The late pop star Michael Jackson, once hailed as the King of Pop, is the focus of the new documentary Leaving Neverland, which airs this weekend on HBO. The four-hour documentary centers on two of Jackson's alleged sexual abuse victims, Wade Robson and James Safechuck. Robson and Safechuck, now both in their 30s, say that Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were as young as 7 and 10 years old. Filmmaker Dan Reed spent three years putting this documentary together.
"For many years, Jackson posed as this innocent lover of children and we wanted to make it absolutely clear that what happened was sexual activity, without any doubt whatsoever," Reed says.
Reed notes he initially approached Robson and Safechuck's stories with "a good deal of skepticism" but after extensive research, verified their claims with police documentation from 1993 and the 2003 to 2005 criminal investigations against Jackson by the LAPD by the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department. "We found nothing that contradicted and we found quite a lot that corroborated Wade and James's stories," Reed explains.
In the days leading up to the film's wide release, Jackson's family members have done interviews with news outlets in response to Leaving Neverland vehemently denying these accusations.
"We're talking about something that the Jackson family has already accepted, I believe, which is that Michael spent many, many nights in the company of little boys," Reed says. "Now, what we're looking at is what happened once the bedroom door closed."
Reed thinks "blind devotion" to Jackson being a musical superstar is what kept accusers and their families from realizing the abuse and coming forward for years. Leaving Neverland debuts 10 years after Jackson's death in the era of the #MeToo movement and #MuteRKelly movement. Reed says that although he believes the evidence presented in this film could have been released while Jackson was still alive, the #MeToo movement did help to persuade Robson's mother to take part in the production."I think we're blessed with a kind of gathering momentum behind the idea that we should listen to the people who say they've been sexually abused, whether they're women or children or men."
The way Robson and Safechuck's love for Jackson dovetails the accusations of abuse is one of the most complicated aspects of Leaving Neverland. It's an overarching emotional theme that Reed called the central "contradiction at the heart" of the film.
"It's the complexity that drew me into wanting to really tell the story which is that in an abusive pedophile relationship there is both love affection mentoring friendship caring and there is sexual abuse. Those two things coexist," Reed explains. "But we have to understand it, otherwise we'll never understand child sexual abuse. We'll never be able to keep our children safe which is the most important thing that I think people could get from this film."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The late pop star Michael Jackson is the focus of HBO's new documentary "Leaving Neverland." It includes graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse. And for that reason, the conversation we're about to have may not be appropriate for some listeners. The four-hour-long film centers on interviews with two men and their families. James Safechuck and Wade Robson both say that Jackson sexually abused them for years beginning when they were children. Jackson always denied similar accusations. And in 2005, he was acquitted after a trial on molestation charges. Here, James Safechuck describes a kind of code he and Jackson had when they were out in public together.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LEAVING NEVERLAND")
JAMES SAFECHUCK: Myself and Michael would scratch each other here on the palms if he were holding your hand. And that meant, like, you were thinking of them sexually.
DAN REED: For many years, Jackson posed as this innocent lover of children, and we wanted to make it absolutely clear that what happened was sexual activity without any doubt whatsoever.
SHAPIRO: That's Filmmaker Dan Reed. He worked on this film for three years. And when we spoke, I asked him if he ever doubted the stories that Safechuck and Robson were telling him.
REED: I approached their stories with a good deal of skepticism. I mean, this is a story that's attracted a lot of controversy. And you know, the go-to tactic from the estate and the Jackson family has always been, well, these people are lying for money. And so with that ringing in my ears, I certainly took a good while before I let myself really begin to embrace and believe what Wade and James were telling me.
SHAPIRO: The Jackson family is not in your film, but they have been speaking about it, though they say they haven't watched it. Marlon Jackson, Michael Jackson's brother, was on "CBS This Morning." And here's something that he said about you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS THIS MORNING")
MARLON JACKSON: So he took what they were saying face value as to be true. But I - he trusted them, but - which there's nothing wrong with that, but you must verify.
SHAPIRO: Dan Reed, how do you respond to that?
REED: Well, my answer is simple - is that I did verify. You know, I did a huge amount of work, and my team did a huge amount of work digging into the 1993 and the 2003 to 2005 criminal investigations against Jackson by the LAPD, by the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department. We spoke to investigators. We looked at documents. We found nothing that contradicted, and we found quite a lot that corroborated Wade and James' stories specifically.
We're talking about something that the Jackson family has already accepted, I believe, which is that Michael spent many, many nights in the company of little boys and that he had little boys in his bed all the time. I don't think the family is denying that. Now, what we're looking at is what happened once the bedroom door closed.
SHAPIRO: Just to be specific, you refer to little boys. Wade Robson says he was 7 years old when the abuse started, and James Safechuck says he was 10 years old.
REED: Yes. So, I mean, 7 is very little indeed - isn't it? - to begin a sexual relationship.
SHAPIRO: Michael Jackson was the biggest celebrity on Earth. And at one point, James Safechuck talks about the extraordinary appeal of this man who had been on his TV screen virtually since he was born.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LEAVING NEVERLAND")
SAFECHUCK: He's the biggest entertainer, and he's a creative genius. And that creative genius thinks that you're special. What's not to like, right?
SHAPIRO: How does the nature of fame and celebrity factor into what happened here?
REED: I get asked this a lot, and it's an interesting question for these times, isn't it? Blind devotion - I think for many years, Michael was so famous and so dazzling and such a star in the firmament that it was almost impossible to think anything bad about him. And, you know, I think people completely lost their ability to think critically. And that goes for James and Wade's mothers, too. They were dazzled. They were star-struck. And, you know, they let their little boys sleep in Jackson's bed night after night and didn't think twice about that.
SHAPIRO: So this film is coming out 10 years after Michael Jackson's death, post-#MeToo post-"Surviving R. Kelly." Do you think there is something about this moment that makes the film possible that might not have been possible two or five or 10 years ago?
REED: No. We could've made this film when Jackson was alive. I believe the testimony in it is that strong. It would have stood up in court. The #MeToo movement erupted while we were in production, and it did play a part actually in Wade's mother's decision to take part in the film. She felt like, you know, the time has come.
So I think we're blessed with a - kind of a gathering momentum behind the idea that we should listen to the people who say they've been sexually abused, whether they're women or children or men. And I think this film expands the #MeToo notion into the area of male rape and the rape of children. And it's amazing to be part of that and to feel a part of that. But I do think we could have made this film earlier. I think it's - it has a powerful validity that transcends this moment.
SHAPIRO: Friends are asking me whether they should watch this film, and I'm honestly torn as to what to say because however important and well-made it may be, it is explicit and painful and can be really difficult to watch. So why do you think people should choose to spend their time with this story?
REED: I think this is a really important story to get out there because as well as being Wade and James' story, it's also the story of a grooming - how a grooming pedophile tore two families apart. It happened to be Michael Jackson. It could have been the uncle, or the guy down the street or any trusted family member. And it's about that terrible abuse of trust, and it's about the dynamic of grooming pedophilia where, you know, there's this deep connection, and there's deep attachment that forms between the abuser and the child. And that's something a lot of parents don't understand.
It's something a lot of people out there don't understand. That's why everyone is, like, yelling at Wade, saying, well, hang on; you - you know, you stood on the witness stand, and you defended Michael Jackson in 2005, and now you're saying a completely different thing. Why should we believe you? And, you know, Wade stood up there, and he wanted to defend his close friend and the man who had been his lover for many years. And then many years later when he had a son of his own, he realized that the whole relationship had been an abusive one.
So, you know, I want people to be able to watch this film and understand child sexual abuse a little bit better. I think that's important for parents, and it's also important for people who've been victims and might see Wade's and James' courage and might be able to break their own silence, you know? That's the horrible thing - is that children are sucked into this contract of silence through shame, through fear, through love. And they don't dare to break it off until many, many years later. I think, you know, the average age of disclosure is something like, you know, late 40s or early 50s. So Wade and James are, you know, ahead of the game on that.
SHAPIRO: The way the word love dovetails with this abuse is so complicated because at many points throughout the film, the central figures, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, describe love for Michael Jackson and that love seems reciprocal even though it's very clear that they are being abused. How does that work itself out? How do you reconcile that?
REED: Well, that's the contradiction at the heart of this film, and it's the complexity that drew me into wanting to really tell this story, which is that in an abusive pedophile relationship, there is both love, affection, mentoring, friendship, caring, and there is sexual abuse. And those two things coexist. And that's really difficult for all of us to wrap our heads around, you know? But we have to understand it. Otherwise we'll never understand child sexual abuse, and we'll never be able to keep our children safe, which is the most important thing that I think people could get from this film.
SHAPIRO: Dan Reed, thank you for speaking with us today.
REED: You're most welcome.
SHAPIRO: "Leaving Neverland" airs on HBO this Sunday and Monday. And we should note that the estate of Michael Jackson has filed a lawsuit against HBO for breaching a contract clause which included language that the network would not disparage Jackson at any future point. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.