Time is a flat circle. In the run-up to the release of his fifth studio album, Changes, Justin Bieber returned to YouTube, the platform that propelled him to fame more than a decade ago, as the star and executive producer of the 10-part documentary series Seasons. Some things, like Bieber’s YouTube popularity, never change: The series quickly became the most-watched YouTube Originals premiere ever when it debuted in January.
But Seasons is no nostalgia trip. In addition to chronicling the making of Changes, Seasons takes an unflinching look at Bieber’s turbulent first years of adulthood and charts his path to recovery since then. The degree of candor can be hard to believe. It’s not every day that one of the world’s biggest stars agrees to speak frankly—and streaming freely online—about his lean-sipping, pill-popping dark days.
Seasons isn’t finished yet. Its final episode, filming now, will cover the immediate aftermath of the release of Changes—and series director Michael D. Ratner promises a “star-studded” finale, though the details are secret for now. Complex spoke to Ratner about capturing the “real” Bieber on camera, trimming hundreds of hours of footage into 10-minute episodes, and what it felt like to be hanging around Bieber’s entourage in the hours before Changes dropped.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Were you and Bieber both clear from the get-go that you wanted Seasons to be very real and very raw and very intimate, or did that approach evolve over time?
I was very direct from the beginning that I wanted to make it raw—basically what you see now. I think that at the heart of what we were trying to do was episode five [“The Dark Season,” about Bieber’s mental health and struggles with substance abuse]. I haven’t really seen so many stars at this height be that vulnerable and be that open and be that willing to say, “I’m not OK,” and talk about why and what they’re dealing with. When [Bieber] watched back [episode] five before it was released, and he felt really uncomfortable, he said to me, “There’s power in weakness,” and that really stuck with me because I think that’s at the heart of what we’re doing. We thought the greater good and the ultimate takeaway from this film would be really powerful if we just went there—and that meant not putting together some laundry list of restrictions, which he did not do. And to his credit, he never retracted and went back and said, “Oh, I’m actually not comfortable with this or that.” Nothing was really off limits at all.
“Nothing is off limits” is something that celebrities say a lot but don’t always follow through with, necessarily. At what point did you realize this was different—that Bieber was actually serious about this nothing-off-limits raw approach?
It was probably several interviews in. There’s a moment in documentary filmmaking that I always feel, a moment where my sit-downs go from being interviews to conversations. That’s when the magic happens. With Justin, we eased into some of it, it took time to go from feeling like interviews to conversations, but once it did, he just poured his heart out. That’s when we got some of the most interesting, introspective, self-reflective, powerful stuff. When I cut it together and showed him, he said, “This is tough. This is tough to see. But it’s important, and it’s my truth, and I want it to be out there.” You know, it’s one thing to say it on camera during an interview; it’s another thing to watch it and release it to the world. When he ultimately made the decision to do both of those, that’s when I realized we had something that was unbelievably powerful, different than anything out there.
Would you say there’s still a gap between the quote-unquote “real” Justin Bieber and who you see in Seasons, or is there no distance?
No, I’m proud to say that I think what you see there is who he is. I was really impressed not only with Justin being the same cameras on or cameras off, I was also impressed by other things like Justin and [his wife] Hailey’s relationship being the same cameras on, cameras off. That whole world’s filled with pretty genuine surroundings and love. Everybody seems to be in a fantastic place, and it seems well-earned—because it was a journey to get there.
It feels like uncharted territory in a way. I can sort of imagine what it’s like to be a traditional celebrity, but I have no conception of what it would be like to be 13, 14, 15 and famous on the internet.
I think you’re right. One of the lines that’s in the doc—I think [manager] Scooter Braun says it—but also that’s somewhat a thesis for the project is just, “There’s nobody else like him.” There’s no other megastar who was the first global superstar of the social media era. The pressures and the eyeballs and the access and the intimacy of fans to these stars—he was kind of the guinea pig. It’s a level, or I should say, a lack of privacy unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Certainly, there are people now that are dealing with it as well. But he was really one of the first, if not the very first, to experience that. You can start to really understand how some of these darker times happened. And ultimately it’s impressive to see him coming out of it and taking the time to understand why he was in some of those situations and what caused them.
Do you have any favorite scenes that you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
Yeah, there’s a ton; we shot hundreds of hours. There’s nothing that I had to cut because of any politics, but there are definitely some really fun scenes that didn’t end up making the cut: playing hockey back home, where you just end up seeing him as a regular 25-year-old kid, fighting on the rink and stuff. I might try to squeeze that in somewhere in episode 10.
You were there for Bieber’s February 8 Saturday Night Live performance. What was it like being behind the scenes for that?
We had a camera with him in his car on the way there, and it was cool to see someone at that level just ready to get back on stage live, you know, picking through their routine and getting in the zone. It’s almost like watching a professional athlete getting ready for a game. He’s excited to get his music back out there.
We’re speaking the day before the album Changes drops. What would you say the mood is like in Bieberland?
It seems like a group of people who’ve done this several times over. It’s funny, I’ll say, “How is everybody so calm?” And they’ll say, “Aw, it’s your first release.” They’ve done this before. They’re pros.
Does Bieber himself feel calm?
Yeah, he does. You know, I said to him, “How are you feeling?” before SNL, and he said, “I feel so prepared.” I think he’s really in a great mindset, and he’s taking the time to do the work. That’s gotta be a really good feeling.