The blistering 236-minute film Leaving Neverland, which airs on HBO this March, levels damning accusations that the ebulliently childlike and phenomenally talented Michael Jackson was a serial pedophile. In 1993, 13-year-old Jordan Chandler brought charges of sexual abuse against Jackson that ended in a reported $10 million cash settlement. A 2003 criminal case spurred by 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo’s accusations led to Jackson’s arrest, trial and 2005 acquittal. Now, James Safechuck and Wade Robson have gone public to claim to Reed that they had their innocence shattered at the King of Pop’s California compound Neverland Ranch starting in the late 1980s and lasting well into the 1990s. (Intriguingly, Robson’s persuasive testimony during the 2004-2005 trial is what helped convince the jurors that Jackson was innocent.)
British news documentarian Dan Reed (Terror in Mumbai, Three Days of Terror: the Charlie Hebdo Attacks) focuses specifically on Safechuck and Robson, with supporting interviews from only their immediate family members, and braids together their two-decade relationships with Jackson. Reed gets granular with their recollections, using archival footage along with personal photos and documents to vividly illustrate two distinct, concurrent but partitioned sagas of alleged serial molestation and emotional manipulation. (Although Robson and Safechuck did technically meet once when they were children during a rare Neverland sleepover with other kids.)
At Sundance to promote the film, Reed sat down with Rolling Stone to explain why he started this film, how #MeToo influenced the production and the journalistic methodology he uses to achieve what he feels is the unbelievable truth.
“What’s more distressing than the graphic descriptions of sexual abuse are the ways that Michael emotionally manipulated these children and dropped them.”
The Jackson Estate issued a statement that said your film was a character assassination. But you don’t really talk that much about Michael Jackson’s character. Can you go a little more into that decision?
This is not a story about Michael Jackson. It’s a story about child sexual abuse that happened to two families whose lives intersected with Jackson. The fact that the abuser is Michael Jackson gives the film a reach and a relevance that I welcome. But it’s a story of grooming and pedophilia. That could be the story of any predator who inserts himself into a family and gets them to trust him.
The Jackson Estate calls Robson and Safechuck “perjurers” who “continue their efforts to achieve notoriety and a payday.”
Neither Wade, James or any members of their families were paid for their participation in the film, directly or indirectly.
When you introduced the screening, you mentioned how the idea for this documentary came out of a conversation with your producers at the British network Channel 4.
I was having breakfast with a guy called Daniel Pearl, who ran a series called Dispatches, which is like a current affairs show on Channel 4 News. And he said, “What are the big, unresolved stories that everyone’s heard of?” I like to take a story that’s in the public sphere and go deeper into it to reveal the complexities of the truth. I specialize in “It’s complicated,” the antithesis of quick-fire news bites that are becoming more and more the currency of finding out about the world today. And this 4-hour film is the complete antithesis.
So Daniel said, “What about Michael Jackson? That’s a big story and no one really knows what happened.” I didn’t know much about Michael Jackson, to be honest. And I didn’t know much about his music. I was approaching this as a cultural phenomenon.
You didn’t know much about his music? Come on.
I had a strange childhood. Growing up, I had no television. My father banned television. And I listened to classical music. My mother thought that pop music was just not great. I shouldn’t listen to it.
Still, though, Michael Jackson was ubiquitous throughout the Eighties and Nineties.
Of course I knew who he was, but I wasn’t necessarily able to tell you exactly which Michael Jackson song that was or which album it was from and all that. Culturally, he doesn’t occupy that space in my world.
In your previous documentaries, you interview dozens of people. But Leaving Neverland is only a handful of interviews. What informed that choice?
I realized pretty quickly that what happened to James and what happened to Wade was known only to a very small number of people, particularly the way that the abuse played out later in life and all that. And that you had to immerse people; lock people in the room with these two families in order to be able to understand the symptomology and the shape of how child sexual abuse manifests itself later in life. That’s one of the things you learned from the film, and I’m very proud of that. You learn that it’s complicated, that Wade could take the witness stand in 2005 and say, “Michael never touched me,” unequivocally look people in the eye and say, “Nothing ever happened.”
Michael was Wade’s lover and his close friend, to whom he owed a great deal in terms of his career and his life. As he says in the film, there was absolutely no way on Earth that he was going to say anything that might put Michael in jail. Period. And that’s a big point that the film builds up to over three hours to make you understand what happened there and why he then changed his story.
In the film, James recalls that Michael Jackson told him it was his first sexual experience. Is that possible?
I think Michael telling James, “You’re my first,” doesn’t have the ring of truth to me. It’s possible that he might have been, but I don’t think so. He also said, “You taught me to French kiss.” It’s part of placing the blame on a child, or giving the child the responsibility. To me, what’s more distressing than the graphic descriptions of sexual abuse are the ways that Michael emotionally manipulated these children and dropped them.
It’s a very forensic, detailed, concrete story about two specific individuals who were sexually abused by Michael Jackson. I do not know what happened to all the other little boys who spent nights with him. But as far as establishing what happened to Wade Robson and James Safechuck, I have all the evidence that I need. And there was no video recording that exists of Michael having sex with [these] children.
You don’t have the tapes.
There was no flagrante delicto with these guys. We don’t have the tapes.
There was an interview I read where you said that purportedly there was a tape?
James mentioned to me at one point, “You know, Michael had a video camera and he recorded a sexual act.” But he didn’t go into detail. And then Jackson was like, “Oh, what did I do?” and taped over it.
What really struck me was that Wade and James really were in love with Michael.
Yes. People assume that it’s, what we call in the UK, the guy in the “Dirty Mac,” the dirty raincoat, who comes and offers sweets, and then does something disgusting with you. It wasn’t like that. These are relationships that, if they had happened between consenting adults, would be entirely normal. Loving, nurturing, mentoring. There are many relationships between a slightly older person and a slightly younger person that are fine, that are not illegal and that don’t involve any abuse. These relationships were between an adult and, respectively, a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old child. But they were characterized by all the trappings of love.
And that’s one of the moments when I really hit the level of belief. Because obviously, as a journalist, I approached the interviews and reserved judgment until I heard more. I was looking for credibility and coherence. Things I could identify as the way people behave, which I already knew in my 30 years of making films. And when Wade, and then James, said, “I loved Michael and Michael loved me and we were going to be together forever,” they spoke the way a loving adult speaks about their partner.
Or about their first love.
Or about their first love. And that’s incredibly powerful, as we all know. And when I understood that, then I understood everything.
It’s interesting going back and re-evaluating Michael Jackson’s statement about how he would never hurt a child.
He’s telling the truth — to himself.
Because he really thinks so. Even the kids would say, “We weren’t hurt. We were in love.”
Yeah. And that’s why Wade says, “I didn’t consider this to be abuse. I loved Michael and Michael loved me.” That persisted for many years, because that was embedded in his psyche when he was seven. And when we’re that age, we’re so malleable and we form our ideas of normality, right? So, for them, this was a normal, healthy thing. And it’s not until many years later — this is so typical of child sexual abuse — that that structure falls apart and they can no longer hold it together.
“When two men have come forward saying they were sexually abused as a child, why do we want to shame them?”
It seemed like the turning point was when they become fathers.
Yeah. And it can be many things, but it just happened in Wade’s case in particular. And there’s an amazing bit of the interview where he says, “I looked at [my child] Koa and I imagined Michael doing to Koa what he’d done to me and I became so angry. And yet when I thought of little Wade, I felt nothing.” And that encapsulates the whole thing.
You’re also a father of young children. How did that inform the way you approached the material?
Clearly being a dad, and listening to this terrible story … is chilling and it’s awful. I did a film called The Paedophile Hunter, and these were much more the kind of pedophiles who would ambush a child after having met [them] online. So I was very aware of the presence of predatory pedophiles in our society and the extent of that vice out there. And now I’m getting horrible e-mail messages from Michael Jackson fans about my children. Several thousand emails in the past three weeks. Absolutely as disgusting as you could possibly invent.
Oh Jesus. Really?
And why do people react that way? Why when two men have come forward saying they were sexually abused as a child, why do we want to shame them? Why do we want to shut them down? Why do we want to silence them? Why do we want to threaten them? I don’t understand.
Your film decimates an entertainment icon who profoundly affected millions around the world, and who still has an enduring appeal years after his death. Of course people are angry. Is it even possible to salvage that?
You mean, in order to continue enjoying Michael’s music?
I want to listen to “Thriller”! Are we allowed to listen to “Thriller”? It’s a great song.
Every time I see that “Thriller” clip in the film, I’m like, “Wow, this guy is something else.” Can you continue to enjoy that? It’s kind of cheeky of me, but if your 9-year-old goes to a party and they’re playing Michael Jackson, and the room is full of 9-year-olds, what do you do? How do you feel?
Allegations this devastating will take lot of time for people to process. In 2014, there was tons of denial about Bill Cosby being a rapist, when it was two or three very serious allegations. And then it snowballed: 10, 20, 30, and now 50+ people have come out since then. There’s a chance that this might happen with your film.
In the UK, we had a guy called Jimmy Savile, [a radio and TV personality] who had the O.B.E., which is the Order of the British Empire. He had this show called Jim’ll Fix It. And he put kids on his knee and was like, “What can I do for you? What’s your dearest wish? Let me make that come true.” And he was a violent, brutal child rapist. And it took years after his death for the first victim to come forward and be believed. And there was a cover-up, and the BBC tried to suppress that report. And then it all came out and then there was just a cascade of victims who came out after that saying, “Me too. Me too. Me too.” That’s what this is. There’s going to be a lot of #MeToo after this, I think, with Michael. We just have to wait and see how quickly that happens.
You did the bulk of your interviews with Wade and James in February 2017, eight months before the multiple sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein expanded the #MeToo movement. After that reckoning, did you go back and do more?
I did go back and do more. #MeToo was tremendously encouraging for the moms [of Robson and Safechuck] and for the guys. But for Joy Robson in particular, Wade’s mom, she was really inspired by #MeToo. She felt bolder. She felt that now was the time to speak out.
I was stunned when James claimed how he and Jackson had a mock wedding ceremony and a jewelry box of rings that Jackson allegedly traded for sexual favors.
The wedding ring was the last thing we shot with James in July 2018. He had mentioned the fact that he had the rings and he had mentioned the fact that there was a wedding in his initial interview. And then it took, you know, 18 months.
I didn’t want to ever compel James to do anything. You have to be extremely gentle. And we had the time. In his mind, James had already done the work and organized his feelings and his responses. But his body still had this almost cerebral-cortex kind of reaction. And his hands started to shake as he took the rings out.
It was in the context of a very intense, loving relationship. And the wedding was a token of Michael’s love and how they were going to be together forever. To me that’s repugnant, because obviously Michael had no intention of being with James forever and probably had slept with many other boys. We know he did. We know he slept with Wade while he was seeing James.
For legal reasons, Wade and James were kept apart, long before you even approached them about making the movie. That’s fascinating.
Yeah. So they couldn’t exchange stories. Sundance was the first time [as adults] that they’d met. It’s the first time they’ve had any significant time together.
That’s a beautiful coda to this story. In the Q&A after the film’s premiere, it was impressive how kind and wise they seemed. They weren’t vindictive.
They’re both very composed and very generous, even with the [Michael Jackson] fans. What they’ve been through has taught them that there’s no point in getting angry. There’s no point in hating. It doesn’t get you anywhere. It only hurts you.