Jehane Noujaim started her filmmaking journey with HBO’s The Vow in 2009. The award-winning filmmaker attended an introductory class for NXIVM’s personal growth Executive Success Program (“ESP”), where she would go on to meet the self-help marketing corporation’s leader and founder Keith Raniere and his co-founder Nancy Salzman. The pair, now convicted felons, were eventually examined in The Vow and now, interviewed for The Vow, Part Two, which premiered Oct. 17, more than a decade after that initial class.
But, back in 2009, Noujaim says she didn’t get the kind of balanced access she was looking for, so she put the project aside. She went on to make other documentaries like Startup.com (2001), focusing on the dark side of the Internet boom; Control Room (2004), about the Al-Jazeera network amid the U.S.-Iraq war; and The Square (2013), looking at the unrest in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.
It wasn’t until 2017 that Noujaim and co-director Karim Amer started “filming in earnest” the series that would go on to become the first season of The Vow, which catapulted into the pandemic-era zeitgeist. (Noujaim and Amer co-directed season one, but Noujaim is the sole helmer on season two.) It aired from late August to mid-October of 2020 as Raniere — along with his co-conspirators, including Salzman and Smallville actress Allison Mack — awaited sentencing following his June conviction for seven felonies. The series explored what prosecutors described as a sex cult within NXIVM, one that coerced women into sexual acts with Raniere and required “sex slaves” to have his initials branded onto their body with a hot cauterizing pen.
On Oct. 16, 2020 — two days before the first season finale would air and tease a forthcoming prison interview with Raniere — HBO announced The Vow‘s second season. Eleven days later, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison and fined $1,750,000. Salzman, one of the first in Raniere’s inner circle to offer a guilty plea, to charges of racketeering conspiracy, was later sentenced to 3.5 years in prison and handed a $150,000 fine.
In the below interview, Noujaim takes The Hollywood Reporter through her journey of vérité filmmaking to capture, over years and in real time, how the cult saga that was playing out publicly was impacting not only NXIVM’s defectors — as was shown in the first season — but also those still entangled with the embattled organization, namely Part Two‘s main interview subject Salzman. Noujaim discusses how she got Raniere, Salzman and all of Part Two‘s range of participants — which includes defectors, defenders and victims — on board in order to present multiple sides of an “ecosystem of manipulation” in The Vow‘s revealing, intimate and powerful six-episode return, which releases weekly Mondays on HBO and HBO Max.
When did you start working on The Vow?
Originally, it was 2009 that I went to the [ESP] introductory class and tried to make a film, but didn’t get the kind of access that I wanted. We started really filming in earnest in 2017, so we’re now on year six. My children were crawling when we started, and now they’re speaking humans (laughs).
I didn’t realize that you tried to start filming at NXIVM in 2009.
Yes. And Keith [Raniere] tried to invite me to do a roundtable with him about documentary filmmaking and the merits of why I would show different sides to a situation in documentary filmmaking, which was kind of an [interesting] thing given where we are now. But then in 2017, I was living in Los Angeles with our little kids, and I had never finished the [ESP] class. Mark [Vicente, NXIVM whistleblower and The Vow participant] told me classes were happening in Venice, so I went and finally finished the last five days. And it was at that exact time that Mark was hearing from Sarah [Edmondson, NXIVM whistleblower and The Vow participant] that she had been invited into DOS [the name for the secret female-only sect within NXIVM, a name derived from a Latin acronym meaning “Master of Obedient Women”] and that there was branding [of Raniere’s initials onto the women]. And that’s when Mark came to me and said, “This is what’s happening, and you need to get far away.” I was so curious about it, because it was in such direct opposition to what the curriculum had been teaching about ethics.
Initially, were you interested in documenting what NXIVM’s Executive Success Program purported to be, which was a curriculum focused on human potential development?
Initially in 2009, I was interested in the fact that there was a group of people, similar to the [Landmark] Forum, where people go in and after a weekend or after 10 days, their life has changed. There’s a number of them. It’s fascinating to see large groups of people coming together and deciding they are going to change their lives. That was sort of the topic of it but at the time, there were a couple of red flags.
I always felt very uncomfortable with this way that Keith was spoken about as “the smartest man in the world.” If you’re worried about being called a cult, why are you saying the program was started by the smartest man in the world? Have you done IQ tests on all of the people in India and China? And the response when I asked that was: “You need to think about the fact that this is bothersome to you; is it because you went to Harvard, is it because you are resentful?” It went straight to my vulnerability and had me questioning, why am I annoyed by that? Also, as somebody who has grown up in the Middle East and who has seen big pictures of dictators placed everywhere and the worship of leadership, I’m very well aware of giving human beings too much power.
Initially, in 2009, the idea was to look at the phenomena of people changing their lives. But I knew there were also a number of dissenters and people who were against the group, and it became obvious very quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to get access to those people and also film inside NXIVM at the same time, so I went and made The Square instead.
Then you did circle back around to co-direct The Vow and the first season blew up in the zeitgeist, both from a documentary perspective and with the NXIVM sex-cult case playing out in the background. You timed the announcement for season two to the finale, which filmed ahead of Raniere’s trial. When did you know you had more story to tell and that you had a second season?
We were continuing to film through the release [of season one]. We were filming as I was being interviewed [by the press]; I was actually in an interview with Nancy [Salzman] when I was called up for a few interviews. We were making a vérité film, and so you’re following the story as it’s unfolding, similar to how I’ve worked on all my previous projects like The Square or Control Room or Startup.com. So when you start, you don’t know whether Keith is going to be arrested or whether the whistleblowers are going to have to run away. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So we just kept following the story as it was unfolding, and we knew we were going to have to break at a certain point, and we felt like the break happening after Keith’s arrest and before the trial was the right division point.
Did the floodgates open as the show was airing and the case became global news — did you get more sources and were more people open to speaking with you?
It went both ways. There were a number of people who came to us. There was a lot of footage flying around; we got a lot of anonymous footage sent to us, and we had a number of people writing to us. If you can imagine, the EMs [“explorations of meaning”] and the sheets that people filled out [for ESP] and what was filmed was deeply, deeply personal, so a lot of footage that NXIVM had and that was out there was of people speaking about their darkest secrets and biggest fears, and you had some very powerful and well-connected people in Mexico and in the United States who I think got very nervous when the series came out. We got a lot of letters basically saying, “Please do not include me if there’s going to be a second part.”
We assured people that we were really focusing on the characters who have consented. An important term in this is “informed consent.” So, people who decided to be a part of it were all very clear on the fact that we were going to be filming people from multiple viewpoints. It was a challenge, but it was very important to us to film with both the prosecution and the defense, and people from different sides of this debate. [Note: Defense attorney Marc Agnifilo and lead prosecutor Moira Penza each participate in Part Two.]
At THR, we’ve covered the evolving ethics around documentary filmmaking, and you don’t always see both sides present. When participants found out that Raniere and Salzman were participating, did it cause any tension, did you lose any other participants or sources?
That’s why I say the method was very much going to people and being very transparent about what we were trying to do. People tend to want to say, “Here are the good people and here are the bad people.” And what we were trying to tell a story of was an ecosystem of manipulation. So what was fascinating and very true in our world is that sometimes the very same people are both victims and victimizers, and what we know is that hurt people hurt people, over and over again. And abused people abuse others. Our perspective was that the court system was for determining accountability and who would go to jail, but what we could do as filmmakers was to bear witness and document all of the different pieces that went into this ecosystem. The court system was trying to do the very difficult job of figuring out the accountability in the ecosystem; what we were trying to do in the film was to say that so many different people were a part of it — it wasn’t just Keith — and to honor the nuances of that. It was a very complicated story and when we talked to everybody, we said, “This is what we are trying to do” and we’re going to be reaching out to everybody involved. We weren’t just going for one perspective, we were trying to do a real 360.
It’s hard to do because some people don’t want to be a part of something if it’s going to represent viewpoints of people who are radically different from their own. But I think it’s incredibly important, especially now. We’re living in this time of takedowns and one-sided storytelling, and not a lot of discourse. People are not listening to each other, and I don’t think that’s helping. So my hope, as a filmmaker and as a human, is to take the time to listen to viewpoints that are very different than my own sometimes. And I think if you disagree with somebody, it becomes very important to try to understand how that perspective formed.
So, how did we get access? It took a lot of time. When I first spoke to Nancy she said, “You want to film with me? And you’re one of Mark’s good friends?” That’s what she knew of me though I had met her in 2009. I sat with her and spoke about the fact that we weren’t trying to do a takedown film; we were trying to follow characters who will take you deep inside the story, and really help the audience understand how somebody like Nancy, who had 20 years earlier worked in the area of chronic pain relief and helping people, could end up in a trial like this. It took her a long time to think about whether she wanted to be a part of it. And others, as well. I think what was important was being very clear to them that we were getting multiple sides. Being very clear that everyone would have a chance to see their scenes at the end and let us know if there was anything that they felt was inaccurate in the filmmaking. We also worked very closely with the Dart Center for journalism, they advised us on working with victims of trauma and telling stories of victims of trauma. Like any filmmaking, it’s time and trust-building and being transparent that you’re following a number of people with different perspectives.
Raniere’s phone interview and the fact that you had access to him was teased at the end of season one. As it turns out, Salzman and others who you speak to become more of the focus for Part Two. With Keith, were there conditions of his participation? Why did he want to talk to you?
We basically spent a year speaking with Keith with the ultimate goal of doing a sit-down interview with him. We were never able to meet the conditions for the sit-down interview.
Can you share any of the conditions?
It was an interesting process whereby the very process of trying to sit down with him for an interview was very revealing into how he works.
What about Nancy: Had you been approaching her from the start? When did talks begin about if she’d want to participate and tell her side?
Yes. I actually reached out very early on. There was about a year of pre-trial meetings before the trial actually started, and we went to all of those meetings. One example [of a meeting] was who should be anonymized and who shouldn’t. And Keith’s lawyer argued that by anonymizing certain people, you’re pre-judging for the jury who are the victims and who are the perpetrators. So there were a number of pre-trial sessions where everybody, before people pled guilty, was obliged to show up. I saw Nancy in court and said we were interested in following her, and that’s when our conversations began with her and her lawyers about filming with her.
How did you get access to all of the NXIVM footage used in Part Two and how many hours of footage did you all watch to find key moments like Raniere in the premiere addressing NXIVM ahead of the allegations first coming out in the New York Times?
Oh my gosh. We watched hours and hours of footage. Terabytes and terabytes! Some of the footage was given to us, some we licensed. Some of the footage is fair use. But the footage mainly came from participants. We have an entire archival team who, I don’t know, now have PhDs in NXIVM. That’s partly what took so long. Because there was so much footage to go through. And there was a lot of footage of a camera at the back of a room, which was not very appealing. It was also about finding footage that was cinematic and could be a part of the series in a way that was interesting to watch.
Did Salzman have conditions — or hopes — with her involvement, and was that something you discussed as you went along?
The only condition for Nancy’s involvement was that we would not release the series before her sentencing. And I actually agreed with that, because I felt like that would allow her to be much more open. Because if she was worried about things that she said affecting her sentencing in some way, she would have been a lot more closed off.
Do you think it could have affected her sentencing?
I think that’s a question for Judge Garaufis, if he watches The Vow.
Has Salzman seen her parts in Part Two?
No, she was in jail when we finished. But we had somebody who is a very, very trusted friend of hers who watched her scenes.
What was that friend’s reaction?
The person who watched it felt like it was very fair. I really would love to get Nancy the series in prison, and we’re actually trying to figure out how to do that, because I would like to hear what her reaction is to it. I actually thought there was a possibility that Nancy might want to answer some questions or that journalists might want to reach out, and so I have been in communication with her since she’s been in jail through CorrLinks, which is the prison email system.
I don’t want to spoil who participates later on in the series. But, with the testimonies and victim impact statements being public record, how did you decide which trial moments to focus on? For example, some people might be aware of Lauren Salzman (Nancy’s daughter and high-ranking NXIVM leader) and her testimony, while others may not. How do you strike that balance of what to revisit?
We felt like Lauren was a very important story and her testimony was very important, because she was somebody who was in DOS, who was very close to Keith, who was Nancy’s daughter, and who, obviously, spoke for the prosecution. And she’s also brilliantly articulate. We felt like her story really encapsulated so much of the story of NXIVM. And of course, we were following her mother, who had very strong feelings about her daughter and her daughter’s involvement, and the fact that she had brought Lauren into the company. We went deep into the testimonies of the key witnesses.
It will be interesting to see what people respond to; each episode feels like you are digging deeper and that journey is a part of watching the series.
Absolutely. We felt like it was both the trial of Keith that was taking place and the evolution of Nancy that were the two sort of interwoven spines of the story. In terms of Nancy, I was deeply curious about her perspective and felt it was crucial to be engaging with the person who had been the co-founder of the company, and who had the deepest views into Keith and what had happened.
When I sat down with Nancy, she felt like she had done good, but she felt like she had made some grave mistakes, and she was open to speaking about the extent of the harm that had been done and to look at her involvement. And what was interesting to me as a filmmaker was that her perspective on the events was evolving as we filmed, and we watch her unpack and wrestle with what she was involved with. And that process of looking at events that have happened and needing to reevaluate with new information was fascinating. It’s interesting as a filmmaker to follow someone who is being vulnerable and open to being filmed, even when they are questioning themselves. It’s not very interesting to film somebody who is set in their ways. While it was fascinating to speak with Keith, we never got to a place with Keith where he was questioning what he had done.
If you can think back to what you knew about Salzman going into making this and what you know now, how did your view of her change and what do you hope the audience will take away?
When I went in to speak with Nancy, I didn’t know her very well at all. I didn’t know if she still supported Keith. All I knew was that she was willing to sit and start from the beginning. We turned our cameras on and there wasn’t a lot of pre-interviewing to know where she stood. And what I saw was an evolution. I don’t think she was in the same place as when we began filming and when we finished filming two years later, because she was privy to the discovery that came out and information that was exposed during the trial, which caused her to reevaluate.
I am somebody who believes that we have a responsibility to try to understand points of view that are different from our own. I feel that the underlying psychology that’s explored in The Vow is a microcosm of our world today. We’re living in these radically uncertain times where truth and trust and the most basic building blocks of family, community and democracy are contested, and so we need connection, belonging and to be witnessed more than ever. And I think that’s what people, including Nancy, were looking for in creating this community. No one is looking to join a cult. People were looking for this connection and this community, and it’s important to see that’s what motivated people. So I think what was confirmed for me in talking with her is that she really believed that what she was doing was good, and she really believed in Keith.
In terms of this kind of filmmaking where you’re trying to get all of these different perspectives, I think it’s so important at this time of takedown culture, and democracy is at threat because of it. On both sides of the aisle, there is this sort of siloed thinking and refusal to speak with each other. Democracy started as debate and discussion, with people who did not agree with you, in the [Athenian] Agora, and that’s where you see progress and connections we never imagined; through radical empathy and people finding some sort of commonality. That’s where bills get passed through Congress, and that’s disappearing in our world.
And I see that the documentary space can be this form of democracy, where you can bring in these different points of view, and can bear witness and allow an audience to decide for themselves and to debate. And I think the extraordinary thing about these cult stories — because I maybe would argue that we’re living in a time where our political leadership has been a cult, and we were making it at that time — is that it invites people to ask very big questions about our society and ourselves. The easiest thing to do is to look at some of these characters and call them ignorant or brainwashed, but I think it’s really important to look at what in our societies has led to the creation of situations like NXIVM. Throughout my work in Control Room and The Square, I’ve looked at the danger of only looking at a situation with one point of view. And what happened with NXIVM was an extreme example of only one point of view being allowed in.
Is there more story to tell — are you filming now in the background?
(Laughs.) I am not filming in the background. I do think there is a fascinating story to be told about NXIVM Mexico. We did do a lot of filming in Mexico and there’s only a small fraction of that filming included because the spine of the story was the trial. The Mexico story, which involved some prominent people and children of politicians, did not come up very much in the trial and so it didn’t really have space. But I think it’s fascinating because these are not young women; Emiliano Salinas is someone who was the son of a president, who went to Harvard Business School and was a different story, but a fascinating story, when it came to another piece of this story. But unless something big happens — I don’t know what that would be — I think Part Two is it.
Yet it sounds like you have a story still to explore.
(Laughs.) I do. It’s out there. The footage is there. But, my children have grown up hearing about Nancy and Keith, and so I think I need to take a little bit of a break from it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.