We asked the director of Leaving Neverland, one of the most talked-about documentaries in years, how he approached the difficult subject matter and how he thinks it will change the way people view Michael Jackson...
Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson And Me, part 1, Wednesday 6 March, 9pm + part 2, Thursday 7 March, 9pm, Channel 4/HD (CH 104/141). Also available for 7 days in Catch Up > Channels > All 4
Sexual abuse allegations against Jackson first emerged in 1993 and many fans of the King of Pop found it incomprehensible that he could be guilty of such unspeakable acts. It’s an understandable reaction: it simply doesn’t compute that your idol, this person you have placed on such a high pedestal, could be capable of despicable things. The inclination is to deny, deny, deny – even in the face of facts and reasoning. Denial is so much easier than accepting the unpalatable truth.
In the pursuit of the truth about Jackson, director Dan Reed, who also directed BAFTA-winning doc The Paedophile Hunter, came across Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s stories. His film Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson And Me tells their truths, which they speak openly and courageously, alongside their mothers, siblings and wives. It’s difficult to listen to the detailed descriptions of sexual and emotional abuse, but it’s important to hear from people so often silenced, and it’s essential to know how Robson and Safechuck left Neverland once and for all.
We had many, many questions about the film to put to Reed – so read on to find out everything you need to know…
How difficult was it to get Wade Robson, James Safechuck and their families involved?
“James and Wade wanted to look me in the eye and see if they could trust me with this story that they’d spent so many years denying and suddenly felt able to come out with. I needed to know that I could trust them, because it’s going to be such a controversial story.
“I approached both of them with a degree of scepticism and little by little I became more and more convinced that they were telling the truth. I did as much corroboration and fact-checking as I could over two years. Getting the families on board was harder in a way. The mothers were incredibly important to the story and it took me probably another year until I could interview them. Time was a big factor in making this a success.”
How is the narrative told?
“If you really are going to take an audience on a journey, it’s essential to not begin that journey with the knowledge of what’s going to happen at the end. It’s important to be in the moment with them so that you understand how things looked at the time.
“Wade and James still struggle with all the good stuff Michael did for them, their love and friendship with him and what an amazing guy they thought he was. At the same time, he also left them with this imprint of many years of sexual abuse when they were children, when they were unable to make decisions about consensual relationships. It’s this dual memory that I wanted to explore.”
How did you make the decision to detail the abuse in the film?
“For such a long time Jackson hid in plain sight, saying that his relationships with children were innocent and it was cuddles at bedtime and innocent slumber parties. I needed to establish in the most graphic terms that what Jackson was doing with little children was full-on sex. It wasn’t slightly inappropriate touching or a kiss and a cuddle that went a bit too far. It was deliberate, regular sex. That’s why we needed these very graphic descriptions to leave people in no doubt.”
How will this film help other victims of abuse?
“I don’t think that Wade and James were the only victims of Michael Jackson. If people have seen the courage that Wade and James have had in coming forward, even when confronted with the might of the Jackson machine, the power of the Jackson estate and the ruthlessness of Jackson's lawyers – who would stop at nothing to discredit and crush the story and misrepresent the motives of the people coming forward – perhaps they’ll think they can do it too.
“But I think it’s very important for people to get to it in their own time. We’re not in the business of outing anyone, of compelling anyone to come forward if they’re not ready.”
Did James and Wade confide in each other about their experiences before you made the film?
“Wade and James met for the first time during the Jackson years when they were kids and their paths crossed. I don’t think they spent that much time together or chatted that much. The first time they met after that was in 2014 in Los Angeles when they met at the law firm that Wade had gone to so he could make his claim against the estate. James joined that case.
“Then they had no further contact whatsoever until the day before the Sundance festival screening. Sundance was the first time they could actually meet properly as adults and spend some time together. It’s been great watching them because they get on really well and they just get each other. It’s been a delight to watch. It’s been very emotional for them as well.”
Did James and Wade confide in each other about their experiences prior to the film?
“Wade and James met for the first time during the Jackson years when they were kids and their paths crossed. I don't think they spent that much time together or chatted that much. The first time they met after that was in 2014 in Los Angeles when they met at the law firm that Wade had gone to to make his claim against the estate. James joined that case.
“Then they had no further contact whatsoever until the day before the Sundance screening. Sundance was the first time they actually had time to meet properly as adults and spend some time together. It's been great watching them because they get on really well and they just get each other. It's been a delight to watch. It's been very emotional for them as well.”
Will this film dispel the notion of Michael Jackson as a Peter Pan character?
“I always approached this film as a film about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, not a film about Michael Jackson. It’s about Wade and James and their families. The fact that the story is about Michael Jackson gives it an extraordinary reach. Although Jackson might have had the Peter Pan image that he projected, it disguised a reality that was very different. He was very manipulative and deliberate in his grooming and in his sexual activities with these children.”
How will this documentary change people’s opinions of Jackson?
“It seems to have had an effect on people who’ve watched the film. The reaction I’ve had most often is that people don’t feel like they want to hear his music any more. It’s a personal thing – I wouldn’t get behind a campaign to ban his music or anything like that. Is this a time to celebrate Michael Jackson? I don’t think so. It’s time to acknowledge the man he was. He was also a brilliant entertainer. Maybe those things one day can fit together in people’s minds, but there’s going to be a period of re-evaluation of who he was and of his work as well.”
How have fans reacted to the film?
“We’ve had probably thousands of emails and there’s been a lot of stuff on Twitter, as you’d expect. There are lots of people who love Michael Jackson’s music and are generally supporters of him. Anyone who has stood up in favour of the film or is open to the film has been deluged with abuse. It comes from a tiny minority of Jackson fans. I call them the MJ cultists. They’re uncompromising, they won’t listen.”
What about the Michael Jackson estate?
“The Michael Jackson estate has shared their letter widely with the press. They make a lot of claims against the film which have no substance at all and their line is Michael is not here to defend himself. Wade and James are alive and well. They’re here and they’re alive and they’re making these claims.
“Michael Jackson isn’t the victim here. The victims in this case are Wade and James and we should take the time to listen to their stories.”
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