It feels like a lifetime since the grey afternoon in February 2017 when my colleague Marguerite Gaudin and I lugged seven heavy cases of equipment up the mist-shrouded flank of a Hawaiian volcano and into a tiny log cabin to set up for an interview with local resident Wade Robson.
This was the first time Wade had been interviewed for television in any detail about his claim that he’d been sexually abused by Michael Jackson for seven years, from the age of seven.
Wade was a mild-mannered 35-year-old whose firm handshake, steady gaze and radiant self-assurance masked a tangible vulnerability. We had met for the first time over lunch the day before the interview and agreed that he should tell his story chronologically and without glossing over any unpleasant details.
As we settled down for the sound-check I had no idea how much Wade was going to tell us, or whether I would believe him.
To my acute embarrassment one of the cameras failed as we began the interview. We managed to find a workaround and pressed on, filming Wade until dark. We interviewed him all day the next day. And the one after. Later that week we were in Los Angeles filming James Safechuck, a few days short of his 40th birthday. He too claimed he had been molested as a child by Jackson, the abuse continuing for years. He too gave a breathtaking interview, over two gruelling days. Unlike Wade, for whom the interview seemed to be a form of catharsis, James struggled to maintain his composure as the memories of Jackson bubbled up into his mind.
Dan Reed at the Leaving Neverland premiere (Getty)
I flew back to London to begin the process of trying to corroborate and digest what these seemingly very credible young men had told me. As I reviewed the footage, in which Wade and James made frequent reference to their mothers, I couldn’t help thinking: how on earth did their mums let this happen? How could they have allowed their little boys to share Jackson’s bed, night after night?
I made contact with Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck and returned to Los Angeles to interview them in November. They spoke, like their sons, without flinching. These were families determined to get the truth out there, no matter how painful. I realised that Jackson had drawn the mothers into his web – groomed them, to use a technical term – just as ruthlessly as their sons. My film became a story about these two families coming to terms, two decades later, with a terrible truth.
Leaving Neverland premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival to standing ovations from cinema audiences and howls of protest from Michael Jackson cultists, who began attacking the film – and everyone associated with it – within minutes of its announcement on the Sundance website. The outpouring of hatred from the Jackson superfans has continued unabated since then. The Jackson family and estate has released aggressive, rambling statements, but don’t appear to have seen the documentary. I wonder what they’ll say once they’ve had the chance to watch it.
Now I’m heading to America again to join Wade and James for another round of media interviews, including – I’m pinching myself – Oprah.
Amidst all the publicity and controversy I’m trying to keep my feet firmly on the ground and my mind anchored in one thought. It isn’t often that you get the chance to make a positive change with a documentary film. Wade’s and James’ astonishing courage in confronting a powerful abuser who darkened their childhoods will, I am certain, inspire many thousands of other child sexual abuse survivors to begin their own difficult journey back into the light.
Dan Reed is director of Channel 4’s Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me, which airs at 9pm on Wednesday 6th and Thursday 7th March on Channel 4