Demi Lovato was in the midst of filming a still-unreleased documentary when a tragic day in 2018 put a stop to everything.
The singer was rushed to the hospital on July 24, 2018, after she suffered a nearly fatal overdose. Following her overdose, Lovato was hospitalized for two weeks before entering an in-patient rehab facility. Though Lovato has been vocal about her struggles in the public eye, she’s remained relatively mum on the frightening day, which she has now revealed left her minutes away from death and she suffered a heart attack and three strokes.
Now, in a new four-part YouTube Originals docuseries, Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil (which serves as South by Southwest’s opening-night headliner during its first-ever virtual fest), the singer will reveal what really happened before and after that life-changing incident. The series is helmed and executive produced by Michael D. Ratner, whose previous work includes Justin Bieber: Seasons docuseries. Ratner is also the Founder/CEO of OBB Media, which produced the project.
Ahead of the documentary’s SXSW debut, Ratner spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his approach to telling Demi’s personal story, building trust with the singer-songwriter and her inner circle and giving audiences a chance to know the pop star authentically.
What was your reaction to learning Dancing With the Devil would be opening SXSW?
I was thrilled! You get so deep into a project that you have tunnel vision on what its response will be in the world and you get so close to it that you don’t even know what you’re making anymore. For us to ultimately land the premiere spot was so special. Demi and I spoke about kind of the poetic nature of that she’s from Texas [and] obviously the festival is in Texas. On the other side, how upsetting it was that we couldn’t go to Austin and be in the theater. But there’s something special about the fact that it did get that accolade and that we made the film in this trying, bizarre time of 2020, and that it’s going to premiere at this first-ever virtual version. It was really special. It felt like a well-earned — after just so many months of being in it — piece of news. Demi was thrilled. I was the one that actually got to tell Demi, and it was just amazing.
How did you end up being part of this project?
Demi saw my previous series, Justin Bieber: Seasons. When I heard that she loved Seasons and she wanted to tell her story, I thought it was such a powerful opportunity. This was another global superstar who wanted to talk about their own set of issues and destigmatize mental health issues and say, “It’s OK not to be OK and talk about this stuff.” I think that we all go through stuff. If some of the people we look up to are willing to talk about their issues, that’s potentially going to help a lot of people. When I heard she wanted to discuss me directing her story, I was thrilled and we sat down and talked about our vision and the rest is history.
I know there was an original documentary Demi was filming that you were not directing. So what was your approach going into this project with an entirely new direction and sorting out how you wanted it filmed and what you really wanted to make sure was addressed?
I was invited to sort of understand what had happened before I arrived and understand who the players were. I looked at that previous project as a fact and something that we needed to incorporate [was] the fact that there was a film. Obviously [when] Super Complicated [Lovato’s 2017 documentary film] came out, it was a big hit. There was another one in the works and it stopped because of the overdose. I didn’t want to ignore that fact or act like that film wasn’t taking place. We even show some unfinished moments from that unreleased documentary because there’s no Hollywood posturing here. This is the truth. So when I inherited footage in a situation I leaned into that. I didn’t run away from it.
Why did you divide the docuseries into four parts?
I think that four parts felt right to me because we cover so many topics. If it was one film released at once, I didn’t think that we would get our due dialogue on each topic. There are so many conversations that Demi and I hope spark as a result of this — important conversations. To release everything at once would have resulted in glossing over some stuff that I think deserves its own moment in time and its own big conversation.
It’s clear in this series Demi is unfiltered and raw in ways we haven’t seen from her before. What was it like for you to have this front-row, behind-the-scenes look into someone’s personal life?
Any time that I’ve made a project where I’ve been given that level of access, I take it extremely seriously. I think that it’s about as personal of an experience [and] as close as you could come to another person. I think that it’s all predicated on trust, and I always feel like we have very direct conversations about what the objective is and the vision, and as long as you stay true to that throughout, you’re gonna really be able to make something powerful. There are always these moments when you’re like, “Wow, if the world could see what I’m seeing right now.” For the most part, when I say that to myself, I go, “Why can’t they?” and I film it. I think that’s kind of the magic. That’s why I’m there. I’m there to sort of pick the moments that we should share with the world. Of course, there are times where you’re like, “I should back off a bit” or “We’ve been working nonstop” and you pick your pockets. You’re not living with them. It’s not a 24/7 camera, but you want to figure out how to keep somebody energized and engaged for a very long period of time. It’s not like this thing was filmed in a couple of months; it was filmed over the course of a year and a pandemic. You come as close as you can to walking in that person’s shoes.
Given the series is so personal, how did you go about finding that balance of really getting to the emotional core of things while also still respecting any of her boundaries and privacy?
Demi’s favorite line [is], “I’m an open book with boundaries.” I think that’s instinctual, right? You need to be able to read a room, and you need to know when to push it and when not to. Ultimately, my job is to listen and to create a platform for Demi to tell what she wants to tell. [With] some of the subject matter and darker moments for her life, it’s not my place to push her and tell her to share more of a story than she wants to. It’s to present her an opportunity in a safe space to tell her truth and ultimately shape that story in a cohesive capacity that’s truthful so that the world can know what she’s been through and share her unique experience to help others.
In the trailer, Demi says she’s just going to say everything and then some can be edited out. How much was edited out?
Most of it made it in the cut, which I’m really thrilled [about] because I think it’s one of these stories where if you pull one piece, the whole thing falls apart. I don’t know that Demi was certain that she was going to tell every detail of what happened in 2019 because it was a bumpy road even after the 2018 incident. I think she was there to clear the record. This is her moment to respond to all of that stuff. She just kept wanting to share more and more of her story.
I would imagine people in Demi’s close circle are protective of her and can have doubts as to how her story is presented. How did you build the trust with those closest to her to take part in the documentary and be unafraid to really say everything?
I put in the time. I asked for introductions, and I got to know these people. As you just said, when you’re a megastar [with] a hundred million followers on Instagram [and] the whole world looking at you, your circle is pretty tight and you’re very skeptical of inviting others in, especially somebody nobody really knows and you’re giving them access to everything. It just takes time and trust, and ultimately that’s earned because you get to know one another. They start seeing your work and they start seeing how you operate. I’m always very direct, and I take pride in the way we operate: with integrity and honesty.
The trailer also teased appearances from Elton John and Christina Aguilera. Can you talk about how their involvement came about?
I talked to Demi about how she not only impacts millions of Lovatics, [but] she has these incredible relationships with icons. I think she touches people in such a profound way. She stands for so much. She is globally a good person. It’s not just siloed in one particular area. I think that hearing how she’s impacted others who have walked in similar shoes and have had a lot of eyeballs on them, have gone through some similar things, is really interesting. It just shows a totally different side of it. It wasn’t just like, “Hey, let’s throw in some celebs.” You obviously see when they speak that they have meaningful relationships with Demi and that’s because she’s a special person.
Did Demi have a say in who would speak in the documentary and what was said?
Yeah. She really gave me the keys and said, “I want you to ask me as many questions as you want, and then start telling me who you think we should and shouldn’t,” and that was through off-camera conversations. We really had deep talks about the pros and cons of putting in tons of people. It was really about who impacted her and who was a part of her life moving forward. There’s no person missing that Demi really wanted in the project, which is fantastic.
In this series, you are addressing sensitive subjects. Apart from Demi’s input, did you work with any recovery experts to discuss how to approach topics such as addiction and recovery but also overdoses?
Yes, behind the scenes we did. I’m not a doctor, I’m no expert, I’m a filmmaker and somebody who cares deeply about starting a dialogue, not providing or attempting to provide answers to how people should live their lives. I wanted to hear different opinions. So we spoke to experts behind the scenes to understand how to position things. We’ve been very careful about putting up cards about how you can seek help and treatment. The goal here is to just destigmatize the conversation around mental health. Ultimately, if we’re successful in doing that, then we’ve done something really powerful.
What was the most emotional piece of the documentary for you?
The whole series took a toll on me because it was just like peeling back the layers of an onion, in that it just kept getting more intense. There were multiple times when I would sit down with Demi and learn new parts of the story — just when I thought it couldn’t get more complicated or difficult. It was hard to hear some of that stuff. And sitting down with her mother and stepfather and hearing a mother’s perspective on almost losing their daughter’s life was really, really tough.
You started filming this in spring 2020 and mentioned it was a long filming process. When did you stop filming?
We stopped very recently. I was still putting stuff into episode four until they wouldn’t let me anymore. I would get calls from Demi like, “Hey, you should be here tomorrow” and then she’d be like, “I’m chopping all my hair off.” I was like, “Oh my God!” You know [that’s] big, big stuff that was symbolic and ultimately was part of the story of her rebirth and cutting ties with her past. If you’re signing up to direct Demi Lovato, you better be ready to keep filming. There’s so much growth and so many developments that you’d better be ready to go along for the ride. So we filmed right up until a couple of weeks ago.
This docuseries is coming at a time when there’s a lot of coverage about the treatment of young female celebrities, the pressures of fame and the pressure to be role models especially among young stars. How do you hope this project can add to the conversation?
It’s not lost on me. That conversation has been boiling and it’s certainly very prevalent right now. I’m excited for people to listen. We might be talking about it in a new way, but this is nothing new. Demi and Britney [Spears] and all these other people who have gone through similar things, we should show them some leniency and respect. We should have a conversation about how we treat each other and the microscope that are put on these young women at an early age and the immense pressure that they go through. Demi is 28 years old and she’s lived a heavy life. I think that she is ready for her future and [that] the best is yet to come.
There’s so many factors that go into Demi’s story, and a big hand in that is the pressures of being a Disney star — and there was other comps and relatable situations that are being talked about. I’m excited to join that conversation because I think that the idea of compartmentalizing all of the issues in this is foolish. There is overlap between it all, whether we’re talking about addiction, her struggle with eating disorders, the public scrutiny, the list goes on and on. Sometimes we might not know exactly which led to the other, but they all feed each other. If we can start talking about identifying some of the media issues, that may ultimately help lead to a conversation.
From your time working with Demi on this, was there anything you took away or learned about her that you hadn’t known before?
I wasn’t aware of her deep love for the Taco Bell Mexican Pizza. She held a funeral for the Mexican Pizza when they discontinued it from Taco Bell. So that might not have been the answer you’re expecting. (Laughs.) I [also] learned she wants to be known as a compassionate person, more so than even an artist. She really deeply cares about so many different topics, and she’s been very vocal about her activism during the election, and she stands for what she believes in, not what’s going to result in the highest popularity or the most sales. I think that’s what actually makes her even more popular: Her willingness to follow her heart and her intuition and her beliefs above all else is powerful. I knew some of that, but I know it for certain after this experience.
Since the revelations are being kept under wraps, what can you tease what audiences can expect from this series?
Whatever they think happened is probably pretty far from what really did. What hasn’t been documented is the details of her life that led to that night. There was so much in the media about what drugs she was on or what happened, and while we do clear that up and talk about what happened and what drugs she did do, your story and decision-making of that night does not start the morning your alarm goes off. It starts many, many years before, and to have a complete picture and empathy and to understand what somebody goes through. We provide that opportunity for you to have a whole picture here and then pass your judgment if you’d like. You’ll get to know Demi authentically. I think you’ll get to know that she’s a pretty impressive and special person who’s been through a lot and is, just like you or me, working on herself.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.