By Rob LeDonne
When director Michael D. Ratner first met with Justin Bieber, Ratner had no idea he would soon become “as close to being in his shoes as possible for an extended period of time.”
Collaborating with the ubiquitous pop superstar on a string of viral projects, Ratner had an intimate look at the highs and lows of the 26-year-old’s life, including his relationship with his wife, Hailey; his ongoing health issues; and how he grapples with fame. Ratner not only served as director and executive producer of Bieber’s 10-part YouTube documentary series Seasons, but he also helmed the music video for Changes single “Intentions” (view count: 35 million and counting in just three weeks) and executive produced visuals for “All Around Me” and “Habitual,” which dropped this week. It’s only his latest in a string of high-profile celebrity partnerships with the likes of Kevin Hart, Blake Griffin, and Ashley Graham.
“It’s been a pretty crazy time,” Ratner told MTV News. He first linked up with Team Bieber through Scooter Braun and Allison Kay, Justin’s managers, with whom he’s working on a music anthology series due out in April. After an initial conversation with Bieber that lasted well over an hour about vision and their respective aims for the project, the bond between Ratner and the pop star solidified. “It wasn’t just a director with a camera in his face,” he said. “It’s a conversation with somebody he trusted. That relationship was earned over time as we went deeper and deeper.”
MTV News caught up with Ratner to talk about his intimate collaboration with Bieber — fully on display throughout Seasons (now streaming on YouTube) — and having an inside look at the most intimate moments of one of the most famous people on the planet.
MTV News: Why do you think Scooter connected you with Justin?
Ratner: Good things happen when you anticipate the trends, and I think we’re always thinking ahead, whether our show with Netflix [a limited series called Historical Roasts], or the podcast Pretty Big Deal with Ashley Graham. Scooter said to me he thought I should check out this footage that Joe Termini, [an eventual] co-director shot; he captured the nascent stages of Justin putting together Changes in the studio. I was just blown away and knew that if I had that visceral reaction to it, others would too.
MTV News: Why were you blown away?
Ratner: At that time, he’d really been gone for a while, and you certainly never saw him as a grown man in his process at all. You’d see him on Instagram here and there, but you never saw him come into his own, singing and performing and working on his craft. When I saw it, I had these flashbacks of the Justin who was growing up that we all knew as music fans. I thought the footage was a potential launching pad for something special, especially if they had interest in using it in a documentary that didn’t just cover the album process but to also shed some clarity into the mystery of what he’s been up to and going through the past couple years. It was Justin’s idea to do a documentary, but obviously he needed somebody he trusted and shared a vision [with].
MTV News: What was your relationship with Justin like directing that series, and how did you get him to open up to you so much?
Ratner: The relationship between us is actually intangible. You can’t describe it. I think that trust is earned, and we had that really good initial conversation. But as the process went on, the interviews went from being interviews to conversations, and that’s when you get the magic. That's when you get everybody talking about these episodes and how raw they are and how they can’t believe he was so open and durable. It’s because there was that trust and comfort factor.
MTV News: The documentary is interspersed with news reports, giving viewers a sense they’re going beyond the headlines. What was it like for you to have this behind-the-scenes look? How did you perceive Justin’s handling of the media?
Ratner: In Justin’s case, maybe you can combat one, two or three articles; but when there’s 10 an hour? At some point he just had to just say, less is more, and I don’t need to respond to all these. People who know me know me. Justin is the first global mega-star to grow up and be the guinea pig of the social-media era and the internet in general. I think he’s done a pretty fantastic job of [creating] a blueprint on how to handle that.
MTV News: There's an episode called “The Dark Season” where you literally went into his doctor's office while he’s getting a blood test, and Justin not only talks about his drug abuse but reveals for the first time that he has Lyme disease and Epstein-Barr virus. How did you navigate handling such delicate subject matter?
Ratner: I think the conversations about the more difficult times in his life were cathartic. At one point, he thought the cameras were off and he goes, “You know, this feels so good. I didn’t think I was mature enough to share,” and I said, “Have you talked about this?” and he said, “No, not really. I just wasn’t there yet.” For a long time he was cooped up in his mind and in this echo chamber. He’s human and he’s living a real life, whether having Lyme disease or when he was talking about being put on lithium when he shouldn’t have been. If Justin Bieber’s looking to seek that help, maybe you will as well.
MTV News: You’ve worked with not only Bieber, but Kevin Hart (directing his webseries Cold as Balls) and Blake Griffin (on an upcoming podcast), among others. Is there a common thread between all of these superstar names?
Ratner: With all of those people, there’s an incredible work ethic, attention to detail and passion. With the names you listed are people who are operating at the top of the fields and their crafts. With incredibly talented people, I always assumed that when somebody has raw talent, they very likely just have “it” and they don’t need to do the extra work. But what I noticed is that when you’re that successful it’s the combination of perfectionism, work ethic, and talent.
MTV News: You directed the “Intentions” music video, and I think the most obvious approach would have been to create something glossy with Justin and Hailey. But instead, it serves as a call to social action: You feature real personalities from Alexandria House, an organization that shelters women with children. How did that idea come about?
Ratner: Justin is very clear with his mission; to his credit, his mission is to use his platform to help others. When you think about that focus to use his platform to do that, it gave me clarity to get creative. I’m proud to say it was a team effort; Scooter was instrumental in putting this idea together and empowered me and my team to run with it, and Miranda Sherman was a vital part of the team as well. We also had multiple conversations with many different groups from Los Angeles. It was phenomenal to really make a difference in that community and the people we affected between [featured subjects] Bahri, Marcy, and Angela.
MTV News: You filmed the video entirely on location in Los Angeles, so how did you grapple with the logistics of being on the street with Justin and the attention he attracts?
Ratner: It was very important to us to be authentic, so rather than being on a set, we wanted to film at the actual Alexandra House. With that, it unfortunately put us on the street and it was... chaotic. He can draw a crowd. We had paparazzi lined up across the street. We had sort of a security barricade doing their best to play defense for us. We actually had the security play their radios at a decently loud volume in order to block the paparazzi from being able to hear the song and leak it prior to its release. They created this sound buffer so you couldn’t really hear it.
MTV News: Being in the middle of chaos is something Justin deals with on a daily basis, so how does he react to that? Did you learn anything from him on how to be at the center of a storm?
Ratner: I think it’s amazing how normal it is for him. Once we were leaving MTV studios and we were just getting mauled. It was a crazy scene. We got into a sprinter when we were done filming, and he was just laughing. I was just like, “That is just not normal.” In the documentary, we tried to convey a sense of that and show that he is relatable in many ways as a human being, but his circumstances as a superstar makes him unrelatable. And for his efforts navigating that, we should be applauding.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.