Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to director Hannah Olson of HBO’s documentary film, Baby God, about capturing this unique true-crime story.
Baby God is not your typical true-crime documentary. There is no murder. In fact, the main mystery isn’t how did they do it, but why?
From the 1940s through the 1980s, Dr. Quincy Fortier served as a fertility specialist in rural Utah, even hailed as a miracle worker when it came to helping families have babies. But then as many of these babies would grow up to discover, their birth father was none other than Dr. Fortier himself.
Director Hannah Olson handles this subject and its victims with great care in Baby God, which poses questions about identity and whether DNA has a role in forming it. The documentary doesn’t have many clear answers, but that’s part of what makes this story so fascinating. Why did a doctor betray his patients so willfully? Just as you might never predict that a doctor would betray such a trust with his patients, you also can’t predict what direction this documentary goes, with a devastating plot twist discovered during production.
I had the chance to chat with Olson about the making of this project, what she’s learned about DNA and ancestry from her creative work, and what it was like to film at the now-abandoned hospital where Fortier’s crimes took place.
Awards Daily: How did this project come about for you?
Hannah Olson: I worked for many years on a show called Finding Your Roots on PBS, a show in which we reveal the family trees of prominent Americans. In the seven years that I worked on the show, I saw how the way that we construct our family trees has really changed. At first, it’s like you look at the birth certificate, and you see the mother and father and that’s who it is, and then you climb up the family tree, and you see the mother and father and the grandmother and the grandfather. You look and see who’s written down and you assume that to be true. The advent of commercial DNA tests just totally blew that apart. I was interested in what it would feel like to learn later on in life that your father wasn’t your biological father, and I’d heard from CeCe Moore, the genetic genealogist on [Finding Your Roots], that there was a doctor who had [inseminated his sperm into patients]. And I was poking around, I quickly realized it wasn’t just one doctor; this was actually a phenomenon. Then I tried to use a single case to illustrate a whole set of attitudes and practices. People don’t know how much information you can get from those DNA tests.
AD: This is the second HBO true-crime series I’ve watched where DNA and ancestry were involved in solving a crime.
HO: The Golden State [Killer]?
AD: Yeah! It’s fascinating that these two projects are linked to that.
AD: Given how many people were affected by Dr. Fortier, there are a lot of different stories available within this one big story. How did you go about whittling down or figuring out which stories you wanted to focus on?
HO: Watching all of these people with this revelation, in some ways, I think this is also a film about watching people cope with this totally earth-shattering revelation. For some people, their exploration of this revelation lined up with what I was trying to figure out. The film really started with meeting Wendi [Babst] (one of the victims), her desire to investigate this. Wendi’s a cop. That’s how she’s going to cope. Brad [another figure in the film] is a scientist, and he was interested in looking at how much of us is DNA actually. It’s people’s way of coping I found interesting.
And then of course, there are plenty of other children of Dr. Fortier’s who didn’t wish to participate. It really was so intensely personal; it wasn’t a film that I wanted to push people into. It also wasn’t a film where I wanted to show up at people’s who had been patients of Dr. Fortier’s through the past 40 years with a DNA test. It was really important to me to find people who were already looking into this.
AD: That makes sense. I know you briefly touch upon his immediate family. Why did you only spend a little bit of time there?
HO: So many stories around sexual violence focus around the perpetrator, and it was important to me to stay focused on the victims, the mothers, and the children. This is also a film where some of the feedback I get from male viewers is, “Where are the fathers?” I just really wanted to focus on the people who were the actual victims. It was important to me and to Wendi of trying to figure out what his intentions were. It was important to me to go to his family, who knew him best, and figure out his intentions. Of course, as we dug deeper, we found a much darker history, practice and with his family life. When we dug even deeper, it became a film about what it is to be at peace with one’s parents. I hope it raises some questions about, Do the actions of our parents matter? Does DNA matter? What’s the value of knowing the truth? Can truth be found out in these DNA tests or can you find out someone’s intentions in investigating them?
AD: There’s a big reveal about halfway through the film. How much did you know about that revelation before filming? Did the scope of the project change throughout the filming process?
HO: It absolutely changed the film and the project. I discovered it partway through the process of making the film. There’s a way in which the film could have front-loaded that information, and then it would have been a film about this abusive guy who did this. But it was really important to me to have the film be true to the process of the investigation. So it emerges at a place when it emerged for Wendi and me. When Wendi and I found that out, I said, “We don’t have to keep going. This is darker than we imagined.” She was like, “I need to keep going.” In a lot of ways, the power one has over one’s patients is akin to the power one has over a child.
AD: Another fascinating part of the film is when you go back to the old hospital, which has been abandoned. What was it like filming that?
HO: It was wild. Wendi wanted to go and see Pioche; he was like a country doctor when he was in Pioche. He was a dentist there as well, and that’s where he inseminated Dorothy, Mike Otis’s mom, who we meet later on in the film. We drove by it to see it, and it was for sale, and I called the realtor and said, “Is there any chance we could get in?” And we walked in, and everything was there. It was wild. We started rolling, and you can see that she starts discovering things. And then we went downstairs, and that’s where you see her looking through the records. We find some of his writing.
AD: That had to feel like being in a haunted house.
HO: It was so wild. And in the middle of nowhere, in an old mining down.
AD: It almost seems like a compulsion from the doctors, to inseminate women with their DNA. How likely do you think it is that this goes on at fertility clinics today?
HO: I think it’s far less likely that it’s happening now, because we know the kind of information DNA carries. We also buy and sell sperm in sperm banks, so there’s a smaller need for it. When Dr. Fortier was doing this, it was a previously undiscoverable crime. It was a crime you could get away with, and that’s not the case anymore.
AD: The way it ends, it feels like the story isn’t over, with more and more victims coming forward. This story has potential to grow. Would you ever revisit it in a subsequent documentary?
HO: Maybe. Since we stopped filming, five more victims have emerged, one of whom is a scientist and another is a doctor. It’s a story that’s growing and growing, but I think in this case, so much of the scope of what happens after goes on and on forever. I think an important point is that everyone who found out that Dr. Fortier was their biological father found out by accident. No one had any reason to look before this. I’m really curious to see what happens in the next year or so, once the film comes out and the thousands of patients he saw over the 40 years of his practice look and see.
Baby God is available on HBO and HBOMaxx.