I will start out by saying that no laws were broken by the film crew in the making of Poached.

We penetrated the underworld of obsessive egg collectors in a way that hasn’t been done before, with an open invitation to film their daily lives.

Egg collecting is illegal and punishable by jail in the United Kingdom. Collecting wild birds’ eggs from at-risk birds has deadly impact with the ability to wipe out a species. The rarer the bird, the more treasured the egg.

Most people could care less about wild birds eggs. Unlike other wildlife trophies, there is very little economic value to these eggs. The collectors are not driven by money, but by something deeper, the beauty of the shells and the trill of the chase. Egg collectors risk their lives abseiling cliffs and climbing 100-foot trees for their treasures. Thousands of eggs are found in police raids hidden under floorboards in their homes, in secret rooms, and in safe houses.

Collectors tend to be anti-authoritarian and have a deep distrust of the media and society as a whole. They even keep their treasure hidden from their friends and family, in fear that they might one day be turned over to the authorities.

We filmed collectors in trees, hanging off cliffs and blowing eggs. But the most challenging aspect of filming Poached was capturing the collectors during their most intimate and vulnerable moments, as they confront their obsession and begin to realize the destructiveness of their behavior.

It is no surprise that journalists haven’t been able to penetrate the underworld of egg collectors. The mainstream media in the United Kingdom, from the Daily Mirror to the BBC, has covered major egg collecting cases extensively over the last couple of decades. But the reporting has largely been confined to the headlines with sound bites from the wildlife authorities.

The lack of reporting from the egg collector point of view deepened my interest in the subject. I am fascinated about the psychology of what motivates people and the line between passion and obsession. And the bizarre nature of this crime, with its deadly consequences, made it even more intriguing.

Having penetrated criminal underworlds in the past, from cocaine cartels in Colombia to prostitution rings in Cambodia, I knew the first step would be to contact the authorities and nonprofit organizations that work with these communities. Even the police can be the gateway to a relationship with someone they have arrested in the past.

The first contacts I made were the wildlife authorities. Alan Stewart of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) founded Operation Easter in 1993, a nationwide network of law enforcement including the NWCU, local police agencies and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Alan writes a blog called Wildlife Detective and was easy to find. Alan confirmed my suspicion that no feature documentary film had been made on the subject of egg collecting and was skeptically optimistic that we could get access to any collectors and pull off something interesting enough to watch for 90 minutes.

My second contact was Guy Shorrock, senior investigator of the RSPB. Shorrock is a former Manchester cop and one of the most experienced in the world on egg collecting, with more than 50 cases. Stewart and Shorrock quickly became our main liaisons to this world, making introductions and giving leads to both the Operation Easter nest guardians and the egg collectors.

Director Timothy Wheeler shoots a white-tailed eaglet ringing on the Isle of Mull

Director Timothy Wheeler shoots a white-tailed eaglet ringing on the Isle of Mull

Getting access to the wildlife enforcement was the easy part. As expected, both collectors and ex-collectors turned us down every step of the way. For the most part, collectors saw no advantage to talking to us about their egg related crimes. But egg collectors are also thirsty to share their stories about collecting and their hair-raising adventures. This is their life work. Egg collecting is what they are best at. And most collectors are bursting with the desire to share their dramatic near-death experiences hanging from cliffs, or run-ins with law enforcement. Many successful prosecutions have been made against egg collectors because of their diaries found during police raids, which include scrupulous details of their illegal acts.

With patience and persistence, we kept knocking on doors and re-visiting collectors that had already said no to us. Our first win came to us through an introduction from NWCU agent Andy McWilliam. Andy had prosecuted John Kinsley for several wildlife crimes in the past. We later learned that John initially thought our film crew was part of a NWCU sting operation. Despite John’s initial mistrust of our crew, he was bursting to defend his previous wildlife convictions to camera and to prove to the authorities that he could now be trusted to pursue a career taking photographs of rare birds at their nests.

John’s enthusiasm for nest photography, his unparalleled, shifty energy, and his rather unsavory choices of friends made him a perfect subject for our documentary. Without giving away too much information, a wild story unfolds with John during the filming of Poached, one that took a lot of courage from John to be filmed.

The egg-collecting underworld is a connected social web. This meant that once we’d hooked into someone that gave us a little bit of trust, we could get introduced to someone else in the circle. We eventually had a selection of subjects that we knew would make for a provocative documentary. All were self-proclaimed “ex”-collectors. Each person was at very different stage of his addiction—though only one we were certain had truly left collecting.

But what we didn’t have was an active collector willing to acknowledge his current day crimes. Then we met Mr. X, an active egg collector with 3,500 eggs in his possession.

I can’t say how we met Mr. X or where he is from. Our deal with Mr. X is that he would detail his crimes in an interview if we granted him full anonymity, concealing his identity with a skull crow mask and disguising his voice. He is decisively anti-authoritarian and could care less about spending time in jail. But Mr. X doesn’t want to risk losing his life’s work to the authorities.

The NWCU and RSPB are currently anxious to find out who is the mysterious man behind the mask. I wish them well in their pursuit—egg collectors tend to reveal themselves to the authorities at some point through mistakes they make.

At the U.K. premiere of Poached the Chief Inspector of the NWCU, Martin Sims, asked me with a smile, “Who is it?”

Of course I had to reply, “It is my job not to say.”

“I know,” Sims said, smirking, “and it is my job to ask.”

That said, the most important triumph of filming Poached wasn’t getting the man behind the mask to talk. It is a relatively easy decision for a man to profess his crimes with anonymity. What I found remarkable was the bravery of the “ex”-collectors to confront their past and present obsession on camera. This was the most challenging feat of the Poached filmmaking process and the most revelatory.

Despite their crimes, I have a deep respect for each of these subjects. It was this honest respect, I think, that earned their trust and willingness to go on camera. From this, we were able to accomplish a much deeper film about the psychology of obsession and the possibility of self-reflection, and even redemption. This is the heart of Poached.

After the U.K. premiere, I received an email from one of the collectors from the film who has been running from his legal past for more than 20 years: “I think now I have reached the point I have always craved and it was your film that got me there. I have no need to prove myself no more. This is a turning point in my life, with a smile on my face.” MM

Poached opens in theaters starting September 18, 2015, courtesy of Ignite Channel.

Timothy Wheeler is a Los Angeles-based director, producer, and cinematographer. Timothy’s directorial feature documentary debut was 2013’s The Other Shore: The Diana Nyad Story. Timothy received a primetime EMMY nomination for Outstanding Cinematography for his work on the Discovery series Whale Wars. Other credits include programming for PBS, AL Jazeera, The New York Times and VICE.