Shocking revelations of alleged child abuse by Michael Jackson air in New Zealand next week. The Telegraph's Chris Harvey talks to the director behind it.
"We're going to have to re‑evaluate the way we see Michael Jackson," says Dan Reed, the director of the forthcoming Channel 4 documentary Leaving Neverland.
"The lie that Jackson perpetrated while he was alive that he was a great defender and supporter of children – and the ferocity with which his business associates and his family have defended him – mean that his fall will be that much harder.
"People will have to listen to his music in the knowledge that he was a prolific child rapist. If they're comfortable doing that, fine. If they're not, well perhaps listen to something else for a while."
We're in the 54-year-old's production office in central London. Reed's five Baftas, for hard-hitting films such as Terror in Mumbai (2009) and Battle for Haiti (2011), are sitting on the windowsill. A handwritten letter on pink paper from an outraged Michael Jackson fan is pinned to the wall.
"Leave the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, be!" it reads. "These so-called 'victims' have already testified that Michael never did anything to them. Now… they decide to flap their gums to spew out lies."
Ever since Leaving Neverland first aired at the Sundance Film Festival, in Utah, on January 25, amid a large police presence, the documentary has stirred up strong emotions.
Fans from as far afield as China, Taiwan and Singapore have subjected Reed to a torrent of "really horrible, vicious" abuse via email and social media, wishing him dead and saying, "disgusting things they want to do to me – without knowing me, without having seen the film, thinking that it's going to do Michael Jackson some good if they hurl abuse at me."
The singer's family, too – his brothers Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon and Tito, with whom he performed as The Jackson Five – have traduced the film, insisting that Jackson's "slumber parties" with young boys were innocent. Jackson's estate has also launched a $100 million (£76m) lawsuit against HBO, which aired the first part of the documentary yesterday in America.
Over the course of four hours, in interviews with two men – 40-year-old James Safechuck and 36-year-old Wade Robson – and their families, Leaving Neverland details graphic allegations of sexual abuse. Both spent considerable time with Jackson as boys: Safechuck was around nine when he appeared alongside Jackson in a 1987 Pepsi advert, after which the singer befriended him and his family, inviting them to his Neverland ranch in California and taking the boy on tour.
Robson, who would later become Britney Spears' choreographer, met Jackson as a five-year-old in Brisbane, Australia in late 1987, after winning a dance contest during the Bad tour.
First prize was to meet his idol. The next night, Jackson brought Robson out on stage to dance with him. The boy was star-struck but would not become part of Jackson's life until two years later, when his mother moved to America. Robson says Jackson abused him for the next seven years.
Safechuck, meanwhile, describes all the places in Neverland where he says Jackson had sex with him. He even produces a wedding ring from a mock ceremony in which Jackson told him they were married. His hands shake as he takes it from its box.
"This is a film about love and the betrayal of love," Reed says. "Jackson abused these boys not just physically but psychologically and emotionally. If you don't understand that they were in love with Michael, you can't understand anything they do: why would you not tell your mom? Why would you defend him in court? Society doesn't want to acknowledge that this can happen [but] it's the rotten love of the paedophile and the pure love of the child."
Both Safechuck and Robson had previously said that they had not been abused. Robson was the first defence witness called at the 2004-5 criminal trial in which Jackson was accused of abusing 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo, the boy who appeared at his side during Martin Bashir's 2003 documentary Living with Michael Jackson. In it, the singer said he shared his bed with all of the children who visited him.
Reed explained to both men before he conducted the interviews: "I need you to go into explicit detail about what happened between you and Michael, we can't draw a veil over it… because for so many years the contention has been that he just liked children and a kiss and a cuddle, and this wasn't."
In fact, the film is so explicit that Sundance had support on hand in case audience members were traumatised. Robson describes "a grown man's penis in my seven-year-old mouth" and drops of blood on his underwear after Jackson tried to penetrate him.
Reed, who studied Russian at Cambridge University before joining the BBC as an assistant producer to film-maker Adam Curtis, says he approached the documentary scrupulously and with an open mind, noting that his reputation is built on "forensically researched, exhaustively documented" stories.
"I was never going to hang that reputation on some dodgy story about Michael Jackson that wasn't true."
Even after the interviews were completed, he says, he and his team spent months cross-checking the stories. "If we'd caught them out in a lie or if we'd found any major inconsistencies in their accounts, even in the last two weeks, we would have canned the film."
Jackson supporters question the motivation of Robson, claiming that he has been trying to make money from his allegations ever since Jackson died, first by attempting to sell a book about his relationship with the singer and then by suing the estate in 2013 for millions of dollars.
Safechuck also launched a civil case, they point out, suggesting that he only cooperated with Reed after his and Robson's cases were dismissed by judges (on the grounds that only Jackson, not his estate or business interests, could be held responsible for the alleged abuse).
Fans say that the striking similarity of the sex acts in the testimonies of Safechuck and Robson can be explained by the fact that they share a legal team, and that boys such as Brett Barnes, Jonathan Spence, Emmanuel Lewis and Macaulay Culkin have nearly identical stories of friendships with Jackson but deny any abuse.
"Jackson was prepared to go to pretty much any lengths to destroy and discredit a child who claimed that he'd been hurt by him," Reed says, "and the estate is doing the same thing today. Their first response to news of this documentary was to say, 'They're after money and it's all lies'."
It has extra resonance in the MeToo era, he adds: "[They should have thought] 'Maybe we should watch the film before we respond, take some time and hear these people who say they were victims'." Reed thinks it likely that Jackson, who was a star at 11, was an abuse victim himself, but says it doesn't offer an excuse: "It simply isn't the case that anyone's that's been abused automatically becomes an abuser."
I ask Reed about the complaint that the estate is not given a right of reply in the documentary. Reed doesn't accept that, explaining that it includes clips of Jackson offering denials of sexual abuse, as well as footage of his lawyers saying that Robson and Safechuck are lying – "I don't need another Jackson lawyer in a different suit to say the same things, do I?
"Of course, I would have requested an interview with [Jackson] if he had still been alive," Reed adds. "He's the principal subject of the allegations we make. So many people I speak to have the Michael Jackson specs on, in which Michael's a victim, and these evil children are saying horrible things about him, and that's a--e about face."
I can feel his anger rising as he mimics the recent "embarrassing interview with Jermaine Jackson" on Good Morning Britain.
" 'Oh you're making this film about Michael, he's not around to defend himself, leave him alone…' Wade and James are alive, thank you very much, and they have things they want to say about Michael."
Since Jermaine's comments, Jackson's other brothers, and Taj, his nephew, have told CBS: "We know our brother and he wouldn't do anything like that… It's all about money. Not one piece of evidence corroborates their story."
Reed, in contrast, believes the case is "cut and dried. I defy anyone having watched the whole film with an open mind to come out thinking that Wade and James and their families are lying… This isn't forensic evidence, we're not analysing bodily fluids found, there's no physical evidence and there's no 'gotcha' videotape of Michael having sex with children. Short of that, we've got the most persuasive evidence you could possibly have, which is mutually supporting, harrowing and very consistent testimony of two families."
Why does he think the image of Jackson as almost a child himself has survived up to now?
"He put a huge amount of money and time and effort into embedding that into the public imagination," Reed says. "Neverland, this sort of playground for children – of course designed to attract children and designed to be a playground for him as a rampant predatory paedophile – was a way for Jackson to hide in plain sight… 'of course I'm walking along holding a little boy's hand every minute of the day' – not a girl's hand, a boy's hand – 'of course I do this, because I'm just a child at heart and I love children; of course I'm going to spend the night with your little boy because we just like to play, it's a slumber party'.
"It's rubbish. He was raping those children night after night after night in the next room to their mothers. Spending days and nights in little boys' homes. It's the most appalling depravity covered up by this façade of angelic childlike purity – that lie was staring us all in the face for so many years."
Leaving Neverland is screening as a two-part documentary on TVNZ 1 on March 10 and 11. The full four-hour series will be available at TVNZ OnDemand from March 10.