Ahead of Sunday’s much-anticipated debut of Leaving Neverland — the controversial documentary that focuses on allegations by two men who say Michael Jackson abused them as children” — director Dan Reed talked with EW about the way he approached the project and whether it could dramatically change the public’s perception of the late pop star. “People are going to have to re-adjust their perception of Jackson,” says Reed, whose previous credits include the docs Three Days of Terror: the Charlie Hebdo Attacks and Frontline Fighting: Battling Isis. “I know if a Michael Jackson track was playing at a children’s party and my kids were there, I might have a quiet word with the DJ.”
For the two-part documentary that premieres this Sunday, Reed interviewed Wade Robson, now 36, and James Safechuck, now 40, about their experiences with Jackson at the ages of 7 and 10, respectively, and visiting his Neverland Ranch in California. The Jackson estate has called the film “the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death,” and are suing the premium cable channel, claiming it will “constitute a breach of a non-disparagement clause” from a previous contract.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you sit through the doc’s screening at Sundance? How did it feel?
DAN REED: It was a feeling of immense relief. I sat next to Wade and James. They were very emotional the whole way through. I was principally experiencing it through their eyes.
Where did the idea come from to do this documentary?
I specialize in doing these very well-researched, dramatically told accounts of terrorist attacks and crime. I found a way of telling stories that happened in the past as intimate personal accounts. People thought they understood Michael Jackson.
When you set out to make this, did you suspect that it was not going to fit into a neat, two-hour film?
What we showed HBO was a nearly five-hour rough cut. It’s something no filmmaker wants to do. The shorter your piece, the more impact it has. But you need to pull out and get the two decade span of these two families and their stories. This is about a family dynamic, which is what Jackson understood. When he seduced little boys, he had an instinctive understanding of where the flaws were in the family, where the weaknesses were, and what the little boys were lacking at that particular time. Conversely, Joy Robson thought her little boy would tell her if anything weird was happening between her son and Michael. You need to understand why she would let Wade sleep with Michael. It was a different time. Jackson was so dazzling, he was such a nice guy and so childlike. When he finally revealed the abuse to her many years later, she said, “How could you not have told me?” Those are the saddest words in the film. HBO’s courage to have it run for four hours is going to make a major difference to the impact of this story. It’s exactly the right decision.
Wade and James expressed themselves so well. Did you have to coach them in any way?
I didn’t. The only thing I said to both of them was, we have to confront the abuse in graphic detail. We cannot leave our audience confused as to what was happening. We have to make it clear that this wasn’t affectionate cuddling or touching. I also asked them not to wrap their words in interpretation or spin them for me and tell me how to understand it. Just tell me what happened. Wade found that very liberating. He always felt like he had to justify that himself. I wanted to have that feeling of moving through time, almost like a real-time telling of the story. It becomes very immersive so people can understand.
Do you think they knew as kids that there was something wrong?
I don’t think they did. As Wade said, and he’s very clear about this in the interview, he felt it was completely natural. He felt it was an extension of his relationship with Jackson. If we forget for a second it was a 7-year-old child and a 31-year-old man, Jackson was gentle and loving and he wasn’t coercing the boys physically. They both said it seemed like an expression of their evolving closeness, their intimacy and their love. I don’t think it seemed wrong for either of them. That’s what enabled Wade to take the witness stand and lie [in a previous criminal case against Jackson]. He defended his friend, his lover, his mentor, and he didn’t think that anything bad happened.
Talk about your use of music. The orchestral piece you used to depict Neverland was especially euphoric.
One of the things I’ve grown to rely on in documentary storytelling is the use of score. It really enhances the storytelling and adds a layer. I just want people to be swept along in the dream, the fairy tale. At one moment you are a kid who worships Michael from afar and the next minute you’re literally going to Neverland with him. I wanted the audience to have that feeling. The music creates that world, Jackson’s magical kingdom, a poison paradise.
Why didn’t you include comments from authorities and prosecutors?
I did speak to the chief prosecutors who did most of the prosecuting in 2005. I also read thousands of pages of documents. I was looking for stuff that might undermine Wade and James’ story. If I found anything that contradicted what they were telling me or would cast doubt on the accuracy of their recall, that would have made a major difference for me. But I didn’t come across anything at all. I didn’t come across a single investigator or anyone associated with those cases who had any doubt. I could have included these interviews and they would have worked in favor of James and Wade. I already had the kid in the room telling me exactly what happened. Their accounts are so crystal clear and utterly credible that I didn’t really need what the maid saw down the hallway or what the investigators suspected.
Why didn’t you address their civil suits against the estate?
They said they are suing the corporation because of all the people, the staff around Jackson who looked the other way while children got raped. I didn’t want to go into that into the film. We are not making allegations against anyone else except Michael Jackson. If I got into details of the court cases, I would have had to start looking at people to see if they knew what was happening. That’s a whole other rabbit hole that I didn’t feel we needed to go down. My story was about these two families finding out about the abuse and how their little boys suffered at the hands of Michael Jackson. The Jackson camp strategy has been to pour scorn on these people by saying they are out to get money. There’s a long tradition in America that if you want to hold people accountable, you take them to court. The jury can award damages if the corporation has been negligent. If you can no longer punish the perpetrator of the crime, you can at least hold to account the people who looked the other way. This is their way to get justice, to get their story out there. A trial is a good way to bring the story out in the public eye. This documentary serves the same purpose.
Why didn’t you include a denial from the estate?
The film was completed and had gone to Sundance before the estate issued those ridiculous statements. The estate’s response came too late. I certainly didn’t seek any comment from the estate because we don’t make any allegations about the estate. I don’t believe the estate has watched the movie. Nothing they have written leads me to believe they watched the film. I’m not talking about the estate’s complaint against HBO. I include denials from Jackson and rebuttals. I’ve done my job in providing balance for an audience whose memory might not stretch back. Jackson’s position has always been he’s been innocent. There was no requirement on my part to include any statement.
Did you and HBO predict that the estate would threaten legal action?
Yes. The estate’s go-to strategy has been misdirection. Any time someone makes a claim that Michael Jackson was a predatory pedophile, they go, “Look the other way. Look at all the people who say he’s a nice guy. And then look at what a money-grubbing person this person is.” Ignore everything except what is pretty obvious, that Jackson was someone who hurt children consistently and deliberately while posing as a benefactor and a savior. We knew they would probably try to use the same trick from the same playbook and ask why we didn’t speak to people who said Jackson was a nice guy. Why didn’t you talk to all the former children who said Michael didn’t do anything to them? It’s like asking someone making a movie about Ted Bundy, “Why didn’t you talk to people he didn’t murder?”
Have you heard from any other victims?
I haven’t. The turning point will be when it comes out on HBO. Maybe people will come out then. Is it possible he limited himself? I don’t think so. I think predatory pedophiles have a voracious appetite. They need to eat. He had plenty of opportunities. He was a magnet for little boys.
Can fans still enjoy Jackson’s music after this?
The Michael Jackson fan base is huge and most of them are regular people who have no ill will toward anyone and would be devastated to watch the film. Will it make them want to stop hearing Michael’s music? To be honest, a revulsion to his music has been a common response from the press. And I’m sure that will be a response that a lot of people will feel. I’m kind of agnostic about this. People should do what they feel is right. I know if a Michael Jackson track was playing at a children’s party and my kids were there, I might have a quiet word with the DJ. But I don’t want his music to be banned. It’s part of people’s lives and their precious memories. I don’t want people to lose those. But people are going to have to re-adjust their perception of Jackson. He made this amazing pop music but he’s also a predatory pedophile who hurt a lot of children.
Part 1 of Leaving Neverland will premiere on HBO March 3, followed by Part 2 on March 4.