Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan speaks with director Dan Reed of HBO’s Leaving Neverland about why people are reluctant to believe Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the victims who didn’t want to appear on camera, and why celebrities like Bill Cosby don’t have the same support from fans as Michael Jackson.
As a documentary filmmaker, Dan Reed has uncovered uncomfortable truths about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, ISIS, and people who tried to cash in on 9/11. But the director didn’t know what he was getting into when he started work on Leaving Neverland, his two-part documentary about the alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson.
Since airing on HBO in the spring of 2019, the documentary has provoked a lot of conversation and even inspired many people to come forward with their own stories of sexual abuse. However, it’s also brought about Michael Jackson truthers who defend the King of Pop as innocent of all charges.
I had a chance to chat with Reed about why he decided to take on this project, how he handles death threats, and the directorial decision to focus on these two families.
Awards Daily: What made you decide to delve into this very controversial story? Why was this important to you?
Dan Reed: Leaving Neverland happened as a result of an opportunity rather than any decision of mine to go off on Michael Jackson. It was an opportunity to do what this documentary did, which was to take people on a journey right through two decades of two families’ encounter with a grooming pedophile—it’s really rare to get that opportunity. I don’t know if there are many documentaries that have done this—nevermind with a predator as famous as Jackson. My background as a documentary filmmaker didn’t include anything about music or show business, and I had made one documentary before that dealt with child sexual abuse with a vigilante in the United Kingdom [The Paedophile Hunter, from 2014]. What Leaving Neverland has in common with the rest of my work is that it’s about people surviving immense trauma and coming to terms with it. It gives people insight into their journey through the most terrible thing that can happen to them, how it takes them to a place where they can take stock of what happened and talk about it.
This film came about because I came across James [Safechuck] and Wade [Robson]. At the request of Channel 4 in the UK, I was looking very generally at the Michael Jackson controversy. I really thought this was something I wasn’t going to take much time on. And suddenly I noticed this mention in a forum of the lawsuit that James and Wade brought against the estate, and I delved into who they were and what they wanted and ended up meeting them and interviewing them, and everything changed.
AD: Were you aware of the passionate Michael Jackson fans? I interviewed your composer Chad Hobson for Awards Daily, too, and when I published the piece, I was immediately inundated with Michael Jackson fans harassing me. How have you dealt with the harassment? Were you concerned about the backlash?
DR: To be honest, the backlash doesn’t really exist if you’re not on Twitter or social media. It’s something that lives on the comment pages of media articles like the one you wrote about Chad, and it lives obviously on the pages of Twitter and Facebook, etc. I’m generally too busy to spend a long time on social media, so I wasn’t really aware of what that would feel like. Subsequently, I noticed that everything I tweeted, even if it was ‘Nice weather in London today’, was met with, ‘Lies! Lies! Lies’ and a torrent of abuse. I didn’t know that was going to happen. We did get a lot of direct emails to my company to the general email address and a lot of those were really nasty, but that kind of stopped, like someone switched off a faucet, as soon as the documentary was broadcast on HBO. Then we got all these amazing messages from people—a trickle compared to the flood of hatred that was coming to us—but a trickle of messages that really continues to this day, from people who found in the documentary a way to release themselves from years of silence about being sexually abused as a child.
AD: Did you receive any death threats at all?
DR: My work for many years has brought me into contact with terrorists and criminals and guerrilla armies and what have you, so there have been occasions where people have threatened to kill me and I take that very seriously. On Leaving Neverland, I’ve had dozens if not hundreds of emails which contained threats, but none of which I found credible. So I haven’t gone into hiding. I’ve taken precautions to protect me and my family, though I’m not going to mention what they are. There hasn’t been any manifestation of violence so far. We’re vigilient, because all it takes is one lunatic.
AD: Yeah. It’s scary out there. Wade Robson and James Safechuck have also suffered abuse. Even though support for abuse victims has grown in the #MeToo age, why do you think people don’t want to believe them? Do you think it has to do with them being men?
DR: If you take a deep breath and step back and ignore the shouting about Wade and James for a second, and just say—wait a minute—it’s not that common for people to come out and describe in huge detail an array of facts and really coherent evidence that is backed up by all the circumstantial evidence. It’s not that common for people to do that and not be telling the truth. This is a difficult thing for people to come out and say. Why aren’t they believed? Why are they attacked? I think the reason has to be partly because we’re saturated by the Jackson version or the version that Jackson lawyers have put out, which is it’s all about the money. They have painted Jackson as a martyr and victim of gold-digging. That’s a bizarre thing. If you think of other rich and famous people, I’m sure there are plenty of people trying to scam them, but not by pretending that they were sexually abused as children.
A deeper reason is yes, it’s harder for people to confront the taboo of male sexual abuse, with the victims being men. That’s a harder thing for people to get their head around. It’s something people don’t want to face, in particular when those males are children. It’s a really uncomfortable thing for people to think about, someone having sex with a little boy. To my mind, child sexual abuse, male or female, is absolutely, equally horrific. But for some reason, I think it is more difficult to get people’s heads around the male aspect of it. It’s something people would rather not think about.
Another factor is Jackson’s status and fame as an entertainer. His songs are like the soundtrack to happy moments in people’s lives and he was so famous. People just can’t grasp both the fact that he was this guy who wrote these songs that are enduring and woven into the fabric of our culture, and also that Michael the human being liked to have sex with little boys. Those two facts simply do not fit in the same narrative.
When we make people so famous and we give them an almost god-like status of someone really good in the world, it’s very hard then to reconcile what they do as human beings with that status. Leaving Neverland is partly about the impossibility of digesting the fact that someone who has that celebrity status bestowed upon them can also be human. Any person can be a pedophile. You’re not more or less likely to be a pedophile if you’re rich and famous. Yes, you can say Michael Jackson was a victim of his circumstances, but what we can say for sure is that Wade and James were victims of Michael Jackson and so were their families. He’s the perpetrator in this story. If everyone who had a hard time as a child had a license to rape a kid, I think our society would be in a bit of a mess.
AD: Were there any other accusers who came forward to you but didn’t want to be on camera?
DR: I met with Jason Francia, the son of Michael Jackson’s chambermaid. He was kind of casually molested by Jackson, he wasn’t drawn into the same kind of close, pseudo-romantic relationship as James and Wade were. He was molested while his mom was cleaning somewhere else in the house. He was paid off by Jackson. I sat and had dinner with Jason—and this is public knowledge, by the way, I’m not breaking any confidences—and he didn’t feel ready to do what Wade and James did, which is basically make themselves targets for these crazies out there. That’s probably a very big consideration for anyone else who wants to come forward. This isn’t people making casual threats, but people hacking your bank account, private details. I’ve had successful hacking attempts on me. These are people who are a real nuisance. You have to think really hard before taking that on.
AD: You focused on interviewing two families. Some documentaries include psychologists and less biased sources. What was the reasoning behind focusing on the families?
DR: That was a filmmaking choice, not a journalistic thing. I wanted people to really concentrate just on what James and Wade and their families were saying; I wanted to try to get them to explain everything that they had gone through. I wanted to get them to speak about and interpret their experience as much as possible. What was great about After Neverland [Oprah’s show] was that you had a psychotherapist who stood up and said a few things. I didn’t want to make my documentary into an educational program. Not to say I didn’t want it to be educational—I just didn’t want it to feel dry. I wanted people to be immersed in the two families’ experience.
I did quite a few interviews with former police investigators from the Santa Barbara sheriff’s department and the LAPD, people who investigated the Jackson case in ’93 and 2004/2005. They were great interviews and certainly shed a lot of light, and none of the investigators were in any doubt at all that Jackson was a pedophile. But these were people who’d already spoken in the press or who’d already been quoted before, and I felt that they were giving secondhand information. They had no direct knowledge of the things they were talking about. Being investigators, they were investigating secondhand information. They were talking to people who were there.
[Members of the household staff] had glimpsed stuff, but a lot had been interviewed by the tabloid press and may have taken money for the interview. The Jackson camp always found ways to discredit the members of the Jackson household. I wanted to distance Leaving Neverland from all of the controversy that had gone before it. I didn’t want to be relying on people who were at best circumstantial witnesses—the maid who saw a child naked in the shower with Jackson, who she thought was Wade—I thought that that was less powerful than Wade himself who had been in the shower with Jackson.
Had Michael Jackson been alive, I would have of course sought to interview him, and had he given me one, I would have included it in the program. There’s no doubt about that. But sadly he’s dead—and I say sadly because I would have loved to have seen him brought to justice and taken to court. I included at some length Jackson’s protestations of innocence at the time of previous allegations, I included his lawyers’ rebuttals of allegations, in multiple places in the documentary. Also, when Wade came out with his charges in 2013, I included the reactions of fans, Michael’s former lawyers commenting on Wade’s new allegations—so the Jackson camp is well-represented in their rebuttals and denials.
Also, I want to say this—I’ve been doing forensic journalism for 30 years. What we’re talking about here is acts that took place between two individuals behind closed doors. To my knowledge, no one else was present when Jackson was having sex with Wade or with James. There are no eye witnesses, no one with direct knowledge of the central facts of Leaving Neverland—the sexual molestation of these two children by Michael Jackson. To people who say, ‘Why didn’t you include members of the Jackson family?’ [as some kind of journalistic balance], it’s apples and oranges. They are not journalistically equivalent. Having someone give the equivalent of a character reference in court is not the same as someone saying, ‘I saw him shoot that guy.’
The elephant in the room is that Jackson spent so many nights in bed behind closed doors with little boys who were not his children. That’s something that nobody denies. He doesn’t seem to have hidden from anyone the fact that he spent nights with kids. That’s a fundamental fact that’s never addressed by the other side. That’s what baffles me. On one hand, you attack Wade and James for making these allegations, and on the other hand, you have no explanation for what Michael was actually doing. He managed to get away with it because Michael Jackson is a great entertainer, and people can’t get their head around the fact that he might have also been a man who was consistently cruel to children.
AD: That leads to my last question. I think about how other iconic figures like Bill Cosby have fallen from grace with sexual abuse allegations. But there’s not a huge group defending him like they are Michael Jackson. Why do you think MJ fans are so passionate about Michael Jackson compared to other figures like Bill Cosby?
DR: Jackson’s supernova fame transcends any other figure of the late 20th Century; compared to Cosby and R. Kelly, he’s on another level. Cosby never incorporated surviving the allegations of sexual abuse into his mythology. Jackson and his lawyers fight back against the children who made allegations against him—it became the story people embraced. Jackson found a way of incorporating it into his identity, and it became part of his victim story.
He masqueraded as someone who loved children and was innocent and child-like at heart, filled with pure love, which is cruelly ironic. Because he built that lie very consistently, he saw himself that way. It made it even harder for people to make that huge stretch back to maybe he’s the complete opposite. It’s the magnitude of his fame and his narrative that he’s a child at heart. He made such a play of being falsely accused and being a martyr. A lot of people’s hearts went out to him. Being a victim of child sexual abuse is the hardest thing to disclose. It’s completely standard for people not to disclose. If you put all that stuff together, it’s incredibly difficult for people to believe that Jackson was a pedophile.