Written by Daniel Garber, editor of FX documentary Spermworld

During the depths of the pandemic, I spoke with my dear friend and director Lance Oppenheim almost daily, going stir crazy while looking for a project to work on together.

In January 2020, we premiered his first documentary feature, Some Kind of Heaven, at Sundance; its festival run was truncated by lockdowns and festival cancellations, and it would soon be released into a flatlining theatrical market. But amid that uncertainty, reporter Nellie Bowles contacted Lance with a strange story: she was looking to have a baby and discovered a massive, unregulated online marketplace for donor sperm on Facebook.

Lance’s and my interest was immediately piqued. His first shoot, which formed the initial five-minute cold open of the film, took place at the end of 2020. We couldn’t let go of the story, a perfect fit for Lance’s sensibility: an empathic approach to a strange underworld populated by misfits who express fundamental human desires.

SPERMWORLD | Official Trailer | FXwww.youtube.com

In our work together, Lance and I suppress the documentary urge to over-explain and instead focus on existential drama: where Some Kind of Heaven represented retirees contemplating the ends of their lives, Spermworld turns its attention to life’s origins.

Elevated once again by the visual style Lance cultivated with unrivaled DP David Bolen and the musical innovations of the great Ari Balouzian, Spermworld was the ideal next step in developing our unique approach to documentary. For an editor equally versed in fiction filmmaking, a Lance Oppenheim film feels like the perfect challenge: how do you make a nonfiction film that feels every bit as intentionally crafted, stylistically bold, and emotionally rich as a good fiction one?

Seamless integration of the editing and production processes is a big part of the answer; after all, to edit a documentary is to write it. The bulk of production took place in 2022 while I was wrapping up Daniel Goldhaber’s fiction feature How to Blow Up a Pipeline (along with Emily Yue, who assisted on Pipeline and co-edited Spermworld).

Even before we began editing in earnest, Lance and his producing team (Lauren Belfer, Sophie Kissinger, Christian Vazquez) kept me abreast of all of their casting efforts and initial shoots so that I had a rare opportunity to weigh in on which storylines were worth our time.

A good documentary subject requires careful vetting, much like casting a narrative film: Are they telegenic? Are they comfortable on camera, willing to be vulnerable but not attention-seeking? What forces in their lives contribute to present-tense drama that we can capture on camera?

And, in the broader balance of the film, what do they uniquely contribute to the collective portrait we’re building? After perusing producers’ notes, recorded Zoom conversations, and raw footage from exploratory shoots with possible subjects, I had long discussions with the rest of the team to narrow the field.

Because Emily and I began the edit while Lance had many shoot days remaining, what he chose to capture directly responded to the emerging rough cut. Occasionally, he would even share scenes in progress with our subjects so that they could understand better how they were being represented on screen, which further earned their trust in the collaboration.

This process meant that gaps in the story could be filled in even very late in the post. The opening of a documentary is always a particular challenge, and ours benefited greatly from pickups: although we had captured numerous scenes of people trying to conceive and occasionally succeeding, what the film lacked was a vision of the dream of motherhood.

What was the fantasy all of these prospective parents were really chasing? It wasn’t until close to the end of the edit that the team shot a “baby fantasia” sequence with gauzy, psychedelic images of babies, coupled with one of our subject’s reflections on the spiritual fulfillment of bringing a new life into the world. That late-breaking addition became an emotional anchor for the rest of the film, lending heft to our subjects’ burning desire to become pregnant and their heartbreak if they didn’t succeed.

Go Inside The Editing of The Hit Doc 'Spermworld''Spermworld'FX Networks

One of the central challenges of this film was that, although the act of conceiving a baby is a fundamentally physical act, much of the drama and the context of the film occurs in Facebook groups.

Since cutting cyber-thriller CAM (dir. Daniel Goldhaber), I’ve always been interested in finding new ways of representing the internet in ways that feel cinematic and expressive without being distracting, and Emily and I pushed ourselves to experiment with outside-the-box techniques to represent the digital world. Our most direct technique was graphical sequences of threads within the Facebook groups that punctuate transitions among our three storylines.

But I was even more energized by Lance’s idea to have Emily and me exhaustively comb through our subjects’ Facebook message histories to write a script of sorts and then have our subjects read it aloud. The stilted feel of these recordings gave them an uncanny edge that felt authentic to the internet.

The only question was what visuals to pair with these exchanges; for that, Emily and I dug into our mountains of unused footage to create split-screen montages—a technique that I’ve employed in both documentary (”The Rifleman,” dir. Sierra Pettengill) and fiction (The Drop, dir. Sarah Adina Smith) contexts in the past. In this instance, I felt that the split-screen captured the sense of two people experiencing a connection and building a relationship despite living in separate, parallel existences.

The desire to try out new techniques, to push the bounds of what’s possible on screen, is one of the factors that motivates me most—but protecting that freedom to play requires full-throated support from the team. Lance, our tireless producers, and FX approached the project with patience and trust, knowing that what we were doing was unconventional and required special care. To an editor, that makes all the difference.