BEHIND THE CURTAIN
‘Leaving Neverland’ Director Compares Michael Jackson Truthers to Corbynites
The maker of the most disturbing documentary of the year addresses truthers’ arguments, alarming threats, and the Michael Jackson documentary sequel that he wants to make.
“This isn’t my first rodeo,” says Dan Reed, “and it isn’t the first time I’ve made a film that’s made people angry.”
The British filmmaker has tackled 9/11 grifters, Liverpool gangsters, ISIS fighters and the Mumbai terror attack, yet little could prepare him for the threats and harassment that have engulfed Leaving Neverland, his documentary exploring James Safechuck and Wade Robson’s allegations of child sexual abuse at the hands of pop icon Michael Jackson.
Robson, a Jackson impersonator who was 5 years old when he met his idol, says the abuse started when he was 7; for Safechuck, a former child actor who starred alongside Jackson in a famous Pepsi commercial, it was at age 10. Both men accuse the King of Pop of first seducing their families, and then, once he’d gained enough trust to isolate the boys from their mothers, initiating a pattern of sexual abuse—from kissing and masturbation to oral and anal sex. They say he groomed them with long phone calls, handwritten notes, and lavish gifts; that he’d run drills should they ever be walked in on; that he made them swear not to tell anyone or they would both get locked up.
“You have to have your head full of Jackson propaganda not to feel anything for these people who are telling their stories,” Reed says.
Unfortunately, there are many who fit that description. Mention Leaving Neverland on Twitter and your mentions will be mobbed by the online army of Michael Jackson truthers—those who believe the music legend did not abuse children, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. They have not, it seems, educated themselves on the Jordan Chandler case, wherein Jackson settled with a 13-year-old boy for over $20 million; or, for that matter, the FBI’s extensive, and considerably damning, file on Jackson. Rather, they are convinced that Safechuck and Robson are lying, pointing to how the two’s stories have changed over the years, and that they only came forward with their allegations—and civil suits against the Jackson estate—after Jackson’s death in 2009. (Safechuck says he was pressured by Jackson into testifying on the singer’s behalf in the 1993 Jordan Chandler case; Robson testified that Jackson did not abuse him in the singer’s 2005 trial, but later said it was due to Jackson’s “manipulation and brainwashing.”)
While Reed “can’t comment” on the particulars of the Jackson estate’s $100 million lawsuit against HBO, he does echo the cable network in claiming “it reeks of desperation.” As for the controversy surrounding Leaving Neverland and the truthers, however, he had plenty to say.
I wanted to start with the premiere screening of Leaving Neverland at Sundance. I was in attendance, and am curious how serious the threats were? It’s certainly the only time I’ve seen a bomb-sniffing dog brought around the theater before the movie and at intermission.
I didn’t see a lot of that because Wade, James and I were kept slightly to one side, but there had been an avalanche of very nasty emails and other messages—some of them containing direct threats, some of them mentioning bombs, some of them saying the most violent things imaginable about Wade, James and myself. While in the end three ladies from Canada or something turned up outside [to protest] and were perfectly harmless, it is America and there is a lot of guns and a lot of violence out there. I guess the police department, the festival and HBO thought it better to be overprepared than underprepared.
The protesters I saw outside holding pro-Michael Jackson signs were very young—somewhere between 12 and 16. And the thing I’ve found is a lot of these Michael Jackson truthers, especially online, are in their twenties, which means they weren’t even alive during his pop-culture heyday, and are thus more enamored with the mythology of him.
It rather echoes how in the United Kingdom we have a politician named Jeremy Corbyn, who’s a good old-fashioned Soviet-type socialist who hasn’t changed his views since the 1970s and suddenly, and I don’t want to overstretch his analogy, to a new generation what he’s saying sounds very fresh. To me, as someone who lived in Russia during the Cold War and has traveled extensively to China, Cuba, Vietnam and other Communist countries it all seems a bit stale, but for a new generation that has no hinterland, there’s no context for what this guy’s saying and it all seems very fresh and exciting. Maybe that’s the same thing with Michael: Michael’s been discovered by a new generation, and this is now very far from Michael the man and all the controversies that surrounded him when he was alive. This is Michael as purest cultural icon; a two-dimensional godhead. That and the anonymity of social media explain the weird intensity of the vitriol, and the hyper-concentrated hatred directed at anyone that says anything derogatory about Michael.
I was vaguely aware of the Michael Jackson truther brigade, but then I tweeted our review of your film out of Sundance and suddenly became very aware. You’re on Twitter. I can’t imagine how bad the harassment’s gotten for you since Leaving Neverland’s debut.
I very rarely read the comments and look at the [Twitter] mentions, so I have a self-preservation statute. I know the hatred is out there. We got so many emails, early on in particular. We got thousands of emails from China, from Russia, from the States, all over the world. A lot of it was cut-and-pasted. There’s obviously someone directing a lot of the traffic, and we’ve found sites that contain lists of email addresses and provide the text that needs to be cut-and-pasted into an email to protest the broadcast. So there was a lot of that that came directly to my company email address, and that has been completely replaced since the broadcast by messages from well-wishers and those sharing their own stories of child sexual abuse—not, I should add, at the hands of Michael Jackson. For me, this is not a film about Michael; this is a film about Wade and James, and about child sexual abuse. It’s great to feel that that message is getting through.
So you haven’t heard from other alleged victims of Michael Jackson since the documentary aired?
I’ve had messages from a couple of people around Jackson—part of his household—but I haven’t responded yet, and we did have a message from another person who claimed to have been molested by Jackson, but I’m not sure of the veracity of that. I obviously don’t take these claims at face value. My gut feeling is that we haven’t had a genuine victim of Michael’s come forward. A number of the people who spent time with Michael as little boys are known to the press, and have stated publicly that nothing sexual or untoward ever happened, and of course we take that at face value and accept it.
Yes, that’s right. I think there were quite a few more paid off that we know of, and I think that the payments go back further than I’d originally thought—I think they go back into the 1980s. It’s an area where a lot more research needs to be done.
Is this the end of Dan Reed and Michael Jackson? Or are you considering any sort of follow-up to Leaving Neverland?
The film that I’m really interested in doing is about the trial of Michael Jackson, and also the case of Jordan Chandler, who got paid off to the tune of over $20 million. Those are the stories that I’d be really interested in telling because there’s a lot to tell there, but in order to tell those stories at the level that I would like to tell them, the central characters and their families would have to come forward, and I’m really not sure that that’s going to happen. I know that Gavin Arvizo [Jackson’s accuser in 2005] doesn’t particularly want to engage in all this. I’ve written to him before but haven’t received a response. I think he may just want to get on with his life. So it may not be possible for me to make another film about Jackson, but you never know.
Did you reach out to Jordan Chandler as well?
I reached out to Gavin [Arvizo] and sent him links to the film. Jordan has disappeared, and he’s got a lot of money so he can disappear pretty well. I haven’t gone all-out to find him but made some efforts to find him, and he’s not easy to locate. If he wants to reach out to me he knows where to find me, so I’ll just sit tight and wait.
I spoke with The Simpsons boss Al Jean about their decision to remove the episode of the show featuring Michael Jackson, “Stark Raving Dad.” I’m curious how you feel about that decision.
I’m generally not in favor of that. The guy [Jim Brooks] said, “I’m against book burning of any kind. But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.” I do believe it’s a matter of individual conscience and individual taste. I’m not really that familiar with that particular episode of The Simpsons, but if it’s something you’ve created and you feel it’s been used to assist in the committing of dreadful criminal acts then it’s tainted, and I’m not surprised you’d want to remove it, but in general I’m not in favor of trying to rewrite the cultural record.
How complicit do you think the media was in all this?
I think that Michael used the media very successfully to project an image of himself as this childlike demigod figure—that he was somehow a guardian spirit to the children of the world, and that somehow this entitled him to keep the company of children, even in his bedroom at night. This phrase “I didn’t have a childhood,” so he’s reliving his childhood in his late twenties and thirties, was a smokescreen that he put up with the help of the press. Of course, there were some members of the press who challenged it. Our tabloid newspapers here in the UK who are ferocious, and whose techniques and methods are pretty questionable some of the time, at least they got the story right: he was abusing children. So I think the media is complicit in manufacturing this image of Michael as some kind of child in the body of a man. It also pisses me off when journalists take the propaganda that’s been pumped out for years by the Michael Jackson lawyers and by the family—“Oh, it’s all about the money”—that kind of bullshit, and don’t examine it. It doesn’t make any sense!
Well, it’s fascinating because the people who are the most financially invested in this appear to be Michael Jackson’s family members and those protecting his estate. And LaToya Jackson did a famous interview with Katie Couric where she quite passionately stated that she thought Michael was abusing children, only to reverse course years later.
If you look online, you’ll find there are three interviews [LaToya] did. The whole thing of “It’s all about the money,” which is the mantra of the Jackson family and their lawyers, what they’re talking about is Wade and James going to court against the estate and having to prove their case in court in a civil suit, and to get any money they will have had to have won their case, and have established that their claims of child abuse are true. You don’t just get money by suing—that’s not how the justice system works. Court is not a cash machine, it’s a place where arguments are debated and fought. So for “journalists,” like Mr. Piers Morgan the other day, to come back and say “it’s all about the money,” that just infuriates me.
As far as James Safechuck goes, isn’t he quite well off as a software developer? He’s not exactly wanting financially, so to speak.
Yeah. They live very comfortably. He and his wife both work at the same company and they have a comfortable life. If they had more money, I don’t know what they’d do with it. And Wade, I think he made a lot of money when he was an extremely successful choreographer. He does modestly now, but doesn’t want for anything and doesn’t seem like a guy whose lifestyle is in any way restricted.
Just to go back a bit, when did you first come across James and Wade? And since their stories have changed over the years, what convinced you they were telling the truth?
Firstly, I approached them—they didn’t approach me. I’d read about their case, approached their lawyer, and said, “I think these guys have a story to tell.” That was back in 2016. To make a long story short, I ended up meeting with their lawyers and meeting them. I did a really long interview with both of them—separately—in February 2017, and found them to be very sincere and, on the face of it, credible, but knew there was a huge amount of corroboration I had to do to both study the interviews and research all the facts around the interviews—all the facts described, all the evidence, all the pictorial evidence. I was looking for anything that might undermine their stories, because I knew if anyone else found it I’d be in big trouble, and I couldn’t find anything. And I did find a lot of stuff that corroborated what they were saying.
What did you find that corroborated what they were saying?
There had been these two very big police investigations done in 1993 and 2003, so I interviewed the investigators, spoke to the prosecutors in the 2005 case.
Did you speak to any Neverland employees? Because one of them testified that she saw Michael showering with Wade.
That was Blanca Francia. So, I had dinner with her son, Jason, who himself had been molested and was paid off by Jackson. I didn’t get to Blanca because by the end, I realized that the testimony we had, which was about what happened behind Jackson’s bedroom door, was a lot more important and detailed and credible than anything that the maid might have seen. The maid did see them in the shower together, and that’s valid, but it wasn’t going to prove anything—and it didn’t prove anything in 1993 or the 2005 trial. It wasn’t enough to clinch the case against Michael. So I preferred to focus all of my efforts on the really new and unique thing that we had, which was for the first time, one of the children who was in Michael’s bed explaining what happened in that bed, and then to tell the story of how that young man exposed the secret that he’d kept for a long time, in the case of James and Wade.
And for the mothers, coming out and giving their accounts of how they delivered their child into the clutches of a predatory pedophile, that’s not something any mother wants to do. For your mom to go on TV and relate in detail how she did that, and have their guilt exposed for all the world to see, that’s not something that any son would do casually, or would allow. The moms very bravely agreed to do that, I think partially because they wanted to redeem themselves and would do anything they could to support their sons’ accounts.
I wanted to bring up some of the main points that the truthers keep coming out with, because I keep seeing the same points. There’s a scene in Leaving Neverland where James’s mother says she was so happy Jackson died because she knew he wouldn’t hurt another child. But James claimed he didn’t tell anyone about the abuse—or even realize he was abused—until 2013, when Robson came forward.
Well no, the reason they’re saying this is because they’re basically riffing off of [Jackson lawyer] Howard Weitzman’s tip sheet. Weitzman wrote his 10-page rebuttal of the documentary without having seen the documentary, so a lot of the things he includes as supposed claims that we make in the documentary are actually very selectively drawn out of context from the amended legal complaint. So we’re talking apples and oranges here. In the documentary, James says that in 2005, he didn’t want to testify and told his mom that he didn’t want to testify because, he said, “Michael is not a good man.” So he tells his mom and doesn’t expand, but to Stephanie it’s very clear what he means: James was abused. But they do not have any further discussion and he begs her not to tell anyone else. It stayed between the two of them until 2013. So that’s why she stands up and does a little jig when he dies, because she realizes she doesn’t have to put a steak knife through this guy’s heart.
The Cirque du Soleil thing is bullshit, because it’s actually Wade in 2012 who writes to the estate and says, look, I’m sorry I’ve been to-and-fro on this but I really can’t do it, so he is the one that pulls out and it’s them who wanted him to do it. That’s factually inaccurate, and I’ve seen the email where [Wade] does it and it postdates all the other emails. And the limo thing, well that’s explained. When Michael died, Wade is still in love with Jackson—still loves him, and still thinks he’s the best thing. His relationship is still very much alive. And it’s clear from anyone who’s watched the documentary how Wade talks about being distraught, weeping, and writing this eulogy for Michael. Wade is telling us this. We’re not hiding the fact that Wade was absolutely devastated when Michael died. Another thing is, about James not realizing the abuse until 2013, what James didn’t realize until 2013 were that his psychiatric symptoms were related to the abuse. He did know that what Michael did to him was child abuse—that’s why he told his mom that Michael was a “bad man.” The fans are trying to find inconsistencies that aren’t really there.
Between Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly, there seems to be very loud silence on the part of male musicians. I’ve seen quite a few female artists speak out about the docs but almost no male ones. It’s pretty troubling.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Nobody wants to know about child sexual abuse—in particular child sexual abuse that relates to little boys. It’s not something anyone wants to confront, or be confronted with. It’s a bit of a taboo. We don’t even have a vocabulary to discuss it very well, and I think that’s one thing that the film achieves. Leaving Neverland confronts you with it, and it confronts you with it in a palatable form, because it’s about a very famous person, and because the film takes shape the way that it does, with these two striking men and their families, it has the veneer of something interesting and attractive, and yet inside, the film is fundamentally the story of children being raped on a regular basis by a grown man, which is a disgusting, revolting story to have to tell. Men don’t want to talk about little boys having sex, but it’s happening, and if we want to do anything about it, about the sexual abuse of little boys by adult males, we have to educate ourselves, open our eyes, and get involved in the conversation.