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.