Stormy Daniels doc is a portrait of a woman destroyed by Donald Trump

AUSTIN — The Stormy Daniels affair that in 2018 consumed Donald Trump’s presidency — after his attorney Michael Cohen violated the law by paying $130,000 to the adult-film star to keep silent — may feel like old news. But it’s far from over. And that was abundantly clear at this month’s South by Southwest premiere of the new documentary “Stormy,” where Daniels arrived as a surprise guest accompanied by two large security guards who surveyed the room at all times.

The guards, along with bomb-sniffing dogs and off-duty police officers, were a reminder of the paranoia that has haunted Daniels for six years, ever since she spoke out about her alleged one-night stand with the former president, then fought back against him in a defamation trial.

She’s still speaking out.

“F— Trump,” an emotional Daniels said as her final message while exiting the stage. She was shaking with tears throughout the Q&A.

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“Stormy,” available March 18 on Peacock, isn’t really about him, but about the fallout for one woman trying to navigate motherhood and her career while spending years in his crosshairs. She’s painted as an accidental feminist hero (who’s also a registered Republican) who used a post-scandal tour of strip clubs to make lemonade out of the lemons she was dealt, but faced angry mobs and an incessant barrage of internet and in-person hate, watched her marriage fall apart, nearly lost her ability to see her daughter and was even arrested when several undercover police officers in Columbus, Ohio, encouraged her to put her breasts in their faces during a strip show. (The charges were dismissed the next day; she eventually received a $450,000 settlement for her “improper” arrest amid speculation that it was politically motivated.) At one point, she even recorded a statement on video about who should get her hard drives in case something happened to her.

According to the documentary, Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, says she is willing to testify against Trump in his upcoming hush money trial, which was initially set to start March 25 in New York but is now delayed. It’s one of four criminal indictments against the former president and presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee, with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg levying 34 felony counts against Trump for allegedly falsifying records to cover up the nature of the payment made to Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 election.

“Stormy” director Sarah Gibson and producer Erin Lee Carr (who worked together on the Netflix documentary “Britney vs Spears,” which Carr directed) had only been able to screen the completed film for Daniels over Zoom the night before the SXSW premiere. Daniels had no editorial control, yet she handed over all her footage and sat for interviews, with a lot of trepidation. “She has a lot of issues with trusting people, given everything that’s happened to her,” Gibson says during an interview with The Washington Post. “So showing her the film the night before was a very cathartic and powerful experience. We could hear laughing, crying, yelling.”

Still, they didn’t know whether she’d show up in person, to a public venue in a state that Trump won easily in 2020. Ever since the indictment, she has received an increase in death threats, as well as threats to her 13-year-old daughter. Her anxiety has gone through the roof. “It’s a dangerous time to be Stormy Daniels right now,” Carr says. “And so coming to Texas and putting herself out there was difficult.”

Daniels was emotional throughout the premiere, and even got up in the middle of the film with her team and went to the lobby, which had Carr worrying that she was bolting for the door. (She just needed a breather.) “She was so scared to come to our premiere,” Gibson says. “She showed up crying and just very real, and she still showed up. That’s how she’s showing up for this indictment. She’s determined to do the best she can if she’s asked to testify, and she wants to just get through it in an elevated way, with a sense of humor.”

Much of the documentary’s footage comes, rather confusingly, from journalist Denver Nicks, who began filming Daniels in March 2018, when she went on “60 Minutes” to talk openly about Trump for the first time — arguing that Cohen’s book proposal violated their nondisclosure agreement. (Days after she sued Trump to get out of the NDA, his legal team sought $20 million in damages from her.)

Her close relationship with Nicks, which briefly turned romantic, seems to have contributed to the end of her marriage with her third husband, drummer and porn star Brendon Miller (legal name: Glendon Crain), with whom she is co-parenting their daughter. Whatever happened to Nicks goes unexplained, but Miller appears in the documentary candidly discussing the great strain of the Trump incident on their family: press vans parked outside their house, making it impossible for their daughter to play, and the betrayal he felt when Daniels omitted telling him that she’d allegedly had sex with Trump and he found out through CNN. (Trump has repeatedly denied having an affair with Daniels.)

Gibson’s relationship with Daniels began in 2019 while working on a comedy project together. The day Daniels left that set in L.A., she was denied entry into Canada because 17 bogus charges had mysteriously appeared on her FBI record, as her tour manager claims in the documentary, backed up by cellphone footage of the border stop. The two women texted throughout that ordeal. Then Gibson reached out again during the court trial for Michael Avenatti, Daniels’s attorney who was convicted in 2022 of embezzling from her and who is now serving 19 years in prison for his crimes against Daniels and others. Daniels agreed to do a documentary on the grounds that it not be a puff piece or gloss over the struggles and imperfections of her life. Judd Apatow, whom Daniels knew from brief appearances she’d made in his films, such as “Knocked Up,” later came on as a producer.

When Gibson and Carr started filming Daniels in 2022, their aim was to tell the broader story of the discrimination that a woman in her line of work faces while trying to reinvent herself, especially after becoming the center of a national scandal that was not of her making, involving the most powerful man in America. Daniels was doing incredibly well. She’d gone back to directing adult films. (Before everything hit the fan in 2018, she’d been the second-highest-paid director in porn, she claims in the film.) She’d become a reiki healer of horses, her true passion. And she’d married a friend and former co-star, Barrett Blade (legal name: Russell Barrett), her fourth husband.

Then Trump got indicted, and everything she thought she’d put behind her came roaring back double-force, including the threats to her family. “I’ve seen a dramatic, dramatic shift as far as her day-to-day comfort in the world,” Gibson says.

In the film, Daniels says her reason for doing the documentary is to tell her side of the story, so her daughter, at least, can watch it someday and know the truth. And that’s what SXSW audience member Guy Lavallee, program director for NorthwestFest in Canada, says was most powerful for him. “I think because she’s an adult-film star, she’s seen by a lot of people — not just in the media, [but] people in society — as lesser than human because of what she does for a living. And she’s a woman, so she’s been treated accordingly.”

Daniels recounts meeting Trump for the first time, while working at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe in 2006. He was 60, recently married to Melania Trump and the star of “The Apprentice.” She was 27. He invited her to dinner, she says, and asked her to meet him in his hotel room while he got ready. They talked for a long time, in which he pitched the idea of putting her on “Celebrity Apprentice” as a way to get him attention and for her to move into mainstream directing of horror films. He told her that she reminded him of his daughter. Then, she claims, “with having no red flags whatsoever in a conversation, I came out of a bathroom to find myself cornered,” and they had consensual, but uncomfortable (at least on her part) sex. She is emphatic many times in the film that she is not a victim.

Throughout the film, there is the sense that Daniels is not relishing the spotlight. “I remember the day the indictment happened, and we’re all celebrating and opening bottles of champagne,” Gibson says, “and she realized that she wouldn’t be able to hang out with her daughter as much in public that summer. … Even since the trailer came out, people on social media have been attacking her daughter. It’s so disgusting.”

There are also many scenes of her with Avenatti, whose every appearance is accompanied by someone joking that he’d never miss a chance to go on TV. We see him condescend to her, trying to tell her what to say, and we get the sense that Daniels is aware that this guy doesn’t have her best interests at heart. But, once again, she feels cornered, because he took a $100 retainer and was the only lawyer to take her case. He also filed a defamation suit against Trump on her behalf, which she claims she found out about through Twitter. She lost that suit, as well as an appeal, and a court has ordered her responsible for Trump’s legal fees.

“The financial penalty that Stormy is facing is staggering,” Carr says. “She owes former president Trump over $600,000, and they are in this contested battle about it. And every single moment of your life when you owe people money,” Carr goes on, “you have to say: ‘Do I spend money on this? What’s going to happen to my house? What’s going to happen to my daughter?’ And we have to make very clear that she is going to have to pay Donald Trump’s legal feels as a result of a defamation suit she didn’t want to happen.”

Avenatti is not interviewed in the film, but he did speak to Gibson from prison — she thinks because she knows the director Alex Gibney, and Avenatti wants Gibney to make a movie about him. He told Gibson, “You should check out my glowing press profiles from 2018,” Gibson says.

“I think this film offers an exclusive look inside Michael Avenatti’s takeover of the Stormy Daniels case and putting himself forward,” Carr adds. “… We’re showing all the men trying to control this woman, and Stormy is uncontrollable, but she is exploited in every single way.”

That exploitation, Carr argues, is still happening. She’s facing jail if she doesn’t pay money to Trump for a lawsuit she lost that was filed by an attorney who was convicted of defrauding her.

“These aren’t consequences anyone should live with,” Gibson says. “We would love to expose how the justice system isn’t created equally for everybody and how Trump and his attorneys are coming after her and her current partner very intensely and she’s afraid she’s going to lose her home. … Now she’s being asked to testify on behalf of the government and the justice system that never protected her.”

But as long as she’s alive, she’ll show up to testify against Trump. That’s her form of self-protection. “If I hide and cower away, it just sort of feeds the bullies,” Daniels says in the film. “It’s just going to make it worse.”

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