Demi Lovato’s new YouTube docuseries “Dancing With the Devil” covers topics like sexual assault, addiction, eating disorders and the 2018 overdose that had her on the brink of death. But according to director Michael D. Ratner, the experience of sharing her story was a “wildly cathartic” one for Lovato.
“Of course, in the early stages of a project like this, where you’re baring your soul, it starts off a little guarded, inherently — even if that’s not your intention,” Ratner said in an interview with TheWrap. “You’re figuring out how comfortable you are. And I think as the documentary process moved on, and as she started seeing some of the stuff cut together, she just got more and more open.”
Ratner, founder and CEO of OBB Media, came into “Dancing With the Devil” with experience getting a world-famous pop star to open up on camera, having previously directed the YouTube docuseries “Justin Bieber: Seasons.” Lovato’s story, however, proved especially difficult, taking 14 months and mountains of interview footage to properly convey.
“I used to pride myself in being able to juggle a lot of projects at once … and always going from one thing to the next,” Ratner said. “Not so easy when you’re making a project with this heavy subject matter, and when you get so invested. We went so deep here that it’s not like you call wrap and then go meet up with some friends for dinner. It really sticks with you.”
But Ratner hopes that Lovato’s candor about her struggles will help fans who may be struggling with the same things. “Our hope here is that this doc reaches as many people as possible and helps people feel like they’re not defined by their lowest moments. It’s OK to reach out for help and talk about these things,” he said.
Read more of TheWrap’s interview with Ratner below.
TheWrap: You’ve mentioned before that Demi reached out to you for this after she watched your Justin Bieber docuseries. But on your end, what was your perception of Demi and her story coming into this, and what really interested you in doing this project?
I had directed Demi in another show that we do, that we produce, called “Pretty Big Deal” with Ashley Graham. And she scratched the surface in that, but it’s more of a talk format. So I thought that there was such a fascinating world of possibilities on what a doc could do for the masses, if [Demi] really wanted to be open about everything that happened. I mean, it’s a very relatable human story. I knew that she had gone through some traumas and struggles, and she was open to a degree about those battles with mental health and addiction as a disease, so I thought it was a massive opportunity and was really thrilled that she wanted to connect. And given that we knew each other, you know, the most important thing with projects like these are chemistry and trust, and really forming that bond and creating a safe space to tell the story. So I thought that the potential was tremendous. And then sure enough, you know, we hit the ground running, and here we are 14 months later, and I’m very proud of what we created.
Demi kind of has this reputation for being extremely candid, especially with her own struggles. But it does seem like this series takes that to another level. Was that something that you felt like was there during the initial conversations? Or did it come out as you were filming?
I always say this line that the magic happens when interviews turn into conversations. Of course, in the early stages of a project like this, where you’re baring your soul, it starts off a little guarded, inherently — even if that’s not your intention. You’re figuring out how comfortable you are. And I think as the documentary process moved on, and as she started seeing some of the stuff cut together, she just got more and more open. And I think the experience was wildly cathartic for her. I think it was therapeutic in many ways. She was actually doing a lot of that self work and coming to a lot of these revelations in real time, which is part of the reason it was so important that we filmed it when we did.
She has that great line in the show where she says I’m just gonna say it all and then we can edit out whatever we don’t want. What got edited out and what were the kinds of topics that you felt resistance from her in discussing?
I was floored by her openness, really. There wasn’t really stuff that hit the cutting room floor because she said, “No, that’s too much.” I mean, what more could there be, right? If you watch the doc, you’d be hard pressed to think what more she could have said or things that she left out. There was no list of exclusions provided to me. She decided to really tell it all. And I think she went into it knowing that she was going to do a deep dive on the incident and the overdose in 2018. I don’t know that she knew she was going to be as open about the tumultuous road since then. But Demi is not setting herself up to be the poster child of anything anymore. She’s saying I’m a work in progress. I’m 28 years old. I’m not “fixed.” And she’s also not teaching how others should live their life. She’s saying, you know, this is my unique journey. And I think if there’s a call to action in this in any way, it’s to provoke dialogue. It’s to understand you’re not alone, and it’s OK not to be OK. And you should seek help if you can.
Obviously the overdose is the big headline, but a lot of work goes into contextualizing that, and laying out the events that have led up to that. So when you sit down with her for the first time, where do you start?
My first question of the whole documentary is, tell me about your quarantine. When we had agreed and decided to make the project, the pandemic hadn’t hit. And then the first time we actually sat down was the very early stages of the pandemic. I just asked her about the quarantine, and truly it spilled out of her. She said, you know, I’ve taken this time to do a lot of thinking about my relationship, and my struggle with my relationship with my birth father. And all of a sudden, very clearly, that was one of the key elements of this whole story, there there was trauma there that she was unpacking and that led to some of the other issues. It’s very important with Demi’s story to not compartmentalize and try to so cleanly put things into different buckets. I think a lot of her struggles are intertwined, and it’s a mixed bag of living and all these things happening.
Do you take the platform into consideration when you’re making the series? Do you feel like people are watching this in a different way on YouTube versus on Netflix or in a movie theater?
Yeah, I do. I’m hyper-aware of how people watch content on YouTube. And that I don’t take for granted that there’s a bar of other options right there. I mean, if you’re on YouTube, you can go anywhere you want. So you better hook them, and you better hook them early. So I am cognizant of that. But I also love YouTube, because I’m not conforming to 22-and-a-half minutes or traditional ad breaks. … So I’m really thrilled with YouTube’s partnership, and they really do give me autonomy to make the film that I think is best.
It feels like there’s been a lot of conversation lately, especially around the Free Britney doc, about how young women are treated in the media, and how they’re perceived and treated by fans. How do you feel this project and Demi’s story fits into that conversation?
Yeah, I mean as a society, that’s nothing new, right? And these docs are now elevating the conversation and social awareness of what has been known by many people for a long time. I think that the fact that Demi’s 28 today, having been through what she’s been through under a microscope since her Disney days, it’s incredible that she has continuously persevered. I think people are gonna be really impressed with her resilience. If you get one 5, 10, 15 false headlines, you can’t respond to each, whether it was related to the overdose or other situations in her life. She’s had to deal with that media scrutiny, and I think she’s done her best. I think for anybody, if you were to have people watching your every move from a young age, you would have some blemishes, and things that you’re not so proud of, because we’re all working. We’re capable of making mistakes, and we’re learning, and we’re evolving, and she’s no different. The way she’s dealt with the media under those pressures, at times, I’m sure she would say that she’s done things she’s not proud of, or that she wishes she could go back and do differently, but it’s made her the person she is today. I don’t mean any of that sound cliche, I just think she’s done a really good job doing her best, and she’s continuously trying to be the best person she can, being an advocate and activist. And it’s admirable.
So now, having spent the last 14 months working on this show and looking ahead to what comes next, what are the kinds of things that you’re carrying forward from this project?
This documentary, you know, stuck with me. I used to pride myself in being able to juggle a lot of projects at once, and I’m also obviously running my production company, and always going from one thing to the next. Not so easy when you’re making a project with this heavy subject matter and you get so invested. We went so deep here that it’s not like you call wrap and then go meet up with some friends for dinner. It really sticks with you. So I think, certainly, I honed my skills as a director and that ability to hold really heavy conversations and navigate that, and, most important, create these safe spaces for people to get their story across. … So moving forward, when it comes specifically to these premium documentaries, it’s just continuing to see what ultimately worked as far as making people feel comfortable and supported. And then of course, the story will come from that.
The first two episodes of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” are now streaming on YouTube.