Journalism Plus: How Hail Satan?, The Brink, and Leaving Neverland Blend Truth-Seeking With Cinematic Storytelling

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“Journalism Plus” is how Academy Award-winning moviemaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) characterizes making documentaries.

If you’re a documentarian, you may not have a degree or credentials in journalism, but as long as you’re tasked with representing reality, you’ll still have to summon your inner-reporter.

What journalistic practices should you use to verify information? What ethical guidelines must you consider? What tactics will you employ to gain your subjects’ trust?

With three controversial new documentaries—The Brink, Hail Satan?, and Leaving Neverland—reaching audiences this spring, MovieMaker spoke with the films’ makers about their creative and tactical approaches to muckraking and truth-seeking. If you’re an independent working in nonfiction, these case studies will give you a leg up as you begin looking for the best way to rely on your unique perspective and visual craft to build a compelling cinematic narrative.

The films, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, all feature subjects who were initially hesitant to participate. In all three cases, it was essential that the primary subjects granted access.

Directed by Alison Klayman, The Brink follows former Trump aide Steve Bannon in the 15 months after his abrupt departure from the White House in 2017 as he attempts to spread his brand of nationalism through Europe. In Hail Satan? moviemaker Penny Lane conveys the philosophy and beliefs of The Satanic Temple with humor and insight using archival footage, coverage of the Temple’s public actions, protests, and rituals as well as interviews with key Temple leaders.

The four-hour, two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, consists primarily of interviews with Wade Robson, James Safechuck and their families. Both men accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them as children.

Getting Subjects On Board and Negotiating Access

The Right Place at the Right Time: Alt-Right strategist Steve Bannon granted The Brink director Alison Klayman and producer Marie Therese Guirgis access to document his political exploits in part because of Bannon and Guirgis’ former indie film ties. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

A personal relationship or connection isn’t a prerequisite to get a subject to agree to participate in your film, but it can certainly help.

The Brink producer Marie Therese Guirgis, who worked with Bannon at the now defunct indie film distribution company Wellspring, doesn’t think the film could have been made without her personal relationship with her one-time boss. Though they had lost touch over the years—and disagreed politically—their history gave her an advantage.

Still, when Guirgis emailed Bannon to ask if she could produce a documentary on him, he initially declined.

To persuade the former Breitbart editor to board the project, Guirgis reassured him that regardless of how he thinks he’s depicted, the film will be “intelligent and high quality… I think because he knew me and he knew my track record, he thought I could deliver on that.” Three emails later, he agreed. Still, it took months for him to sign a release.

Neither Lane nor her Hail Satan? producer Gabriel Sedgwick had any inside access to The Satanic Temple. Sedgwick wrote a letter to Lucien Greaves, the co-founder and spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, expressing his interest in making a documentary about the organization. Greaves was hesitant, but since he was already familiar with and respected Lane’s previous work (Nuts!, Our Nixon), he was open to at least meeting the moviemakers.

“He had almost no interest at all in being part of the film. He was very clear about that,” recalls Lane. “The initial meeting for him was kind of a formality, like, ‘I guess I’ll go meet with these people so I can more politely say ‘No.’”

Eventually, Greaves agreed to participate, but first he had to run it by The Satanic Temple’s national council for approval.

“We could have done the movie anyway, but without some kind of privileged access, it would have been hard,” says Lane. “Cooperation was quite important to us.”

The Satanic Temple agreed to participate, but emphasized that the moviemakers would have to ask each individual Temple member for permission to film. Lane says that she made it clear to each member she spoke to that, “We were really trying to accurately represent their worldview and that it wasn’t about their personal lives. I didn’t really care where their parents lived. I had no interest in outing them and finding out their real names and where they work.”

Still, a number of Temple members chose not to participate and some members appear in the film with their faces obscured because of the threats against The Satanic Temple. “To publicly declare yourself a Satanist is to invite a great deal of hatred and persecution,” says Lane. “We made sure that we weren’t putting anyone on camera who didn’t feel entirely comfortable with it,” says Lane.

The Satanic Temple co-founder and spokesman Lucien Greaves delivers a speech in front of the state capitol building in Little Rock, AR in Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Greaves also insisted that everything in the film had to be captured exactly as it happened, which meant no reenactments. “He was pretty clear about that,” says Lane. “We tested his resolve by making him walk up to the door of The Satanic Temple and open it several times. He said, ‘You said no re-enactments.’ We ended up breaking that rule a little bit, but he was really adamant that he didn’t want to have to act.”

For Leaving Neverland, Reed contacted Robson and Safechuck through their lawyers. “I made my request and I think Wade and James discussed it for a while with their wives and their families and with the lawyers, as well,” says Reed. “By the time I got to meet them, I think they had decided in principle to take part. It wasn’t the usual process of convincing a documentary subject.”

The only ground rule Reed set was that neither Robson or Safechuck or their lawyers would have any editorial control. The same was true for the subjects of The Brink and Hail Satan?

“It was a given for us—and obvious if we were going to get any financing—that [Steve Bannon] would have absolutely no creative control, input, or anything,” says Alison Klayman, director of The Brink.

For the vérité style in The Brink, Klayman embedded herself in Bannon’s life for 13 months on and off through 2017 and 2018.

She understood early on that just because Bannon agreed to participate in the documentary, negotiating for access would be ongoing. “As with any vérité project, the input or control he has is what he allows us to film,” says Klayman, whose previous films include Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Take Your Pills.

“If I’m filming, it’s fair game. But if he tells me, ‘Please don’t film,’ I stop. Within that realm, the question was, ‘Are we going to get the access necessary to make something substantive?’”

As is usually the case with vérité documentaries, Bannon let down his guard as filming went on. It helped that aside from a few B-roll scenes, Klayman was a one-woman crew, which made it easier for her to blend into the background and capture intimate moments. It also gave Klayman flexibility to keep up with Bannon’s fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants schedule.

“A lot of the realities of production made this incredibly challenging. His plans are all last minute. There would be days where it was like, ‘Tomorrow I might be going to Italy, or maybe I’m going to Brazil, or maybe I’m going nowhere. Or maybe he’s going to D.C,’ ” says Klayman. She had to be ready to jump on the next plane and couldn’t be bogged down with camera gear and a big crew.

“It would have been hard with two people because there were times when I was squeezed into the back of a car or getting the last seat on the plane,” says Klayman, who traveled almost entirely carry-on.

“I needed to always be able to move my gear myself. I joke that my camera assistant is my giant fanny pack, which would fit batteries, camera memory cards, and more. Anything that saves you a little bit of weight or a little bit of space is always excellent.”

During this fraught interview with James Safechuck, Leaving Neverland’s narrative focuses on the victims’ psychological damage, rather than what director Dan Reed saw as damage control in the form of a response from the aggrieved Michael Jackson estate. Image courtesy of HBO

Unlike The Brink, where Klayman captured Bannon as he went about his regular life of meetings and travel, in Leaving Neverland, Reed filmed Robson and Safechuck for long periods in highly controlled studio settings.

Just as it was always clear that The Brink would be shot in an observational style, Reed says it quickly became obvious that Leaving Neverland would require extensive sit-down interviews with the films’ subjects.

Though the interviews span an 18-month period, the bulk of Leaving Neverland was shot during five days in February, 2017: three days interviewing Robson in a log cabin in Hawaii and two days interviewing James in a house in Los Angeles.

“I reserved the right to film observational material. But very quickly, this became a film about the testimony and the human voice and the face, the drama of speech. It’s a film about people speaking a truth that is very difficult to articulate,” says Reed.

Like Klayman, Reed served as DP on Leaving Neverland, partially to put his subjects at ease and partially for practical reasons. “There’s a huge advantage in terms of flexibility and responsiveness. If you have your own equipment, you just pick up and go. You don’t need to worry about a huge crew and when they’re going to have lunch,” he says.

Documentary Director? Or Journalist?

Documentary films rely on many of the same techniques as journalism, but moviemaking is more reliant on the craft of storytelling than breaking news. Still, when making a film about life-and-death issues and topics that are controversial enough to provoke anger (including death threats), there’s a great responsibility for moviemakers to get their facts right.

“I believe very strongly in a mandate in documentary: that you should be accurate in your portrayals of what is happening in the world,” says Lane.

In the editing room, Lane acknowledges, “there’s a temptation to maximize drama in certain ways. But we were trying to stay tethered to a sense of what really happened and not change cause and effect in terms of the narrative.”

Buried Leads: A journalist at England’s Channel 4 prompted Reed to dig for untold stories behind Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson in Leaving Neverland. Image courtesy of HBO

When a commissioning editor at Channel 4 in England suggested that Reed investigate controversy surrounding Michael Jackson, Reed hired a researcher, who dug into past allegations and scoured the internet, including fan forums, for leads in the story. The researcher came upon references to Robson and Safechuck, which piqued Reed’s interest.

Before taking their stories as fact, Reed interviewed former detectives and prosecutors from the two principal investigations into Jackson. He shot interviews with the LAPD and the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department, which had investigated Jackson, as well as the deputy DA, who was the main prosecutor in the 2005 trial. He considered making a straightforward investigative documentary using the footage, but decided to craft the film primarily out of the interviews with Robson and Safechuck and their families.

When making a film about a controversial subject, Reed suggests that moviemakers record a master interview with their subjects to check for discrepancies in their stories. Reed devoured court records from the trials as well as any statements he could find from people who had worked in the Jackson household at the time of the alleged abuse.

“Try to corroborate everything you can. Spend as much time as you can trying to pick holes in it, trying to undermine it, trying to find cracks in it. If, by the end of that process, your subject’s story still stands up, then you have a winner,” he says. After double-checking Robson and Safechuck’s accounts, Reed says he didn’t find anything that contradicted their descriptions of the sexual abuse.

Though he insisted on fact-checking, Reed felt no compunction to include a response from Jackson’s family or lawyers. Reed says his film isn’t about Jackson, but about the two families whose lives were affected by his behavior.

“We were following a lot of the codes of conduct in journalism. What is responsible in terms of fact and access and sourcing and all of that,” says Klayman. Still, she acknowledges that “fundamentally, I am in it for a different product. I have a lot more artistic leeway and it’s a luxury to be able to be around for a real extended period of time and create something at the end of it.”

Steve Bannon in Alison Klayman’s The Brink. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

While a journalist might have a finite amount of time to interview Bannon, Klayman had many months to observe and to listen, which allowed her to develop the film’s visual style. “Because I’ve heard him say the same things over and over,” she explains, “it became a question of, ‘What could be an interesting shot?’ ”

Though for the most part, Klayman remains a silent observer behind the camera, during some moments of The Brink she calls Bannon out on something objectionable he says. It’s a reminder to the audience that what they’re seeing isn’t unadulterated truth.

“I encouraged her to have her voice in there a couple of times,” says Guirgis. “People sometimes misunderstand vérité and think there are no choices, that you’re seeing the truth. But a documentary is a reflection of the documentary filmmaker’s experience of the subject. There’s no such thing as the [non-subjective] truth.”

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9 Comments

  1. place

    October 10, 2019 at 6:58 pm

    The mothers were smiling and laughing about learning their children being sexually assaulted. No assault took place. A vicious pack of lies. I have lost all respect for the Emmys and will never allow that show in my home. Feel deeply bad that Oprah step her foot into this mess. I can never watch anything she does either.

  2. Jane

    May 8, 2019 at 4:33 pm

    Truth-telling? Leaving Neverland was the biggest compilation of lies I’ve ever seen in a “documentary”. What a thorough mess and a slander against an innocent man. I researched Michael Jackson’s life for two years and I don’t even think you came close to any truth…..What the hell? Are you that hard up for fame? Disgusted.

  3. Pearl Jr

    April 28, 2019 at 2:43 pm

    Dan gREED and his fabricated fairy tale that promotes pedophilia will go down in history as the most salacious child sex fantasy FILM of all time because there has been 60+ lies identified with the saga of ROBson, SafeCHECK, and gREED.

    The ONLY truth in it is these boys knew Michael Jackson. The rest of their story is complete and utter BS. There is zero evidence in this one-sided film and there is even less than that in proof these allegations are true.

    Please visit Pearl Jr’s youtube channel to watch the video about 40 lies, then she followed up with 50 lies and has even discovered more lies in subsequent videos.

    The BEST lie is James said he and MJ had sex in places that did NOT exist and that MJ purchased Neverland for him when MJ wanted to purchase Neverland when he did a video there in 1983, which is nearly 5 years before Pepsi hired James to do a commercial with MJ. Also the mock wedding, well that was an after thought because that part of the interview with James happened 17 months later, so why would “getting married to MJ” be pick up information.

    Oh, and Wade saying why he was convinced to testify on MJ’s behalf was due to a dinner but several witnesses say that dinner happened AFTER Wade testified and Wade and his mother never mentioned leaving Wade with MJ while they went to the Grand Canyon in their previous testimonies. It’s ALL such lies and they will see their day in court they have been seeking and they will lose.

    Dan gReed will go down in history as the BIGGEST FOOL in the history of film makers and be sanctioned for making a child porno film that talks about how it felt good for a child to be molested by a grown man. SICK STUFF!

  4. Jess Garcia

    April 27, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    Dan Reed is as unresearched as this article for crediting him as such.

    Internet killed the journalist star.

  5. Louise Blainey

    April 26, 2019 at 5:14 am

    Reed has admitted himself he did next to no research into the stories of Robson and safechuck and himself knows nothing about Jackson. He took the stories at face value and ignored the fact that these men have been thrown out of court twice for lying and have appealed a third time. He had no evidence of the stories being true and many of their claims have since been debunked and proved to be out and out lies. No research, no interviews with the other side and no evidence. Movie making yes. Ethical journalism. Absolutely not

  6. Debbie

    April 25, 2019 at 9:44 pm

    Leaving Neverland is a total joke.

    • Jane

      May 8, 2019 at 4:38 pm

      Agreed! Not just a joke, but a series of lies and slander and really sick stuff..Yuck. All of it not true. Oprah said she watched it on her birthday. Weird. They resurrected the worst low life individuals on the planet for this mess.

  7. Zara

    April 24, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    Michael Jackson was found NOT guilty by court and the new accusations do not stand up to scrutiny, Leaving Neverland is totally biased. Of course the director allowed only the accusers and their families in his movie – they would never win the argument if anyone sensible challenged them

  8. Peter

    April 24, 2019 at 4:47 am

    With all the mistakes in Leaving Neverland (Train Station, Grand Canyon, cut birthday video, cut press-conference video…) and the obsessed behaviour of Dan Reed in some interviews, it is somehow surprising that you are promoting this movie.
    But since journalism became business, the goal of journalism is not seeking the truth, but getting attention.
    Sad world we live in.

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