Five minutes before this interview, Michael D. Ratner gets some good news. Well, not so much good as career-defining. The first episode of the 10-part YouTube Original Series Justin Bieber: Seasons, which he directed, just ranked as the most-watched debut in its first week of all the platform’s original series. The series’s star, Justin Bieber, also became the first artist on YouTube to hit 50 million subscribers on his channel. “There’s nobody who can grab an audience quite like he can,” Ratner says of the Canadian artist, who’s back after four years with a new album and a new outlook. Clearly, he’s right.
Through his production company OBB Pictures, Ratner had produced content for actors and athletes from Kevin Hart to Blake Griffin, but had never worked with Bieber. After the singer’s longtime manager Scooter Braun showed Ratner some footage for a potential project with Bieber, he was immediately on board. “I was just blown away,” he says. “I said, ‘Get me in a room and if we have the same vision for this, I know how special it could be.’”
Seasons offers a compelling look into the private life of a very public figure. And that’s credit to Ratner’s keen eye for capturing intimate moments that casts a megastar like Bieber in a refreshingly relatable light. In episode 1, Bieber and his new wife, Hailey Bieber, visit his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, and stop by the street corner where videos of him serenading onlookers first went viral on YouTube, the same platform on which he’s breaking records today. The moment is poignant: Bieber candidly reflects on how global fame can throw you off course when you’re growing up, but acknowledges how grateful he is to those who have stuck with him.
Bieber’s new album Changes drops February 14. And whether intentional or not, Valentine’s Day is a fitting release date. Seasons shows the artist crafting a new sound with a mature perspective. But more importantly, it sees Bieber return to his first love: making music.
You just heard that Bieber became the first artist to reach 50 million subscribers on YouTube.
That Justin Bieber: Seasons is YouTube Originals’s most-watched debut episode in its first week. How do you feel?
Yeah, it’s a crazy number. Obviously, credit to the entire team that worked on the documentary, from Joe Termini, who co-directed episodes, and was there from the beginning capturing footage, to the whole OBB team, to the SB projects team, to Marc Ambrose, who was one of our producers. It really was a team effort. And of course, Justin at the helm.
What was it like working with Justin Bieber?
It was great. I think that we over the past many months have built a tremendous trust and working together has been amazing insight into a musician at the highest level. I think that he’s really come into his own, and he’s the best version of Justin Bieber he’s ever been today which is really cool.
How did you decide what footage to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor?
So, you go and you have cameras on him for months and months, and you’ve got to just pick what your storyline is and what’s most important, and ultimately the narrative tissue was obviously the lead-up to Changes as the album. This isn’t a Justin Bieber commercial. It’s a documentary on Justin Bieber, the person. As such, you need to get that backstory. We start at the end of the Purpose tour and go all the way to real time, which obviously we haven’t even filmed some of the last episode because it’s going to catch us all the way up, which is pretty cool. So, things that are happening now, like SNL this weekend, that we’re going to have touched on in the doc, which I think is unique. That’s part of the reason we picked this two-episode-a-week cadence on YouTube. I think that that’s going to be really exciting for fans to see.
Other artists like Taylor Swift are releasing their docuseries now, too. Why was now the time for Bieber?
I think why now for him isn’t based on any trends or anything like that. It’s that it was the right time for him and his story. And he, like I’ve said before, just had enough distance to go and have that sort of self-reflection to say, “There’s some stuff I want to get off my chest.” He’s just a regular person like everybody else at the end of the day, and we all hold on to things, and being able to let go of something that really went a long way. And also, why now? He’s in a new spot in his life. He’s a married man. This is an R&B album, a little departure from the past pop album, and I think it’s just something that he wanted to do and his fans certainly needed. His fans are definitely some of the best fans in the world.
What was your vision? What did you hope to communicate with the series?
I didn’t want a laundry list of restrictions. I didn’t want to just tell a visual promo piece for this new album. That’s definitely a good through line but that’s not meaty enough. That’s not going to get you to be the biggest release on YouTube ever as an original series. That’s not going to get you that, and I mean it in the truest sense of the word, viral component. I mean, Justin Bieber gets you so far, but then the fact that he went and told his real story, that’s what got us to be a bonafide hit series. And I think nine days in you go and you see the response in the world [and it’s] overwhelmingly positive. We felt like we made something really raw, different. This wasn’t just some popcorn docuseries, there are really heavy moments.
There are moments that don’t feel so good to watch. He said something to me very powerful: he said, “There’s power in weakness.” He does not love the way he looks in [episode] five, how could you? But he understood that showing that vulnerability would help other people realize it’s okay not to be okay and to go and seek help. And I think that’s wildly commendable. There’s few talents like him and when you pair that with, there’s few people in the world who work as hard that’s when you get a global superstar.
He may be a global superstar, but he’s from here.
He takes such tremendous pride in that! He is Canadian. Whether that’s his advocacy of Tim Hortons – swearing by it and saying it’s better than Dunkin Donuts – or whether that’s his love of hockey or the Maple Leafs or just wanting to get back home to Stratford. He remembers where he came from. Everybody’s really proud of him here. I think that as people are getting to know the real him more and more there, it’s becoming undeniable that he’s got this great heart and that he’s doing the best he can and he’s doing a pretty good job.
Why did you decide to film the docuseries in real time and release episodes two at a time?
I wanted to make a doc that stood out. I take great pride in the information we got right before this interview that it’s the most watched YouTube Original Series ever.
Congratulations, by the way.
Thank you! Yeah, I literally just heard so I’m thrilled obviously. And I think what led us to that was having a megastar like Justin, obviously, who has also just crossed the 50 million subscriber mark on YouTube and is the biggest YouTube star ever, I think it’s that mixed with really compelling content, being true and honest to the subject and not trying to trick anybody into anything. It’s also coming up with a unique hook and way of going about it.
It’s a cluttered space, there’s a lot of people making music docs. I think that the fact that we went and said, “Let’s start with Purpose and let’s cover this extended period of time but make sure we catch up,” and you’re going to see things in that last episode that just happened a few days prior that maybe you just saw on Instagram. That’s unique. The other thing that we did was we scored the episodes with some unreleased music – it’s just fresh and different. We put a lot of care into thinking it through.