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After the estate called his film “a tabloid character assassination” and insisted it “isn’t a documentary” while the family called him and the film’s two accusers “opportunists,” Reed sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in Park City to defend his work, which received a standing ovation from the visibly shaken audience members at its festival screening on Friday (Sundance stationed mental health workers in the lobby for anyone who needed help processing the film).
“It is a four-hour documentary by an experienced documentarian with a long track record in investigation and telling complex stories and this is a complex story,” says Reed. “So I’d say it’s beyond doubt a documentary. Anyone with any knowledge of that form would recognize a documentary. A four-hour piece, is that a tabloid? I didn’t characterize Jackson at all in the film — I think if you watch it you’ll have noticed that it’s a story about these two families and Jackson is an element of that story. But I don’t seek to characterize him at all. I don’t comment on Jackson. It’s not a film about Michael. … The film itself is an account of sexual abuse, how sexual abuse happens and then how the consequences play out later in life.”
The film follows two adult accusers — Wade Robson and James Safechuck — as they recount their relationship with the so-called King of Pop. Robson, now 36, says in the movie that he was molested by Jackson from the ages of 7 to 14 and chronicles the alleged abuse in graphic detail. Safechuck, who appeared as a child alongside Jackson in one of the most iconic Pepsi ads of all time, says he was sexually abused by the singer beginning at the age of 10. His story also is told in painstaking detail.
The family of Jackson on Monday put out a statement, saying, “We can’t just stand by while this public lynching goes on, and the vulture tweeters and others who never met Michael go after him.” That followed a statement from the estate that was released hours after Friday’s world premiere of Leaving Neverland that said, “The film isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death. The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact.”
“They have a very precious asset to protect,” Reed says. “Every time a song plays, a cash register goes ‘ka-ching.’ It doesn’t surprise me that they’ve come out fighting in defense of their asset.”
HBO is planning a March premiere for Leaving Neverland, which will likely roll out over two nights. Though the allegations in the film are explosive (one of the men suggests he was “replaced” by actor Macaulay Culkin, something the actor strongly denies), Reed says he spent less time vetting the film with lawyers than his typical films.
“Every single documentary I’ve ever made has been vetted because of the types of subjects that I do often involve stories that people don’t want told,” says Reed. “But there was less lawyering on this film than the past couple of films I’ve done.”
Reed, who has made four films with HBO, including 2016’s Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks, says he doesn’t believe that the family has seen the movie.
“Their statements are not consistent with having watched the movie,” he says.
In addition to enduring the wrath of the family and estate, Reed has been inundated with emails, calls and even death threats from fans lambasting the film. The two accusers, who have since left Park City, were flanked by bodyguards as they left the Sundance premiere.
“Over a week I had about a thousand emails from China and then they stopped about as suddenly as they’d begun, saying vile things to me, making threats,” he says. “I know that there’s a level of organization. Some of the email writing is cut and paste because we found a webpage that explains to people what to do [to protest Leaving Neverland].”
Ultimately, Reed feels protective of his two subjects and pushes back at the Jackson family’s characterization of them as “opportunists.”
“Wade and James were not paid in any way, directly, indirectly. The family were not enumerated. There was nothing. No compensation in any form whatsoever. I think that’s an important thing to establish,” he says. “The #MeToo era began during the making of the film, and there’s been a sea change in how we regard the victims of sexual assault, and I’m hoping that this film will deepen that and widen it to boys and men, victims of child sexual abuse. Also I’m hoping it’ll educate people as to how child sexual abuse happens.”
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