'The Vow' Star Mark Vicente on the "Horror" of NXIVM

Mark Vicente
Courtesy of HBO

Mark Vicente

"I want him to be unable to hurt people," says the former member of cult leader Keith Raniere's upcoming sentencing.

The Vow, currently airing on HBO, offers a compelling inside glimpse at the world of NXIVM — on the surface a self-improvement program that recruited a good number of film and TV actors; but in actuality a front for an insidious sex-cult revolving around one man, Keith Raniere. A former Amway salesman, Raniere, 60, employed Smallville star Allison Mack to recruit him female sex partners — who famously branded his initials into their pubic regions with a cauterizing wand.

After fleeing to Mexico in March 2018, Raniere was arrested by authorities and extradited to the U.S. On June 19, 2019, after five hours of deliberation, a jury found him guilty of all charges laid out against him, including sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child pornography; sex trafficking and identify theft. He is currently awaiting his Oct. 27 sentencing date, where he could get anywhere from 15 years to life. Raniere’s followers still number in the dozens, and a group of them calling themselves We Are As You gathers every Friday evening outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where he is being held, for dance gatherings meant to bring "joy to those inside," according to the group’s Instagram account.

One of the prosecution’s key witnesses, and a central figure in The Vow, is Mark Vicente. The 55-year-old, South Africa-born director of the 2004 sleeper hit documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!?, Vicente met his wife, Bonnie Piesse, 37, an Australia-born musician and actress who had small roles in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, inside NXIVM. (The controlling Raniere penned their vows.) Both had advanced to high standing inside the organization when alarm bells started going off — first in Piesse, who grew concerned that the women around her had become obsessed with their weight and were counting calories until they had grown "zombie-like" in behavior and appearance. Piesse eventually convinced Vicente that something nefarious was afoot, and both fled the organization in 2017. They have spent their energy ever since trying to help other members do the same and bring Raniere to justice.

Vicente spoke recently with The Hollywood Reporter about Raniere’s seductive allure, NXIVM’s obsession with surveillance and documentation, and the theories that Raniere may have poisoned or even killed some of his followers. 

How is The Vow being received? What have you heard?

People are generally blown away, and hopefully it’s because they’re realizing there was more to the story than was originally published in 2017, 2018. That these things are far more complex than they’re initially represented in the press. I’m also seeing that a lot of people that have been in similar situations, be it in the cults or abusive relationships or different religions, who are saying, "Oh my God, I know what this is like. I’ve been through this." I actually think it’s being pretty cathartic for a number of people. More than I maybe realized.

I think it does a good job of explaining how a regular, smart person might fall into something like this.

Exactly. And I think that’s been done very well. Because one of the things that both [The Vow directors] Jehane [Noujaim] and Karim [Amer] spoke about at great length was this idea that, in order to have people understand how this works, they have to understand the dream — what was the thing that people fell in love with and felt attached to that had them stick around as long as they did?

So what was the lure of NXIVM? What was it doing for you?

I think one of the things is because I’d been a seeker for so long. It was a more scientific way to understand the human behavior equation. When I finally experienced the intensive, there were some pretty mind-blowing experiences I had. And I thought, "Oh, I think this is it." I think for some people, it was community. I think for some people it was purpose. What I was looking for was a way to understand myself and other people. And that’s what I believed at the time it offered me. Of course, later I realized that wasn’t the case, but certainly when I went in, I thought, "This actually explains humanity in an extraordinary way."

Why didn’t you make The Vow yourself? Or alternately, how much of it started as your own project before you handed over the reins?

Look, at the very beginning, yes, we were documenting everything that was going on. But it became apparent that you can’t really make a film about your own meltdown and journey to try to expose things. I mean, maybe you can, I don’t think that I could have. There was so much that I went through that in the end, having people that I trusted, Jehane and Karim, able to guide this was such a better idea. 2017 was horror, and then it was like, "Oh shit — now we need to do something and there’s all these people that are stuck in there." Then in 2019 there’s a trial. And understand: While we were rescuing people, while we were trying to expose things, while I was preparing to go on the stand, my focus was so much on the case and trial and rescuing people, that I don’t believe that I could have kept the filmmaker hat on at the same time.

As a filmmaker, I imagine it must have been hard to let go of this and trust it to somebody else.

It was very challenging. I've spent a lot of time behind the camera, so being in front of the camera is a very strange experience. It’s a very vulnerable experience. But the camera starts to become invisible after a while, because it’s there so much. And as you can see, especially as the later episodes go, you know, we’re in a battle, all of the characters. We’re in this battle and the cameras are just rolling and you just eventually forget that they’re there. But yes, it’s a very challenging thing as a filmmaker to relinquish that control and just accept, "OK, I’m now a subject." It’s a pretty bizarre experience. 

You were recording before you gathered that Keith was a bad guy, right? Was that to make a movie in NXIVM’s favor and then it morphed into more of an exposé?

Earlier on, when I first came on board, there was talk about making a project or projects to exonerate him. But there was a general culture of recording everything: Every phone call, every meeting, every time he spoke, there was this general culture of everything being recorded. Which was always presented as, "He wants all the stuff documented because future generations," blah, blah, blah. Everything was recorded. The idea was to memorialize as much as possible.

But it speaks to his paranoia. It’s kind of strange to enter this society where everything’s recorded. In California, at least, you need two-party consent to record phone calls. Did none of that raise red flags?

You know, it’s strange. I mean, I just remember when I first went in, every meeting being recorded. And in the case of Raniere and myself, it was him constantly, I suppose, trying to teach me or educate me about ideas. And I remember, sometimes I would forget, and he would say, "Did you record it?" And I’d go, "No." And I’d start recording and then he’d go over everything we’d just spoken about for the first 10 or 15 minutes of the conversation, going over it again to make sure that it was memorialized. I mean, certainly when I look back at it now I go, "That is pretty odd." Maybe it speaks to a certain kind of messianic delusion, that every word was that important that it had to be recorded. Of course now, in retrospect, it’s utterly weird.

Now that you’re completely extracted from it, did Keith Raniere have anything of value to offer, or were they just the ramblings of a madman?

I believe now, as I’ve studied more, the ideas were all borrowed from somewhere else. I’ve had people who studied [neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)] and studied Scientology and studied hypnosis say, "Yeah, that’s all there." And psychology. It’s all there. In the end, I don’t believe that he really advanced any of those things that are already out there. But he certainly charted codified gaslighting. He literally codified gaslighting. You know, where every time you had a thought, you would then question your thought and think, "How am I responsible, how am I perhaps wrong in this situation?" I think there are maybe 50 to 60 people that are still very loyal to Raniere and "the teachings," and I think they still believe it’s very unique probably because they haven’t studied a lot of other things.

What do you feel about Raniere’s NXIVM lieutenant Nancy Salzman? [Salzman took a plea deal, confessing to racketeering, and awaits sentencing.] Watching The Vow, I’m left wondering, was she complicit or not?

I’m going to have to pass on that question.

I watched the Discovery ID documentary, The Missing Women of NXIVM, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that. It posits that Raniere may have poisoned several women who eventually died of cancer. It also suggests two of his followers who allegedly committed suicide may have died by more nefarious means.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting: I don’t remember when exactly, what the year was, but it was around the time that a number of the women closest to him were getting sick. You know, cancers and different things. And I remember saying to him at one point, "What is going on? Why are the women closest to you getting sick? Is it something in the building, is it something in the water?" And he would say to me, "Yeah, it’s a mystery." And I’m like, "Yeah, it is a mystery. Like, how come them, of all people?" I don’t know if I know, but I do find it incredibly strange and statistically staggering that the people closest to him were getting sick in that fashion. Now, you could say he used hypnosis. You’ve heard of a placebo, right? People that get well with a placebo? Well, there’s a thing called a "nocebo." And a nocebo is literally planting the idea in a person’s mind that instead of getting well, they might get sick. That’s a theory; maybe it’s that. But I do find it really, really strange that everybody close to him had some kind of sickness and some kind of cancer. It’s truly bizarre. It makes zero sense.

In the doc, Frank Parlato, who runs the Frank Report and broke the NXIVM branding story in 2017, has a hair sample from one of the victims tested, and it comes back with a high level of barium in it, a toxic substance found in rat poison, among other places.

Right. I hear you. All I can say for sure is, as I said, it’s statistically staggering that it’s this random. It’s weird.

Didn’t Raniere once boast of having "killed" for his beliefs? Is he capable of murder?

Is he capable? I have no idea. I mean, there’s conjecture. One thing I know about leaders like this, and there are many, is that they usually have other people do the dirty work.

A big tactic of Raniere’s was breaking up healthy relationships. What did he do to get between you and Bonnie?

They tried to separate people by saying things like, "You have an attachment to this person and that’s going to get in the way of your growth." And they did that from the very beginning when people came in. There were a great many relationships, I believe, that did get destroyed, and also there are a whole bunch that maintained their integrity and their love. In the end, maybe I didn’t express it as clearly yet in The Vow, but Bonnie saved my life. They couldn’t break us, but they certainly tried.

It reminds me of classic Scientology disconnection tactics. Did you ever hear Keith talk about L. Ron Hubbard or express that he was using the same blueprint?

I actually heard him talk negatively about Scientology. He would say that the auditing process actually disassociates people, which I thought was actually very funny, because in essence, a lot of the processes that were used in NXIVM did exactly that. They disassociated people from different things that they were reacting to. But no, he never spoke about how he got ideas from there. Now, there are people that knew him that said that he had actually studied Scientology extensively. But I’d certainly never seen any L. Ron Hubbard books, and mostly what he said about Scientology was that it was not as effective as what he was doing in NXIVM and wasn’t very good for people. That was his basic story.

Do you hope Keith Raniere gets a lifetime sentence?

Here’s what I’m going to say: Whatever happens to him, I want him to be unable to hurt people anymore, however it pans out, whatever the judge decides. Whether it’s a short sentence or a long sentence, I just want him to no longer have the ability to hurt people, because he’s hurt many, many, many people in a very, very deep way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.