Inside the making of the 4-hour HBO Michael Jackson documentary, 'Leaving Neverland,' which contains harrowing allegations of child sexual abuse

  • HBO’s two-part documentary “Leaving Neverland” (airing Sunday and Monday) chronicles the relationship Michael Jackson had with two boys in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • The documentary’s director, Dan Reed, talked to Business Insider about the journey to get the two accusers, now adults, to come on camera and tell their stories.

It all started over a casual breakfast in 2016.

The British director Dan Reed, who is known best for his gritty documentaries about war and terrorism, was having a meal with the Channel 4 executive Daniel Pearl when the topic of stories that had never been resolved came up.

As they rattled off a few, eventually they got to the allegations that Michael Jackson sexually abused young boys.

Ten years after Jackson’s death, it’s a question that still hangs over the mythology of the King of Pop. Despite Jackson maintaining his innocence and being acquitted of child-molestation charges in 2005, to this day many wonder what was going on at Neverland Ranch, Jackson’s palatial estate where he often had young children over.

Reed thought there were two people who might be able to answer that question.

Wade Robson and James Safechuck never met each other until they were adults, but as young boys they had something very special in common: the affection of Michael Jackson. The story of how these two fell into the world of Jackson during their youth is the focus of Reed’s “Leaving Neverland,” a gripping two-part, four-hour HBO documentary (part one is scheduled to air Sunday, with part two airing Monday) that will most likely change the way you look at Jackson and his legacy.

Over four hours, we are thrust into the dark side of Michael Jackson’s world. In the doc, Robson and Safechuck allege that the musician had sexual relationships with them over multiple years in the 1980s and 1990s.

Michael Jackson GettyGettyMichael Jackson with Safechuck on a tour plane on July 11, 1988.

Safechuck says his relationship with Jackson started when he was 10 and they both starred in a Pepsi commercial. He says that after Jackson befriended him and his family, he and Jackson engaged in sexual acts, often at Neverland Ranch. He says Jackson would often give Safechuck jewellery following their interactions and that the two even had a mock wedding ceremony.

Robson says he was 7 when he started having sexual relations with Jackson. He was a Jackson fanatic living in Australia and won a dance contest that led to his meeting his hero. Robson says that he began hanging out more with Jackson after moving to the US and that it led to a sexual relationship. He says the two would shower together, watch pornography together, and perform oral sex on each other. And when they weren’t together, Robson says, he and Jackson would constantly fax messages to each other (some of the faxes appear in the movie). At one point, Jackson even asked Robson’s mother to let her son stay with him for a year at Neverland Ranch, she says in the doc. When his mother declined the offer, she says, Jackson answered, “I always get what I want.”

“Leaving Neverland” is not for the faint of heart. Both Robson and Safechuck give extremely graphic portrayals of their relationships with Jackson. Reed also interviews their mothers, siblings, and wives. The documentary is not just filled with shocking revelations but is also an example of the manipulative power of celebrity.

Finding out what happened behind closed doors

After that 2016 breakfast when the idea sparked, Reed said he spent a year trying to get Robson and Safechuck on camera.

Though both Robson and Safechuck once testified that they hadn’t been molested by Jackson (Safechuck during a 1993 civil case and Robson during the 2005 criminal trial), the two went public in 2013 claiming to have been molested by Jackson and filing separate lawsuits. But after both cases were dismissed because of the statute of limitations, they moved on with their lives. Then Reed gave them a chance to tell their stories to the public.

“For Wade, I think it was a very cathartic experience to step outside the framework of therapy or legal discussions and just say what happened,” Reed told Business Insider over the phone from the UK. “And James was kind of rediscovering what was happening. As he said things he was listening to himself and going, ‘Oh my god, I did that!’ I think it was a new experience for them to talk to someone who wasn’t a lawyer or psychiatrist.”

Leaving Neverland HBOHBOJackson with Robson.

Reed shot interviews with Robson over three days and Safechuck over two. Following the interviews, Reed cut a 26-minute reel, which led to HBO joining Channel 4 on the project. It then took eight months for Reed to persuade Robson’s and Safechuck’s mothers to go on camera.

“Their mothers are a critical part of it,” Reed said. “I was filled with the absolute need to meet their mums and speak with them and try to convince them that it was a good idea for them to be in the film and talk. What I had going for me was the fact that both mums were mortified by what happened. I think that was the motivation to come forward and go on camera.”

Though Reed said that Robson, Safechuck, and their families came off authentic and credible while on camera, as editing began he went back and dived in to court transcripts and other materials to corroborate their stories.

“I want to emphasise I did not go into this assuming Michael was a pedophile,” Reed said. “Whatever conclusion I reached was going to be after doing as much corroboration as I could possibly do.”

So the plan was to include interviews with detectives, investigators, and the prosecutors from the 2005 trial. But as the edit came together, Reed realised two things: The movie would be longer than a traditional feature-length documentary, and all he needed in it were Robson, Safechuck, and their families.

“The families’ stories were incredibly compelling and consistent,” he said. “The key question at the center of this film is, ‘What happened behind closed doors with Michael Jackson?’ When you have only two people in the room, one of them is Michael Jackson and the other is Wade or James, there’s no one else that can really tell you what happened.”

That led to Reed deciding to not interview anyone else for the movie and focus on these two people and their families coming to terms with the past – and going to some very dark places to show how it occurred.

“The Jackson myth and look-the-other-way strategy that the Jackson camp has is them saying, ‘Don’t look at the obvious thing that he’s hanging out with kids and spending the night with kids, but look the other way, look at the eccentric genius, look at his charity work and the flawed family,'” Reed said. “We had to draw a line between what might have been cuddling and affection and part of Jackson’s self-styled eccentric affection for kids, and what was really happening, which is hardcore sexual activity of the type that grown-ups do together. That was my instruction to the guys. They knew they had to go there; otherwise, the movie could be dismissed as being ambiguous of what really happened.”

Battling the ‘Jackson machine’

“Leaving Neverland” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and that was when Reed realised just fascinated people still are by Michael Jackson.

As he, Robson, and Safechuck received a standing ovation following the epic four-hour screening (with a small group of Jackson supporters protesting outside), social media was buzzing as details about the documentary began to spill online.

It led to the Jackson estate sending out a statement addressing the movie, stating it “isn’t a documentary” but rather “the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death.” Days later, the Jackson family released a statement calling the movie a “public lynching” of the late pop star. And on the day Business Insider spoke with Reed, the Jackson estate sued HBO for $US100 million for being involved with the documentary (Reed declined to comment on the suit, and HBO said it had no plans to cancel the movie’s airing).

Leaving NeverlandDavid Becker/GettyBrenda Jenkyns and Catherine Van Tighem protesting the ‘Leaving Neverland’ screening at the Egyptian Theatre at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

“It’s been really hectic,” Reed said with a chuckle when asked how his life had been since premiering the movie at Sundance.

The director said that around Sundance, he received a lot of hate mail from those he calls Jackson’s “superfans, not the ordinary fans who are just enjoying Michael’s music.” He said he’d also received death threats.

The reaction prompts the question: Would Robson and Safechuck have been willing to talk if Jackson were still alive?

“I don’t know,” Reed said. “Jackson inspired a tremendous amount of fear. In addition to the love and loyalty he inspired in the children that he molested he also put fear in them. They were loyal and didn’t want to see him go to jail. That was powerful. The Jackson machine inspires fear, his fans are vicious. The superfans around the world are cultist and will abuse anyone who deviates from the party line. And the lawyers and the estate are getting well paid to defend the Jackson interest of a very wealthy and successful recording artist. It’s a terrifying prospect.”

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