“Porn and candy,” James Safechuck says with a sigh in the upcoming HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, recounting one of the countless sexual encounters he claims to have shared with Michael Jackson as a child. The four-hour film recounts his story as well as that of Wade Robson, another boy who says he was groomed to be Jackson’s secret child lover over a period of many years.
In each case, the film alleges, Jackson sought out children who mythologized him, slowly seducing their parents with vacations, houses, and money, while psychologically manipulating the boys into thinking they were liable accomplices in his sex crimes. The boys’ stage performances and sycophancy toward Jackson are endearing (what 80s child wouldn’t fall to pieces when gifted a “Thriller” jacket or “Smooth Criminal” hat?) which makes the graphic and detailed account of their sexual allegations against Jackson all the more horrifying to endure.
James Safechuck first met Jackson when they co-starred together in a 1988 Pepsi commercial. The two became inseparable, with Jackson often staying over at Safechuck’s home, bringing him along as a Mini Me performer on the Bad Tour, and, according to Safechuck, lavishing him with jewelry (including a diamond ring used in a mock wedding ceremony between the two). Safechuck alleges that Jackson supplied him with wine and the two would perform sexual acts on each other on a daily basis, both at Neverland Ranch and in hotel rooms on tour (where his mother was often booked in a separate room).
Around the same time, Jackson met five-year-old Australian Wade Robson after he won a lookalike dance contest. Similar to Safechuck, the Robson family claims that Jackson seduced them with a life of luxury while routinely engaging in sex with their son. When they were apart, Jackson called and faxed Robson every day, often staying on the phone for “six to seven hours at a time,” according to his mother.
The descriptive interviews with both Safechuck and Robson (now in their thirties) about the sex they claim to have had with Jackson leave little to the imagination. Phrases like “bloody underwear,” “squeezing his nipples while he ejaculates,” and “a grown man’s penis in my seven-year-old mouth” are difficult to sit through, but perhaps necessary when considering what these guys are up against in coming forward with these allegations.
The Jackson estate has been working hard to discredit HBO and the director and subjects of Leaving Neverland, releasing a ten page letter to the company citing numerous grievances (including calling Robson unreliable because his father suffered from mental health issues and took his own life).
Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed doesn’t feel that the Jackson estate has any legs to stand on in criticizing his film, and is optimistic that all of this will lead to greater conversation about sexual abusers in positions of power. I recently caught up with Reed to discuss the emotional, legal and cultural turmoil his film has wrought on society, and whether or not we should all stop listening to Jackson’s music.
VICE: There have been so many books, documentaries, and TV specials focusing on the psychology of Michael Jackson and the abuse he endured as a child impacting his behavior as an adult. Was it a conscious choice for you to not explore Jackson’s internal world at all in this film?
Dan Reed: Well it’s not a film about Michael Jackson. It’s about the Robsons and Safechucks and their encounters with Jackson. I never met Michael Jackson, I never interviewed him, I don’t know what it was in his history or his psychological makeup that led him to molest little boys, and I don’t want to speculate on that.
I don’t think that having a tragic childhood determines your behavior later in life. Not everyone who has a bad childhood or was sexually abused becomes a sex abuser. What I was fascinated about with this story is the picture [Robson and Safechuck] draw of the grooming sexual predator. And because that story involves Michael Jackson it will have an incredible reach. And that will bring to light some really important facts about how child sexual abuse does happen. It’s not how people imagine.
That’s why so many people on Twitter are asking: “Why did Robson stand up for Jackson in court? Why didn’t he just run to his mummy and say ‘Michael Jackson did these things to me’”? Well, because that’s not how sexual abuse works. And I think this film shows that in poignant detail. Abusers can make their victims fall in love with them. Like Wade says how he lived his entire life with this fantasy that Jackson’s relationship with him was a positive thing. But that was bullshit, and it was very difficult for him to admit that.
It seems like this is not so much a story about Jackson’s [alleged] abuse revelations, but more of a story about these two men contending with the abuse they endured as children.
Exactly. That’s where the film lands, when Wade and James reveal to their families the abuse they endured. To me, that’s where the emotional peak of the film is, even more than the horrible detail of the sexual transactions. It’s in the release of Wade finally telling his family and his wife the truth, which he’d lied about for so long.
Michael Jackson fandom breeds a particular kind of intensity. What has the backlash to the film been like from them?
So let me be clear about one thing: There are tens of millions of Michael Jackson fans out there in the world. People who love Michael’s music and have great memories of dancing to his music at their weddings or bar mitzvah or the last time they saw their mom. His music is interwoven into the fabric of people’s lives around the world. And a majority of MJ fans are just people who just really like his music.
But there is also this league of fans who are almost like a cult, and they say very nasty things [about the film] on social media. And their words echo the two-decade long rhetoric of the Jackson family and legal team, which is shaming the victims. It happens often in these cases. It’s what they do very aggressively and relentlessly, and I don’t think you can get away with that in 2019 like you could in the past.
The majority of Jackson fans are people who will be really shocked to hear this very compelling case of abuse by Jackson, as I was. When I first came into this I had no prejudice against Jackson, I had no fixed opinion about whether he was or wasn’t a pedophile, he could’ve been innocent. I believed he was a good guy, made good music, seemed nice to children, and I think most people were in that grey area. Sadly, it turns out he was a sexual predator, and I think a lot of people are going to rethink their view of him.
And I’m sure your next question is going to be: Should people stop listening to his music?
That is on my list of questions.
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say that there should be any hashtag to ban Michael Jackson like there is with R. Kelly. I think Jackson’s music is too woven into the fabric of American and British life, and others around the world, to just rip it out like that. Do you want your children’s party soundtrack to be MJ songs? I don’t know. I wouldn’t. But should it be banned? I don’t think so. It’s great music, he was a great artist and entertainer. He was also a pedophile.
Were those the real sequin glove and "Thriller" jacket that Robson was burning in the final credits of the film?
I wasn’t there when Wade burned those items, but the photographic evidence suggests those were the real deal, yeah.
Seems like those would be profoundly valuable items, which is particularly interesting since the Jackson estate is claiming Robson is telling his story for the money.
Sure, but I don’t think [the burning of memorabilia], in itself, validates his position. I think you have to look at the wider picture, which is that he and James weren’t paid and have no financial interest in the documentary, for a start.
They also criticize your film for not reaching out to anyone for a counterpoint to Robson and Safechuck’s story.
We included plenty of critics of Wade from Jackson’s fans, statements from Jackson while he was alive where he denied all child sexual abuse allegations, and statements from the lawyers during both investigations. I think we comprehensively represented the positions of Michael Jackson and his lawyers.
Right. There just weren’t any contemporary interviews done for the film.
Yeah, but the Jackson estate’s position, to my knowledge, hasn’t changed. They maintain that Jackson is innocent.
It seemed like it was important to you that the film include a lot of explicit detail about the [alleged] sexual acts between Jackson and these boys, and not just rely on the generic statements like “he sexually abused me.”
We had to establish that actual sexual activity was taking place. For so many years Jackson claimed that he shared a bed with children for completely innocent reasons. If we hadn’t had these very graphic, shocking descriptions of the sexual activity that took place people might just think that it was only hugs that were a bit intimate, or slightly inappropriate brushing of cheeks. We thought it was important to make clear that this was sex, not just affectionate touching.
Did you get the sense that any of Jackson’s handlers knew about or even helped facilitate aspects of this?
Well, just to be clear, I didn’t come across anything to suggest that anyone else participated in the sexual activity. If you’re asking: Were people who worked with Jackson complicit in this? That’s a question that must be asked, but it’s one I don’t have an answer to. Jackson’s life was closely managed almost 24 hours a day by his staff. Were they all completely oblivious to the sexual abuse taking place at Neverland and on tour? What did they think Jackson was doing with a boy in his bed every night?
Did you get the sense that Robson and Safechuck’s experiences were just a drop in the bucket?
I believe there were many other victims. We wanted to focus on James and Wade, and their families, who had very long relationships with Jackson. I’m sure there are others out there who will come out when the time is right for them. We’ll see.
How did Jackson’s death impact the viability of this film?
It may have been more difficult to make if he were alive today. People are still very much afraid of Jackson and his lawyers. As I went around speaking to people who were associated with the investigations, they were afraid of Jackson’s people’s ability to shutdown a lot of the victims. They employ unscrupulous PIs, and are very litigious. The power of his machine is very terrifying.
Beyond Jackson’s death, society’s handling of sexual abuse survivors is wildly different than in 1993 when the first accusations surfaced. Do you think the #MeToo movement had an impact on the reception of this film?
Oh yes, it’s incredible. And there’s a British angle to all this as well: There was a very famous, and very creepy children’s entertainer in the UK called Jimmy Savile who was knighted by the Queen, but it turned out that he was a violent, prolific child rapist with hundreds of victims. And it took a long time for that to be accepted. So by the time I made this film that case was already well known.
And then just before Sundance the R. Kelly documentary was broadcast. So we’ve been kind of blessed that there’s been this wave of believing victims of sexual abuse, instead of smearing them. I don’t think today Jackson would’ve gotten away with what he did in the 90s.
How are Robson and Safechuck doing? Are they getting away from everything while this film premieres?
Oh no. They’re stoked. The premiere at Sundance was a turning point in their lives. There was a standing ovation for them after the film, with people shouting “We believe you!” They had tears in their eyes. I think they were shocked because it was the first time they had that validation. They were so used to not being believed and being denigrated. This is a real moment for them.
Interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Leaving Neverland part one premieres on HBO March 3, with the following installment released the next day.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Josiah Hesse on Twitter.