Two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, claim Michael Jackson sexually abused them over a number of years. A new documentary, Leaving Neverland, from veteran filmmaker Dan Reed, explores those claims over four hours, the men’s testimonies accompanied by those of their family members, who say Jackson showered them with gifts and attention – and access to his notorious Neverland estate – in order to disguise his motives.
The film, which will air on Channel 4 in two parts on March 6 and 7, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and was so shocking that counsellors were on hand to assist viewers. The Michael Jackson estate has dismissed the claims, while fans point to the fact that Robson defended Michael during a 2005 child sex abuse trial (Reed has attributed this to the complex relationship between perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse).
Here, the director reveals the editorial decisions behind his filmmaking process, explains how Leaving Neverland ties in with #MeToo and reveals the vitriol he’s received from Michael Jackson fans.
NME: There are people who still, faced with all this evidence, cannot accept that Michael Jackson was a paedophile. How do you explain that?
Dan Reed: “The Michael Jackson estate – the Michael Jackson machine – pumps out a lot of propaganda to the effect that he was just a childlike lover of humanity and a saviour of children, which is complete bilge.”
In a 2003 documentary, the journalist Martin Bashir grilled Jackson over accusations of child sexual abuse. Why didn’t Bashir’s film have a bigger effect? For example, there was a big Michael Jackson exhibition in London last year…
“Well, that’s the odd thing. When you talk to some people – if they’re not MJ crazies, or not utterly convinced that he was a paedophile – they’re in a sort of grey area where they’re like, ‘Yeah he was maybe a bit weird, a bit dodgy, maybe he was a paedophile, but we don’t really know’. And that’s the space that Jackson has inhabited since 2005, since he was acquitted. Most people have never been confronted with the evidence of his paedophile activity – until now.”
“Most people have never been confronted with the evidence of his paedophile activity – until now”
– Dan Reed, director
Leaving Neverland is very graphic. Was it important to reveal the full extent of what you heard?
“Jackson’s story is that he loves children, spends the night with them and that’s a beautiful thing because he never touches them sexually. He normalised close physical contact, and the world’s lapped that up for many years. We had to establish that this wasn’t close physical contact of an innocent kind. This was full-on sexual activity. And that’s why there are these rather brutally graphic scenes described in the film.”
Was it tough to hear this stuff?
“Well, there’s the very graphic detail and then there’s the way in which it’s delivered – without embarrassment and without shame. You don’t necessarily feel dirty listening to it; you feel as though it’s something you have to go through in order to understand the core of what they’re saying.”
Leaving Neverland is four hours long. Why did you need such a long running time to tell the story?
“We’re talking about two families over two decades. It’s really a story of these two families coming to terms with discovering what happened between their little boys and Michael Jackson. It’s a story told by the entire families, so it take a while to weave together. But it’s the strength of those connections and the interconnecting narrative that gives the film its power.”
You’ve been criticised for not offering the Michael Jackson estate their right of reply…
“It’s not a platform for the Jackson estate to launch their campaign of counter-information. That’s not what we provide. In this documentary, people make very serious allegations about Michael Jackson. It’s not a piece of showbiz shim-sham.”
Spike Lee made two Jackson films that didn’t address the allegations. Asked why he hadn’t addressed them, he said the Jackson narrative had been “hijacked” and that he was taking it back to the music. Is that irresponsible filmmaking?
“I think Spike Lee is a fantastic filmmaker. He was working with the Jackson estate. I don’t know if any new information had come to light, or whether he was interested in the child sexual abuse. But there were so many allegations and they were so well-documented; if I had been doing the same thing, I probably wouldn’t have been able to look to tell Michael’s story without at least referencing the allegations. But he’s within his rights to make a film about the music, and clearly the estate wouldn’t have let him do anything else. How will he feel when he watches my film? I just don’t know. A lot of people bought into the estate’s propaganda.”
Can you imagine someone watching and managing to maintain Michael’s innocence?
“I can’t, you know. It’s not just hearing the guys tell their stories – it’s seeing the impact it’s had on their mums, on their wives, on their sisters and brothers. [In each instance] the whole family has been devastated by learning what has actually happened. By the end of the fours hours, it’s really difficult to imagine that anyone would be able to dismiss such a consistent and emotional set of interviews. These people would have to be genius actors. Having your mum go on telly and say, ‘I fucked up and I allowed my son to fall into the hands of a predatory paedophile’ – for the average son, that’s quite a move to pull if all you’re after is a bit of cash.”
Can you still listen to Michael Jackson’s music?
“Yes, I probably would. But that’s because I have a professional interest. Would I listen to his music as a punter? Most of the people who watch the film say they can’t bear to listen to his tracks any more. I have no axe to grind about that. If people can’t listen to him any more and feel repulsed, repelled, revolted, then so be it. Can people ever listen to his music again knowing that he is a prolific child rapist, as I believe he was? Jackson’s music has been part of people’s precious memories for so long that I certainly wouldn’t advocate shutting it down.”
How do you feel about potentially taking his music away from people?
“My documentary career so far hasn’t included any films about show business or music, or anything like that. It’s all been hardcore stuff like terrorism, or war,or crime. So I’m only telling this story because I think it needs to be told and I think that it’s time to tell it. I didn’t set out to topple an iconic figure. If that happens, it’s the way it is.”
Michael’s former doctor, Conrad Murray, has claimed that the musician’s father ‘castrated’ Michael when he was a little boy…
“That’s part of the lurid stuff that I don’t engage with. It may be true – I don’t know. In the film, I don’t speculate about the reasons for Michael’s behaviour.”
It feels like the lurid stuff is a kind of smokescreen, because it turns Jackson into a freak show.
“Yes, I think it is a smokescreen, and I think Jackson took advantage of all of the garish tabloid myths about him. It meant that he didn’t have to abide by normal standards of behaviour. So he could hide in plain sight; constantly being seen holding children’s hands. Or he could say, ‘I love sleeping with little boys; it’s a beautiful thing’. And then people go, ‘Oh, he didn’t have a childhood – he was so innocent and he just wants to help children’, which is utterly bizarre, knowing what we know now. That’s the breath-taking cynicism of it, and the extent to which this lie was swallowed by public and parts of the press. It’s astonishing.”
“Leaving Neverland is going to completely transform the conversation.”
– Dan Reed, director
Over the years, has the media been complicit in letting Jackson off the hook?
“Well, the British press certainly got part of the story right. But a lot of cases in the past were tainted with money because a member of staff would say, ‘I saw him with his hands down a little boy’s trousers’, and then it would turn out that they’d been paid $20,000 or whatever [by the press]. That’s why no-one interviewed in his film has any financial interest in this documentary. Leaving Neverland is going to completely transform the conversation. It has certainly transformed the opinions of everyone who’s watched it so far.”
Have you received threats from Michael Jackson fans?
“I’ve received all sorts of very unpleasant emails and threats, which I don’t take seriously. There are people who feel entitled to write utter filth to a complete stranger who is examining claims of child sexual abuse – and very credible ones at that. I wonder what sort of people they are. They’re in a very special sub-group, I think, of the Michael Jackson fandom. It’s certainly not the whole fandom. Many of them are good, honest, decent people who would never think of sending [a message] like that.
What would you say to someone who’s watching this, poised at their laptop to send you an abusive message?
“I’d say watch the film, and if you really feel like sending me some filth afterwards – go ahead.”
It’s interesting that Leaving Neverland coincides with the documentary series about R Kelly’s alleged systematic sexual abuse
“Yeah, it does seem like a crest of a wave. You’ve got Savile, you’ve got #MeToo. People are beginning to take the abuses that powerful, wealthy, influential people carry out much more seriously. It’s gonna become harder, I hope, for people to use their position and their power and their wealth to target vulnerable people and do dreadful things to them. You can’t get away forever – no matter how powerful or rich you are – with molesting little kids. Someone will eventually catch up with you. And that sends a message, I hope, to all the paedophiles out there.”
“Michael Jackson had unlimited power and unlimited wealth. Children looked up to him. And he exploited that to the hilt. In James’ and Wade’s cases, that sexual abuse lasted several years. I believe he sexually exploited a good many more little boys in his paedophile career.”
Will that come out?
“I think it will, eventually, yeah. As the Michael Jackson fans say: ‘lies run sprints, but the truth runs marathons’. And that’s exactly what’s happening here. Sooner or later, it will come out.”