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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.
But in the past Culkin has defended Jackson against charges of being a serial sexual predator. Culkin, now 38, has said he became friends with Jackson when he was a 9-year-old child star. He said Jackson also invited him to stay at Neverland Ranch and to share his bed multiple times when he was ages 9 to 14.
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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 film is framed around interviews with two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim that Jackson repeatedly sexually assaulted them throughout their childhoods.
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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.
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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.
Both of Jacksons accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, claim that they were abused inside the ranch when they were children, which has led property experts to believe that the tainted estate will have to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch.
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.
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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.
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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.
Some industry leaders — including those who haven’t seen the movie, like Fox Rothschild partner Ken Abdo — do say it’s “not possible or fair” to separate artists from their art. Abdo believes that recording and talent agreements will now “make more use of morals clauses and otherwise provide contractual consequences for behavior that qualifies for termination of employment or breach of contract for good cause.” Still, he adds, “How do you know if an artist will exhibit bad behavior when they’re signed without any prior indication?”
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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.
To date, most of that outcry has stemmed from Jackson’s army of fans, relatives and his estate. But generally, public backlash has been muted compared with that against R. Kelly after Lifetime’s recent Surviving R. Kelly. Like Kelly, Jackson was exonerated of earlier sex abuse charges, but unlike Kelly, he’s not here to defend himself, and since the film’s release, additional accusers have yet to come forward — both reasons why many of the industry players surveyed for this story say they still haven’t watched the film.
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 –Robson: Rocks.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.
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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.
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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.
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.