Dancing With the Devil director says Demi Lovato had a 'physical reaction' watching her docuseries
"I watched it with her," Michael D. Ratner says. "It was pretty intense. She actually paused it about eight seconds in."
Watching yourself on screen is hard enough without also having to relive the darkest moments of your life in great detail. But that's exactly what Demi Lovato does in her new YouTube docuseries Dancing With the Devil, in which she opens up about her struggle with addiction, her near-fatal overdose in 2018, her multiple sexual traumas, and much more.
"I applaud Demi for her bravery," director Michael D. Ratner tells EW. "It's not easy to talk about this stuff. Not with a camera on you, with a crew you don't know that well, and ultimately knowing it's going to end up in front of millions of people. But she is excited about the dialogue that it's going to spark, and so am I."
After pouring out her heart with unflinching honesty, Lovato had a difficult time watching the completed four-part docuseries with Ratner. Ahead, the director (who produced with OBB Pictures and SB Projects) discusses the "physical reaction" the singer had watching the episodes and the powerful story he helped her share.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Going into this project, you knew it wasn't going to be your normal, run-of-the-mill docuseries. How did you prepare for it?
MICHAEL D. RATNER: I knew it was going to be heavy, I don't think I realized just how heavy. I knew that it was going to be intense and was going to require a certain level of care and [to] just be the ultimate listener and create a platform and safe space for Demi to tell her story. Little did I know how much of her story I did not know. I knew that we were going to be clarifying parts of the night of the overdose that was wildly reported on but she never had spoken about, and ultimately some of the things that led to that moment. But I didn't realize just how deep we were going to go on some of the traumas and events that have happened since that night. So it was quite intense from start to finish, but I think that transparency and that honesty that Demi ultimately provided us allowed for it to be such a powerful piece.
How did you approach getting the full story?
With something as heavy as this, there's always going to be hesitancy by everybody. I mean, she's such a star and obviously it's so intense that it wasn't a shoe-in that anybody would want to participate. Because nobody really knows how they're going to be portrayed or how something's going to be edited together. That's where a lot of that work went in where I had so many off-the-record conversations with her family and with Demi and with her friends and with her team. That was where a lot of that trust and process was built. And then I sat down for four long interviews with Demi. And then from there, I sat with her parents and her sisters; and then Matthew Scott [Montgomery, her best friend]; Sirah [her former sober companion]; Max Lea, who's her head of operations and security; and then Scooter [Braun], her manager. Dani Vitale [her former creative director] was later. She had some hesitancy, as we talk about in the doc, about participating, given the history, but ultimately used it as a platform to get her truth out there.
What was your ultimate goal with this project?
If there's something that I want people to take away from this, it's that I want to encourage people to talk, to ask for help, to realize they aren't alone in their unique journey. You're not defined by your lowest moments. And this documentary is not telling anybody how to live their life, and it's certainly not Demi trying to be the poster child for anything. She's tried that at different points in her life, and the pressure was too much for her. Here, she's presenting herself as a flawed human being. She's also not trying to tell anybody that she's fixed. I don't think this documentary even leaves her for somebody to have an "Aha, gotcha!" moment and say, "Well, you said this in your documentary, and that's not really who you are." She is being fully authentic and talking about how, day by day, she needs to work on herself and [that] it's a constant struggle.
Demi is the subject, but she's also choosing how much to share of her life, so how much control did you give her in shaping this doc but still keeping it as authentic and unbiased as possible?
We had a conversation day one where we had to both have similar visions for this. My job ultimately is to tell Demi's story, but if Demi was interested in just basically cutting a commercial for her album [laughs], that wasn't going to be particularly interesting for me. It was when I learned that she really wanted a platform and safe space to tell the truth, that's what excited me so much.
There's a lot of discussion in the series about how Demi is good at lying and hiding things, straight from the people who know her best. So how trustworthy and reliable of a narrator is she in light of that?
It shocks people when, toward the end of the doc, I said to her, "Your family and people close to you tell me that you're a great liar. Why should we believe what you're saying?" That wasn't a moment where you're trying to call somebody out, but it's the natural question, right? "You've said you've been in a good place before, why is this time actually different?" And she puts it best when she says, "I'm just going to have to prove it to you… I'm going to work every single day to make sure that you don't open up TMZ and see another headline about me in that similar way." That's not the only time in the documentary where we made a choice to try to tell a really balanced story. That's not an easy question to answer there. There's multiple sides to her journey and we give multiple perspectives, some really differing with her opinion, and that was important to throw in because you want to hear from every side on these heavy issues, that there's no one answer.
There are a lot of sensitive and controversial topics discussed in this series, including Demi practicing "moderation" instead of total sobriety. Are you worried at all about potential backlash after people watch it? Did you have conversations with Demi about that?
When you talk about something that's as controversial as what we're talking about, you need to expect it, you need to get a thick skin. As a filmmaker, it's not really my place to comment on anybody's personal situations. What I ultimately was able to do here is create an honest, truthful look at this individual's journey and growth. For a long time there was a stigma around mental health and some of these issues, and I'm hoping that someone like Demi, who has such a big following, talking about some of these things in such a public way will inspire other people to do the same — not necessarily to follow and deal with their issues the same way Demi does, but instead to actually use this to realize that they aren't alone.
When Demi saw the full doc for the first time, did you watch it with her?
I watched it with her. It was pretty intense. She actually paused it about eight seconds in and had like a physical reaction to it. She seemed very affected by the first eight seconds, which is really just a quick shot of the crowd at Rockin' Rio in 2018, and I was like, "Oh. Oh my. There is so much more to come!" I was floored. Then she gathered herself and we continued watching. There are many parts throughout the doc that I could tell really hit home with her. But when it ended she felt like the documentary serves as just cathartic art. It was just the weight off her shoulders and so much that she wanted to say for so long. It was pretty powerful to watch it with her.
The first two episodes of Dancing With the Devil are now streaming on YouTube.
Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil (TV Series)