In January 2019, a production presented as a two-part documentary series featured two men who claimed that they were molested by Michael Jackson when they were children. Entitled Leaving Neverland, the film was vigorously advertised, broadcast in many countries, endorsed by celebrities, journalists, and movie critics. This article is not in any way intended to discredit any alleged victim of abuse. The authorities and also the journalists who write about these cases should treat every abuse accusation with the highest degree of professionalism. From an objective perspective, one's appreciation of Jackson's artistry and philanthropic efforts should be of no consequence in this context. However, if I hadn't been interested in his work (to hide that would be unfair), I would have probably relied solely on what the mainstream media communicated about him and the accusations made against him. But had I done that, I would have mostly read articles containing fragments of information, or opinion-based features and I would be unaware of many essential facts concerning these cases. This doesn't mean, of course, that only his fans or his sympathizers are looking into this matter. While specific information and official documents were already available on various platforms, since Leaving Neverland premiered - perhaps also due to the fact that only a few journalists who knew the cases have talked openly about them - many independent content creators, who researched the allegations against Michael Jackson, began to present important findings of their investigations via YouTube videos, documentaries, podcast episodes, interviews with people connected to the cases, etc.
One of those researchers is Danny Wu, a 23-year-old filmmaker born in Chengdu, China. His first documentary - Square One - had its premiere on September 28th, 2019, in Los Angeles. As the title suggests, Square One focuses on the first allegation, when a man named Evan Chandler claimed that his son - Jordan Chandler - was molested by Michael Jackson. The film offers a comprehensive study of this 1993 case and the ensuing 1994 civil settlement between Jackson and the Chandlers. Key facts concerning the case are revealed, some of which rarely, if ever, appeared in the mainstream media. In this documentary, a former colleague of Jordan Chandler's agreed to speak publicly about him for the first time. Danny Wu also interviews the former legal secretary who worked for Evan Chandler's lawyer at that time, and other people connected to the cases.
I got the chance to speak with Danny just a few days before the China tour of Square One, which took place in eight cities, ending on November 17th, 2019. We talked about the investigative process that represents the backbone of his documentary, preparing the film for its next release phase on Amazon Prime Video, but also about the mystery that surrounded this case for such a long time and some of the reasons behind that.
Viewers in USA and UK will soon be able to watch the polished version of Square One on Amazon Prime Video. Square One can also be watched free of charge, on Danny Wu's YouTube channel.
Rodica Iuliana: You created your YouTube channel in 2007. You must have been a child back then. How did you start in this field and why?
Danny Wu: Yes, in 2007 I was still a kid and I generally used YouTube just to watch other people's videos back then, I didn't create my own content. I didn't really start making YouTube videos per se until late 2017 and I never posted consistently. I'm not really a YouTuber, I just use the platform to share my videos.
R.I.: What did you post at the beginning?
D.W.: At the beginning I made vlogs. I tried to always turn them into stories and to make them different from other video blogs that I watched. I also did reaction videos sometimes, whatever I was feeling at the time. But at the very beginning, my YouTube channel was mostly dedicated to basketball videos, because I used to be a basketball player. It was my first love.
R.I.: You don't play basketball anymore?
D.W.: I suffered two big knee injuries and I'm no longer able to play at the level that I want to. But if I had continued playing at that level, I doubt that I would have had time to make something like Square One.
R.I.: Your recent documentary, Square One, provides detailed information concerning the 1993 allegation made against Michael Jackson and the ensuing 1994 civil settlement between him and the Chandler family. It also meticulously presents the context of that case, its complexity, and many of its judicial aspects. What made you dedicate yourself to this extensive investigation, especially considering the sensitive nature of the subject - an abuse allegation, analyzed in the #MeToo era?
D.W.: Originally, it was supposed to be just Josephine Zohny - one of Jordan Chandler's former colleagues. She agreed to do an interview with me and that was supposed to be it. But what I started realizing was that, if I just posted a video of that interview, of course that for the people who know about the case and for Michael Jackson's fans that would have meant a lot, but the problem though is that most people aren't familiar with the case. Watching just a video of an interview I did with a colleague of Jordan Chandler doesn't mean much to a neutral person, right?
So from there I saw that I had to give context to the story, to get the next piece of the puzzle, and it just kept building and building: from Geraldine Hughes [former legal secretary of Barry Rothman - Evan Chandler's lawyer at that time], to Taj Jackson [nephew of Michael Jackson], to Jenny Winings and Caroline Fristedt [two fans of the artist, who have visited his home at Neverland ranch], to ultimately, Charles Thomson [prominent British journalist; for one of his multiple achievements in this field, he won the 2018 Ray Fitzwalter Award for Investigative Journalism] - who basically narrated the entire story, and I'm very happy that he was able to join in.
When I first planned to turn it into a documentary, in my original state of mind it would have looked very different from what it looks now. I actually had a friend of Gavin Arvizo's, who was willing to speak on tape as well, and I would have had her story parallel with Ms. Zohny's [Arvizo's 2003 accusation against Michael Jackson led to a trial in 2005. The artist faced ten felony charges and other four misdemeanor charges. On June 13, 2005, the jury unanimously found Michael Jackson not guilty on all fourteen counts].
But Gavin's friend ultimately got cold feet and she didn't want to do the interview anymore. So I still had people like Jenny Winings and Caroline Fristedt, who were also involved in the Arvizo case, and I was trying to find a place for them in the documentary, wondering whether or not I could even include them, but I feel that I was able to incorporate them in a way that didn't take away from the story. They added their own bits to it and I was very happy about that. When I look back in hindsight, it is better that it went the way it did. I had around seven people that I needed to fit into the documentary, and when you have a structure, when you know what you have it's easier to be creative, because you know the limits. A good part of the creation of the documentary was searching for the right timing, the right interview placement, and ultimately finding a pace that flows.
To the second part of the question, which is about the sensitivity of the case, that's something that I also paid a lot of attention to, because the last thing I want to do is to shame the alleged victims. I was very careful about that and I don't think that in any way, shape, or form we are shaming Jordan Chandler in this documentary. If anything, people can be more sympathetic towards him now, after knowing the entire story.
R.I.: In Square One you interview Josephine Zohny, one of Jordan Chandler's former colleagues at New York University. It's the first time she agreed to officially talk about him, on camera. How did you convince her to speak about this?
D.W.: If a friend or a Michael Jackson fan somehow got hold of her, she would always tell her story. But she's always been reluctant to go to the media or to accept any public interviews, because she is a very private person. I've got the chance to know Ms. Zohny during this period and she does not like the attention. She works in PR, so she is always behind the scenes, wanting her clients to be in the spotlight, but she's never comfortable with the attention herself.
When I first approached her she was a little bit reluctant, but I kept insisting, always reminding her that I was there if she wanted to do the interview. I think at that time she had also watched an interview I did with Brandi Jackson [niece of Michael Jackson] and Taj Jackson [Returning To Neverland: Taj and Brandi Jackson interview], so she already had a trust in me. There were a lot of difficulties along the way to finally getting the interview, but she's been very, very helpful. We actually did two interviews [in New York]. The first was a one-on-one interview, which was supposed to be what I uploaded on YouTube. But after that, I had the idea of taking the camera off myself and having only her in the video. So I actually went back to New York a second time and that is the take that can be seen in Square One.
R.I.: Your documentary offers crucial information about a complicated subject, which is the 1994 civil settlement between Michael Jackson and the Chandler family. After all these years, there is still an interest to find out more about it. Why do you think that is?
D.W.: I think that there was such a mystery around it and a lot of it has to do with miscommunication. Because of the civil settlement, which banned him from speaking about it, Michael could never explain himself publicly. He always had to give pretty vague answers when asked about it and that has led to a lot of confusion regarding the settlement. The one time that he kind of did talk about it was on Primetime with Diane Sawyer and you saw what happened after that with Evan Chandler. [After the above-mentioned, 1995 Primetime interview and the release of the HIStory album, which is widely considered Michael Jackson's most personal work, Evan Chandler - Jordan Chandler's father - claimed that the artist breached the non-disclosure part of their settlement and filed a lawsuit against him, asking for 60 million dollars in damages].
It's important to know that the civil settlement didn't void the criminal case. That is one of the biggest misconceptions: that Michael Jackson bought himself out of jail settling the civil case, and that's simply not true. [Chandler's 1993 allegation also led to a criminal case, separate from the civil].
R.I.: Throughout the years, we have often seen the media portraying Michael Jackson in a manner that seemed, intentionally or not, to dissociate him from the fact that he was an actual human being. We've seen this happening with other famous people as well, but in his case this phenomenon is striking; it appears to generate a tendency to judge him using different principles than the ones we apply in general, culminating, in the wake of Leaving Neverland, with almost a disregard for the presumption of innocence. Do you think that's the case?
D.W.: Yes, I think that is definitely the case. Michael Jackson is held to different standards than other people. He was the most famous person to ever grace this planet as an entertainer, so I guess in a way that comes with the territory - a lot of people just judge him based on how the media portrays him. When you are surrounded by so much media coverage it's very hard to see the truth, unless you actually do some research.
R.I.: Are there people who didn't know much about the 1994 civil settlement, who thought that Michael Jackson was guilty, and who changed their minds after watching Square One?
D.W.: Oh, many! I feel that this is the main audience, to be honest. If you read the comments on the documentary on YouTube, most of them are talking about how Square One changed their minds. That was my main goal - to appeal to neutrals. When I was first showing the film to some of the people around me, I would go to friends who knew nothing about the cases, just to see their reaction and what parts needed more explaining from their perspective, because that's what it's for.
R.I.: What was your favorite part of the editing process and how did you come up with the idea for the visuals you use in the film to illustrate the timeline?
D.W.: The timeline was the most important part and one of the first things that were accomplished. I felt that I needed to visually have a timeline, to have people be able to place events on a certain date. My favorite editing part was working with some of the visuals, I guess. I really wanted to create an intro that stuck with people, but I didn't want it to be too in-your-face, just to have a lot of images that portray a meaning. The intro, when you really look at it, it kind of tells the story in itself, in a very simplistic way. But also, one of my favorite parts was having a vision and then just locking myself at my working station and completing it, no matter how long that took. That was basically my entire summer and I don't regret any of it, because those were some of the most productive times that I had. On the other hand, one of the disappointing things was that there were some ideas that I really wanted to include in the film and I couldn't do that because of time constraints and not having the personnel with me to be able to complete some of those visions. I had to store them away for some future projects. But in general, I think the documentary turned out as well as it could have and it's still evolving a little bit. The polished version is about to go on tour in China, starting on November 9th, 2019. [The China tour of Square One ended on November 17th, 2019]
R.I.: Speaking of which, what can you tell us about the China tour of Square One?
D.W.: I'm Chinese, and Keen Zhang, from the Michael Jackson Chinese fan club, asked me if I would be interested in having some China screenings of Square One and... of course I'd be down for that! To have a documentary you made be shown in the country that you were born in - that's an opportunity that I possibly could never have again. Keen organized the entire event. Eight cities in China will be showing Square One. The first screening is in Chengdu, my home town. I haven't been back in over two years, so it's going to be great.
R.I.: It will also be a bit emotional, I presume.
D.W.: Exactly! To be close to everyone again will be just phenomenal. The screening in Chengdu will be the most special one to me. I'm very, very excited for that. Also, this tour came at the right time because, although I'd love to say Square One is perfect, nothing is perfect and I've been working to polish it a lot more for another release, on Amazon Prime Video - so that's going to be the next step.
R.I.: What do you think about how your documentary is received so far? Weeks after its premiere, people are still talking about it on social media.
D.W.: There's still a long way to go from where it is now to where I hope it will be one day, but I'm very happy about how it's received so far. The Michael Jackson fans on social media have been great. I would be browsing Twitter, looking for something completely different, see someone's tweet saying something questionable about Michael Jackson, and many replies would be like: "Hey, watch Square One!", "Watch Square One!"
R.I.: Is there anything you wish it would be acknowledged more regarding this documentary?
D.W.: What I wish it would be acknowledged more is the huge role that my investigative assistant Shania Kumar had in the entire section about Victor Gutierrez [Chilean writer and reporter]. She read his book and Ray Chandler's book [Ray Chandler is Evan Chandler's brother], both in two days, then she found all the similarities - how Gutierrez connects to Ray Chandler's book and to Evan Chandler. She basically did all the research for that part.
R.I.: As someone who is interested in research, what are your thoughts regarding opinion-based journalism - so widespread in the media, even when it comes to matters that require methodical, objective investigation?
D.W.: I think it's completely valid to have an opinion that is based on research, instead of following what someone else says. But what we frequently see in 2019 is that what tends to matter the most is what famous people say. For instance, some celebrities backed up Leaving Neverland and that kind of triggered a whole wide range of journalists to follow their lead. I think that we live in an era when we are so obsessed with celebrities and fame, and some people base their opinion on appeal to authority, rather than listening to those who have investigated the cases.
R.I.: Are you considering a career in Film?
D.W.: Definitely! Going to Film school was always my goal. I never saw myself as an Internet content creator. It was more like using that to get better at editing, so I could have a career in Film. I want to do a couple more documentaries, because I'm really enjoying all the investigative process. Also, in my opinion, many documentaries are really sticking to a formula these days - they tell the story chronologically and that's it. I think there are many artistic elements missing in a lot of the documentaries that I watch.
R.I.: What do you think inspired you to want to make movies?
D.W.: My dad watches so many movies! He used to watch, like, a movie every day. He literally had a room full of films, with shelves built around it just for that, and I grew up surrounded by them. That kind of always intrigued me to want to create them myself.
R.I.: What are some of your favorite directors, movies and genres?
D.W.: I love Akira Kurosawa, the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino... I really like every film genre and I don't think I could choose one. My favorite movie of all time used to be The Shawshank Redemption, but my favorite films are always changing. I like movies that are thought-provoking and are able to make me feel a strong emotion.
Directed by: Danny Wu
Investigative Assistant: Shania Kumar
Illustrations: Clarence Choy
Graphic Design: Jamie Park, Danny Wu
Edited by: Danny Wu
Interviews with: Josephine Zohny, Geraldine Hughes, Charles Thomson, Taj Jackson, Jenny Winings, Caroline Fristedt.