Q&A: ‘Stormy’ Editor Inbal B. Lessner Discusses Film Portrait of Trump Accuser Stormy Daniels Streaming on Peacock

The documentary Stormy, which debuted March 18 on the streaming service Peacock, pulls back the curtain on Stormy Daniels, following her as she navigates both motherhood and her personal life amidst the media circus surrounding her and the hush money offer from Donald Trump prior to his election as President of the United States. The film debuts as the so-called “hush money trial,” involving allegations Trump paid Daniels to cover up marital infidelity, is set to kick off in New York April 15.

Inbal B. Lessner (Courtesy of Inbal B. Lessner)

As lead editor on the project, Inbal B. Lessner combed through hundreds of hours of footage from 2018, helping to reframe the story from Stormy’s perspective. Executive-produced by Judd Apatow, Stormy introduces audiences to its title figure at a pivotal moment in her life. Still grappling with the scandal that made her an unlikely American icon, Stormy is now working to reinvent herself as an artist and activist more than five years later.

Media Play News asked Lessner — who is hot off her success as executive producer/showrunner/editor on Netflix’s 2023 award-winning cult expose docuseries Escaping Twin Flames — about the process of telling Daniels’ story. 

MPN: Describe your discussions with director Sarah Gibson about assembling/focusing Stormy. What was your guiding philosophy?

Lessner: Sarah was interested in going beyond the one-dimensional and all-too-prevalent “Porn Star Stormy Daniels” headlines and paint a multilayered picture of Stormy as a mother, wife, artist, activist … a fully-fleshed woman who pulled herself out of poverty and neglect to become a very successful writer/director in the adult film industry by the time she was 27, when she met then-60-year-old-reality-TV-host Trump at a 2006 golf tournament. Sarah was genuinely curious about how Stormy’s upbringing and youth shaped who she was when she entered his hotel room, how it informed her behavior, and how she dealt with the “hush payment” scandal over the last five years as a result of that encounter.

These questions guided our search for interview clips and for moments in the verité footage that would reveal her unique motivation, her childhood trauma, and her near-obsession with telling the truth, even at a cost to her own safety and peace. And, with Sarah having such unique access, Stormy could finally define herself in her own words, and tell the full story from her authentic perspective.

MPN: What elements did you have to work with in assembling Stormy?

Lessner: We were fortunate to have a wealth of material. We had Sarah Gibson’s key interview, as well as beautiful footage she filmed with Stormy at home looking at photos and documents, with her daughter, her husband and her horses, and also her speaking engagements in Europe. We had of course a mountain of archival footage, national network and cable news, as well as local news stations reporting about Stormy’s strip club tour, plus clips from talk shows and from her ‘SNL’ appearance, and paparazzi videos and photos.

In addition to all this, Sarah received exclusive footage from three different people who had followed Stormy in the past, but never finished their projects. This provided us with a peek into who Stormy was in 2006, around the time she met Trump, as well as a behind-the-scenes view of the months right after the story broke in 2018.

Finally, our archival producer sourced more rare videos, photos, headlines and even text messages and tweets related to Stormy’s family and career, to Trump, and to the scandal, so that we can put together this rich visual tapestry of how it all played out in Stormy’s private life and in the American media, leading eventually to Trump’s historical indictment.

My partner-editor Ben Kaplan and I, along with our lead assistant editor Moriah Dobos, had to come up with strategies to organize all the footage in a way that would be easy to recall and find. It was not easy to keep track of everything!

MPN: Were there any elements that were hard to incorporate? Did anything have to be left on the “cutting room floor” that you would have liked to include?

Lessner: Everyone on the team had their favorite moments. I personally like to keep the films I edit tight, and at the end I was ready to let go of scenes that others on the team insisted on keeping, and so I must say there isn’t a whole lot that was left on the cutting room floor. The legal details were important to get right, and they are all intertwined and built on each other, so we couldn’t cut any corners there, but we tried to add humor and drama to the way the information was conveyed and give the larger context so that the viewers don’t drown in the details. There were a couple more scenes about specific strip club appearances, but those got collapsed into one montage, where you just get a sense that Stormy and her team are traveling around the country throughout 2018, and we focus on how that impacts Stormy’s family, and how the club patrons are changing as she becomes more politicized.

MPN: What was/were the most difficult sequence/s to edit?

Lessner: I think the opening of the film went through the most revisions, as is often the case with documentaries. We had so many things to set up and put in motion. Sarah Gibson was incredibly creative in how she kept rewriting and reimagining the opening with us. It was critical to meet Stormy in the present day to set the stakes of the indictment, but also let her character and humor shine through so that people would care enough to lean in and go on this journey with her.

The Lake Tahoe hotel room sequence where Stormy recalls the sexual encounter with Trump was also a tricky scene to craft. We always knew that it was a key piece and that we had to get there quickly, but there was so much information we had to establish about her childhood and her upbringing to make sense of the dynamic between Stormy and Trump. In the end we broke the scene into two parts. We let Stormy tell the story early in the film, in the chronological order of events, as if it’s 2006 and she’s recalling being 27 years old and her perspective about it at that time. About an hour later in the film, when we’re in 2018 and Stormy talks about writing her book and reliving everything that happened to her, she goes back in her memory to that hotel room and this time she has a different perspective of a mature woman and a mother living in today’s world, post #MeToo. By now we’ve all heard similar “casting couch” stories and I believe we can understand the power imbalance in that room and how her past played a role in her “fawning” response. It took us a while to find the right place for that second part and get it just right. I’m very happy with it. 

MPN: What do you hope viewers take away from Stormy?

Lessner: Sarah Gibson calls it “radical empathy.” When you realize that someone who was reduced to a clickbait headline is actually incredibly brave and resilient, and you can open your mind and heart to them — that type of empathy is what we need today, and what we hope people will take away that goes beyond learning about Stormy. 

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MPN: Congrats on the ACE Award for Escaping Twin Flames! What was most fulfilling and/or challenging about that project?

Lessner: Thank you! I created “Escaping Twin Flames” with my producing partner Cecilia Peck, who also directed the series. I am very proud of my role as a Showrunner in charge of post-production. It was a herculean effort by our edit team to distill over 1,000 hours of footage into a compelling narrative and a scathing profile of “Twin Flames Universe,” while honoring the former and current members, as well as the mothers who agreed to share their painful stories with us. If you’ve seen the show, you know that people were indoctrinated and then coerced to change their gender in this cult. We’ve had to walk a very fine line to show and explain how it happened, without feeding the dangerous right-wing narrative that transgenderism is a cult. We support trans rights, and we really hope that this abusive group will be stopped.

Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Wants to Buy TikTok

Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says he is assembling a group of investors to buy the Chinese-owned TikTok social media video streaming app.

“This should be owned by U.S. businesses,” Mnuchin told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” business news show on March 14 . “There’s no way that the Chinese would ever let a U.S. company own something like this in China.”

The move comes a day after the U.S. House of Representatives, in a bipartisan 352-65, vote ruled the social media app’s U.S. operations must be sold or face a ban. TikTok, which is reportedly used by 170 million mostly younger Americans, poses a national security threat, according to lawmakers.

Whether such a sale ever occurs hinges on China’s willingness to sell. Beijing a year ago said it would oppose any foreign sale of TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance Ltd.

The U.S. government’s move to extricate China’s control of TikTok follows similar efforts by the former Trump Administration. Yet now the former president has reversed himself, arguing a sale of TikTok would hurt younger people.

Speaking March 11 on the same “Squawk Box” program, Trump agreed TikTok posed a security threat, but said banning it would alienate the platform’s younger users.

“Frankly, there are a lot of people on TikTok that love it,” Trump said. “There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it.”

The current GOP presidential nominee also contends that banning TikTok would empower Facebook and other social media platforms.

“The thing I don’t like is that without TikTok, you can make Facebook bigger,” Trump said. “And I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people, along with a lot of the media.”

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Town Hall With Donald Trump Highest-Rated CNN Political Event Since 2016

Like moths to a flame, TV viewers can’t get enough of televised political events featuring Donald Trump.

Despite the controversy surrounding CNN’s decision to go ahead with its May 10 “Republican Presidential Town Hall with Former President Donald Trump,” the day after he was found guilty of sexual harassment and defamation, the Warner Bros. Discovery news unit scored a rare ratings win for the Wednesday night telecast.

The 70-minute broadcast ranked No. 1 in cable news and No. 2 among all cable programming (behind only the NBA Playoffs on TNT) in both total viewers and adults 25-54, according to CNN.

Hosted by CNN Anchor Kaitlan Collins, the Town Hall out of St. Anselm College in New Hampshire averaged 3.308 million total viewers. That was more than the combined viewership of rivals Fox News (1.446 million in the town hall time period) and MSNBC, which had 1.398 million viewers.

Wednesday’s event was CNN’s No. 1 single-candidate town hall since 2016 among adults 25-54 and No. 2 among total viewers, closely behind CNN’s “2020 Joe Biden Town Hall” Sept. 17, with 3.465 million viewers.

The CNN town hall delivered a larger demo audience than Trump’s first town hall of the 2020 election cycle on Fox News, and significantly ahead of Trump’s last town hall appearance on CNN in 2016 (aired April 12), delivering 53% more total viewers (3.308 million vs. 2.168 million).

Among total viewers, CNN had 2.293 million, 57% more than MSNBC’s 1.458 million and 36% more than Fox News’s 1.683 million. This marked CNN’s best performance in prime time since the 2022 Midterm Elections among total viewers on Nov. 8, 2022, with 2.608 million viewers.

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On CNN’s digital platforms, the town hall streamed live, without requiring a cable log-in, on CNN’s homepage and across mobile devices via CNN’s apps for iOS and Android from 8 to 9:30 p.m. ET and peaked with 149,000 concurrent viewers at 9:09 p.m., the largest concurrent digital livestream audience for a CNN Election Town Hall since at least the 2020 cycle. The livestream generated nearly 1 million live video starts.

Combining TV plus digital live streaming produced a combined average audience of 3.408 million total viewers. Digital viewing added a 3% lift to CNN’s TV P2+ average audience for the town hall, ranking 9th among all town halls on record. CNN coverage (8 to 9:09 p.m. ET) saw an average audience of 100,000 users live streaming the average minute of coverage (equivalent to the way TV ratings are calculated).

Donald Trump Launching Social Media, SVOD Network

Former President Donald Trump is seeking to launch a social media platform and subscription VOD service following the merger of his Trump Media & Technology Group with Miami-based Digital World Acquisition.

The former president was banned from social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and YouTube following the unrest from his supporters at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6.

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In a statement, Trump said TMTG’s “Truth Social”platform and TMTG+ SVOD service would create a rival to the “liberal media consortium” and fight back against the big tech companies with “non-woke” entertainment programming, news and podcasts.

The company has hired TV producer Scott St. John to run TMTG+ operations. St. John is the executive producer of “Deal or No Deal’ and “America’s Got Talent,” among others.

“We live in a world where the Taliban has a huge presence on Twitter, yet your favorite American President has been silenced,” Trump said. “This is unacceptable.”

Trump said his new platform can eventually compete with Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Netflix and Disney+. Truth Social is set to beta launch next month, with a full rollout set for the first quarter 2022.

In a consumer survey on the political website The Hill, 30% of respondents said they would frequent Trump’s online initiatives, while 54% said they would not, and 16% said they would consider it.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

STREAMING REVIEW:

Amazon Prime Video;
Comedy;
Rated ‘R’ for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and language.
Stars Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Dani Popescu.

The hilarious sequel to one of 2006’s most-surprising hits sees the return of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character, the wildly inappropriate journalist from Kazakhstan who constantly challenges America’s cultural taboos.

In this long-awaited follow-up, we learn Borat was thrown into prison as punishment for the worldwide humiliation Kazakhstan endured from the first film. However, hoping to get in the good graces of President Donald Trump, Kazakhstan’s prime minister frees Borat and sends him on a mission to deliver a bribe to a U.S. government official.

The gift in question? Borat’s own daughter, Tutar (newcomer Maria Bakalova), who wants to become the next Melania.

Borat’s first objective is to deliver her to Vice President Michael Pence, which he attempts to do by crashing a conservative conference dressed as Trump. When that doesn’t work, he sets his sights on delivering her to Rudy Guiliani, leading to the much hyped and overblown scene of her interviewing him in a hotel room.

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Cohen is up to his usual on-camera shtick of acting the fool to elicit awkward responses from people he’s not too fond of politically. With the Borat character now widely known as a result of the previous film, he has taken to wearing a series of disguises to hide his identity.

From this setup, a couple of subplots emerge. The first finds Borat growing closer to his daughter as she becomes wowed by the wonders of America. The second is Borat dealing with the growing coronavirus pandemic, which serves as the primary backdrop for the film and provides some surprising cameos and plot twists.

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Bakalova gives a spirited performance as what amounts to a younger, female version of Borat, and the father-daughter relationship turns out to be kind of sweet, despite all the inappropriate things they say and do in public. As with the first movie, the filmmakers’ willingness to do anything to upend polite society leads to a lot of laughs, but nothing touches the uproarious levels of the naked hotel fight from the first movie (which led me to literally fall out of my chair in the theater from laughter).

The arrival of the sequel also serves as a reminder that an American Blu-ray release of the original film is long overdue.

Showtime’s ‘The Comey Rule’ Arriving on MOD DVD Oct. 27

Showtime’s two-part limited series “The Comey Rule” will be released on DVD Oct. 27 by CBS and Paramount Home Entertainment. The DVD will be manufactured on demand and will available  through Amazon and other online retailers.

Based on former FBI director James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty, “The Comey Rule” recounts events surrounding the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, and centers on the turbulent relationship between Comey (Jeff Daniels) and President Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson), whose strikingly different personalities, ethics and loyalties put them on a collision course.

The cast also includes Holly Hunter, Michael Kelly, Jennifer Ehle, Jonathan

Banks and Oona Chaplin. “The Comey Rule” was adapted for the screen and directed by Billy Ray.

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‘Frontline: The Choice 2020,’ ‘And She Could Be Next’ Among Political Titles Available on PBS Documentaries Prime Channel

PBS Distribution is streaming several political titles on the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel in time for the upcoming Nov. 3 election.

Among the titles available are Frontline: The Choice 2020, American Experience: The Vote, And She Could Be Next, Ken Burns: The Congress, American Experience: The Presidents and Frontline: Whose Vote Counts.

The subscription rate for PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel is $3.99 per month with an Amazon Prime or Prime Video subscription.

Frontline: The Choice 2020 offers interwoven investigative biographies of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden and examines the defining moments that shaped Trump and Biden’s lives, their approaches to power, and their visions for America’s future at this pivotal juncture.

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One hundred years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, American Experience: The Vote tells the dramatic story of the hard-fought campaign waged by American women for the right to vote, a transformative cultural and political movement that resulted in the largest expansion of voting rights in U.S. history. In its final decade, from 1909 to 1920, movement leaders wrestled with contentious questions about the most effective methods for affecting social change, debating the use of militant, even violent tactics, as well as hunger strikes and relentless public protests. The battle also upended previously accepted ideas about the proper role of women in American society and challenged the definitions of citizenship and democracy. Exploring how and why millions of 20th-century Americans mobilized for — and against — women’s suffrage, The Vote brings to life the unsung leaders of the movement and the deep controversies over gender roles and race that divided Americans then — and continue to dominate political discourse today.

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And She Could Be Next follows a defiant movement of women of color as they transform politics from the ground up. Filmed during the historic 2018 midterm elections, the series follows organizers and candidates (including Rashida Tlaib and Stacey Abrams) as they fight for a truly reflective government, asking whether democracy can be preserved — and made stronger — by those most marginalized.

In Ken Burns: The Congress, Burns profiles a durable American institution in his portrait of the U.S. Congress. Narrated by David McCullough, the film uses historic footage and interviews with “insiders” David Broder, Alistair Cooke and Cokie Roberts to detail the first 200 years. The film chronicles careers of notable members and charts the continuing growth of the Capitol building, in readings from diary entries, letters and famous speeches.

American Experience: The Presidents, including JFK, Nixon, George W. Bush, Clinton and George H. W. Bush, includes five programs taking a look at some of America’s most influential presidents of the 20th century. Focusing on the intersection of public and private, character and history, these programs examine pivotal moments in each of the presidencies and how they affected the country. Viewers will look at George W. Bush and his unorthodox road to the presidency; George H. W. Bush and his life and career as the 41st president; Clinton and his meteoric rise in state politics; JFK, with a new perspective on his private life and reevaluation of his time in the Oval Office; and Nixon, with a look at one of American history’s most powerful figures, exploring a fateful mix of strength and weakness that made him president, and then brought him down.

Finally, Frontline: Whose Vote Counts, available Oct. 21, investigates allegations of voter fraud and disenfranchisement in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

Tubi Licenses ‘The Apprentice’ Catalog Featuring Donald Trump

Ad-supported VOD app Tubi May 6 announced it has secured streaming rights to all 15 seasons of “The Apprentice,” the reality TV show that helped put Donald Trump, his family members and Omarosa on the national stage.

Arnold Schwarzenegger hosted the final season after Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016.

San Francisco-based Tubi secured the rights from MGM, which created the long-running series from 2004 through 2017.

The debut season of “The Apprentice” premiered on NBC delivering an average weekly viewership of 20.7 million and was one of the network’s most-watched series with adults 18-49. The franchise has broadened globally with over 20 localized versions.

Notable U.S. contestants included Bill Rancic, Piers Morgan, Bret Michaels, Arsenio Hall, Trace Adkins, Leeza Gibbons, Khloe Kardashian, Cyndi Lauper, Lil Jon, Vivica A. Fox and Geraldo Rivera, among others.

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Last month, a New York appeals court ruled Trump could not dismiss a sexual defamation lawsuit filed by former contestant Summer Zervos just because he is President.

“In our quest to democratize content and make more premium content accessible, we are making a big push into the reality television space,” Tubi CEO Farhad Massoudi said in a statement. “‘The Apprentice’ is our second big series (after Lionsgate’s ‘Anger Management’) announcement this month, and we will have more in the near future.”

Tubi claims to consistently rank as one of the most-watched apps on platforms such as Amazon Fire TV, Roku and Android, among others.

‘Ivana Trump’s For Love Alone’ Coming on DVD in April From Mill Creek

Ivana Trump’s For Love Alone, based on the Donald Trump former spouse’s bestseller about a foreign beauty who marries and then divorces a business tycoon, is coming to DVD (plus digital) in April from Mill Creek Entertainment.

From Ivana Trump’s own writings, this is the story of a young Czechoslovakian beauty and skiing prodigy who rose from humble origins in communist Eastern Europe to reign as queen of the international jet set — not unlike Ivana’s Trump’s own rise to fame after her marriage to Donald Trump. It chronicles Katrinka’s marriage to American business tycoon “Adam Graham” and her bitter subsequent divorce.

‘Fox Nation’ SVOD Service Reveals Programming Slate

Fox Nation, the pending subscription streaming video-on-demand service coming from 21st Century Fox, Oct. 9 disclosed a slate of programming that includes documentaries, investigative series and patriotic specials geared toward politically conservative audiences.

“We are confident there will be an offering for every Fox News viewer,” John Finley, SVP of development of production, said in a statement.

Programming includes documentaries on Judge Robert Bork’s failed confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 and Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett’s The Russia Hoax, which claims the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is really an attempt to “clear Hillary Clinton and frame Donald Trump.”

Other programming includes:

“Hannity’s America: The Clarence Thomas Story,” which will detail the highly contentious confirmation hearings in 1991 and his book My Grandfather’s Son, about his own background and the events that brought him to the Supreme Court.

“What Made America Great,” hosted by “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade, aims to reveal the hidden history and ongoing controversies behind some of America’s most iconic locations, including, The Alamo, Fraunces Tavern, Fort Jefferson and Mount Rushmore.

Former Los Angeles Police Department detective Mark Fuhrman reveals private thoughts and analysis on criminal cases that have defined America this past half century in “The Fuhrman Diaries.” From the cases that he was involved in personally, like O.J. Simpson and Martha Moxley, to the cases he has obsessed over for years such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Fuhrman shares his personal notes and analysis of the criminal cases that have defined the last half century.

“The First Family” features the Trump family beyond the headlines. In the premiere installment of this series, Eric Trump takes us behind the scenes, including an inside look at his office, behind the scenes of business trips and at home with his wife Lara and son Luke. The episode will also feature a sit-down interview with the president’s son, speaking with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo offering his perspective on everything from politics to family life.

The director’s cut, never before seen extended version of the docuseries, “Scandalous,” that previously aired on Fox News Channel, covers the investigations of President Bill Clinton by the Office of Independent Counsel and offers a look at the failed 1980s Whitewater land deal. From the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas to the final determination made by prosecutor Robert Ray on Clinton’s last day in office, the series documents the political drama that enveloped Washington and captivated the world during the 1990’s.

The director’s cut of never before seen extended version of the docuseries “Scandalous: Chappaquiddick,” will examine the story of the late-night accident with Senator Ted Kennedy. What really happened that night in July 1969? Told through the eyes of the people who were there and in a rare interview, the family of the victim who has been all but forgotten in the popular versions of the story.

“Scandalous: The Mysterious Case of Tawana Brawley” will take a look into the controversial rape case that inflamed racial tensions at a crucial time in our nation’s history. Civil rights leaders and Brawley’s supporters demanded justice for the teenager, but a grand jury would determine she had fabricated the entire story, damaging innocent lives in the process.

“Scandalous: ABSCAM” follows Mel Weinberg and several FBI agents as they orchestrate an elaborate undercover sting operation involving a faux Arab sheik, briefcases of cash, hidden cameras, and eventually, six congressmen and one U.S. Senator. The legendary FBI sting known as ABSCAM leads to such shocking revelations and controversy that decades later would inspire the Oscar-nominated film American Hustle.

“Riddle: The Search for James R. Hoffa” is a special about the most famous missing man in America, union boss James Riddle Hoffa who disappeared on July 30, 1975. Hosted by Eric Shawn, “Riddle” is the culmination of an extensive FOX News investigation with new forensic details of the crime scene.

Helmed by “Fox & Friends Weekend” co-host Pete Hegseth, “Ace of Spades: The Hunt for Saddam Hussein” will feature interviews with soldiers, military leaders and intelligence officers who tell the story of how American soldiers tracked down and captured former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“Uncommon Knowledge,” hosted by Hoover Institution fellow Peter Robinson, will also be available on Fox Nation. For more than two decades, the talk show series has showcased famous figures, including Dr. Henry Kissinger, Justice Antonin Scalia and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Finally, “Watters World” features 20+ hours of the best of host Jesse Watters’ “Watters World” man-on-the street segments that previously aired on FNC, providing viewers with a pulse of the nation on everything from politics to pop culture.