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

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Anticipating Legal Issues

All three films made sure to have lawyers vetting everything early on. “Most of my films, for better or worse, are legally contentious in some way,” says Reed, whose films include Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks and Terror at the Mall. “We always have a lot of conversations with lawyers because often times the films we make piss someone off, since we’re coming out with a truth that someone doesn’t want to hear or a story that someone wants to keep hidden.”

Since a deceased person can’t be libeled (per U.S. and U.K. law), that wasn’t a concern in the case of Michael Jackson. But Reed says they were sure to “cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ ” to prevent legal issues. Though the film doesn’t feature interviews with anyone from Jackson’s camp, Reed was certain to include rebuttals and statements of his innocence by Jackson and his legal team. Jackson’s heirs have sued HBO, the film’s distributor, demanding $100 million in damages.

Reed was able to use footage of Jackson concerts, videos, and commercials due to fair use law. That’s also how Lane was able to insert pop culture references to Satan from films such as Rosemary’s Baby.

Guirgis recommends hiring a good lawyer early in the process. “We always knew we were dealing with some very high profile, and in some cases, high net worth, influential, well-connected people in this film,” she says. “Whenever you’re filming those kinds of people, you need to make sure that you’re doing everything in the most above-board, buttoned up, legally protected manner.”

Shooting Ethically, and Responsibly

As a moviemaker, what do you owe your film’s subjects? When do you turn off the camera?

Reed says he was sure to let his subjects know they could take a pause for a snack of a bathroom break. But in general, his rule is to keep the camera running and decide what to cut in the editing room.

Michael Jackson poses with a young Wade Robson in Leaving Neverland. Image courtesy of HBO

He recalls one moment where Robson’s brother Shane broke down during an interview.

“He had tears in his eyes and he became very emotional. There was a lot of debate between the editor and me about how long we should stay on that,” says Reed.

Reed acknowledges that “it’s disturbing when people are upset in front of you, but sometimes those are the very times when you need to keep filming and remind yourself that you’re there to witness and your main job is not to co-experience.”

With The Brink, Guirgis and Klayman say their main ethical consideration was that they didn’t want to amplify Bannon’s nationalist message, but instead depict how he interacts with the world. “We wanted to be responsible about the kind of film we were making,” says Guirgis. “At the same time, we never wanted to make a polemic.”

Through news reports of tragedies such as the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and archival footage of fascist rallies, Klayman provides context for Bannon’s movement. When Bannon claims he doesn’t accept foreign money, for example, Klayman slyly cuts to Bannon’s meeting with the fugitive Chinese billionaire Miles Kwok. A title card informs the audience that Kwok is helping to finance Bannon’s next venture.

Staying Sane While Covering the Crazy

There were days in production of The Brink where Klayman was waiting for Bannon’s travel plans to solidify and she was left hanging. “Sometimes your job is just to wait, to not know, just to be available,” she says. “That makes it sound like I was more Zen than I was.”

Being isolated from family and friends and embedded in “enemy territory,” as Klayman was, can take an emotional toll on a director.

“I wasn’t there undercover. I was there as myself and they knew what my politics were, but I wasn’t able to be my full self. I didn’t agree with much of what was going on around me,” she says. “Psychologically, you carry that with you.”

To maintain her sanity, Klayman would film with Bannon for two weeks and then take a week or two off.

Rocking the Boat: Supporters of the Satanic Temple attend a 2018 rally for religious liberty in Little Rock, AR in director Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Directing this type of project “is not for everyone,” admits Lane. “I am very comfortable—and always have been—being a heretic in any given situation. I actively seek out topics about which I can say things that are controversial. Having a personality type like that is quite helpful with a topic like this.”

One thing’s for sure: documentary moviemakers who tackle divisive topics must prepare themselves for criticism. “No one is going to thank you for saying something they don’t want to hear,” Lane says. “Don’t expect a hero’s welcome for making people uncomfortable. If you want a hero’s welcome, make a movie that everyone in your audience is going to love, unequivocally.” MM

Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? opened in theaters April 19, 2019, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Alison Klayman’s The Brink opened in theaters March 29, 2019, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland was made available to stream in March, 2019, courtesy of HBO. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue.

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8 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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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