<I>Spermworld</I>: Editor Daniel Garber
May 22, 2024

Spermworld: Editor Daniel Garber

Spermworld is an FX Original Documentary that premiered on FX and is streaming on Hulu. The road movie takes an inside look into the new wild west of baby making, where sperm donors connect with hopeful parents via online forums. The production is set against a landscape of roadside motels, abandoned shopping malls and suburban bathrooms, and follows intimate encounters between donors and recipients as they exchange more than just genetic material. 

The feature-length documentary was directed by Lance Oppenheim and was inspired by The New York Times article “The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand” by Nellie Bowles. Oppenheim continued his collaboration with director of photography David Bolen, editor Daniel Garber and composer Ari Balouzian to complete the project. Here, Daniel Garber shares insight into his work as editor on the feature and some of its challenges.

Hi Daniel! How did you get involved with Spermworld?

“I was lucky to connect with director Lance Oppenheim while he was in the early stages of shooting his first documentary feature, Some Kind of Heaven. We instantly hit it off, and I came aboard as the film’s editor, which was a really special experience. During the slow early days of the pandemic, when seemingly nothing was getting made, Lance and I would talk for hours each week about potential projects we could work on together. Finally, in late 2020, reporter Nellie Bowles (then at the New York Times) brought this story to Lance. She was trying to have a child of her own and uncovered this world of unregulated sperm donation over Facebook.

“Lance and I were both immediately compelled by the idea, and toward the end of 2020, he did an exploratory ten-day shoot that contributed much of the material for what is now Spermworld’s opening sequence. Based on that initial shoot, I cut a fundraising trailer for the film, and Lance shopped it around. When FX came onto the project, and production began in earnest, I was already presumptively attached as the editor and already had a lot of skin in the game after that initial trailer edit.”

What was your editing setup for this project?

“In 2022, while working on How to Blow Up a Pipeline, I switched to cutting entirely off of an M1 Max MacBook Pro, which I love because it’s both powerful and portable. When I was in my office for Spermworld, I hooked up my laptop via an OWC Thunderbolt hub to several peripherals: two external monitors — an ultrawide one that displays the editing interface, and a smaller, color-calibrated one for playback — a 10GbE connection to the office’s server and my audio interface. I don’t use any additional controllers. I’ve tried to learn other devices but found that nothing has made me faster than a keyboard and mouse. The one time-saver co-editor Emily Yue introduced me to is Keyboard Maestro, a software plug-in that essentially allows you to program way more powerful keyboard shortcuts.

“For editing software, I’ve relied primarily on Adobe Premiere Pro in recent years. Ever since they introduced the Productions feature, I’ve found the software stable, powerful and very easy to use from setup through turnover. It also makes collaboration a breeze, whether you’re working off of shared storage or mirrored drives. Tight integration with other Adobe software is another major selling point, especially for projects like ours, which relied on temp graphics throughout the edit. For Spermworld, Premiere’s AI-generated transcripts were essential, as I imagine they would be on many documentaries since we had a lot of interview material to navigate through.”

Can you talk about how for tried to avoid traditional documentary techniques?

“Lance and I are drawn to documentaries that incorporate narrative film techniques, and I am lucky to be able to draw on my experiences editing fiction films when I work with him. Documentary is a vast and often really innovative genre. It has often disappointed me that audiences and the industry narrowly construe docs as being educational or informational. That’s not Lance’s or my idea of good cinema. We really want our documentaries together to be as emotionally and experientially involving as a good fiction film, where you’re much more subjectively aligned with characters and learn information through the characters’ eyes. So, although we rely on some conventional documentary techniques, we deploy them in service of a very different language.

“For instance, Lance excels at interviews, but our interest is much more in emotional vulnerability than information. In the edit, I’ll frequently take lines from interviews and use them as voiceover lines that are meant to feel more like an internal monologue or confessional rather than a more journalistic interview with the director. Spermworld was the perfect project for this technique, too, because the reproduction journey is so intensely personal and freighted with high emotions, so the interviews dug deep. Our motion graphics in the film, mainly constructed by all-star co-editor Emily Yue and graphics wizard Teddy Blanks, are glimpses into the Facebook groups where prospective parents discuss the process of trying to conceive with sperm donors. They’re a huge part of the world-building for the film. You get a sense of what the dynamics are like in this digital space. However, because the graphics feel more observational than explanatory, they force the audience into a much more active role. We try to avoid spoon-feeding too much information.”

Can you describe the process of integrating into the earliest stages of the documentary filmmaking process and how it contributed to achieving the level of refinement you were after?

“One of the rare privileges of working on the past two films with Lance has been the ability to influence and engage in the filmmaking process from the outset. I wish all documentaries could work like this. After all, documentary editing is writing, so your options are more limited the less of a voice you have during shooting. On Spermworld, I participated in casting discussions with the producing team, checked in frequently with Lance while he was shooting, and reviewed footage starting early in the process. Having that level of exposure to every step along the way helped us get aligned on the vision for the film from the outset, determining which subjects would make for good characters in the film and planning out future shoots with the needs of our unfolding story in mind. 

“Documentary editors are used to having to make do with what the director managed to capture, but in this instance, we could jointly determine what the rough cut was lacking and use the remaining shoot days to fill in those gaps. For instance, the film was missing an emotional sense of the ‘dream of motherhood,’ but because we had shoot days remaining, we were able to augment our fine cut with brand new footage — a stylized, colorful, gauzy sequence of jubilant mothers and babies. The shooting and editing processes always responded to each other.”

Can you talk about how you were able to ensure that the human drama in the documentary felt authentic and engaging?

“Being able to connect to the human drama of the film is always a feat of editing, but it relies so heavily on the truthfulness of the raw material being captured. And I think what makes Lance’s footage so special is the unique rapport that he and his collaborators on-set are able to cultivate with participants. Lance’s persistence and charm help him initially connect with his subjects, but his curiosity and empathy are what really help deepen his bonds with them. The sensitivity that producer Lauren Belfer and co-producers Christian Vazquez and Sophie Kissinger bring to the process also goes a long way toward making subjects feel at ease. Without that trust, they wouldn’t feel comfortable with DP David Bolen moving a large camera into their faces, or sound recordist Richard Carlos dangling a boom mic over their heads. 

“Making a film as stylized as Spermworld also requires a great deal of communication with our participants about what we’re trying to accomplish, so they always have opportunities to buy into or push back on how they’re being represented. At times, Lance would even show our subjects rough cuts of scenes so that they could understand how they were coming across.

“In the editing room, I try to be conscious of representing our subjects in a way that feels accurate to what I know of them, whether or not that was captured on-camera. I constantly ask whether they would feel that the story we’re crafting is one they would see themselves in. The camera may not always portray people how they want to be seen, and inevitably any narrative will oversimplify their lives. But through sensitive editing, a film can at least imply the fullness of who they are.”

Let’s talk about how you incorporated split-screen sequences and dreamy montages?

“When so much of our time is spent looking at screens, and so many of our conversations and relationships are mediated by the internet, how do we represent contemporary life on-screen? This ongoing challenge for filmmakers was also a chief concern for Spermworld. In addition to our graphics montages that show people interacting in Facebook groups, we wanted to find a way to represent our subjects, Rachel and Steve, as their friendship developed. So much of their early communication happened through Facebook messages, which we had access to, and Lance’s instinct was to play them not as text on screen but as dialogue. Emily and I edited down their chat history into a sort of script that Rachel and Steve read aloud. Then, the question was visually what could happen during these conversations, and we wanted to evoke the sense of their parallel routines unfolding while this conversation happened asynchronously. 

“We wound up playing with two techniques: one was split-screen, a device that I’ve used in both fiction and documentary contexts in the past, and the other was an associative montage that cross-dissolves between Rachel’s and Steve’s perspectives, finding visual rhymes across their disparate lives. I felt that these devices encapsulated the paradoxical nature of online relationships, where the internet has the power to both connect and isolate. For our subjects, it represented the hope for connection amid daily loneliness.”

Do you have a favorite scene that you would call attention to?

“About halfway through the film Ari, the most prolific donor in our cast, goes on a road trip to visit many of his donor children. We get a sense of just how spread thin he is, how burdened he is by his sense of obligation to the many families he’s helped create, and how, through both compulsion and genuine desire, he seems incapable of stopping his itinerant life of making and spending time with children. 

“To me this was one of the most challenging and fun feats of editing. On a technical level, it was laborious. It weaves together huge amounts of footage from many different shoot days into what I hope feels like one cohesive sequence that manages to be sad, funny and hopeful all at once. From a character standpoint, it’s very revealing of Ari’s unique psychology and helps the audience connect to someone whose life decisions may seem unfamiliar, even shocking. It encapsulates so much of what made the film appealing to me, to begin with. It’s a road movie, following nomadic men as they drop into different people’s lives and have fleeting interactions with lasting consequences. I love how this sequence opens a small window into so many different people’s lives and the places they live, conveying the sheer diversity of the dreamers who populate Spermworld.”