have been collaborative teams where I have at least one partner, sometimes even a bigger team. I started in the early 2000s on reality shows where we would have twenty editors on a show. It wasn’t unusual there to swap actors’ scenes back and forth. I find that to be a fun process and very inspiring creatively. 

Ben will throw me a scene and I will dig back into the raw footage and maybe find another piece to put back into it. And then a week later he’ll take it and find another tag or another way to get into it. I think we both got excited about what each of us was bringing to the same material, the same footage. Then we would have bigger conversations about how all the pieces fit together. We made sure to stay in lockstep on the storyboard when we were moving scenes, taking them out, putting them back in, or scrambling the order. I like that process. 

I would like to say, without getting too political, that October 7th happened in the middle of the editing schedule. I was in a personal place. I wasn’t able to focus on work for the first few days after that. The team was incredibly compassionate, understanding, loving, and caring. Ben stepped up and took over when I couldn’t make my deadline or cut my scene in time. And when he had a snag in his schedule, I tried to repay the favor and step in.

That’s lovely, especially on a marathon, when it’s not just a quick job. You’re in it for the long haul and you have each other’s backs. There’s time to fall apart for a second and come back. It’s especially true on documentaries with very dark subject matter where you can’t be 100% of the time.

But even on this, it was brutal. It was fast-moving. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen politically, and I don’t mean politically in the Trump sense of things. The editing room politics were complicated. So it was good to have somebody to bounce off of and just have a quiet lunch with. It felt very supportive. 

MF: In scripted, whether you’re doing a series or whether you’re doing a feature with multiple editors, staying in sync can be a challenge. The tone might go off in different directions. But in a documentary, you’re not working from a story, you’re creating a story. Collaboration must be more challenging without scripts to keep you in sync. So whether it’s the Miro board or something else, how did the two of you stay in sync throughout this evolving narrative? 

Ben Kaplan: For me, it was about having constant communication. I don’t think we could have pulled this off if we hadn’t been working in person together. If I ran into a problem, I could go and knock on Inbal’s door and run an idea, or she could do the same to me.

There was a point where we were screening the film three times a week, having full conversations, and rearranging its pieces on a board. But I think the whole collaboration was about communication and trust. It was about being constantly open about what we were doing. Trusting each other, never questioning the other person, but giving the time to have discussions around what we were doing.

Inbal Lessner: And Sarah is so sharp. She’s a fierce leader. She keeps all those pieces in her head. Oftentimes, I was left alone to slave on one scene. Ben and Sarah would come up with six new scenes in his bay, and I would be amazed at their productivity. Sarah could bounce back and forth between the two rooms, plus all the million other things she was doing, and keep track of everything that was happening.

There were more people on the support team, of course, but Sarah was great about keeping us on track. She communicated a lot and made sure that we watched the whole film at least once a week. It became a bit too much for me. It wasn’t just the time we spent on watching those very long cuts, but getting bleary eyed and a little desensitized where you’re not even sure what you’re watching anymore. So sometimes I wondered, “Are we watching this too much?”

But you asked about the Miro board. This is something I have been using on all of my projects. Miro is just digital storyboard cards, like what Walter Murch used to do with index cards on the wall. It’s just the digital version of that. It’s easy to share whether you’re in remote, hybrid, or in-person situations.

I color code the cards based on the storylines. For example, I usually use pink for a personal love story or a family story. When you do this, you can visually see the entire film. The challenge with long feature-length docs is that you lose sight of, “Where are we? What are we doing here? What is the flow of the narrative?” This process helps organize it visually, in one view, which the timeline doesn’t give you. 

You can zoom out on the AVID timeline, but it doesn’t tell you what the flow of emotions, ideas and themes look like. So this process visually tells you, “We’ve gone a long time without coming back to the pink storyline. Can we move some of this stuff around?” You can draw conclusions about the narrative just from looking at the cards on the board. 

Ben Kaplan: The other great thing is, we would always duplicate our board and rearrange it to the new board. Let’s say we’re seven cuts down and we say, “We lost a scene. But I like that scene. I want to repurpose what we had.” With the Miro board you can quickly search, see what cut that was in, and then open up that edit to find the scene versus going into old bins and all of your banked sequences. It was a very quick way to work, especially on a tight timeline like we had on Stormy. If we wanted to find the scene of Stormy in the tour bus where she argues with her husband, we could search and say, “Oh, that’s in the 10/25 cut.” It was a quick, super easy way to integrate scenes into new edits. 

Inbal Lessner: The other useful thing about the board is that it forces you to give a name, a very succinct title, to each scene. And this is harder than you might think. You have to figure out how to summarize a scene in three words. And guess what? If you can’t, maybe it doesn’t belong in the film. That scene might not work if you don’t know exactly what it’s doing and what its purpose is. Does it move the story from A to B? If not, maybe it doesn’t belong. Maybe it’s just a fun moment that you don’t have a use for. 

You have to figure out how to summarize a scene in three words. And guess what? If you can’t, maybe it doesn’t belong in the film.

MF: I’ve gotten so used to editors saying, “We were remote.” You’ve said a few times, “I could knock on Ben’s door” or “I could go over and see what new thing Sarah cooked up.” Where were you working and what was your basic editorial setup? 

Ben Kaplan: We were at the Jax Media building. We each had a room with a two, maybe three-monitor setup, depending on which room they kicked us into.

Inbal Lessner: The office was quiet at first because it was during the strike. Remember, Ben?

Ben Kaplan: Because there were writers’ rooms in the offices. Uncoupled was on one end and Emily in Paris was at the other. 

Inbal Lessner: Yeah. It was an Imagine Entertainment office. All the scripted shows were on strike, so we were very lonely there. When they came back, it became mayhem. 

Ben Kaplan: There was a point where anyone could bring their dogs into the office and leave them off leash to wander around. Then there were too many people, so it got limited to just Sarah’s dog. It became, “Let’s just keep Baxter in her suite and call it a day.” 

MF: Storage-wise, were you isolated with local drives? Were you working in a shared storage environment? 

Inbal Lessner: It was all shared offsite, remote. So even though we were in the office, the AVID media was not. 

Ben Kaplan: I’m still not sure why that was the case unless it’s a security thing. But we were physically there. Even though our systems were local, we were then logging into a virtual machine from the office to cut all of our material. 

Inbal Lessner: That seems to be the case everywhere now. But it did allow us the flexibility to take a day off and work remotely from home. So there it was a little bit hybrid. If somebody was sick or everybody decided to take an easy day after a late-night session, we would go home and log in from home. It was good to have that option. 

MF: Can you give us a basic overview of all the different types of assets you were working with? Because there’s something very unique about your documentary. There is a documentary-within-a-documentary. You took over content that was already shot for a second documentary that never happened. 

Inbal Lessner: It’s almost easier to list the kinds of media we didn’t have because we had just about everything. We had a lot of iPhone footage at different rates. That’s how the documentarian who followed Stormy in 2018 started shooting. Then they transitioned to semi-pro cameras and then later to pro cameras. So we had everything from iPhone footage to 4K. We also had lots of news archival, audio recordings, you name it. We had every kind of asset and everything was fair game to tell the story. We also used a lot of Twitter screenshots. I loved threading the Twitter world into the movie. Stormy is such an interesting Twitter poster. Her zings are priceless. So we brought that into the visual language of the film. 

When Sarah started filming with Stormy, she knew there was existing footage from several teams who had documented Stormy before, but they never managed to get a finished film together. There was some footage from 2006-07, which was around the time that Stormy was starting to direct and also the time when she met Trump. There was also the journalist who followed Stormy when the scandal started in 2018. And then we had our footage, which they started filming in 2022. So there was a wealth of material from different sources, and we had to figure out the right way to weave it all together. 

Ben Kaplan: We’ll shout-out our assistant Moriah Dobos for that because there was so much. How do you begin sorting and organizing that? There was a lot of interplay between us figuring out the best way to organize and saying, “Let’s find the iPhone cam, the GoPro cam, the semi-professional cam, and any photos and start organizing it based on that.” Initially, I think our bin was just a dump of old vérité footage from 2018. So we had to figure out how to tackle this in a way that was manageable and made it easier to tell this story.

MF: What’s your process? Do you use the interviews and testimonials to almost do a radio edit and then flesh that out?

Inbal Lessner: Stormy is the key interview. The new one that Sarah did was the initial spine, and that’s how they scripted out the first cut. But then we were getting this new, older footage as we were cutting. In fact, they asked us to take a couple of weeks off so they could catch up on all the footage that was coming in. Then we methodically figured out how to divide, conquer, and review it.

Every time somebody found a good moment, we said, “Okay, could this be a scene? Let’s cut it together, put that on the board, and see where that fits.” We tried to stay loyal to the chronology of how the scandal unfolded in real-time. But we also would organize things based on, say, “These are all the car and bus ride scenes. These are all the hotel room scenes. These are all the strip club scenes. And what are we trying to say here?”

My favorite was when we realized we needed to convey the particular moment in time when Stormy became a liberal hero. She and Avenatti were going to save America for a moment. I thought, “How can we play into this moment and have fun with it, but also explain that it was real.” This was in the zeitgeist. People thought that she could get Trump impeached. So, where do we find the right local news stories, interviews, and tweets to make that feel like reality? What can make us feel like we’re going back in time to when this was our reality? 

Once we understood what themes needed to emerge, we had to figure out how to get Stormy’s emotional arc from a deer-in-the-headlights type of thing to her owning the moment and then to her declining because of the toll that it took on her and her family. But then there are also moments like when Stormy finds out that Avenatti stole her book payments. That was captured in real-time on camera. Those are the kinds of moments where we said, “This is going in. We don’t care how, but this is a moment that’s definitely in.” So there are those moments where you see history happening in real time and other scenes that are more textural.

Those are the kinds of moments where we said, “This is going in. We don’t care how, but this is a moment that’s definitely in.”

MF: Even though this is an unscripted project, when you’re doing interviews, people in a sense are still sort of acting. They’re sort of performing for the camera. Something I caught is that you would stay on an interview long enough that the people would stop acting. There was a scene where two gentlemen were talking about going to see Stormy dance and getting motorboated. You can tell when a subject stops acting. You can see a genuine reaction from that person if you stay on a shot long enough. Can you tell me about that particular scene and your approach to getting more authenticity out of a subject?

Ben Kaplan: The motorboating scene took on a lot of iterations. The two gentlemen featured in that scene are the Wall Street Journal reporters who broke the hush money payment story in 2018. We originally had that scene much earlier in the doc. We had it before we gave them credit for breaking the scandal. We always loved the scene, it was just a matter of where to put it. We love the fact that Joe, the reporter who got motorboated, has that smile that slowly wears off his face. His eyes realize what he just told us. 

You can tell when a subject stops acting. You can see a genuine reaction from that person if you stay on a shot long enough

But it is a challenge in a doc to tell an authentic story. Everyone comes in with a way they want to be perceived and a way they want their story told. We realized early on that we needed to lean into the messy moments. Stormy is our main subject and she’s our focus, but we don’t need to make her look like a hero all the time. Even when we talked about the Wall Street Journal story, we had a big discussion about whether we should acknowledge that Stormy was trying to sell a story versus Stormy telling us that she didn’t know how the story came out.

I think it was about being honest with our subjects, whether it was letting them linger on camera more or showing things that might refute their interview. It was more about showing the messiness of a story like this, and not being afraid to make the subject feel a little messy. We allowed ourselves to have competing ideas as we went through the story.

MF: When we started off our talk, I asked you about the intentions that you two had with Sarah, what you wanted the audience to learn and to feel and perhaps to do. I think I should ask, what did you two learn from working on this project? 

Inbal Lessner: Oh wow. You go first, Ben. I need to think about this.

Ben Kaplan: The pressure’s on. I learned that it’s okay to not hero-ize your subject. I come from a world of documentaries where your main subject is your main subject. You want people to root for them. But I’ve learned that people are complicated, and if you have a complicated story and a complicated motivation, you shouldn’t shy away from it. You should lean into it. 

Also, I learned that even when the film is wrapped up, it’s not wrapped up in the sense of, “We can tie a bow on it and call it a day. Stormy’s doing great.” We end the story in a place where she’s still facing threats from Trump supporters. She’s exhausted by the toll this story has taken on her. Not only that, we don’t have an ending to this Stormy-Trump journey yet. Trump is indicted and the trial has not begun. The trial was just delayed. So we’re at a place where there’s not a clean ending.

But I think I learned to embrace that collaboratively, whether it’s Inbal, Sarah, or our story producers. We had a lot of thoughtful discussions about how to tell this story with messy elements in a way that feels true without necessarily trying to push a narrative or an agenda. We just tried to be honest to the subject. 

Inbal Lessner: I’ll echo what Ben said. Every time we said, “That’s too complicated. Let’s leave that alone. Let’s not tell that story” we regretted that decision. We typically went back and put that messiness into it. That made it a better movie. At the beginning of the project, we considered not mentioning that Denver Nicks and Stormy had a brief relationship when he was done documenting her. But I thought it was important to lean into that tension.

Her marriage was falling apart and here was this guy following her around as her life was exploding on SNL. The tender moment they share in that dressing room is part of a good story. They’re all good, messy moments. There are many, many examples of that in this film. The more we leaned into those messy, unresolved, not-so-black-and-white moments, the better the film got.

I go back and forth between showrunning, producing, and taking jobs where I’m “just the editor”. I learned something from Kim Roberts, who came and helped me on Victim/Suspect. Every time I tried to tell her about the drama with the producers or the subject, she would say, “I don’t need to know that. I’m just in the story.” So I embraced that. And I told Sarah, “If it doesn’t have to do with the story, I don’t want to know.” I immersed myself in the edit. Just the story.

I didn’t try to put on my producer hat or step into conversations that I didn’t need to be in. I didn’t want to know about the six different executive producers pushing the film in six different directions.

If it doesn’t have to do with the story, I don’t want to know.

And I think it helped. I think it helped the film to say, “There’s a version of this film that we are all going to be happy with.” Even if I didn’t believe it in the moment, it was something I would say. It became a mantra. “There’s a version of this film that we’re all going to be happy with.” I was just focusing on the work, pushing the story forward, and not worrying about all the noise. That helped me to do a better job.

MF: I think there’s a lot of people that might hear about this film and think, “I know everything already. I know all I need to know” and I say to them, “You don’t.”

Inbal Lessner: You don’t know bupkis. 

MF: It’s a credit to you both. And it was a thoroughly entertaining, informative, eye-opening, fascinating film to watch. I learned a lot. At the very least, I finally learned how to pronounce Inbal’s name. So there’s that.

Inbal Lessner: Almost.

Ben Kaplan: We can call you in a week to double-check.

MF: Inbal. Inbal. I just have to keep saying it over and over again.

Matt Feury

Matt Feury is host and producer of The Rough Cut podcast, as well as the Sr. Director, Market Solutions – Video & Post for Avid.