On paper – or, more accurately, phone screen – it was supposed to be an "immersive music festival on the boundaries of the impossible". In director Chris Smith's new Netflix documentary, Fyre – about the "elephant of a clusterfuck" that Fyre Festival actually became – we see footage of tech entrepreneur and Fyre founder Billy McFarland telling a bunch of the world's biggest supermodels that they are "selling a pipe dream to your average loser". What actually ended up happening was somewhere between the two.
For those of us unaffected by the whole thing, Fyre Festival seemed to have been dreamt up as temporary respite from an interminable stream of bad news. A bunch of rich kids paying up to $12,000 for an "experience" whose only real marketing had been Kendall Jenner and her #squad uploading an orange square to Instagram, arriving to rain-soaked mattresses, disaster relief tents, shit food and crucially… literally no festival? If you hate rich people, this is pure feel-good viewing, until you realise the impact McFarland's greed and delusion had on the Bahamian locals.
Fyre Festival was the first endeavour of its kind to really harness the power of social media – it sold out all its tickets in less than two days, despite being a totally new festival and offering almost no information regarding logistics – but it was also the first to meet such a viral and public demise. To paraphrase The Bible: Instagram giveth and Twitter taketh away. Or as one of the interviewees puts it: "Powerful models built this festival, and then one picture of cheese on toast ripped down the festival." But much like everything else in life, there was more to this whole fiasco than first met the eye.
I spoke to director Chris Smith about the documentary – which was co-produced by VICE Studios – over the phone from New York.
VICE: What made you decide to make this documentary?
Chris Smith: I think, like many people that had seen the headlines and witnessed the implosion [on Twitter], I was curious if there was something more to the story.
Where did you go from there?
At that point [Sep/Oct 2017] I was just finishing up another film. We ended up sitting down with a journalist from the US VICE office who had been covering Fyre pretty extensively for a long interview, just covering as much as she knew, and from there we started to get the landscape of who was involved and what the story was. She gave us some contacts that she had established, and from there the next big interview was with the contractor, Marc Weinstein. Marc was really when we realised there was a movie there: we ended up doing a three-and-a-half-hour interview with him and got a real sense of the story that had happened. Looking back, it wasn't totally evident from what had been put out so far. From the coverage that existed, it felt like there was a much more interesting story to be told.
You would have seen the Fyre fiasco unfold on Twitter like the rest of us; I don't know if you found it funny personally, but it was a hilarious time for a lot of us. Even watching the documentary, it's still funny. You don't feel sorry for these people – or at least, I didn’t – until you realise what happened to the local workers and islanders.
I felt sorry for the Bahamians. My whole idea was to put a human face on the festival, to make it relatable, so that you understood how this unfolded and how this happened. Who was involved, that it wasn't just a bunch of people partying – there were actual professionals trying to do their job to the best of their ability, with unforeseen obstacles continually arising. Since you talked about the Bahamians – one of the things that MaryAnn [a local restaurant owner who ended up spending $50,000 of her own savings to deal with the mess Fyre left behind] said, and this is paraphrasing, "I would have loved to have seen what would have happened if Bahamians went to another country and did this and tried to leave." There would be an uproar. But these people came to their country, acted in this way and then just left, and there were no repercussions. She felt like the government didn't protect them either.
Do you think they'll get any kind of reparations, or anything good will come out of this documentary for them?
We were just taking to MaryAnn yesterday, actually. We've been working for months trying to set up a GoFundMe account for her, because everyone who has seen the film so far, the first question after every screening is: "How can we help MaryAnn?" Her story is the one that stood out in terms of the sacrifice she made, and the effect that it had on her and her business.
It seems obscene that there have been these big lawsuits, like the blogger who won a $2.5 million pay-out, and she's been left with nothing.
You have to realise the $2.5 million pay-out is symbolic – it's very unlikely that he'll ever see that money. He's in line after the $27.4 million [Billy McFarland has been ordered to pay], from what I understand. The person who needs to pay this back is in jail [for six years]. The thing that surprised me, I think, is the fact that you could come back and just continue this lifestyle, knowing that these people were still down there and they'd given so much to try and help you.
Do you want to talk a bit more about what you think of McFarland after making this film? Did you try to reach out to him at any point?
I think he's a complicated person, and I think that's what made him such an interesting and enigmatic character for the film. We did reach out to him: we were supposed to film him on two occasions – we were set up and ready to go – but it would get pushed back. And then, ultimately, he wanted to get paid. We felt like we couldn't; so many other people had suffered in different ways as a result of this festival, it seemed unfair.
It's crazy to me that he even had the audacity to request money.
After seeing the film, is it?
Good point. What do you think the film says about the human condition and people’s willingness to just… go along with things?
I think there's a tendency to want to believe something is real. It's an extension of social media, where we're often putting our best face forward. I think the film really does touch on this idea of perception vs reality, and on multiple levels. They marketed this luxurious festival that was too good to be true – in the end, they couldn't actually pull it off. Then you also have the perception of Billy himself: Billy had a Maserati, he lived in a penthouse, he would fly around on private planes. He had this idea that if you look successful, people will believe that you're successful. He claimed his company was making millions of dollars in revenue, when in fact it was $660,000. This idea of perception and reality wasn't just tied to what they sold as the festival – that came through his life as well.
At one point in the film Andy King, one of the event producers, says that 24 hours before the festival, all he could think about was Woodstock – how no one talks about the drug overdoses and the lack of food and the days-long traffic jams – and if Woodstock can get through that from a publicity perspective, than maybe so could Fyre Festival. Obviously Woodstock actually had people playing, which is one big difference, but it was also a totally different time. It's interesting to wonder if Woodstock would have survived from a publicity perspective if it happened in the age of social media and live and direct updates.
When people come out from the screenings, they all have really strong opinions on this whole world and what’s happening. In terms of Woodstock, it's very difficult: there's a definite point to be made about, had people seen what a disaster it was to get to the festival, it may have had an impact on the festival. But then, the calibre of band was different. People would have been willing to put up with much more to see that music.
Do you think we live in a world where no one cares what actually happens as long as it looks good on Instagram? I personally feel a lot of these people went there just to flex on the gram, and as long as it looked nice enough to do that they wouldn't have cared much about anything else.
I think the memory is replaced with what is represented on social media or photographs. Marc Weinstein – this is an anecdote that isn't in the movie – spoke about how he'd worked in festivals forever, and he'd see people there having a terrible time, but when you look at their social media you can guarantee there's a picture of them having the time of their life. And a year later, they'll look back at that photo and they'll be thinking about what a great time they had.
He did something similar during Fyre Festival himself, right? Posted a picture of this supposedly idyllic beach life he was living on Instagram, while in reality he was stressed out of his mind and under pressure to find housing that didn’t exist for over 1,000 people.
Yeah! He was one of my favourite interviews, because he was able to go through the experience and take a step back later and reflect upon it and see they were all guilty of this – I recommend reading his medium post about it. And we all do that, that's the point. Maybe not to that extreme, but in terms of it being a reflection of where we're at in some ways, I think it's accurate. Although, I have to say that I feel like there is starting to be a backlash: this NYE, I saw a lot of people posting stuff like "went to bed before midnight", you know? There was this embrace of having your social media be more of a reflection of your reality. But maybe that's what's cool now, I don’t know.
What do you think it says about our society that there are so many stories about scammers around right now?
I mean, it's more interesting than telling a story about someone who wakes up at the same time every day and goes to work! Billy was enigmatic. The one thing I'll give them credit for was that they were trying to provide an experience that was different to everything else. I think Fyre was a testament that people are looking for something different, for these experiences, and to me that was... the world that he created, and the journey and the adventure that all these people went on, was definitely something. It was criminal, but to me it was so much more complex than I could have guessed from the headlines, which were just "a bunch of rich kids went to an island and got stuck".
So you believe that it wasn’t meant to be a scam and that McFarland genuinely wanted Fyre Festival to happen?
Yeah, definitely. Think about it – there's no version of a scam where you fly people to an island and there's nothing there! That would never work. The thing that Billy wanted more than anything – in my opinion – it seemed like he wanted to be in the middle of it all. He wanted to be The Guy, and I think pulling off this festival with some of the top models and influencers, I think that's what he was looking for. To be able to continue this lifestyle and be at the centre of that world.
Do you feel he'll have a comeback and return to living a similar kind of life?
I have no doubt that Billy could become super successful. He's super focused, he's very determined, he's very smart, and I think he's probably learned a lot.
FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is coming to Netflix on the 18th of January.