Death threats from Michael Jackson fans and litigation by Jackson’s estate have not convinced director Dan Reed to back down from his controversial HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, which depicts the late entertainer as a serial pedophile.
“It certainly hasn’t cowed either me or HBO,” Reed declares. “I stand by every second of the film and so does HBO.”
The two-part documentary, now in contention for Emmy consideration, is built around graphic accounts of two men—James Safechuck and Wade Robson—who say as boys they were seduced by Jackson and engaged in years-long sexual relationships with the pop superstar. Safechuck claims the abuse started in the late 1980s when he was 10; Robson says Jackson initiated their sexual relationship in 1990 when he was seven.
“What they both experienced was a gradual psychological and physical seduction,” Reed asserts. “Jackson did not violently, brutally, break these little boys. He took his time, and he seduced them, in the way that an adult would seduce another adult, but—and this is the most horrifying thing—he treated these little children as you would a sexualized adult.”
Safechuck, a child actor who met Jackson after starring in a Pepsi commercial with him, says Jackson befriended him, then invited him on his world tour. After winning the trust of Safechuck’s parents, Jackson spent increasing time alone with the boy.
“We would fall asleep together…In Paris, he introduced me to masturbation and that’s how it started,” Safechuck recalls in the film. “He set it up like, ‘I’m going to show you something everybody does.’”
Robson first encountered Jackson at age five, after winning a Michael Jackson dance contest in his native Australia. Two years later Jackson invited the boy and his family to visit Neverland. Within days there, Jackson convinced the rest of the family to leave Wade alone with him while the family headed off to see the Grand Canyon. It was then, Robson claims, that the sexual abuse started.
From then on, “my whole life was focused on him,” Robson says in Leaving Neverland. “I was head over heels in love with Michael.”
The film suggests Jackson not only groomed the boys for sexual purposes, but groomed their families to look the other way.
“[They] were all being hoodwinked by Jackson and had kind of aligned themselves with the narrative that whatever was happening behind those closed doors of the bedroom in Neverland was just innocent fun,” Reed tells Deadline. “The mothers believed that. The sister believed it, the brother believed it. The dads believed it. They were all taken in.”
Safechuck and Robson speak of feeling intensely loyal to Jackson and protective of him. When the singer was publicly accused in 1993 of sexually abusing another boy, Jordan Chandler, the pair came to Jackson’s defense. In 2005 when Jackson was put on trial for the alleged sexual abuse of yet another boy, Robson—by then in his early 20s—served as a defense witness, testifying Jackson had never sexually abused him. Jackson was acquitted.
“For me, that was one of the big questions that the film had to answer…why Wade and James didn’t say anything for so many years and why Wade took the witness stand in 2005 in May and said, ‘Michael never touched me,’” Reed comments. “The answer is it’s complicated because you have to understand the psychology of child sexual abuse.”
Leaving Neverland found a prominent supporter in Oprah Winfrey, who hosted a TV special simulcast on HBO and OWN immediately following the documentary’s premiere in March. She interviewed Reed, Safechuck and Robson before an audience of sexual abuse survivors, and urged viewers to understand that it often takes victims decades to come to terms with what they experienced and be able to share the truth with others.
After the special aired, Oprah says she was subjected to “hateration” from Jackson fans. Reed and his subjects have faced a similar reaction.
“What’s puzzling about the case of Michael Jackson is the ferocity of the disbelief, if you like, in the stories of these two young men,” Reed observes, adding, “At the beginning we had a ton of emails that were very hostile…hostile death threats, and people saying awful things about me and my family.”
Robson and Safechuck filed separate lawsuits against the Jackson estate several years ago, both of which were thrown out. The Jackson family calls the men “pathetic liars” who are defaming Michael in hopes of getting money.
During her special, Oprah read a Jackson family statement that said, in part, “The creators of this film were not interested in the truth. They never interviewed a single solitary soul who knew Michael except the two perjurers and their families.”
The Jackson estate has filed a $100 million dollar lawsuit against HBO, claiming the documentary violated terms of a non-disparagement agreement the cable channel struck with Jackson in 1992 as part of a deal for a concert film. The estate wants the matter to go to arbitration, but as Deadline reported, HBO filed a memorandum in federal court opposing that move. The matter is set for a hearing today.
HBO’s lawyers argue the non-disparagement agreement has no bearing on the documentary and say with Leaving Neverland, HBO is exercising “its First Amendment rights to exhibit an expressive work on an issue of public concern.”
Reed defends his decision not to include interviews in Leaving Neverland with Jackson family members, supporters or lawyers sticking up for Jackson. He says such people were not in a position to observe what took place between Jackson and his alleged victims.
“What’s at issue here is what happened behind the closed doors of Jackson’s bedroom,” he stresses. “And there were no other witnesses apart from the child and Jackson himself…Jackson was a very manipulative and thorough, well-prepared, organized pedophile. And I don’t think putting a kind of token rebuttal in the film from someone who was not there when the crime was committed, I don’t really see a great deal of journalistic value in that.”