By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
On September 17, singer Michael Jackson announced his plans for a $50 million charity record that would benefit the victims of terrorist attacks on America.
The single, "What More Can I Give?," would be modeled on Jackson's hugely successful 1985 charity hit, "We Are the World," which has raised $65 million for African hunger relief. As before, Jackson would be calling on many stars in the recording industry to contribute to the song. USA Today reported that the "hymnlike piano ballad" would feature such stars as Destiny's Child, the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Britney Spears and Carlos Santana. "We are working around the clock," the record's executive producer, Marc Schaffel, told the newspaper. By October, the list of artists had grown to include Ricky Martin, Julio Iglesias, Tom Petty and Luther Vandross. On October 26, Jackson's publicists announced that the final tracks, contributed by 'N Sync, had been completed, and the record's release was imminent.
Nearly a year later, after accounts emerged that Schaffel, new to the music world, was in over his head producing the project, the song and a planned video have never surfaced. Jackson's publicist at Epic Records didn't return phone calls about the project. And several people owed money are steamed as they wait in vain for word from Jackson's attorneys. Over the past few months, Jackson has entered into a feud with his record company, Sony Music Entertainment, blaming it a couple of weeks ago for blocking the release of "What More Can I Give?" and calling its chairman, Tommy Mottola, a racist. But while Jackson stood in New York with the Reverend Al Sharpton to lay the blame on Sony for that and for allegedly ruining sales of his comeback album, Invincible, he didn't let on that his choice of pal Schaffel to handle the project apparently had much to do with its failing to work out. The bottom line is what several people brought in to work on the project have long suspected: It's unlikely there will be a Michael Jackson charity single whose sales will benefit the victims of September 11.
Suddenly, an overweight man in a bright yellow shirt enters the frame from the right, shouting instructions. He has thinning hair and a prominent moustache. He is flustered and impatient, and appears to be the film's director. In a combination of English and hand gestures, he tries to make the standing man understand that while he's getting a blowjob he should put his hand anywhere--on the wall next to him, on the rafter above him, on the back of the other fellow's head--anywhere but on his hip. While yellow-shirt man is delivering these instructions, someone offscreen is shouting out a translation in Hungarian for the two naked actors, who grunt and nod. The moustachioed director then turns to the kneeling man and tells him that he can be a lot more demonstrative while he's going at it, and he begins bobbing his head to show the kind of action he's looking for. The director then steals back offscreen.
After viewing a copy of the video, Joe Becker, whose production company, ThinkFilm, shoots scenes for The West Wingas well as other television, documentary and music projects, says there's no doubt the man in the yellow shirt is the same man he met last October on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
For Becker, the videotape only adds to the mystery of what has happened since the night he was summoned to meet Marc Schaffel. Since then, he's been trying to recover money he spent in the ill-fated attempt to film a music video of "What More Can I Give?" at the monument. At the time, the project seemed as legitimate as could be: Schaffel told him Michael Jackson was paying all the video's expenses out of his pocket, and there would be no problems with costs. The Bush White House had even lent its help, trying to persuade the National Park Service to allow Schaffel to use the Lincoln Memorial for the shoot. Schaffel had in turn hired Becker's company to do the actual filming.
But after Becker spent $120,000 preparing for the video, which was never filmed, Schaffel suddenly wouldn't answer his phone calls. Since then, Becker has called and e-mailed a raft of attorneys, trying to find out whether he'll ever get his money back, all the while learning stranger and stranger things about Schaffel. Becker says he wishes he'd never had anything to do with the King of Pop.
"I don't think the video's going to be made. You can't get everyone together," says Schaffel's attorney, Thomas Byrne. The attorney says Marc Schaffel, the "What More Can I Give?" producer, and pornographer Fred Schaffel, who directs under the name Marc Fredrics, are the same person.
Indeed, Schaffel, who wouldn't be interviewed for this article, was quoted in a recently published report admitting his involvement in gay porn--which he said was a thing of the past--and claiming that he was scapegoated to justify suppressing Jackson's charity record. He maintained to the Los Angeles Times that the project would have been a huge success if the plug hadn't been pulled by forces wanting to thwart Jackson's career.
Byrne says Schaffel and Jackson are no longer working together. "It was only for this project," he says. But he agrees that the two had been friends for years. Byrne wouldn't go into details about that friendship. But in 2001, the pair were sufficiently close that in the notes to Invincible, Jackson made a point of singling out Schaffel: "Marc Schaffel...thank you for all of your help...I love you...Michael," reads the CD's liner notes on page 18.
When Byrne is asked to discuss Schaffel's background in the gay-porn business, he refuses. A few moments later he says, "I've heard that there are transitional guys all over Hollywood who went from porn into the legit side. My understanding is that it's not that unusual."
Still, given Michael Jackson's past public-relations nightmares--in 1994, Timemagazine reported that Jackson had paid a multimillion-dollar settlement to a man who claimed Michael had molested his 14-year-old son--it's hard to believe that the army of people who surround the pop icon could have thought Jackson's image would benefit from a professional association with Schaffel.
In fact, the Times suggested that it was Jackson's representatives who, upon learning of Schaffel's gay-porn involvement, urged Sony to pull the plug on the charity record--which would make Michael's cries of racism seem very strange indeed. If the report is true, either Jackson and his staff don't communicate well, Jackson is incredibly naïve or he's just looking for a convenient excuse for his flagging career.
One of the industry's most influential figures, distributor Stan Loeb, says he has a long association with Schaffel and his films, via his company, Paladin Video. "Fred was known for finding talent, and he did it very, very well," Loeb says, speaking from his Las Vegas office. "And the stuff he used to do was really excellent. But it's a shame what he's done to himself." Schaffel's first film, Cocktales, and its star, Rex Chandler, were both hits in the industry and showed that Schaffel had a lot of promise. But over the years, Loeb says, the quality of Schaffel's work has declined. He refuses to take any new titles from Schaffel. "As I said, you learn your lessons and move on."
Despite his feelings about Schaffel, however, the two still occasionally talk. And Loeb says he was stunned last August when Schaffel called one day and said he was going to work for Michael Jackson. "Why? You got me. He said they were very good friends and that Michael had hired him for a job." Another time, Loeb says, Schaffel claimed that he and Jackson had been childhood friends. Loeb said he doubted Schaffel's story. But in November, he received an even more startling call.
"One day Fred called and said he knew someone who was unhappy chartering flights," Loeb says. "He knew that my son has a chartering business, and he asked if I would talk to his unhappy friend. Then, he put Michael Jackson on the phone. They were driving around in Michael's limousine. My son ended up flying some of Michael's people around. That confirmed for me that Fred was really working for him." Loeb's son, Jeff Borer, acknowledged that his firm, Xtra Jet in Santa Monica, got work flying some of Jackson's people through Schaffel.
Loeb says he's mystified that Schaffel found himself working for the pop singer. "How did Fred end up with the job? I can tell you he's a great salesman. He can really promote himself. He lived in a mansion where rent was $9,000 a month and drives a Bentley, and I'm not sure how he's doing it. But that's Fred Schaffel."
Contrary to Schaffel and his attorney's implication that he had put the porn business behind him, it appears he's never left the industry. Records in the Los Angeles County Clerk's Office show that, in 1998, he filed the business names "Marc Fredrics" and "Fred Schaffel Productions." Indeed, his Big as They Get was released 13 months ago. And Loeb says that just a few months ago, Schaffel wrote him a check for $600 to order new packaging for his movie Every Last Inch.
By the next day, ThinkFilm had submitted its bid to Neverland Valley Entertainment, the company Becker believed was a Jackson enterprise. (Jackson's Santa Barbara estate and mini-theme park are called Neverland Ranch, so it's not surprising that Becker assumed the company was Jackson's. In fact, it was owned by Schaffel, records in the county clerk's office confirm.) In the bid, ThinkFilm had asked for only half of its normal rates. The following day, Wednesday, Schaffel notified Becker that ThinkFilm had landed the job.
"We know the drill," Becker says, when he describes the complicated process of getting government permission to use settings like the Lincoln Memorial for filming locations. But in the weeks after the terrorist attacks, getting that permission had become much more difficult. Fortunately, Becker says, the Bush White House was on their side. David Kuo, an official in President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, assured the filmmakers that he would persuade the park service to let Michael Jackson use the monument.
Becker was spending plenty of money to line up the right people for the event. Forty grand, for example, went to Janusz Kaminsky, a two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer. Another $4,000 went to a director of photography and $6,000 for a production designer. In total, Becker laid out nearly $120,000 of his own money to have everything in place before Jackson came to town.
On Thursday night, Kaminsky flew to Washington. But that same evening, Schaffel called to let them know that the video wasn't going to happen. The logistical problems had been too great, Schaffel told them, and it was impossible to get all the stars in place at the right time. The project would be postponed, at least for a few weeks.
However, Becker still expected the first of three checks he was supposed to receive that week, based on the contract he had signed. When the check didn't arrive, he tried in vain to get through to Schaffel, who had arrived with Jackson for that weekend's concert.
The October 21 concert, "United We Stand: What More Can I Give?," was not only intended to raise cash by featuring dozens of big stars, it was also Jackson's chance to showcase his charity song for a large stadium crowd. But the scheduled nine-hour pageant turned into a 12-hour marathon beset with technical problems. By the time Jackson finally took the stage at midnight, three hours late and five hours after RFK Stadium vendors had run out of food, about a third of the crowd had gone home.
"United They Stood, for an Awfully Long Time," read one headline the next day. If the telethon put together by celebrities soon after the attacks had been marked by somber elegance and class, the Jackson concert was shot through with jarring juxtapositions of grieving and glaring self-promotion. "Maybe we should take it as a sign that things really are returning to normal," wrote the Washington Post. "After weeks of taking the high road, the egos have landed."
Jackson saved his charity record for the concert finale. "The new benefit song he introduced, "What More Can I Give?,' became a shambles as his stageful of guests missed their cues or couldn't be heard," wrote the New York Times.
It was an inauspicious debut for the song. But then, this particular tune had already been mangled in the past. "What More Can I Give?" turned out to be a Jackson retread.
In April 1999, Jackson had promised to raise millions of dollars to benefit Albanian children in Kosovo with proceeds from "What More Can I Give?" But at two concerts held in Seoul and Munich that year, Jackson didn't perform the number, even though, like the D.C. concert last October, each show had been named after the song. His promise to record the tune and forward proceeds to Kosovo never happened.
After several press releases by Jackson's publicists announcing the imminent release of "What More Can I Give?" in October, suddenly there was no news about the project. Becker spent weeks in increasingly heated conversations with an attorney who worked for Neverland Valley (Schaffel's company, not Jackson's) who questioned the validity of Becker's contract, argued over what he was really owed and told him he'd get nothing if he didn't ask for substantially less, Becker says. He grew tired verbally sparring with the attorney, and in late November he turned to the White House's Kuo.
"Kuo said, 'Let me make some calls.' And then, within 20 minutes, Michael Jackson's attorney Karen Langford called me," Becker says.
Langford was helpful and courteous. But in her conversations with him, Becker says, and in e-mails she sent that Becker turned over to the Observer, she indicated that the relationship between Schaffel and Jackson had soured. (Langford did not return calls for this article.)
In his telephone conversations with Langford, Becker says, she suggested that Schaffel and Jackson's partnership had taken place outside of the "normal channels" that governed the singer's business relationships. A letter obtained from one of Jackson's attorneys claims that Jackson had ended his relationship with Schaffel after learning only last November of Schaffel's background: "As a result of that information, Mr. Jackson...terminates the business relationship with Mr. Schaffel."
Schaffel's attorney, Tom Byrne, was asked if it was possible, over the multiyear friendship between the porn director and the pop star, for Jackson not to know what his friend was doing for a living.
"I'm just not prepared to address that issue," Byrne said.
Meanwhile, Jackson has threatened other legal action that didn't make the papers. Joe Becker, after complaining about losing the $120,000 in the "What More Can I Give?" fiasco, now finds himself in the Gloved One's crosshairs.
Becker continues to carp about the way he was treated by Schaffel and Neverland Valley Entertainment, and in January he wrote to Jackson attorney Langford that the entire project had seemed like a "scam" perpetrated by Schaffel "and perhaps Jackson himself."
That e-mail recently prompted a response from another Jackson attorney, Zia Modabber, who accused Becker of trying to extort the singer with "obnoxious e-mails threatening to disseminate false and defamatory statements in the hope of extorting a payment." Modabber ominously puts Becker on notice that "we will hold you accountable to the full extent permitted by law."
Becker says he's stunned. "Naturally," he says disgustedly, "investigating the guilty parties has ended up in the prosecution of the innocent." He's mulling over legal action against Schaffel and Jackson to get his money back.
Rob Gordon, president of a company called ID Medical, says his firm is attempting to buy the song from Schaffel. He anticipates an announcement soon about the transfer of ownership, but whether the song is actually released, and when, will depend on the wishes of Jackson.
Acknowledging that it's too late to release the single as a tribute for 9/11 victims ("There isn't as much zeal now"), he says he hopes it can be used to benefit various children's organizations.
Becker says he'll believe Gordon's claims when he sees a check for the money he's owed.