PARK CITY, Utah — Wade Robson and James Safechuck were in tears when they first stepped onto the stage of the Egyptian Theater on Jan. 25 after the premiere of Leaving Neverland at the Sundance Film Festival.
The four-hour documentary chronicles with painstaking care and excruciating detail their allegations that Michael Jackson engaged them in separate, years-long sexual relationships when they were children, stretching from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. For Safechuck, the alleged sexual abuse started when he was 10. For Robson, when he was 7.
Neither man had ever told anyone about the alleged abuse until years after Jackson’s death in 2009. Although Robson first went public with his story in 2013, and Safechuck in 2014, Leaving Neverland’s premiere at Sundance was the first time anyone from the public had heard the specific details of their allegations — including graphic descriptions of the sex acts Jackson had them perform with him, and how that abuse was perpetuated by the powerful romantic attachment Jackson cultivated in them and their families. The film also captures how maintaining that secret — which included lying to investigators and on the witness stand — sent both men spiraling into debilitating bouts of severe anxiety and depression as adults.
The overwhelmingly positive reaction the film received at Sundance was a kind of validation Robson and Safechuck had never had a chance to receive before.
“They just felt really supported, really for the first time in public,” Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed told BuzzFeed News on Monday. “And that's been tremendously uplifting.”
At the same time Robson and Safechuck were receiving a standing ovation at Sundance, however, the internet was already blazing with posts from Jackson fans infuriated by the allegations and attacking anyone suggesting that the superstar ever abused a child. On Monday, the Jackson family also released a scorching statement, calling Leaving Neverland no less than a “public lynching” and maintaining that Jackson “was and always will be 100% innocent of these false allegations.”
The crux of the outrage stems from Robson and Safechuck’s defense of Jackson after Jordan Chandler, then 13, alleged in 1993 that the megastar had sexually abused him. Jackson reached a reported $25 million settlement with Chandler while still maintaining his innocence, and the case was never criminally prosecuted. In Leaving Neverland, Robson and Safechuck say they were coached to say that while they had spent the night repeatedly in Jackson’s bedroom, he never once behaved inappropriately with them. Both men also maintain that Jackson continued to have sex with them well after Chandler’s settlement.
In 2005, Jackson stood trial for allegedly sexually abusing Gavin Arvizo, then 13 years old; a jury found Jackson not guilty on all charges after Robson, who by then had become a world-famous choreographer, testified that Jackson had never harmed him. Safechuck, however, declined to defend Jackson.
After they came forward with their stories in 2013 and 2014, Robson and Safechuck filed lawsuits against Jackson’s estate, and Robson also sued his businesses. Those cases were all dismissed.
In their statement, the Jackson family call Robson and Safechuck “admitted liars” and say there isn’t “a shred of proof or single piece of physical evidence” to support their claims.
Reed told BuzzFeed News that he approached his interviews with Robson and Safechuck without any preconceived idea as to whether they were telling the truth, and he acknowledged that the film rests on the credibility of their stories.
“What we’re talking about is something that happened behind closed doors, between a child and an adult,” Reed said.
“What we’re talking about is something that happened behind closed doors, between a child and an adult.”
After interviewing Safechuck over two days, and Robson separately over three days, in February 2017, Reed said he was struck by the thoroughness and consistency of each man’s story. He and his small team then corroborated every factual detail possible in their accounts — like confirming Safechuck was staying with Jackson in Paris on his 1988 Bad tour, when Safechuck said the sexual abuse began.
“I find nothing in those accounts that causes me to doubt them,” Reed said.
As for the Jackson family’s contention that there isn’t any “physical evidence” to back up Robson and Safechuck’s stories, Reed seemed at a bit of loss for how to respond.
“There are no video recordings of what happened, and that’s clear,” he said. “I mean, I wonder what kind of proof the [family] might be talking about. I hesitate to assume that they’re talking about physical samples. I wouldn’t like to speculate.”
Reed also took issue with the Jackson family’s assertion that he and his collaborators “were not interested in the truth” because they didn’t interview anyone who knew Jackson other than Robson, Safechuck, and their families.
“This is a bizarre and random claim,” Reed said.
Reed also noted that he’s been making documentaries for 30 years — including about terrorist attacks in Paris, Nairobi, and Mumbai — and that the medium allows him “a deeper approach to telling the truth about a story and the complexity of people’s experience.”
“Our focus has been on James Safechuck and Wade Robson, and the story they tell about being abused by Michael Jackson,” Reed said. “I don’t feel any need to include people who have no direct knowledge of those two individuals’ experience. The only people who have direct knowledge of what happened in that room [with Jackson] are Wade and James, and their families are the only people who have direct knowledge of what happened afterwards.”
Reed said he did attempt to contact Chandler and Arvizo for the film, and never received a response. But he was perplexed by the Jackson family’s assertion that by focusing on Robson and Safechuck’s accounts, his film wasn’t “fair.”
“You can always find people who were not harmed by an individual who has done harm.”
“What is the other side of the story?” he said. “That there were people that Michael did not abuse? I’m not quite sure of the logic of what they’re saying. If they’re saying, ‘You should’ve interviewed people who were not abused by Michael Jackson,’ I would ask why, because this is a story about two young men who were abused by Michael Jackson. You can always find people who were not harmed by an individual who has done harm.”
From the start, Reed said he always understood that Jackson’s family — and especially many of his fans — would have a negative reaction to the film, an expectation that was reinforced as he researched how fiercely Jackson’s fans came to his defense during the 2005 trial.
“We knew that the fans were very passionate, and virulent, you know, nasty — some of them, not all of them,” he said.
Some of the responses have included death threats, but none that Reed believe are “credible.”
“I do ask myself what is it that motivates the fans — I believe, the small minority of them — who send these very vicious, hurtful messages,” he said. “I wonder what it is about their relationship about Michael Jackson, the icon — the image of Michael Jackson — that drives them to do that. I don’t know.”
Leaving Neverland will premiere on HBO in the US in March, at which point those fans, and everyone else, will have the opportunity to decide for themselves.
In the Q&A following the Sundance premiere of the film, Robson was asked if there was anything he needed to say to Jackson’s fans who don’t believe his account.
“I don’t feel like there’s anything that I need to say to them, except that I understand that it’s really hard for them to believe,” he said. “Because, in a way, not that long ago, I was in the same position they’re in. Even though it happened to me, I still couldn’t believe it. I still couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing.”