It wasn’t supposed to be this big. When British documentarian Dan Reed read about the sexual abuse charges that Wade Robson and James Safechuck had brought against the Michael Jackson estate in 2013 and 2014, he thought he might have a story to tell. He never expected to spark a global reckoning with one of the brightest, and perhaps most blinding, stars in the pop music galaxy -- and with the broader realities of child sexual abuse.
Reed’s four-hour documentary, Leaving Neverland, which centers on Robson’s and Safechuck’s accounts of being sexually abused by Jackson throughout their childhood years, premiered on HBO in two parts in early March, accruing a combined 8.5 million viewers across HBO platforms domestically and has since been sold to air in 130 territories worldwide. For some viewers -- including the Jackson estate, which is suing HBO for breach of contract (in reference to a nondisparagement agreement between the estate and the network from 1992) -- the film’s near-exclusive focus on Robson and Safechuck makes it a one-sided effort to damn the dead. But for many others, it is a painfully convincing expose of the emotional damage both embodied and allegedly perpetrated by the King of Pop.
Oprah Winfrey, for one, believes Jackson’s accusers. In After Neverland, a special that HBO aired immediately following the documentary’s premiere, she interviewed Robson, 36, and Safechuck, 41, before an audience largely comprising sexual abuse survivors and asked the two men to explain how Jackson “groomed” them -- and their families -- by inviting them all to Neverland Ranch, where the boys slept in his bedroom. (The mothers’ acquiescence on this point has become a predictable lightning rod.) Robson and Safechuck also described the mixture of shame, guilt, fear and love that compelled them to deny the abuse for years, with Robson even testifying on Jackson’s behalf in a 2005 child molestation trial. And they insisted that their goal in making the film was less to incriminate Jackson than to connect with survivors by telling their truth.
Interviewed together a few days before the HBO premiere, Robson, Safechuck and Reed explain that Reed initially pitched the men individually -- their earlier legal cases against Jackson barred them from communicating with each other -- on a modest, intimate project: a 48-minute documentary sponsored by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4. This was before the #MeToo movement made allegations of sexual misconduct international news, so they didn’t know if anyone would see the movie, let alone care. But after filming the first round of interviews, Reed felt the story deserved a wider platform. He brought a reel of material to HBO. It got bigger from there.
In person, Robson, a prodigiously talented dancer-choreographer who has worked extensively with Britney Spears and *NSYNC, is the more polished public figure. But Safechuck, an arty kid-turned-tech geek, is successful in his own right as the director of technology at an interactive ad agency. Both are funny and earnest. Reed, 54, is dry yet charismatic -- he comes across as slightly protective of the two men.
The three speak less about abuse than about creation: the grueling, precarious process of filming and decisions about structure and tone. They also explore more deeply one of the doc’s main themes -- the role Jackson played in Robson’s and Safechuck’s professional lives -- and discuss an issue beyond its purview: both men’s ongoing efforts to extricate themselves from Jackson’s spell. That process might mirror viewers’ own.
Once Robson, Safechuck and their lawyers agreed to the film, Reed conducted days of interviews during which he urged the men to tell their stories as if they were back in the moment.
Reed: At one point, we had a conversation about not trying to “package” your experience, just “speak” your experience. Don’t worry about packaging it or wrapping it in context or interpretation. And also -- if you’re still thinking about something or it’s a work in progress, it doesn’t matter.
Robson: I had by that point already spent a lot of time in therapy. In a way, in therapy you’re trying to do just the opposite -- to package it all. You’re trying to understand the context of everything. So then, stepping into this, Dan says, “All of that’s amazing, but drop it all. I just want you to tell me the story, moment by moment, as it happened when you were 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.” That took a moment for me to surrender to. It’s so much more vulnerable.
Reed: And I think that once you get there, once you begin to tell your story without the packaging, then you become much more present. And as you go through your experience chronologically, you get this incredible sense of almost being able to re-experience what happened to you. That comes across on camera in a very unique way. So that’s very precious -- the telling of history in an intimate voice.
Robson: And that’s what happened. That first interview with Dan was three days, eight hours a day straight of interviews, with that direction from Dan to remove the commentary, stay present in the story. I was just completely wiped at the end of each day, because I really felt like I relived 30 years of my life in those three days. It was unbelievable.
Safechuck: You [To Robson.] had said before that you had a kind of cathartic release. For me, it was more... nerves. Like, I think the triggers came back to me. But even then, you have to let that happen. Don’t try to cover it. But those triggers don’t feel good. So it was painful.
The film’s modest beginnings, which Reed describes as “just a couple of people stumbling around in the dark,” allowed for greater intimacy -- and also caused some anxiety.
Reed: The film feels intimate because it was intimate. There was none of the kind of paraphernalia and operational razzmatazz that surrounds a lot of films of this scale. It was just me and my assistant producer Marguerite [Gaudin] lugging cases up...
Robson: Bringing all their own gear --
Reed: -- and setting up and stuff falling over and just the day-to-day physical struggle of production. Particularly with James’ interview, we had terrible problems with extraneous noise and leaf blowers and airplanes and a hedge trimmer and a neighbor. We shot it in an Airbnb, which I picked because I really liked the décor and because they weren’t comfortable with filming at their homes.
Safechuck: At that point, we were still like, “Stay away!” [Laughs.]
Reed: It’s a midcentury house in the Valley, and what I didn’t realize was that the owners were living in the pool house. At some point, the dad comes out and starts repairing the shed. So I’m like, “You know what? We’re doing an interview.” And he’s like, “You didn’t tell us.” So I sorted it out with them; I gave them extra money. But all these absurd things just kept happening.
And then with Wade, my camera broke, and he had to redo -- well, he didn’t have to -- I asked him if he would very kindly, on the second day, describe once more for me some of the sexual abuse.
Robson: I had to go into it again.
Reed: And you can imagine how I felt asking him -- telling him -- “Um, there has been a slight technical problem, Wade...” And he very graciously did it again.
After filming Robson’s and Safechuck’s interviews, Reed realized that their families were crucial to their stories and asked if he could interview their mothers. Both men were hesitant, in part because they anticipated the criticism that the women would receive.
Safechuck: I had the sense people were going to be looking to blame someone. [Jackson] wasn’t around to take any blame. So it’s going to fall on her. And my dad had just passed not that long before [the interview], so my mom was alone -- I’m not going to serve up my mom. So I tried to be as neutral as I could. Like, “You don’t have to do it. I don’t know what you’re going to get out of it. Really, nothing. Like, you’re going to get a lot of hate. So -- it’s your choice.”
But I also didn’t want her to do it and put up a strength that wasn’t there. Because the camera’s going to see through that. You have to be OK with not being liked or understood. You can’t try to convince them. So, [you have to ask], is she willing to be weak?
Reed: Does she have the strength to be weak?
Safechuck: Dan was like, “Let me just talk with her.” And then she really connected with him. Like, “OK, yeah, I get it. I like him.” Then she opened up to it.
Robson: I was nervous about having my mother be involved. One, I had a similar feeling that it wasn’t going to look good for her. Also due to my own set of confused feelings toward her, at that time. And also a concern of not knowing where she was in her own processing and understanding and healing. I didn’t feel confident that she was going to be in a place to be extremely raw and vulnerable. I thought maybe she was going to be a bit protective. But I couldn’t control that, and I understood that wherever she was at was where she was at. And that’s part of the story.
Reed: It was quite a long time with Joy [Robson’s mother]. The most important thing for me was never to push. Because then she would be recalcitrant. She would be recoiling. And I didn’t want that. And I think it was the #MeToo movement, and the rise of that, that finally convinced your mum to hit the green button.
While the testimonials are the heart of the film, they are intercut with beautiful aerial footage of Neverland and Los Angeles, set to a dramatic orchestral score.
Reed: The aerial shots are important because you need to breathe. There’s this relentless, grueling journey into these men’s experiences and that of their families, and you have to give people space to recover and to kind of reset before you go back into it. Also, I wanted to give it the dimension of a fairytale -- that sense of a story unfolding on a bigger stage, with this very lush score that draws you into this fairytale that then goes horribly wrong. So we decided just to shoot tons and tons of drone [footage], including over Neverland, which was fun, because the Neverland estate -- the estate manager didn’t really like that and called the sheriff on us, and we had to kind of scoot.
Safechuck: It’s interesting because when you’re at Neverland, that’s the music that’s playing over the loudspeakers.
Robson: There’s always music playing everywhere outside at Neverland. That was the score of the actual experience.
Safechuck: There’s speakers all throughout, in the flower beds --
Safechuck: Rocks that are speakers. Wherever you go, there’s music playing, and it’s that kind of music. So maybe you [To Reed.] didn’t realize what you were doing, but that’s what it was actually like.
In the film, Robson and Safechuck describe the pain and jealousy they felt when Jackson trained his attention on other boys. Those feelings could have resurfaced when they watched the doc and saw for the first time how similar their experiences with Jackson were -- but the men felt a range of other emotions instead.
Robson: I don’t remember any feelings of jealousy toward James and his experience. I remember feeling lots of shock. I mean, I had an instinct that there were going to be a lot of parallels in our stories. But to the degree that there are? That was mind-blowing.
Safechuck: Yeah, I wasn’t jealous. Because when we met as kids, I was being replaced by someone else, so my jealousy was with someone else. And by the time I saw the picture, I’d been through therapy, so I never had those competitive feelings with Wade. So it was more -- it more felt good, like, “I’m not alone.”
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the sex stuff was the same. But that was surprising. I didn’t know any of the details, so I was kind of anxious to hear, what was Wade’s story? And I didn’t learn until I watched the picture. Even then, still, it was more like, “Oh, good, somebody else went through exactly what I went through.”
Robson: One of the amazing things that we’ve learned in the last month is that I believe the first time we ever met when we were kids was on the set of Michael’s “Jam” music video. I was dancing in the video and James was there with Michael, but we ended up having an interaction -- a really nice, friendly interaction and connection. We’ve realized we were in similar positions at that point in relation to Michael -- there was a new boy there, and we were both kind of on the outskirts of Michael’s attention and love.
Safechuck: Yeah, it was like, there was this other boy there. And then Wade was instantly nice to me. So in that moment, I was like, “Oh, good, somebody’s being nice to me right now.” I needed that. That was a terrible weekend. So it was just this moment of happiness when we were able to just be kids.
Despite the talents they displayed as children in dance and acting, respectively (Robson met Jackson when, at age 5, he danced onstage with him; Safechuck co-starred in a Pepsi commercial with Jackson, at age 8), both men say that Jackson decided that filmmaking should be the focus of their discipline and dreams.
Safechuck: As we were growing up, he was pitching the same stuff to both of us -- the same spiel of, “Get ready. Because in the future? Me and you are going to change the world. So get ready. Study. Be the best. Study.” He’d call every once in a while and go, “Are you preparing? You better get ready!”
Robson: [Laughs.] It was abstract. “We’re going to rule the world together. We’re going to change the film industry.” The spiel that he started giving me when I was 7 was, “You’re going to be a filmmaker at the level of, bigger than [Steven] Spielberg: This is your destiny.” It was from the lips of God for me, from Michael. That was the prophecy. And nothing mattered until that happened. I ended up experiencing a lot of external success as a dancer and then choreographer and then stage director really young. But none of it mattered to me until I was a director bigger than Spielberg.
Safechuck: I was in a band when I was in my early 20s. And I got in the band, really, because I was like, “We’ll be successful, right?” You know how you think when you’re in your early 20s. “And then I’ll make our music videos. And then I’ll be a filmmaker.” So I didn’t get in the band to be a rock star. It was like, “The music will be a bridge into film.”
But later, you wonder, “Was this even my dream?” Because, really, I didn’t think he was pitching “director” to everybody. I thought that was me. Then you learn it’s not even specific to you, and you’re like, “Oh, my God, was that even something that I wanted?”
Long after their childhood interactions with Jackson, he continued to shape Robson’s and Safechuck’s professional lives.
Robson: Six days after my son was born, I got the job to direct this feature film. And, oh, my God, here it is: The prophecy is happening, right? But the prophecy started happening at the same time that this being, my boy, had come into existence who was about to kick the door open on, “You can’t keep up this façade anymore.” I was a couple of months into preproduction on this feature film when I completely fell apart and had to remove myself from the film. And then it was, “My life is over.” I couldn’t fulfill the prophecy.
Safechuck: Yeah, and that was the goal of everything, right?
Robson: This was everything. This was why we left Australia. This is why my father died -- killed himself. This was everything. And you failed. What’s the point of anything anymore?
Everything fell apart. Dance, music, film -- everything ended for me. “Oh, my God, it’s all Michael. Michael’s the reason I started dancing. I can’t ever dance again. If it’s all Michael, it’s all abuse.” We disappeared and moved to Hawaii, to start life again. Having no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Dance kept trying to come knock on the door, and I kept running from it. But then, just over a year-and-a-half ago, I woke up one morning, and there dance was in my heart again. And all of this kind of child-like curiosity about it and a willingness to accept that, before my relationship with dance and art became tainted by Michael and abuse, it was mine. It actually never was his. And that’s where I got confused. Understandably. But it was mine before he took it from me. So how can I get that back? And that’s the journey I’ve been on since then. I’m traveling around the world teaching. And I’m having more fun -- I’m in the midst of a love affair with dance that I’ve never experienced before. And every time I dance now, I push another piece of Michael out of my body.
Safechuck: I was just lucky to find something that I got really passionate about -- I’m the director of innovation and technology at a digital advertising company -- and I just fell in love with programming, with the mixture of art and tech. And it was mine. It was my passion. It wasn’t tied to anything else.
But the strange thing is, the same dedication and persistence that Michael ingrains in you -- you still use that. But how do you go, “OK, I’ll keep that, because that is a good thing,” and not feel shame or guilt for keeping that? That’s really difficult. Because it’s wrapped up in all this abuse.
Robson: That has been the process -- this decoupling, this unmeshing of all the bad from some of the good. Because at first, what happened with me is you throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s all disgusting. It’s all horrible. Everything was a lie. And a lot of it was. But if we can take new perspectives on certain experiences, we can find new ways to use them, in a positive way.
Leaving Neverland begins with Robson describing Jackson as “one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew. He helped me tremendously ... with my career, with my creativity. And he also sexually abused me for seven years.” It ends with a shot of Robson burning Jackson’s records.
Robson: Those images of me burning things are from very early on in my healing process -- within the first two to three months. I’m not saying that to discredit the validity of that now. But it just paints a picture as to how many different stages there are in this process. I think those two things that you [To Reed.] referenced show the complexities and the contrasts of the healing journey.
The burning of those things was what I needed to do at that early stage. And I remember, as I was doing that, I was looking at the fire and I started speaking to Michael. I said, “Michael, I’m going to take these disgusting, horrible things that you did to me -- I’m going to take your manipulation and your lies and your perversion -- and I’m going to turn it into something good. I have no idea how. And I have no idea what that means. But somehow, I’m going to turn this into something good.”
And so then it’s really incredible -- I had never quite actually put that together until now, that those images are at the end of this film.
Safechuck: Oh. Shit.
Robson: That feels like something good. Out of the bad.
Safechuck: You know what else is strange?
Robson: [Jokingly.] No, James. Tell me.
Safechuck: He put this dream in us to make a film that would change the world, right?
Robson: Wow, yeah. Here you go, Michael.
Reed: You did what he told you to do after all.