Two hard-hitting British documentaries had their world premieres on Friday at Sundance 2019. Each showcases a Hollywood figure who used his fame and power to keep accusers of sexual assault at bay. Pop star Michael Jackson was acquitted by two juries of molesting minors before his death in 2009, while disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein is facing his first criminal trial in New York on two accusations of sexual assault.
The difference between these two movies is that while the accusers of both Jackson and Weinstein described uncannily similar patterns of serial abuse over many years, one of the alleged perpetrators is dead, and the other is very much alive.
Backed by Film Four and HBO Documentary, which will air the four-hour doc in March, Dan Reed’s “Leaving Neverland” focuses narrowly on the experience of two 30-something men, Australian dancer/choreographer Wade Robson and Simi Valley native James Safechuck, who were both befriended and abused by Jackson starting at age seven and ten, respectively.
Robson and Safechuck both testified on Jackson’s behalf in the first child molestation trial, never admitting to anyone that he had touched them. Robson also denied any sexual contact by Jackson at the second trial. Only decades later, after the singer’s death, when both men were married and had children of their own, did they reveal to their loved ones what he had stolen from them: not only their childhoods but their families. Like other famous pedophiles, he furthered their careers and wooed their mothers while distancing them from their fathers. Both Robson and Safechuck’s parents’ marriages dissolved under the strain of living so close to Jackson’s fame.
Audiences also get a first-hand peek into the otherworldly fairy tale Neverland estate, with its elephants, tigers and chimpanzees, arcades and amusement park, along with Safechuck’s chilling description of all the nooks and crannies where Jackson’s sexual abuse took place, including a closet inside a closet. Reed wisely keeps his focus on the families, and does not comment on the surrounding details of the Jackson circus.
While they met as children — witnessing other boys who were favored by Jackson, including Macaulay Culkin, who also denied he ever touched him — they each filed separate lawsuits with the Jackson estate, after coming clean to their parents and going through therapy, which were dismissed due to the statute of limitations in California. Their video testimony is devastating. Reed asked them both to speak simply and directly about what they had been through. Robson was more polished, and had spoken to Matt Lauer on camera before.
But Safechuck was publicly revealing his experiences for the first time. In one powerful scene, he looks at gold jewelry Jackson gave him in exchange for sexual favors, his hand trembling. “It’s hard for me to not blame myself,” he tells Reed. Jackson taught him to “shelve your feelings,” and threatened the seven-year-old Robson with years in jail if he ever told. At one point when one mother was refusing to come forward on his behalf, Jackson told her: “I always get what I want.”
The movie is devastating in spelling out the intimate details of years of sexual abuse of children — both men looked red-faced and teary-eyed after the screening — and despite protestations from the estate and Jackson’s fans, it is impossible to deny.
“I don’t think there’s anything I need to say to Michael Jackson’s fans except I understand it’s hard for them to believe because, in a way, not that long ago I was in the same position they were in,” said Robson. “Even though it happened to me…I still couldn’t believe that what Michael Jackson did was a bad thing until six years ago. So I understand. We can only accept and understand something when we’re ready, and maybe we’ll never be ready. So that’s their journey.”
Premiering on the same day at Sundance, “Untouchable” is a portrait of a movie mogul so powerful that few people are willing to go on the video record to speak about him. British producer Simon Chinn (“Searching for Sugar Man,” “Man on Wire”) and filmmaker Ursula Macfarlane (“One Deadly Weekend in America”) started researching the movie as soon as Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey’s expose first published in The New York Times on October 5, 2017. They interviewed hundreds of men and women who knew, worked for, were allegedly sexually harassed by, or reported on Harvey Weinstein. But only a few were willing to go on camera for the movie.
“People wanted to speak to us,” said Macfarlane. “The victims and the accusers, people spoke to us, we had to nurture them, who had a good reason for speaking out. Some had never spoken before and not on camera. There was real impetus to speak. Industry insiders and employees were the hardest thing, people had signed NDAs.”
While Harvey and Bob Weinstein eventually voided the NDAs for The Weinstein Company, they did not with their first film company, Miramax Films. “Some people were concerned with breaking their NDAs,” said Macfarlane. “But Zelda Perkins, Harvey’s British assistant, did break her NDA in The Financial Times.” And she has not been sued for doing so. In fact Perkins shows her NDA on camera in the film.
Macfarlane describes a sort of PTSD that she felt from many victims of Weinstein’s alleged assault. “A lot of people were afraid of speaking out; they have a lot too lose, they’re worried about their careers. Young people who worked for Harvey have a lot of career ahead. And they fear that Harvey may not go to jail. If they speak out, what does that mean if they go against him? In terms of people, that was the hardest challenge. A lot of people were very crushed by these experiences and had tried to put them behind them.”
The most dramatic interview comes at the beginning of the film, from a woman who worked for the young concert promoter Harvey Weinstein in Buffalo. They read about her in a short follow-up piece in The New York Times. Hope Exiner d’Amore, now 62, was in her 20s when she briefly worked for Weinstein, who forced himself on her during a business trip. “She had not spoken to anyone for 40 years,” said Macfarlane, “just a few people the day after. She’s been carrying this around. Producer Poppy Dixon tracked Hope down, spent time talking to her. Of all our women contributors allegedly abused by him, for her it was the hardest thing to do, to come out.”
The filmmakers reached out to all of Weinstein’s accusers. Some, like Salma Hayek, felt they had already come forward with their Op-Eds and didn’t want to go through the press wringer again. Actresses Paz de la Huerta and Rosanna Arquette did speak for the cameras.
“This group of women in the film, some are telling their stories for the first time, with a willingness to be candid,” said Chinn. “Perhaps they feel they don’t have so much to lose.”
John Schmidt, who was Miramax’s first CFO from 1989-1992, movingly admits to feelings of wishing he had done more when a young woman friend of his told him she had been assaulted by Harvey. “That was a disqualifying act,” he told me at Sundance. “Over the two-and-a-half years I was there I was getting more disgusted by their ways of doing things, so I quit. It’s valid for all of us who worked with Harvey, to look back and ask, ‘to what extent did we play a role of enabling by not dropping the boom and whistleblowing?’ I didn’t know he was a serial assaulter, but even though it was 30 years ago, you look back, and perhaps we would have liked to have acted more heroically.”
Chinn saw a lot of survivor guilt from ex-employees “who arguably did well as part of Harvey’s success, but have carried guilt for specific knowledge of transgressions, in John’s case, or generalized knowledge of rumors, in Jack [Lechner]’s case…They were on a mission, there was a real point to their coming forward and giving their testimony.” About a tenth of the ex-employees the filmmakers spoke to went on camera.
But because the final cast list is small, the filmmakers tried to make a virtue of it. “We get to know everybody on the film well,” said Macfarlane. “They don’t just pop in. We tried to make it positive, it’s intimate, we got inside people’s heads and got to know them as people as well as the things they reveal.”
Legally, given that their litigious main protagonist did not sit for interviews, the filmmakers had to corroborate their facts, said Chinn: “We had to find other sources, which in almost all cases we were able to do. Only a couple of things had to be excised on advice of our lawyers.”
Much like Jackson, Weinstein used his power to bring people into his magnetic orbit, promising career enhancement — and punishment if people didn’t do what he asked. “We did see it as Greek tragedy,” said Macfarlane. “There’s something mythical about the story of Harvey Weinstein, a larger than life ogre type of bluebeard: the meteoric rise, the fatal flaw, the reverse of fortune and downfall. He is not an attractive character. Harvey is a difficult, not particularly appealing man, yet he created an extraordinary empire and disrupted the industry. He’s both fascinating and alluring — it’s important that he’s not just the horrible allegedly abusive man we’ve known about since October 2017. We had to have some understanding of the effect he had in the industry, and the people he brought into his web. He was a man who commanded a room like no one else. But a terrible side is revealed. It was a tragedy.”
The filmmakers made the documentary quite fast, starting last May and through an intense summer as they focused on exploring the mechanics of how power operates in Hollywood. They stayed away from digging into the inner mechanics of the film industry. “If we’d gone into the business side extensively, we’d have limited our focus,” said Chinn. “We wanted to create a film not for the industry, who will be scrutinizing it at Sundance…We made a film for the wider world outside the industry, which would be relatable to people…Most people will be able to point out their own Harvey in their own industry or workplace.”
“We wanted to make it as universal as possible,” said Macfarlane. “Of course the industry will be scrutinizing it, but we wanted to hold a general audience with an engrossing story in 98 minutes.”
Weinstein’s impact on the movies is covered in a brief Oscar section. “He changed the way the Academy Awards worked with practices Harvey started,” said Macfarlane. “He then began to use the Academy Awards to gain more influence, power and wealth.” Weinstein also used his power trajectory to hone his image via charities like a Planned Parenthood party showcasing the Clintons. “He was using power structures around him to give him credibility and hide in plain sight.”
Rather than get caught up in the details of the ongoing court cases against Weinstein, the filmmakers tried to make the story more evergreen. “We focused on things we can talk about: the rise and fall of power,” said Macfarlane.
“Which goes to the heart of the big themes within his legal case and defense,” said Chinn. “The question of consent and the nature of consent. His key legal denial is that he had consensual sex in every case. We do hope people will begin to understand the complexity of that notion in a way we have not seen before on-screen.”
It’s not all over, the filmmakers realize. “There is a sense that the case has begun to become more challenging for the accusers,” said Macfarlane. ‘We felt that change over the last few months. The #MeToo movement brought a sense of confidence and hopefulness that he’ll be going to jail. People don’t feel so confident now.”
“The atmosphere around when the news broke and when he was charged was febrile, euphoric, there was a lot of punching the air,” said Chinn. “It was a challenge for us to try to remain clear-eyed and sober, to tell the past-tense story of Harvey’s rise and fall up to the point of the news breaking, in a way that raised a lot of questions, and didn’t get sucked into the hype. I hope the film feels nuanced and complex and transcends the news cycle.”
Embankment is selling territories on “Untouchable” at Sundance.