The standing ovation seemed to come as a shock. At last month’s Sundance Film Festival, Wade Robson and James Safechuck were teary-eyed as they faced the applause, following the premiere screening of Leaving Neverland, an excruciatingly immersive documentary that accuses the late Michael Jackson of sexually molesting them as young boys.
The two-part, four-hour documentary was directed by Dan Reed and details the alleged abuse of two boys in the 1980s and 1990s, usually during overnight stays amid the fantasy world of Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara County, California. Safechuck was an actor from Southern California then, Robson a little dancer from Australia, when the alleged pedophilia began when both were under 10 years old.
“We can’t change what happened to us,” Robson, now a father and a successful choreographer, told the Sundance audience. “And we can’t do anything about stopping Michael. He’s dead. That’s gone. What happened, happened. The feeling is, what can we do with it now?”
Audiences across North America will find out when Leaving Neverland airs in two parts this Sunday and Monday on HBO. Across its four hours, the documentary patiently allows Robson and Safechuck (and members of their families) to tell their stories in graphic detail, as they grapple with the alleged abuse and the genuine love they once had as boys for the pop superstar.
Both say their relationships with Jackson lasted for years, with out-of-town trips and long stays at Neverland. There were good times and games in the daytime, sexual abuse in Jackson’s bedroom at night, according to the documentary. “He told me if they ever found out what we were doing, he and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives,” Robson says in the film.
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Safechuck was called “Little One,” he says. And the singer’s direct impact was felt not only on them as boys, but on their parents and siblings. There are several family snapshots with Jackson, the otherworldly King of Pop, relaxing in their suburban homes.
The making of Leaving Neverland began before the rise of the MeToo movement and horrifying revelations about movie producer Harvey Weinstein. It has already been attacked by members of the Jackson family, who point out that both Robson and Safechuck have each filed lawsuits against the estate of Jackson, who died in 2009.
The Jackson family has begun a vociferous defense of the late pop icon, noting that these same accusers had defended Jackson in the past from similar allegations. In an interview this week with Rolling Stone, the singer’s brothers and nephew insisted the documentary and the two former child companions are now simply looking for fame and fortune. “It’s about the money,” Marlon Jackson said. The Jackson estate is suing HBO for $100 million.
Robson and Safechuck were not compensated for participating in the documentary. After missing California’s statute of limitations for suing the estate of a deceased person, their individual lawsuits are currently on appeal.
Either way, Leaving Neverland is a direct threat to Jackson’s legacy and his estate, which has remained active and grown only more profitable since his death, earning $2.1 billion in profits (adjusted for inflation) since 2009, according to Forbes. There’s currently a tribute show in Las Vegas, an upcoming Broadway musical and ongoing releases of Jackson’s music.
Robson and Safechuck seem prepared to be attacked. What surprised the two was the support from that audience at Sundance and elsewhere. Jackson’s two former friends aren’t demanding that we all erase our positive memories of the music Jackson left behind. But Robson and Safechuck can’t listen anymore.
Speaking to Rolling Stone, Robson and Safechuck (with comments from filmmaker Reed) describe their lives as children at Neverland and the unexpected experience of reliving it for the documentary.
Describe the feeling of being in the audience and onstage at Sundance for the film’s first public screening.
Wade Robson: Leading up to it, I’ve had so many different kinds of experiences . . . and experiencing a lot of the [negativity from the] public, estate and the Jacksons. In the process of walking up onstage [and] seeing all of these people give us this standing ovation felt so genuine and so raw. I started crying, and I didn’t really know why in the moment. When I thought about it after, I realized I never witnessed public support for telling this truth before. The big moments of healing still unexpectedly [continue] to happen every day.
What was your gut reaction the first time you saw the film?
James Safechuck: When it’s you in the movie, that’s weird. So sitting there watching me [is] hard to process. I didn’t want it to be a film about Michael or just a sensationalist kind of story using his fame. I didn’t want to be part of a film like that. I wanted to be part of telling an abuse survivor story and what’s that like.
Robson: It was extremely surreal to watch. I’m sitting there watching a movie . . . of my life, and then I’m seeing footage of my family that I’ve never seen. I was extremely emotional and surreal, and I kept trying to stay [present] during that first screening. I kept disassociating a bit, especially when we’d get to the really intense stuff and details of the abuse, and I’d come back and remember, “Oh, wait, right, this is a movie about me and my story.”
It’s not for me, it’s not for James and it’s not for Dan [director Reed] any sort of vendetta piece against Michael. I was sexually abused. James was sexually abused. And our abuser happened to be Michael Jackson. And this is the story of how this unfolded and unfortunately the story of how this unfolds in many people’s lives.
One of the more striking things in the film is how you say Jackson was more than just sexually abusive, and manipulated you to fall in love with him.
Safechuck: Yeah, I mean, that’s what victims go through. It’s a common thing, I would imagine, for this kind of sexual abuse. There are conflicting feelings. And that’s part of what makes it so difficult was, you love him and he’s hurting you and you don’t quite understand that. How can somebody who you think is so good be so bad for you? And then those feelings of love linger on. So they continue throughout your life. How do you grapple with that? It’s a confusing thing for people who haven’t been through it to get. But I think that love story is part of sexual child abuse. I think it’s common.
Now that you’re both in your thirties, is there a part of you that still feels that love component in a weird way, or have you been able to divorce that part of it from what you say he did to you?
Robson: It’s still a bit of a struggle. The love and the abuse — or the seeming love and the abuse — all becomes so intertwined. The love was real from my end. Maybe Michael thought it was real from his end, but the love was obviously twisted and warped. So it’s been the process of constantly trying to pull those things apart. I’ve done a lot of work on that and have had some success with that in my own life, but it still comes up.
Where I don’t know how to feel, ’cause it’s confusing, [is] all that love was so strong for so long. And this is the piece in relation to so much of the accusations, whether it be from the estate or the Jacksons or angry MJ fans about, “Well, this doesn’t make sense.” I supported him and defended him in court and in interviews. I gushed over him in interviews for pretty much my whole life up until I disclosed. This is a huge part of what happens; this is the psychology, most of the time, of how sexual abuse works. So that’s why I really encourage people, if they’re curious at all, if they’re confused, if they don’t understand, to watch the film because we have the time in the film to talk about the complexity of this.
Wade said at Sundance, “Hopefully, it helps other survivors feel less isolated and validates their story and raises awareness.” Was that a main goal for either of you to come forward now?
Safechuck: It was a main goal for the movie, not for coming forward. So for the movie, my audience, who I was trying to reach out to, was other survivors. So that was my goal. I think the same way when I saw Wade come out, I didn’t feel alone. And I was hoping to give that to other people so they don’t feel alone.
What were your personal goals of doing the film? Was it more about trying to find a sense of closure or progress for yourself, or having other people hear your story?
Safechuck: [We started this] pre-Me Too, so I had to set realistic expectations, which I try to do for myself. I figured we were gonna get trashed by everybody else, so I didn’t expect people to believe us or come out in support of us. My focus was just on other victims, that they could hear the story and hopefully see themselves in it. For me, that was a success. I didn’t want to set unhealthy expectations and then have to go through that. All this that’s happened since, people paying attention to the movie — I didn’t even know people were going to pay attention to it. It could’ve just been ignored. I didn’t know that. All this attention and how people since then have a better understanding of abuse — unexpected. It’s great, but it wasn’t part of the plan.
Robson: Yeah, similar in the sense that the experience of being a survivor and going through the healing process, even in my case and in James’ case, in a public way [is] a really isolating experience where many times I’ve felt like I was the crazy one and no one would understand. You feel alone. Then I had some experiences in support groups for adult survivors where I’m sitting in the room in a circle of survivors and they’re talking about their personal stories of abuse. The validation I would get from that was so incredible and so healing, that then the thought was, “Wow, could this film do something like that for other survivors? Could it move toward prevention for teachers, parents, everybody responsible for children?”
With Me Too and Time’sUp, it’s culturally a different time than when Dan first conceived of the film prior to the Harvey Weinstein reckoning. Do you think the film will be received differently now than if it had come out a few years ago?
Robson: If this film would have come out two years ago, it could have been quite a different reaction. There’s definitely been a level of cultural-consciousness shift over the last couple of years with the Me Too movement, and this is good news. People are talking about it all more. This is how sexual abuse of any kind keeps happening: in silence and in darkness. One of the only ways we can change it is to be talking about it. Understandably, we don’t want to talk about it ’cause it’s nasty, it’s horrific, it’s one of the darkest parts of humanity. But [that’s] exactly the reason that we’ve got to talk about it.
How can we do something good with this horrible thing that happened to us? By even opening ourselves up to the bashing that we’re getting from the estate and the Jacksons as more proof of, like, “Look, this is what happens to victims all over the place, all the time.” They get re-victimized and not believed. This is the conversation and the thought process that has to change before we can start protecting our children.
Safechuck: People’s understanding of the last two years has grown greatly. People hopefully can see now how all the tactics that the Jacksons’ estate used in the past are terrible. They’re using misunderstandings about abuse to use it against us. The more understanding that people have of this abuse, the more people will understand victims and have more of an open mind. I think that Me Too has totally helped that. That was unexpected. We decided to do the documentary before that happened. So we thought we were coming out to just get mowed down.
“How can somebody who you think is so good be so bad for you? . . . But I think that love story is part of sexual child abuse. I think it’s common.” —James Safechuck
There’ve been numerous articles recently about whether we should “cancel” Michael Jackson and if that’s even possible for someone so influential and ubiquitous. Where do you stand on that?
Safechuck: This whole “muting artists” is new. That wasn’t ever an expectation. I think that’s for people to decide. Now they know both sides and they can make that decision for themselves. I don’t have any particular wont from other people. I can’t listen to his music, but that’s me. Other people can make up their own decision.
Robson: I don’t know that canceling anything is progressive. You can’t cancel anything that’s happened. I wish I could cancel what happened to me, but I can’t. If I tried to — if we all tried to — then it’s just going to keep happening. So we have to talk about it [and] try and be more comfortable with simultaneity. Great songwriter, great dancer, great performer, even did some great charitable things, and was also a vicious predator of children in a sexual way. It’s really tough to swallow, but these things are both true.
It doesn’t seem like you’re trying to convince Jackson fans to believe you.
Robson: We can’t convince anybody of anything, ever, really. Everybody makes up their own mind about everything, and all of us can only accept things when we’re ready to. I, James, Dan, the film have no control over that. I guess if I have any hope, it’s just that the film continues and expands the conversation. You just can’t shut down people without listening. We have to talk about the scary and the nasty stuff. That’s the only way it’s going to change.
Safechuck: I didn’t set out to change minds. That would be an unhealthy expectation. I just set out to talk to other survivors. And that’s something that I can do. But changing somebody’s mind about Michael is a really unhealthy goal. If that’s the point of doing the movie, you’re setting yourself up to be really disappointed.
Jackson will obviously be a part of both of your legacies. But how much do you want your alleged experiences with him to define who you are?
Robson: The urge and desire that started for me before I decided to do the court case and the reason I decided to do it was, how can I turn this bad thing into something good? How can I be of service to other survivors? That’s still the feeling I have. But if I can help other survivors and play any small role in education and prevention, I want to be there.
Safechuck: The court case, for me, was the need to fight back. I can go on in life and know that I did something. I fought back, win or lose. All of this attention is unexpected. This has gotten really big, and I did not expect that. I said to myself, “You fight back . . . nothing happens. It’s thrown out or whatever, they ruled against you. You have to be OK with that, and you have to do this for the right reasons.” And the right reasons are fighting back. I could live with that.
The Jackson estate issued a set of talking points before the film’s release that I was hoping you could respond to. They write, “The movie is motivated by greed. It was made in secret, in cahoots, with the lawyers representing Wade and James, who are still seeking hundreds of millions from Michael’s children, through his estate. Nothing is in the film that wasn’t in their failed court cases.”
Robson: Yeah, I mean, I think we gave you a bunch of answers as to what the movie is motivated for.
Safechuck: We’re not making any money off of the movie.
Robson: Never have, never will.
Safechuck: There’s no future money; there’s no money now.
Reed: There was one big financial interest at stake, and that’s the estate. [Wade and James] were not paid, they’re not gonna be paid, they have no financial interest in the documentary whatsoever.
“How can I be of service to other survivors? That’s still the feeling I have.” —Wade Robson
They also write, “There is no independent corroboration or evidence whatsoever backing up what they claim. Accepting their stories at face value is a gigantic leap of faith.”
Safechuck: Isn’t that just a false statement altogether?
Reed: The family acknowledges that Michael spent nights in bed with little boys. So that’s independent corroboration. What happened behind the closed doors of Michael’s bedroom, with these two guys, we know from that.
Robson: Michael acknowledges that he spent hundreds and hundreds of nights with children in his bed.
Safechuck: Yeah, the statement’s not correct. It’s a bizarre statement.
Robson: And then, of course, what went on behind closed doors, right? When the abuse took place. It was Michael, and it was me. I’m alive, he’s dead. Unfortunately, in this case, we can’t hear from him. But you do hear from him in the film as to him claiming his innocence.
Reed: We know that Wade and James were frequent visitors of Neverland. We know they were companions of Michael. This is documented.
Safechuck: Right. That’s why it just doesn’t make any sense.
Reed: So everything is corroborated up to the moment where the bedroom door closes. Michael didn’t keep an archive of his sexual molestations. So what are we talking about?
Wade, the estate adds of you, “He also went back to Neverland and spent the night with his wife to shoot a short film in 2007, and in the credits thanked Michael for letting him use his ‘sacred land.’ What person would do that if their memories of the place were so horrific?”
Robson: A survivor of child sexual abuse.
Finally, “When Wade was trying to write his book, he had to rely on his mother to help reconstruct his memories, writing her an email that said, ‘I don’t really remember that much about my time with Michael. Can you refresh my memory?’ Can one trust the memories he recalls in the movie if he had to rely on his mother?”
Robson: There’s a lot of things to unpack there. One, I never had any blurriness as to any details of the abuse, right? If I did, there’s no one I could ask about it, right? Because it was only Michael and I once the door closed in the room. Some of the details [like] what exact dates did we visit America in those first couple years? These are the kind of things I had to talk to my mother about. As a child, these are 20-plus-years-ago memories.
That’s not a general statement of “I don’t have memories of my time with Michael altogether.” This is one of the things they keep doing: taking one tiny piece and taking it out of context and using it as some sort of excuse or accusation. And there’s a whole truth and story behind each one of these tiny things that when you take the time to understand all the complexity and all of the conflicting feelings. . . . All the years that James and I defended Michael is all part of how it goes down, with the love that’s all intertwined with the abuse.
We’re talking about the film now when only select people have seen it. But how are you feeling knowing that next week, this will most likely invade the national consciousness?
Safechuck: [Eyes bulge] It’s fucking terrifying. It’s a lot — that is the answer. I’m freaking out. It’s a really difficult thing to go through. I don’t know how to take it. Everybody’s going to see this. I can’t comprehend it. I’m very nervous, and I’ve got my guard up.
Robson: Sometimes the feeling is one of excitement for the possibility of conversation that will maybe really filter through humanity about abuse and what are we doing about it and how are we talking about it. And then, the next minute, I could be worrying about keeping my family safe. I received another death threat last night. This is a reality of this experience. So [it’s] constantly trying to walk that line between something I feel is important to do and protecting my wife and my son. I don’t know what the final answer is.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Robson: One in four girls [and] one in six boys are sexually abused. Let’s work on those numbers. That’s what’s happening. That’s what this is about.