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‘Leaving Neverland’ Director Dan Reed Takes Us Inside The Making Of His Explosive Michael Jackson Documentary

HBO

On Sunday night, the first part of Dan Reed’s four-hour documentary, Leaving Neverland, about two men claiming Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children, will air on HBO and it will drop like a bomb. For those who choose to watch it, and its graphic details are incredibly difficult and disturbing to listen to, nothing will be the same. It’s as convincing as a documentary can be.

The film focuses on both James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who were both sexually abused by Michael Jackson when they were children. Before this documentary, they had never shared their stories with each other, but their details about Jackson are eerily and disturbingly similar. What makes this more complicated, as Reed notes, is it’s obvious that both Safechuck and Robson, in certain aspects, to this day still have fond feelings toward Jackson. And this is why both of them, at certain points in their life, defended Jackson when he ran into legal problems with other children. And this is why the documentary is so long, because we, as an audience, need to spend that amount of time with these two, and their families, to even begin to understand their complicated and disturbing relationship with Jackson.

Ahead, Reed takes us through what it was like to sit in on these emotionally powerful interviews, and Reed explains what his life has been like since the film premiered at Sundance – because the “MJ Cultists,” as he puts it, have not been happy this film exists and have made their displeasure known.

How have the things been for you since the Sundance premiere, as far as the feedback? The people still defending Michael Jackson are very vocal.

Well, so, I always preface my answers by saying that the vast majority of Michael Jackson fans are people who love Michael’s music and are interested in his personality and have followed his progress for years. They play no part in this attempted vilification of anyone who dares to say anything, as they would see it, unkind about their idol. So that’s the majority of people out there who live in that kind of gray area that everyone was in I think before the storm appeared. Which is like, “Oh, we don’t really know. He’s a bit weird and maybe he did stuff and maybe he didn’t. We don’t really know whether Michael Jackson was a pedophile or not. So, in the meantime, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Then you have the people I call the MJ cultists, people who are just fanatical devotees and their first response is to be very vicious and nasty and will fling dirt in every direction they can. They’ve been on my case pretty much since the announcement. Some of it very nasty, vicious. I don’t want to quote anything, but trust me, it’s not the kind of thing you want to read in the morning when you get up. But, mostly, I started to ignore it all and just filed it all in junk and so did the other people in my company who had the misfortune to receive it.

What are you expecting when this actually airs on HBO and people start seeing it?

I think… I don’t know.

Subconsciously, I think I’ve kind of separated the guy who made Thriller from the guy involved in all the other stuff. After watching this, I don’t think I can listen to his music anymore.

Yes. That has been the response from pretty much everyone that’s watched the film. If people have said anything about the music, it’s always been, “We’re not going to be able to watch, listen anymore.” It’s sad, isn’t it? I mean, he’s a great recording artist, he was a great entertainer. That will now have a bitter taste, I suppose, in a lot of people’s minds. I’m also aware that for his kids to hear about – you know from Paris and Prince and Blanket to hear about what their dad was doing – is going to be painful. But none of these considerations were cause for us to make me think we should suppress, or we should draw a veil over what Michael did to these two children, as they then were. And what I think he did to many other children as well. I think this guy was a prolific, predatory pedophile. That’s the picture that James and Wade painted. I find them totally credible. We’re talking about really major crimes here. These are not any sort of youthful indiscretions.

The hardcore MJ cultists, as you put it, seem to focus their rage on Wade as opposed to James. They like to point out that Wade has said fond things about Michael Jackson over the years. When they see the doc, they will see that Wade seems to still think fondly, at times, about Michael Jackson. It’s very complicated.

Yeah. That’s one of the things that made me really sit up when I was doing interviews. I interviewed Wade first. I interviewed him in Hawaii back in February 2017. I interviewed him for three days. I approached the interview with an open mind and I found Wade to be… he didn’t seem to be trying to sell me a line or anything, but I was skeptical and I listened very carefully to what he had to say. When he began telling me about the love he had for Michael, and how he was in love with Michael when they were a couple, that blew my mind. Because I was like, “Oh, okay, I get it now.” This is kind of like a grown-up relationship, but it’s with a kid.

He tells that story about how he felt he was being replaced by Macaulay Culkin.

Yeah.

He tells it in this heartbreaking way. Like anyone would talk about our first relationship ending, even though it’s this terrible thing.

It’s very hard to talk about what happened to Wade in those terms because he was 10. This wasn’t just, certainly for Wade, this wasn’t just a sexual relationship. This was primarily a relationship with a man who was his dad, his mentor, his idol, and also his sexual partner. When he was kind of cast out. And when the sexual relationship became much more infrequent, he was devastated. Heartbreak is exactly the right word. I think that gave it a sort of a dimension which I hadn’t expected. It immediately kind of made Wade’s story more credible. It made a lot of his actions a lot more credible. When he stands up in court, he’s doing it out of defending his friend. He’s defending his former lover. He’s defending a man for whom he has a deep affection. He’s saying there’s no way that I’m going to let my Michael go to prison. Even if it means helping to defeat this 13-year-old boy, Gavin Arvizo, who stood up so bravely in court.

They both talk about Michael Jackson the way any of us would talk about an ex. There are things we remember fondly, and there are things we do not. Again, listening to him, it’s extremely complicated.

And that’s where we start the film, with James saying what an extraordinary guy he was and how everyone wanted to meet Michael. You know, he’s just an incredible guy and he helps you. Wade said the same thing. He was the most gentle, loving, caring, supportive guy – and he sexually abused me. That, for me, encapsulates the complexity of these grooming pedophile relationships. That’s the whole film right there — “I loved him, but he hurt me.” You know, “I loved him, but he abused me terribly as a child.” If you don’t get those two things, no one understands anything that happens thereafter. It’s a very painful thing for people to have to acknowledge, that grooming pedophiles create this strong attachment. A loving attachment, between them and their victims.

The four-hour running time feels necessary to accurately portray how the process of how grooming works. It’s so meticulous, it avoids the, “How does this happen?” aspect. We clearly see how this happens.

You need to know. You’re basically telling two families’ stories over two decades. I think that’s one of the reasons why I sat next to Wade and James at the premiere. They were in tears most of the time. You’re watching your whole family, not just your life, but your whole family’s life told on screen in this sort of quite compelling way. With the musical score and cinematography and the whole bit. It’s a total headfuck.

And, for me, that was the only way to make sense of the story. You can’t understand why Wade did what he did – why his life took the course that it did, why he changed his mind about Jackson about keeping the secrets – you can’t understand that if you don’t understand the relationships within the family. You don’t understand his mother’s relationship and her ambitions. The way the brother and sister got drawn in. You can’t really make sense of Wade’s actions unless you understand the whole concept. Then, of course, the drama, the heart of the film, is in part two when Wade comes out when seeing his therapist. That scene really lands because you know how much the sister cares about Michael Jackson. You know how wounded the older brother is by the family’s departure from Australia. You know that their father’s suicide has kind of torn a hole in the fabric of the family. You know that the wife, Amanda, has always been told how wonderful Jackson is and she’s never understood why Wade is having a nervous breakdown. Everything kind of comes together. And you could never make sense of that if you didn’t know what went before.

The quote Wade gives that really, really stuck, was the one about his child. How if anyone ever did that to his child, he would kill them. But he doesn’t think of it the same way when it happened to him.

So, yeah, that’s the pivot. That’s where the whole film pivots. When the little boy is born and Wade suddenly has a really concrete way of kind of understanding or seeing his past relationship with Michael in its true light, suddenly, because this innocent little boy is lying there and he’s thinking, “Wait a minute.” For me, that’s the real turning point for him, the psychological turning point. It’s the birth of a little boy that makes you see yourself at that very early age and makes you then reconsider and reframe your relationship with the abuser. I think that’s a huge step. That was a huge thing for me. I was very moved. I remember having tears in my eyes at that point in the interview.

Would you have done this movie if it was just Wade? They were both extremely credible, but James seems to have less of a history critics can dissect.

James is a lot more… I think he feels a lot more vulnerable. He’s never spoken to the press before. I suppose, Wade’s background, he’s been in the public eye for much his life. So, would I have made it just with Wade? I mean, that’s truly like an impossible question. It’s the kind of thing, you’re always at the mercy of someone saying yes or no. Or finding the right person. Your nightmare is the other guy won’t say yes. It’s like diving off the high board and hoping that you’ll hit the water at the right angle. Every time, you’ve got to get it right. You invest everything you have and every ounce of your kind of mental focus into getting people to come out because it’s so important. I mean, Wade’s amazing, and probably there would have been something we could have done. I think we were blessed with the double act, you know?

Who agreed first?

The requests were made at the same time. I believe they agreed at the same time. I met James first. I met him and his wife for dinner in L.A., before I met Wade. I think maybe he might have reached the decision within himself, said that he trusted me, before Wade did. So you could say that James agreed before Wade.

Do you think James and Wade will reconcile with their families? Their mothers?

I think there are big issues they have to work out with their moms, but they have a really good relationship. In a way, I guess, despite the tragedy of what happened, if you do get a chance to get to know your mother a little bit better later in life, that’s all a blessing too. You don’t always get that opportunity.

‘Leaving Neverland’ premieres on HBO this Sunday, March 3rd. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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