'Leaving Neverland' director speaks out about his controversial documentary: 'It's a reckoning, isn't it?'

Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in 1990 (Photo: Courtesy HBO)
Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in 1990 (Photo: Courtesy HBO)

Since its controversial premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Dan Reed’s four-hour HBO documentary Leaving Neverland has become more colloquially known as “that Michael Jackson documentary.” But the British documentary filmmaker emphasizes that the real subject of his film isn’t the former King of Pop, who passed away in 2009. Instead, this is the story of the two grown men — Wade Robson and James Safechuck — who have stepped forward to share their traumatic accounts of the abuse they suffered at Jackson’s hands when they were children. “This isn’t a film about Michael,” Reed tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I focus very narrowly on the information about Michael Jackson that I needed to know to understand James and Wade’s story.”

Nevertheless, a lot of the pre-release focus has already been on what impact Leaving Neverland will have on Jackson’s legacy, as well as the finances of his substantial estate. That estate has been on a prolonged counter-offensive against the documentary, even suing HBO over claims that airing the film violates a 1992 contract Jackson signed with the network. Despite those efforts, HBO still plans to premiere Leaving Neverland across two nights, March 3 and 4, at 8 p.m. In this extensive interview, Reed addresses the portions of Jackson’s career that don’t appear in the film and what he hopes happens next.

YAHOO ENTERTAINMENT: As a teenager in the early ’90s, I remember buying tickets to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous tour, but the performance was canceled, in part due to the initial allegations of child abuse. I feel horrible admitting this now, but at the time, my main reaction was anger that I wouldn’t get to see Jackson in concert. I think that’s how a lot of fans were at the time: We didn’t want to believe it.
DAN REED: Yeah, it’s a reckoning isn’t it? But that’s not why I made this film — to pursue any kind of reckoning with Michael Jackson. I made this film because I stumbled over the existence of these two young men who were suing the estate. So it wasn’t, “Let’s get Michael.” It was, “I wonder what these two guys have to say.”

You’ve been very clear that Wade and James are the real subjects of the film, not Jackson. But I do want to touch on the timeline of Jackson’s life a bit, because the documentary picks up in the mid-’80s when the two boys meet him. Based on the research you’ve done, do you think that his grooming started as early as Thriller or even Off the Wall?
So what I’m going to say is guesswork — I don’t have any evidence. Michael was a very confident groomer of James and of Wade, particularly of Wade. And I do think that having Neverland made it easier for him to assault little children. Was he an active pedophile before he acquired Neverland? [Note: The Neverland Ranch was recently put back on the market by Jackson’s estate.] I believe he was. I don’t think that James was his first rodeo. While he told him that he was his first, I don’t think that was true. And, you know, he comes across in James’s account as someone who was pretty confident about molesting a child, so I would imagine he’d done it before. But again, I don’t have proof of that.

Watch: Wade Robson says Jackson’s songs trigger him:

One key moment in Jackson’s life are the injuries he sustained while filming a 1984 Pepsi commercial. Some have speculated whether that incident represented a kind of breaking point between his Thriller persona and who he became later. Again, based on what you’ve seen and heard, did that incident inform the second half of his life?
I certainly know that he referenced it. When Wade and Wade’s sister were at Neverland, he might have shown them a clip of when his hair got set on fire. So that’s definitely something that he was referencing at that time. But I don’t know enough about Michael Jackson; I’m not a Jackson expert and that’s the phrase that I use a lot because it doesn’t really encapsulate what the film’s about.

In early 1993, Jackson was interviewed by Orpah Winfrey for a highly rated TV special. I imagine you weren’t able to use clips from that, but did you consider addressing how that special helped him shape his own narrative? [Note: After this interview was conducted, it was announced that Winfrey would be interviewing Robson and Safechuck for an HBO/OWN special to air after Leaving Neverland.]
No, we didn’t. [We included] the statements from Neverland which he made, [but] we don’t go into how he created the image of himself as this sort of Peter Pan character, because we’re so much locked in a room with Robson and Safechuck. For me, that was the most credible and powerful way to tell the story. Now, of course, Jackson did many, many interviews and he shaped his own narrative. The Oprah interview was one of the interviews that helped him do that. My film is about what was really happening behind the scenes and the truth behind the narrative that he projected onto the media.

Thinking back on that special now, you can see the stage management in it, as well as the cult of celebrity that allowed viewers to embrace the fantasy.
Yeah, I think if it was the guy down the road who had a habit of sleeping with different little boys every week, people would pretty quickly reach a conclusion about what that guy wanted from those little boys. The fact that it was Jackson, and he was talented — it’s astonishing how much talent allows you to get away with all sorts of things. Basically Jackson was an amazing entertainer, and therefore people looked the other way.

Michael Jackson with Wade Robson and his family in 1990 (Photo: Courtesy of Dan Reed/HBO)
Michael Jackson with Wade Robson and his family in 1990 (Photo: Courtesy of Dan Reed/HBO)

In terms of your own film, it’s worth noting that Wade Robson is a well-known choreographer. Does it make it more impactful to have one celebrity accusing another?
I’d never heard of Wade Robson; I grew up not listening to pop music and not having a television, so the name meant absolutely nothing to me. I was aware that he’d done extraordinary things, but it didn’t really mean that much to me in terms of his status in the film. Wade is someone who’s had contact with the media throughout his career, and that informs the way he speaks in the film. He has a certain amount of poise. If you look at James, he gives an entirely different kind of interview. His vulnerability is much closer to the surface; you can feel him struggling to put the words together and to find words to describe the experiences that he’s reliving in his head. I like the contrast between the two types of interviews.

I just think of the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves and how the stories that made the most public impact were those told by celebrities or people with some measure of fame. And that’s unfortunate in some ways.
It is. I will say that this film stands up as an account of a grooming pedophile, and the impact of a grooming pedophile’s behavior on two families. It could have been the guy next door, or the uncle, or the family friend and the film would still have been an important document. The fact that it’s Michael Jackson gives it a significance and an importance that is obviously way greater. And I hope that because of Jackson’s fame/notoriety, we will be able to get this film in front of many more survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

A big part of why the guys came forward is that they realized, “It’s too late for us, but let’s try and make a difference out there with people who have survived this type of crime.” What we learn from the film is the relationship between the child and the predator is really complex. A child can fall in love with the predator and form a deep attachment that can last for decades. That attachment is the reason why Wade defended Michael in court and lied on his behalf. So I’m really hoping that the hugeness of Jackson’s name and reputation gives this film the stature it needs to carry the messages it contains to the widest possible audience.

Wade and James went to the courts first and tried to go through legal means to tell their story, but their cases were dismissed. When that happens, it often seems like the only court left open to victims is the court of public opinion. Did they express any frustration knowing that the legal avenue was denied to them?
I don’t see this as trial by television or the court of public opinion, [because] I don’t think that we’re putting Michael Jackson on trial. We are telling the story of these two young men. As I see it, their lawsuit against the Jackson estate is primarily about getting a platform to put their story on the record and hold all the people who looked the other way to account. I think having the case dismissed by the judge was upsetting. Now, the judge made it very clear that the cases were not being dismissed because of anything to do with the allegations of child sex abuse. It was a technical [ruling] on whether the case could be brought under California law against the corporation in this way. The cases have gone to appeal, so the litigation is still ongoing and it may very well be that this could go to trial, which could be very interesting. But remember that I approached them. I was the one who came to them out of the blue, so I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that this is somehow part of their lawyer’s strategy to share their story.

Jackson and James Safechuck in 1988 (Courtesy of Dan Reed/HBO)
Jackson and James Safechuck in 1988 (Courtesy of Dan Reed/HBO)

One of the charges that’s often leveled at abuse victims who speak out is that they’re only looking for money. Where does that impulse come from — to imply that there’s some kind of financial gain?
And there’s obviously no financial gain in the documentary. It’s part of the strategy of misdirection that the Jackson camp has employed for the last two decades: “Look how dreadful these people are and how they want money,” instead of, “Let’s consider for a second, whether these children — who are saying the most dreadful things — could have been victims of a crime. Let’s hear what they have to say.” Now, it’s true that if Wade and James won their civil case, there would be damages, but that’s part of the legal set up you have in this country. If someone does something really bad to you and they get tried in a criminal court, they go to jail. We don’t accuse someone who’s looking for justice because a relative has been murdered of just wanting to lock people up. So what the Jackson camp is saying is kind of absurd, and they don’t seem to have watched the film as far as I can tell. I’m really wondering what they’re going to say when they do. Because at some point, someone has to ask: What did they know? What did they think Michael was doing with those little boys?

Just to clarify something you said, because people will undoubtedly make this accusation: Wade and James weren’t paid to participate in this documentary?
No, they weren’t. There’s no financial benefit whatsoever. I don’t think I’m allowed to buy them lunch.

How did they recount their stories to you? Was it linearly or did they jump around in time?
With Wade, it was very linear. With James, we went through two-thirds of his timeline in chronological order, but he was quite fragile on the first day of the interview. So we went back over some of that the second day, and then got to the end. The general idea was, “Tell me exactly what happened in chronological order as far as you can. Don’t try to tell me what to think, or how to perceive what it is that you’re telling me. Just tell me what happened and trust me to place it in a proper context.”

I watched your documentary The Pedophile Hunter, which is a direct predecessor to this. It’s more of a guerrilla-style documentary, whereas this is very much about sitting still and listening.
Yes, The Pedophile Hunter is a different genre of documentary that I do. It’s observational, and we’re filming as things are happening. Leaving Neverland is more similar to the terrorism documentaries I’ve made for HBO, which are all past tense narratives. Movies like Three Days of Terror or Terror at the Mall. You would recognize a lot of the techniques there that I use for Leaving Neverland.

Those are also shorter films, whereas Leaving Neverland is four hours. Could you have made it longer?
When you send a four-and-a-half hour rough cut to HBO, there’s a knot in your stomach. I’m not one of those self-indulgent filmmakers who thinks more is more — I always think less is more. But with this one, I just thought it was undeniable. I mean, which bits were we gonna cut out? Then HBO came back and asked if we can get it down to four hours, and I’m like, “Yep, I can do that.”

The length of time spent with them is important, because skeptics will be looking for that moment where Wade and James crack. But the longer you spend in their company, the more emotional their narratives become. I imagine that must have been your experience when you were in the room with them.
I interviewed Wade for three days, and James for two. Part of that was my exploration of their accounts and wanting to make sure I had really gotten to know them. And then, of course, we transcribed the interviews and read them and re-read them looking or any inconsistencies and then corroborated details we could check over the next 18 months. The crime in this story happens behind closed doors between two people, one whom is dead. So we could never corroborate the sexual activity. But there were many statements — and some of them have been dug up again by the U.K. press in particular — from members of the Jackson household and the staff, who saw stuff like underwear on the floor and Wade and Michael in the shower. There were glimpses that something strange, and possibly sinister, was going on.

I also read everything I could around the earlier investigations with Jordan Chandler in 1993 and Gavin Arvizo in 2003. I spoke to a lot of the detectives who were involved in those investigations and none of them believe that Jackson was innocent, by the way. Then I went back and did pick-up interviews with Wade and James and their moms, and over that length of time, their stories remained entirely consistent. I didn’t find a single detail that caused me to doubt anything they said.

<em>Leaving Neverland</em> director Dan Reed (Photo: Dominique Desrue/Courtesy of HBO)
Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed (Photo: Dominique Desrue/Courtesy of HBO)

We live in a time where these stories of abuses committed by celebrities and men in position of power are coming out regularly. Bill Cosby was one of the first major stories, and its accelerated since Donald Trump was elected to office amid allegations of his own misdeeds. Has the Trump presidency emboldened people to step forward?
I don’t connect it with Trump. In the U.K., we had this guy called Jimmy Savile, who was a children’s entertainer, and he turned out to have been a rampant violent predatory pedophile. That only came to light after his death, when one of his victims had the courage to go on television and speak out. It was rather like Jackson: everyone kind of knew that he was a bad guy, but no one actually dared to say it in public. Once one victim came out, there was just a deluge.

And then you had #MeToo with Harvey Weinstein, which happened as we were in production. It happened after I spoke with Wade and James, but before I’d interviewed their mothers, and I think that’s a factor in their mothers’ speaking out. So why is this happening now? I think it’s partly that people are emboldened because social media can provide support. For all the bad things that come out of social media, it does provide a place where people who have suffered a similar type of abuse can get together and can find a voice. I think that’s been the reason why #MeToo happened now and not ten years ago. I mean, it’s a hashtag, right? So that tells you about the role of social medial.

I’m sure you’re aware that your documentary is coming out in the wake of Surviving R. Kelly, which preceded R. Kelly being arrested for sex abuse charges. Had Jackson lived, do you think a similar situation would be playing out?
I’ve often been asked, “Could you have made this while he was alive? Jackson’s dead — what can we do now?” And that reflects the misdirection that the Jackson estate and the Jackson family practice: “Michael’s dead, let him rest in peace.” But my answer to that is: “Wade Robson and James Safechuck are alive, and they need justice. They need to be heard.” Had Jackson been alive, I think we would still have made this film. I think we would have had a stiffer fight, because defamation would have been a consideration for us legally. But I think HBO would still have broadcast the film because the cumulative testimony of Wade and James and their families, and the fact that there are a lot of corroborating evidence on the record already.

There are also the previous child molestation trails; although Jackson was acquitted in the 2003 criminal trial, I think that trial was deeply flawed. Gavin was a convincing witness and the Jackson lawyers managed to shift the narrative to be about the boy’s mother and their family. Also, the defendant’s number one witness was Wade Robson. If the same thing happened today, how many of Jackson’s young male companions would stand up and defend him in court?

Do you expect this to become a lifetime project for you?
No, there are other things I’m interested in. I don’t want to become the Michael Jackson guy. But in the process of making this film, I became really intrigued by how Jackson got away with being a predatory pedophile for so long. I’m very interested in the Jordan Chandler case, because it was such a complex story. It was the first time that Jackson’s pedophilia emerged into the public space; I’d really love to sit down with Jordan and talk to him. And then with Gavin, the criminal trial was even bigger — it was a global event that went horribly wrong for this little boy who had the guts to stand up in court against his abuser. I think there’s a story behind that that America should know about. It would involve a lot of other outside actors as much as the family, as well as the media and all that. So I’d be open to doing that, but I can’t think of any other Jackson stories that I’d like to do. I’ve only become interested in those stories as a result of doing this one.

Leaving Neverland airs March 3 and 4 at 9pm on HBO, HBO Go and HBO Now. The Pedophile Hunters is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Watch: Jackson’s family speaks out against Leaving Neverland:

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