Track exactly when HBOs The vow filmed can be a bit confusing. The narrative isn't exactly linear and moves between clips of participants taking ESP courses and Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse voicing their suspicions about NXIVM. However, the latter segments can tell us a lot about the project's timeline. The truth is, production for The vow officially started in 2017 as a self-defense tool for Vicente and other NXIVM defectors who originally refused to create documentation.
HBO bills The vow as "a documentary series that follows a series of people who have been closely involved with the self-improvement group NXIVM over several years". The show is directed by the Oscar-nominated couple Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. Noujaim has a connection with NXIVM – she met NXIVM officer Sara Bronfman in 2008 when she was attending a conference on Richard Branson's Necker Island. With the encouragement of Bronfman and Vicente, she took the program’s flagship course two years later. When Noujaim held a graduation ceremony with some NXIVM members, Vicente did not attend. It struck her as strange that he had strongly encouraged her to attend NXIVM. After speaking with his wife Bonnie and business partner Sarah Edmondson, Vicente told Noujaim and Amer about NXIVM's darker underbelly, including DOS, the secret society where women were branded and abused.
And so, recording began in 2017 to find out the truth about NXIVM. The documentary filmmakers wanted to protect themselves from the money and power of founder Keith Raniere. Afraid of being sued by Sara Bronfman's sister, Clare, they carefully taped everything. Vicente told Vanity Fair that he was worried about being framed. He and Edmondson knew defectors who were faced with lawsuits and intimidation tactics – one person would only contact them on burner phones.
The former members struggled with exposing Raniere or not. But they finally did it – Vicente, Edmondson and others came to The New York Times and helped break the story on DOS in 2017. In April 2019, HBO announced that it had the go-ahead The vow, which would include the footage that the former members recorded. At that point, Raniere and his co-conspirators had been arrested. By the middle of that year the women deeply involved in the organization had reached plea agreements and Raniere himself had been found guilty.