Brow Beat

Leaving Neverland’s Director on the Backlash, the Documentary’s Omissions, and Why It Had to Be So Explicit

Michael Jackson shaking hands with a young James Safechuck dressed in an outfit inspired by the album Bad.
A young James Safechuck and Michael Jackson. HBO

Wade Robson and James Safechuck were two talented young boys who came to the attention—and then fell under the spell—of the singer who was then the most famous man in the world: Michael Jackson. Groomed into yearslong relationships of sexual abuse, they tell their stories in grueling detail in a two-part documentary on HBO, Leaving Neverland. On a recent episode of The Gist, Mike Pesca spoke with Dan Reed, the film’s director, about how the documentary came about, why its descriptions of sexual abuse had to be so detailed, and what the reaction has been like since the premiere at Sundance Film Festival in January.

Mike Pesca: With this film, were you righting a wrong or explaining a phenomenon?

Dan Reed: A little bit of both. Explaining the phenomenon is really important because people don’t understand child sexual abuse very well—I certainly didn’t before I began this—and don’t really get why Wade Robson went from enthusiastically defending Michael Jackson on the witness stand in 2005 to where he is today.

And righting the wrong that was done to these little boys. Hopefully we can right it to some extent. Jackson is dead, so he can’t be put on trial.

What was the spark at first? Was it more “I can’t believe this” or “How did this happen?”

What draws me into any story is taking people inside a thing that they think they know and revealing the complexity of human behavior because I think that’s what the longform documentary does: It gives you space to go, “Yes, this is true, and the opposite is also true, and people are complicated and they do weird things.” It’s not black and white. And this seemed to be one of those stories.

At the outset I had no special interest in Jackson. I wish I could say I’d set out to make a big difference in the #MeToo movement and all, but this project came about in a kind of random way.

Right, so how did it come about randomly?

It came about through a casual conversation with a Channel 4 executive in the U.K. We were talking about the big stories out there that are slightly unresolved. I commissioned someone to do some research and they came up with this—I think it was a forum page that had a reference to these two guys I’d never heard of, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who seemed to be wanting to tell a story of child sexual abuse about their relationship with Michael Jackson. I was like, “Oh, that’s weird.” The way they experienced Jackson’s attention when they were children was, as you know, “He was kind, and gentle, and loving, and amazing, but he raped me.” Of course those are two parts of the same narrative.

They are. So you see these names on a piece of paper and there was some information that maybe they want to talk. How do you go about pursuing that?

Well, the information was that they were going public because they were litigating. I had no idea if they’d want to talk to me or not, so I contacted their lawyers in Los Angeles. We talk, and they clearly decided that my track record warranted having a meeting with Wade and James, and that’s what happened. And then they agreed to be interviewed.

Before you even turned the camera on, how many meetings did you have with James and Wade, and what are they like?

I have one meeting with Wade and James separately because they’re not allowed to have any contact, and they live many hours apart. James I met for dinner with his wife. He seemed sensitive, vulnerable, sincere.

And then I flew to Hawaii to meet Wade, and we had lunch, and he seemed very poised, thoughtful. He asked me some good questions about my intentions. And we decided to go ahead.

Who’d you film first?

I filmed Wade first. Three days for Wade and two days for James.

In between the days of shooting with Wade, did he change from day to day?

No, he didn’t. He grew more tired. We all did. What the film’s about is the reckoning. It’s two families coming to terms with what happened to their sons. Why did the sons keep silent for so long? Why did they keep this secret? Why did Wade give false witness and perjure himself on the witness stand? It’s to do with how survivors of sexual abuse experience that, and how they form a deep attachment sometimes with the abuser, and how that attachment persists into adult life.

What was your strategy going in about how to lay out what happened and when to bring up the most sensitive materials?

I said, “Let’s go through this chronologically.” And that had a big impact on Wade, as it happened, because you start laying out your whole life.

Had he done that in therapy? Or to anyone?

No. He’d never done it before. And I think we said that when it comes to the sex, we can’t draw a veil. We have to go there. We have to talk about these sexual acts that happened.

Yes.

Because Michael Jackson represented himself as someone who had an innocent interest in children but was intimate with them, and close to them, and physically affectionate and all that. We had to make very clear that this was sex.

Did you always know that would be in the final cut?

Yeah. I think that testimony, when it’s delivered in a very present way, when the person is present in the moment that they’re describing, is so much more powerful than simply information delivered, right? And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be present in the room, as awful as it sounds, when this was taking place. I wanted people to be confronted with the horror of what it means for a 7-year-old child to be preyed upon by a pedophile.

So that was with Wade. With James in the documentary, there is an almost unrelenting recounting of all the places where they had sex. Is that for the same purpose? To lay it out clearly so you can’t look away?

That took me by surprise. I mean my jaw hit the floor.

Yeah.

We’re talking about Neverland, and James was talking about his sexual contact with Michael. Michael said to James, “Neverland is for you. I bought it for you. This is our place.” And it’s so remote. He isolated himself and he created a children’s paradise, clearly, I think, to draw children to him.

So Wade is describing his time at Neverland and the wonders of Neverland, and then he begins to describe almost like a journey through each of the attractions and each of the locations in Neverland that Michael created. And on each stop in that journey there is a bed, and there is sex. And the first three or four I thought, “Wow, that’s heavy.” And then he went on, and on, and on.

I’m going to read to you a few bits of criticism of the film by one of my colleagues here, Christina Cauterucci. I don’t know that I necessarily agree with it, but I think it’s fair, and I’d like your answer. “In glossing over, and sometimes entirely excluding, elements of the factual record, the documentary hobbles its chances to convince skeptics that these men are telling the truth. This misstep … does a grave disservice to both men. … Leaving Neverland could have helped viewers understand that complexity by asking Robson and Safechuck a few pointed questions about why they’ve tried multiple times to get money from the Jackson estate.”

Yeah. I disagree. I think you only feel the absence of what she’s describing if you have been poisoned by the rhetoric of the estate. The estate’s rhetoric and the Jackson family’s rhetoric—and this has been the case for the last two decades whenever any sexual abuse allegations have popped up—is “It’s all about the money. They want the money.” It’s their refrain. And of course in many ways it is about money, but it’s about the Jacksons’ money and their desire to hang onto it and to retain the value of their asset, which is, of course, Jackson’s catalog and his reputation. Think about it for a second: The justice system, the courts … is that not where you go to get justice when you have been wronged? Is that not the proper way to seek redress? If someone stabs you in the street, you don’t write a novel about it.

Right.

These men were raped. Rape is a crime. I did go interview and speak to many of the investigators involved in the previous police investigations, and they all thought Jackson was guilty as hell and were mortified by the fact that he had been acquitted. And there are many pieces of eyewitness testimony from members of the Jackson household staff who saw weird stuff going on. But none of those pieces of testimony is as conclusive or as persuasive or as powerful as Wade and James’ statements in the film. In this case we have the mass of evidence that Wade and James did have a relationship with Jackson.

Oh, yeah.

We know that, we have documentary evidence of that—that they did spend many nights in bed with him and no one contests that. So, you know, do we believe the allegations about what happened in that bed at night? Well, I do.

Is the Michael Jackson estate truly powerful? You get different impressions. He has this large catalog that obviously gives him a lot of money, and yet Neverland’s been on the market and declining in value. Are they really a behemoth to worry about?

The estate is both powerful in this and powerless. They’re powerful because they can make a lot of noise and can launch a lot of lawsuits. But they’re powerless to present any real evidence against what Wade and James are saying. So they’re trying to present Wade as a liar and they’re saying he’s a perjurer, which is kind of bizarre because either he’s a perjurer or he was telling the truth at the trial, right?

Right.

You can’t have it both ways. If he’s a perjurer, then Jackson was a rapist.

Right, it’s like the old line, “Were you lying then or lying now?” His answer: “I was lying then.” There you go.

In order to understand why Wade Robson lied on the witness stand, you have to learn something about child sexual abuse. I never set out to topple Michael Jackson or to detract from his glory as an amazing entertainer, and that’s of no interest to me at all. I don’t care whether people continue listening to his music or not. People make their own minds up. I have no guidance at all for anyone. The only guidance I have is please listen to Wade and James’ stories, and when you watch this four-hour film, please open your mind to this picture of how child sexual abuse unfolds in later life. It’s not a simple case of “Mommy, a man did a bad thing to me” and running to Mommy or to the police. Kids don’t do that when they’ve been molested. They don’t do that. It just doesn’t happen. Because the person doing the molesting is often a friend, or a trusted uncle, or whoever.

I want to ask specifically about the mothers. Did you come to a conclusion about them?

I did, and slightly different conclusions about each of them. Certainly both of them did not know that Michael was abusing their children. That I’m 100 percent sure of, all right? I know that Joy Robson is a fierce defender of her son. She would never allow even a hint of sexual abuse to happen, and it’s an absurd thing to say. If she’d had any real concern that Wade was being sexually abused, she would have taken him away and never seen Michael Jackson again. The tragedy of Joy Robson is that she thought that Wade would tell her if something bad was happening and, of course, Wade didn’t think anything bad was happening.

A child doesn’t think there’s anything wrong. Wade realized that this was kind of special and that it shouldn’t be discussed with anyone else because Michael indoctrinated him from the very first time, I think, that they had sex. “You can never tell anyone. This is our thing. People don’t understand. People are stupid, and they’re ignorant, and this is us, you and me against the world” and all that. So, tragically, Joy is looking to her son to ring a warning, to ring an alarm if anything bad is going on, and he never does. And the first thing she says to him when he discloses it to her so many years later is: “How could you not have told me?” And as Wade says in the film, that’s a really difficult question to answer.

Yes.

Stephanie Safechuck, on the other hand, she kind of owns her failure much more emphatically. She says, “I had one job. I had one child, and I fucked up.” And that’s a tremendously powerful statement, I think, to hear from a mother. At the same time, when you take her back to Neverland, and the wine cellar, and the cooks, and the glory of it all … when she’s present in that moment, you can see how seductive it all was to her.

As far as Wade’s mother, Joy, goes, is there an element of willful blindness? There are so many signs, the sign of sleeping in the bed with a grown man, to the point where Safechuck’s mother exults when Michael Jackson dies, whereas Joy Robson grieves for a week.

They’re in different situations, the two moms, in 2009. Stephanie Safechuck has already learned that, to quote James, “Michael wasn’t a good man.” And that’s why she’s jubilant when he dies.

And Joy is still in the dark. She was ambitious for her son and rightly so. He’s a bit of a genius. … He was choreographing Britney Spears’ world tour at the age of 14, and NSYNC at the age of 16. This guy was a prodigy. So Joy gambled on her son’s career, and it paid off, but there was a terrible price to pay, and that’s not a price that she was aware of. The opportunity and the dazzle of Michael may have … well, it did make her blind, didn’t it?

Has the film been received in the way that you would have liked?

It’s been incredible. It’s been astonishing. It premiered at Sundance in January and got standing ovations. And that was life-changing for Wade and James because they were used to people throwing shit at them, and it was incredible validation. I think they’ve gone from strength to strength since then. I hope that some good will come out of the film in the shape of people feeling able to break their silence if they’re victims of child sexual abuse. Forget Michael Jackson—this is a really great, I think, detailed and thorough account of the grooming of two families by a sexual predator.

And that’s where it transcends the bizarre sui generis story and person of Michael Jackson.

Yes, exactly. I keep coming back to this: This was never for me about taking aim at Michael Jackson or his legacy or anything like that. And that’s why I don’t care whether people listen to his music or not. This is what I do: I tell stories about things that are complicated and things that people think they know about, like child sexual abuse, but don’t really know about at all. And there’s a valuable story to be told and one that touches a lot of people. I didn’t want to make this film as an answer to what the estate has said for ages and what the family has said for ages, and I didn’t want it to be a granular retort to all the falsities that the Jackson side are spewing at Wade and James. I think it’ll have much more value, and much more longevity, as a dignified, thorough, coherent portrait of two families coming to terms with child sexual abuse.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.