‘Leaving Neverland’: Inside the Production of the Acclaimed Michael Jackson Documentary

British documentarian Dan Reed's decision to focus on families over courtroom drama turned the work into a shocking must-see.
"Leaving Neverland"
"Leaving Neverland"

Veteran British documentarian Dan Reed has witnessed some horrible events over the decades, from death and destruction in Kosovo to Mumbai. But nothing prepared him for the emotional wreckage inflicted by Michael Jackson on the families of two men who accused him of sexually molesting them as children.

After Reed’s “Leaving Neverlandshocked Sundance 2019, the four-hour documentary forever changed the way we see the late pop star. The exposé showcased a Hollywood figure who used his fame and power to keep accusers of sexual assault at bay; billionaire Jackson was acquitted of molesting minors before his death in 2009. Reed’s movie disturbingly reveals two of his accusers, who did not talk to each other, describing uncannily similar patterns of serial abuse over many years. Their trauma was so emotionally intense that Sundance had to prepare the world premiere audience by providing crisis counselors on site.

Backed by Film Four and HBO Documentary, which aired the four-hour doc in March, “Leaving Neverland” focuses narrowly on the experience of two 30-something men, Australian dancer/choreographer Wade Robson and Simi Valley, Calif. native James Safechuck, who were both befriended and abused by Jackson starting at age seven and 10, respectively. It is nominated for five Primetime Emmys including Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program and Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, and the ongoing plaudits and resonance of the work is testament to Reed’s skills as a filmmaker.

Michael Jackson arrives at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse for his child molestation trial in Santa Maria, Calif. A documentary film about two boys who accused Michael Jackson of sexual abuse is set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. The Sundance Institute announced the addition of 'Leaving Neverland' and 'The Brink,' a documentary about Steve Bannon, to its 2019 lineup on Wednesday. The Sundance Film Festival kicks off on Jan 24 and runs through Feb. 4.Michael Jackson arrives at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, USA - 25 May 2005
Michael Jackson arrives at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse for his child molestation trial in Santa Maria, Calif.Aaron Lambert/AP/Shutterstock

Film Four executive Daniel Pell first approached Reed, who at first wasn’t that interested in the Jackson controversy, but reluctantly took some development money to start researching. That’s when he noticed that Wade Robson had sued the estate in 2013 – which meant “he might stand up in court, and conceivably go on camera,” he said in a phone interview. “The more I found out, the more interested I became. I didn’t care about exposing bad things about Michael Jackson. It was about getting the real people to tell details. It became an in-depth story about two individuals and their families, encountering such a famous man and falling under his spell. This terrible thing happened that the children kept secret, and only revealed to their parents years later. Child sexual abuse is a phenomenon nobody understands and nobody likes to talk about.”

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.

James Safechuck enters the back of the Egyptian Theatre before the premiere of the "Leaving Neverland" Michael Jackson documentary film at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah2019 Sundance Film Festival, Park City, USA - 25 Jan 2019
James Safechuck enters the back of the Egyptian Theatre before the premiere of the “Leaving Neverland.”Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

The central decision Reed made was to focus strictly on the families. “I give them a big leading role in the telling of the story,” he said, leaving behind tons of research from two police investigations, including eyewitness testimony from household staff and personnel at Neverland. “But none of that in the end was new,” said Reed, who needed first-hand accounts from people who “had direct knowledge of what happened in bedroom. Nothing was as powerful, persuasive or consistent as interlocking the Safechuck and Robson families. We decided the material had a power on its own. We have the little boy in bed with Jackson. We don’t need the chambermaid who walked in on Wade with Michael naked. We should all remember that there was no controversy and no dispute about the fact that Michael and James and Wade spend many nights together alone in bed.”

For their part, the two men “did a lot of thinking before having met me,” said Reed, who first talked with their attorneys and pitched the idea and persuaded the two men to each meet with him, no strings, and walk away if “they didn’t like the smell of me.”

They both trusted him. And sat for interviews. And when he tried to poke holes in every single thing Robson and Safechuck said, “they are credible,” he said. “Their accounts are so honest, so detailed, unlike what anyone would make up. If you think someone is trying to make up a story to increase their chance that they winning a court case, right, you wouldn’t have to drag your mum along.”

Reed feels strongly that the two mothers – who he grilled mercilessly – should not be too harshly judged. “People are critical of the mothers,” he said. “The most immediate reaction is ‘What the heck were they thinking? How could any mother allow their child even one night in the bed of any stranger? But you have put yourself back in their shoes, in a different time. They were innocent, the lure of wanting Jackson to like them and take advantage of the opportunity for the little boys to learn stuff as children. I don’t think the mothers thought anything sexual happened. Wade and James formed an attachment to their abuser, they wanted Michael to come and scoop them up – which is the most horrific thing for parents to hear. I have sympathy for them.”

The movie also gives viewers 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.

Throughout Reed was trying to create “the expansive sense of a fairy tale, a journey of wonder,” he said. “You feel the wonderment with these children and their parents and families as they enter the magical bewitched space Jackson lived in, in the place he joking called ‘the enchanted forest.’ They’re going into this place which appears magical out of the darkness but emerges as something more sinister, like a dystopian fairy tale.”

Reed kept the two men, who had met superficially over the years, apart during the filming, and they only met at Sundance. “There was no chance for cross contamination,” said Reed. “They do echo each other. Jackson had an MO of things he liked to do.”

While they met as children – witnessing other boys who were favored by Jackson, including Macaulay Culkin, who also denied he ever touched him – Safechuck and Robson each filed separate lawsuits with the Jackson estate, after coming clean to their parents, 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; he had spoken to Matt Lauer on camera before.

Both men shared their personal video and photo archives. We see Robson dancing in 1987 at a Brisbane “Bad” concert at five years old, onstage with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and Safechuck’s interview with the camera crew and Jackson during the same Bad tour. And there’s a photo of Jackson walking hand in hand with Safechuck. “What in the world was he thinking?” said Reed.

Wade Robson, Dan Reed, James Safechuck. Wade Robson, from left, director Dan Reed and James Safechuck pose for a portrait to promote the film "Leaving Neverland" at the Salesforce Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah2019 Sundance Film Festival - "Leaving Neverland" Portrait Session, Park City, USA - 24 Jan 2019
Wade Robson, Dan Reed, James Safechuck.Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

But Safechuck was publicly revealing his experiences for the first time. “It was a different flavor between the two,” said Reed. “It was the first time he ever sat down in front of an journalist and answered questions. You could feel him exploring changes in his mind, as stuff was coming to light, as we were walking him back. We had to stop several times. He hadn’t done that therapy. Wade had done a lot, therapy allowed him to come forward. It was sometimes too intense for James.”

In one powerful scene, he looks at gold jewelry Jackson gave him in exchange for sexual favors. “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 of the mothers was refusing to come forward on his behalf, Jackson told her, chillingly: “I always get what I want.”

That scene was a late pickup more than a year after the main interview in 2017, when Safechuck had mentioned the jewelry box. Reed kept pressing him to go find it. “It took him a long time,” said Reed. “The house was not big. He found it eventually, and we went back to the location, for continuity, and he sat down and opened this box. It was incredible, just like opening up some kind of physical memory, literally his hands started to shake and he became short of breath, overwhelmed by feelings that washed over him from the past, the intensity of emotion when he took out the ring when he got married.”

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 Sundance 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 at Sundance. “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.”

Even though “Leaving Neverland” was shown as a four-hour movie at Sundance, it is not eligible for the Oscar, because HBO did not submit it, due to the post-“O.J.” Academy documentary rules making longform series ineligible. “For me it’s a documentary in two parts,” said Reed. “I’d be so thrilled to have been able to get an Oscar, but that ship has sailed.”

The movie started out to be 48 minutes long. “It didn’t turn out that way, right?” he said. “It was because neither they nor I knew what we were going to find. There was a writ, that if I would not believe James and Wade or didn’t find their account genuine, or they were not able to articulate their experience – always a risk – we’d have to can it and write the whole thing off.”

That didn’t happen. He showed a half-hour reel to HBO including some interview material and they commissioned a two-hour film. He sent them a rough cut that was 15 minutes short of five hours. “I think less is more, shorter is better,” he said. “But it is a story that has to be unfolded in this way over several hours. It’s rich and complex, people have to understand why the little boys kept their secret and told no one, not even their mothers. That’s a helluva journey, you have to understand the twists and turns. That’s why if you watch the film with an open mind, it’s hard not to go on the journey with them and understand what took them from being that child who thought Jackson was approaching a god to being the person they are now, still conflicted. Jackson was such an important figure in their lives, gave them a huge amount of attention and love, and yet he was a monster who sexually abused them. It’s hard to reconcile this amazing journey they’ve gone for three decades.”

In the editing room, Reed decided to advance the movie chronologically in part one, trying to balance the two stories. “In the end, you have to – time is our friend,” said Reed. “It’s the gradual unfolding step-by-step that doesn’t let you go. That’s the power of it, the only way we can do this.”

Part 2 is more thematic, it’s about coming to terms. “We keep a certain distance but don’t get too close. We create an intimate feel.” Throughout, Reed and his editors wove in drone footage and the Chad Hobson score, “creating a musical envelope, giving us distance, allowing us to collect our thoughts in this claustrophobic narrative.”

Why didn’t he talk to Jackson’s family or lawyers? “Simple. First, they are not people who can really can be trusted to have a completely impartial view; they have a huge interest to protect their relative, and no direct knowledge of what happened to these then children. No one was in the bedroom with them. This is an important journalistic point, when a story hinges on an event that took place behind closed doors, you can’t have people chipping in with character references. Just because he’s a nice guy or famous or writes nice songs, doesn’t mean he’s not a pedophile.”

Next up: Reed is prepping tentatively titled “Super Bug,” an ambitious HBO feature documentary about the antibiotics crisis. “It’s the end of modern medicine,” he said, “because antibiotics are rapidly losing their effectiveness. It’s a big story, a save the world story. Bacteria are adapting, living things and we soon won’t have infection control in hospitals, safe operations or cancer therapy. If people are aware of the issue, it’s at the edge of their peripheral vision. The United Nations, the CBC and the WHO put it among the top three global health emergencies, along with climate change and water shortages. This is right up there.”

And he’s developing for the BBC a four-part series on the crisis in tech in Silicon Valley, “the other huge story of our age.”

Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.

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