The HBO docuseriesThe Anarchists opens with a roaring beachside bonfire. Shirtless children squeal happily as they rip pages from books and toss them into the flames. A hyped-up middle-aged man holds a textbook up to the camera and yells “Fuck you!” as his young son looks on attentively. “Bitch!” another kid yells, throwing crumpled papers into the blaze. It’s a wild, repellent scene. Who are these people?

The textbook-destroying ringleader, we learn, is Nathan Freeman, a hard-partying software designer who had recently moved his family from the middle-America suburbs to Acapulco, Mexico, to help run a new conference called Anarchapulco. Along with his wide-eyed wife Lisa, Freeman hoped to build a community devoted to a strain of libertarian thinking known as anarcho-capitalism. The bonfire straight out of Fahrenheit 451? Typical community-building exercise, of course. And, as it turns out, it took place during a relatively peaceful moment within this debaucherous, squabbling group of tax-hating libertines. Book-burning was just a prelude to far more serious chaos.

When Todd Schramke started filming in Acapulco in 2015, he thought he was cobbling together an exploration of an eccentric countercultural group that might work as a digital short. Instead, he kept his cameras rolling for six wildly eventful years, witnessing the group rapidly expand and spectacularly fracture. He followed a colorful, frequently belligerent cast of characters, including the Freemans, conspiracy-theory-spouting Anarchapulco founder Jeff Berwick, and a charismatic fugitive couple known by the aliases John Galton and Lily Forester, as they attempted to live out their ideological convictions—down with governments, up with free markets—in their cobbled-together expat cadre in Mexico.

Since they dreamt of a stateless existence, the group enthusiastically boosted the use of cryptocurrencies, and found themselves flush with money after Bitcoin’s price spiked in 2017. (Also, so no one yells at me: If you ask actual anarchists, they’ll tell you anarcho-capitalism has nothing to do with traditional anarchism—which is anti-capitalist and left-leaning—making the title of this docu-series a misnomer. “The Hedonistic Libertarians” would’ve probably been more accurate, but oh well!) Along the way, fortunes were gained and lost, and several of Schramke’s principle characters ended up dying, sometimes violently.

WIRED talked with the director about the filmmaking process, anarchist web forums, and how to roll with unexpected real-life plot twists.

This conversation contains spoilers and has been edited for clarity and length.

WIRED: I want to hear the origin story ofThe Anarchists. What first drew you to Anarachapulco?

Todd Schramke: I came across the concept of anarchism during my own development as a young punk rock musician. Some of the bands that were associated with that world had an interest in more classical anarchism, which is actually emergent out of a 19th-century labor rights movement—which has very little to do with what was going on at Anarchapulco. That desensitized me to the concepts of anarchy and anarchism, and when I came of voting age, I started exploring some of these ideas.

Anarcho-capitalism drew me in because it seemed like an interesting subversion of anarchism and capitalism, an impossible pairing of two very different ideas. At that point—this was in 2009 or 2010—I was also introduced to bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Back then people were excited in anarchist web forums when bitcoin hit $1. I continued to follow the crypto story as I was cutting my teeth as a young filmmaker.

Around 2014 through 2016, when cryptocurrencies went more mainstream and the first batch of documentaries started coming out about them, I felt like they weren’t really capturing the philosophical story of bitcoin. They were reporting it like a tech story rather than exploring the ideology behind it, which was a form of ambiguous anarchism that overlapped with American libertarianism.

I had this interest and knowledge about people who were early adopters, and I was on the lookout for something more human—for a community gathering around this ideology and also benefiting from the explosion of bitcoin. A couple people I knew from back when I was on these anarchist web forums were participating in this experiment that was just emerging in 2015, 2016—they were going down to Acapulco and trying to convince other people to come to the conference, or come and stay. The logline just wrote itself: This community of crypto-anarchists coming together in what was once reported as the fourth-most-dangerous city in the world. I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I knew it would be interesting.

It certainly was. How many years did you follow these people for the documentary?

My first trip was in 2016, and it was a long six-year journey. But we go back to before I was directly involved in the story—we cover several years leading up to it, so it was a lot of ground to cover. That’s why we needed six hours to tell the story.

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I’m curious how your idea of the story changed over those years. Is there a big gap between the story you thought you were going to tell at the beginning, and the story you ended up telling?

Very much. I went in with an open mind, but I had no idea I’d be making a big, sprawling six-hour docuseries. I had no funding, so it was just me and the camera and some gear, and I thought it’d probably be a short little doc I could post online or submit to a magazine or something.

After the first trip, I walked away and didn’t even think I had enough for that. But what I did have was access to these very interesting subjects, and I could see the seeds of conflict forming in the community, mainly between these two divergent ideas of what it means to be free and what it means to be an anarchist. You have the Freemans on one side, who believe it was about wealth— not just wealth for them, but they thought it was about building wealth for everyone, getting as rich as possible. And that was also teetering on the edge of hedonism. Then you had John and Lily, who are their much more traditional anarchist counterparts who have this idea of it being about subverting hierarchies as a whole, not simply about getting rich.

They were very careful not to call each other out on that first trip. But I could see the seeds planted. And in 2017, we saw this massive explosion in cryptocurrency. Now we’ve gone through a few comparative bubbles and it feels routine, but at the time, we hadn’t seen anything like it in the crypto scene. But the amount of wealth, or perceived wealth, that was being gathered—it turned into a completely different story. And then seeing John and Lily “forking” Anarchapulco and publicly declaring their divergent opinions on what it meant to be anarchists, that really solidified that there was a human story to be told. At that point, I thought it might be a feature, a quirky character exploration.

And then everything really changed in 2019, when the murder happened. Learning about John’s and Lily’s backstories, it just became a much more serious documentary than I ever could have imagined. That was when we started thinking it might be a series rather than a feature.

I don't know how you could have told the whole story in a feature, just because of the sheer volume of extreme events that occur. I initially thought it was just a look at this quirky fringe subculture, but then it darkens as it progresses. An unusual amount of people who were talking heads in this movie ended up dead by the end of it. How did that impact the filmmaking process?

That was the most emotionally complicated aspect, and it made me question whether making films in the documentary format is even what I want to be doing with the rest of my life. Just experiencing and witnessing firsthand such extreme trauma and conflict and suffering—it was really difficult, and put us under a lot of pressure as far as how to tell this story. It was intense. And beyond the deaths that occured, we were also dealing with fugitives, people on the run from the law, so we had to think about what it meant to be amplifying their voices, to be putting them out there and making them vulnerable. It has been hard to wrap my head around, still.

The scenes with Nathan Freeman’s family were devastating. And for the first few episodes, I’d thought of the Freemans as the lighter characters, almost as comic relief. Then their story came to this totally wrenching conclusion. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to film. In the end, Lisa Freeman seems disillusioned with their form of anarcho-capitalism, as do many of the other main characters. I’m curious, especially knowing now that you were personally interested in their ideologies—how did making this film affect your opinion of the ideologies within the Anarchapulco community?

It had been years since I had identified as an anarchist, but I really wanted to witness other people go through the same journey that I did. I wanted to document what it's like to be first drawn into what seems like an incredible discovery and set of ideas that you feel are going to truly change the world for the better—and then to realize the struggles that come with forming a community around an abstract ideology, and what happens when that community opens up to the world and you can have anyone show up and participate in it. There’s a really basic human drama that comes from situations when you're trying to apply your ideology to a fledgling community. My own opinions throughout the process of making this didn't really change, although it really solidified my view of the limitations of ideological thinking, which I think is something that applies not only to fringe ideologies. I think it's something that applies to mainstream ideologies as well, and is a lesson to be drawn from the story.

I was struck by how the Canadian and American anarcho-capitalists kept insisting they were resisting the state simply by moving to Mexico. I was frustrated with them because it seemed like they were ignoring the fact that they had just moved to adifferentnation-state. Do you think they ever understood how privileged they were to be living in an expat circle that seemed to be given a wide berth by local authorities?

I think they were, to some extent, ignoring it. But part of the appeal was that they could go to a place like Acapulco with the resources they had, and then it was an option to ignore it. You can see early on, we have footage of Nathan Freeman and Jeff Berwick on Jeff’s show explicitly discussing how they had the advantage of being perceived as tourists by local authorities, and the privileges that come with that. And that was also a central part of the conflict. You had this class conflict that very naturally emerged. You had certain people who showed up with resources and could afford to protect themselves, and then you had people who showed up without that and had to find their own solutions. Some people might say those were the more pure anarchists—I’ve had enough of the “who’s a real anarchist” debate, it’s just overdone—but I can understand the frustration some of the audience will have with the lack of acknowledgement of privilege.

Anarchapulco’s fortunes rose and fell along with the crypto booms. Have you kept in touch with your subjects during this most recent crypto implosion? Has it affected them?

Implosions have become a routine for them at this point. A lot of people are looking at this latest crypto bust and thinking that the anarchists are finally experiencing what they should have expected—but a lot of these people started investing when bitcoin was $1, so to them it’s still on an upward trajectory. “Buy the dip” and all that. So they’re still holding their crypto and continuing to preach the good word. It’s not universal, because some of the subjects of the show have learned their own lessons and refined their views. But to most of them, this is just routine.

Final question—what are you hoping audiences will take away fromThe Anarchists?

I hope people start to look not only at the anarchist ideology, but ideologies as a whole, and to question what the limitations of subscribing to a blanket belief system are. I think the real lesson of this story is that no matter what belief system we hold on to, we can't escape our own traumas and our own mental health issues and our own fractured relationships within our lives. The only real way to move forward and build a happier, healthier society is to focus on our health and our communities.