Documentarians Cecilia Peck and Inbal B. Lessner (“Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult”) and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“Love Fraud”) not only share similar shooting philosophies, in focusing on vérité, but they are also passionate about centering their projects on female survivors’ stories.
The four-part Starz series “Seduced” explores the connection between a few women, including India Oxenberg, who escaped the clutches of NXIVM and its more dangerous subsets Jness and DOS, while the four-part “Love Fraud” for Showtime follows a group of women (including bounty hunter Carla Campbell) as they go after the con man who stole their hearts and a lot of their money.
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These four powerhouses came together to talk about their experiences making these two Emmy contending series, as well as the sense of healing and justice they wanted for their subjects.
There is often a debate over how much to say a criminal’s name in a news report; how did you determine how much to include the men in these docuseries?
Heidi Ewing: We chose to see him through the eyes of the women, and of course they view him with derision and a lot of hatred right now. But to bring them back to when they met him, to when he was wooing them, to how they felt in the good times, you had to really allow them to remember him fondly and say that he made them feel really good and why. We definitely knew that we wanted to paint him as a victimizer — as not just a con artist, but [also] a liar and a sadist, and somebody who enjoyed seeing the pain of others — but it was really an editing balance that we struck over and over and over again to the last moment.
Cecilia Peck: We were really interested in exploring the vulnerability of the human mind and how vulnerable we all are to influence — especially a kind that’s unethical — and [we] really wanted to explore coercion as a way to subjugate and break women. Our focus really wasn’t on Keith Raniere, the cult leader. We touched on his background, but we really wanted to look at why women signed up for this program to begin with and how gradual the process of indoctrinating and breaking them down was.
Inbal B. Lessner: There’s an interesting parallel between the two series because we both spend, I would say, the first half of the first episode looking into the lure and the love bombing, which is a typical cult tactic but definitely evident with [Richard Scott Smith of “Love Fraud”] to another level. But to go back to recreating those moments of what it felt like to be in that first intro and the first class and how intoxicating that felt, the sense of community and what they were learning, that was a big ask. And that felt like a big responsibility to take on as a filmmaker.
Rachel Grady: The biggest takeaway is to remind everybody that’s watching it how easily it could be them. I think that’s really, really important because it’s really, really easy to blame the victim in these cases, [but] there is a con man out there, or a cult leader out there, that knows exactly what to say to you, and you don’t even know it. That’s how they work. So maybe it’s not that cult leader, maybe it’s not that guy or woman or whatever, because you would never believe their bullshit, but there’s someone’s bullshit that you will believe.
You touched on getting the women to the place of being able to speak how about they felt then as opposed to now. How much of that is earning their trust off-camera first?
Ewing: We’re not huge fans of doing a super, super long conversation before the camera rolls. I think that you have to assume that some things are going to only happen once, but you don’t want to surprise them in a negative way either. I basically remember letting them know that it would be so helpful for other women, and for us as the directors, to understand what was his technique and why it was so effective. I shared a little bit of my own personal experience with some of them about some very difficult experiences I had with men in my 20s. I felt like it was the fair for them to know that in some ways we all have fallen for something like this. [And] I have to say that I was really inspired by the interviews in the HBO Michael Jackson series [“Finding Neverland”] because that director was able to get them to remember how excited they were to meet him and to be invited to the house, and the families too. And I thought that was excellent technique because you have to know what it meant to them in order for the fall to matter, in order for the betrayal to matter. You can’t have one without the other, otherwise we thought we’d have a flatline in terms of emotional arcs. And so when I saw that I was like, “I know if he could get them back there, we can get these women back there.”
Peck: Documentaries come together when people are ready to tell their stories, whether it’s because they believe that other people can learn from their stories or it’s part of their healing process. You can’t force that to happen. But we did definitely develop strong relationships during the months of research and development with the former NXIVM members who had come forward, and those are still ongoing. We’ve built a website with them and we worked very hard on providing therapy for the survivors who came forward and on having relationships where they felt safe and supported.
Lessner: We put together this fund to fund their therapy before, during and after, and then Starz made a significant contribution so that we could keep supporting them through the release, which was re-triggering. And at some point we had to offer the same services to our crew, because we had people on the post team that felt triggered. There’s an important conversation that’s just starting to happen in the documentary world about secondhand trauma that we have as editors and filmmakers watching these difficult stories for an extended time. We have to keep looking at that and support the people who are doing this work.
Grady: And you find people at different stages: Some people come with like a lot of anger, some people come with a lot of self-loathing. Whatever it is, you have to have emotional intelligence, and figure out what people’s incentive is.
How much of your incentive as filmmakers was to get justice for these women?
Grady: A lot! The fact that these women were getting together and that there was this awesome bounty hunter that was leading the charge, Heidi and I were like, “Fuck yes, we’re totally on board with this.”
Ewing: And I think you can see how how invested we were in the series because we make it very transparent that we hired a private eye, that we joined the search, that we lead the search at some times. We’d never done that before where we we affected the outcome, pretty obviously, by helping them look for him. And it was a discussion, but he was wanted — there was a national warrant for his arrest — so we weren’t just like harassing a dude. And so we were like, “Let’s help them and let’s make it obvious to the audience that we have done so.” We were that invested in getting some minor justice at the very least for these women.
Peck: So often it’s behind the scenes but you know that filmmakers are possibly making suggestions, so I really appreciate how upfront you were about it. For us, with the justice element, we were filming a trial that was part of our storytelling so the cult leader was being brought to justice, and then during the airing of our series he was sentenced to 120 years in prison. That was definitely a big piece but, even more important or related was, how do you get out of trauma and how do you heal? We really would not give up our absolute intention to follow these women through their lives beyond the verdict and how they’re using their voices and how they’re recovering. That kind of trauma doesn’t go away overnight, even when a cult leader is sentenced.
Ewing: In “Love Fraud” he doesn’t get that much time and a lot of people are so mad. [But] there’s a four-part series on him and his face is on billboards and he’s definitely having a hard time getting to find people to date that haven’t heard or seen this so I think in a way the justice was the series. We can at least stop him in his tracks slightly with this this kind of negative publicity.
A sense of justice doesn’t always have to be just looking at a legal outcome. It’s also making the women to feel heard or valued, especially for someone like India, who was telling her story for the first time in her own words.
Peck: We reshaped the entire narrative when she joined us.
Lessner: Yes, it forced us to find another spine for it, really. When Cecilia first talked to her, she said, “I want to understand what the fuck happened to my brain.” What she thought it was versus what it actually was is the narrative tension that drives the story. Our cult experts are helping you understand what’s really at play — what are the tactics that are being used here? — while we have the [survivors] take us through the motions of how it felt from their points of view and have them unpack, “How the hell did I get here?”
Peck: India was telling us the story of what happened but also having to incorporate what she has learned through her hundreds of hours of deprogramming and therapy to apply hindsight in realizing how that curriculum worked on her and eroded her critical thinking. But I think we should talk also about how both series employed animation.
Ewing: It really was interesting for us to see that the real emotion came from the stories in the past. In order to tell those stories we employed a collage artist and an animator because we had this problem of enough photos, not enough audio. So, we had to find a way to visualize the love and the joy and the romance, and the horror that it became through these collages.
Grady: We’ve never done it before and are animator and collage artist hadn’t either.
Lessner: Before we even had India, the idea was to follow the trial and cover what really happened in NXIVM. We were watching “Miss Americana,” the Taylor Swift documentary, and we saw this one tiny sequence of courtroom illustrations, we found that the artist who did that, Elyse Kelly. Once India joined and the whole series had to be reshaped, the trial actually took a backseat, but we realized we could use these animations and illustrations to bring you into her point of view — her subjective memory flashes. And so, the color palette, the composition, it gradually changes from very lit, beautiful, alluring scenes to, in the third episode when she’s being sexually abused and branded, really dark and distorted. It’s like the memories are a little more difficult to access and put together.
Ewing: [Using animation] is almost akin to shooting a film on 35-millimeter because everything has to be exact, you only share what’s necessary, you only animate what’s necessary. It’s a great exercise as a filmmaker, especially when we’re all shooting digital and you don’t have to be as disciplined as you could be.
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