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Ja Rule and Billy McFarland of Fyre Festival
Ja Rule and Billy McFarland in promotional material for Fyre Festivalvia Netflix

Documenting the dark side of the viral disaster that was Fyre Festival

Chris Smith, the director of FYRE, offers up a more human perspective on the surreal chaos that played out in the Bahamas and on our timelines

Back in April 2017, many of us were witness to the implosion of Fyre Festival, a luxury music festival promoted by models and influencers with tickets totting up to thousands of dollars. Most of us though only witnessed the bedlam, playing out in true Lord of the Flies fashion on an island off the Bahamas, on our Twitter timelines and Reddit threads – and we reveled in it.

Video clips and Twitter threads showed hundreds of punters entering the sparse campsite of white tents and unfinished structures. A singular picture of a pale, plain cheese sandwich in a Styrofoam container went viral, felling a multi-million dollar marketing campaign in a matter of a few thousand RTs. It was a far cry from the private chefs and sushi, yachts and villas and superstar music acts promised to its millennial patrons, or the dreamy scenes in promo vids fronted by Kendall Jenner and Hailey Baldwin. A media storm was ignited and memes exploded online as everyone took their swipe at the drunk rich kids stranded on an island, duped into the fraudulent festival. Its founder, Billy McFarland, was subsequently convicted of fraud and sentenced to six years in prison.

FYRE, a documentary directed by Chris Smith, delves deeper into the story, pushing past the surreal saga summed up neatly in 280 characters to the more fascinating question – how did Fyre fest get to the stage that it did, and who truly suffered from it? Smith, who made American Movie and Jim and Andy: the Great Beyond, brings together the bright social media campaigns and disturbing firsthand accounts from people who worked on the festival, enigmatic McFarland’s origin story, and shocking behind-the-scenes footage and exchanges. One wild story recounted by an event producer involves being asked to perform oral sex on the head of customs in exchange for getting water provided to the event, while others outline McFarland’s huge lies and gross budget problems, telling one investor he had booked Drake when he hadn’t.

Ultimately, while viewers may be initially drawn to the allure of watching vloggers fight it out over damp camping mattresses and IG-fuelled hubris, FYRE is a study of us, the engaged. “We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser,” one organiser says, a snapshot of a culture that covets lives lived for social media, and the exploitation of anyone buying in – whether that’s snagging a ticket or hearting a post. As it progresses, the dire truth is that the most overlooked are the locals and its long-suffering staff. 

Below, we speak to Smith about the fascinating trajectory of the viral disaster.

Did you really fathom the enormity of what a disaster Fyre was before you embarked on the project?

Chris Smith: I had seen the headlines like everyone else, and the story was very one-dimensional: influencers went to an island, and it all went Lord of the Flies. Even when starting the project, I had no idea if there was a movie there. The insiders had never really talked. It wasn't until we did this first interview with Mark Weinstein (one of the event contractors), that we started to get a sense of what really happened and who the characters were.

What then initially drew you to this project?

Chris Smith: Curiosity! I was interested to see if there was a story there. What we found was emblematic of the times we're in – it felt so relevant in terms of influencer culture, Instagram's prevalence, marketing, people being obsessed with lifestyles they see represented on social media... fake it til you make it.

Ultimately, this is a character study. It was interesting to look at this individual who had grown up in the suburbs of New York City and the path that he took to starting this festival in the Bahamas. He fascinates me, as such an enigmatic character.

“What we found was emblematic of the times we’re in – it felt so relevant in terms of influencer culture, Instagram’s prevalence, people being obsessed with lifestyles they see represented on social media” – Chris Smith

How did your thoughts on Billy expand?

Chris Smith: At first we were just wondering if this was someone who just got in over their head. They had tried to start a festival, things got out of control. But I think as the movie shows, this was definitely something that was more a part of his character, and that was an interesting evolution journey that I went on, in terms of discovery, and one that we hope the audience would also go on as they watch the film.

The idea that you would continue to engage in criminal activity while you're out on bail seems very odd. That was something that surprised everyone that was involved.

What the film shows that wasn’t as apparent in the initial online discourse was how much cash social media stars like Kendall Jenner got for posting one photo, and then an entire island of people who laboured hard to make it work got nothing.

Chris Smith: I think this film really shows the disparity in that, people that were really left holding the bag were sadly the Bahamians and the contractors. All of which were trying to help fulfill this exotic quest.

What felt like the biggest challenge?

Chris Smith: It was trying to contain the story. The story swelled in so many different directions with so many characters, so we had to figure out the best way to tell it. Subsequently, we lost a lot of things that we loved. I mean there were so many things in this comedy of errors.

How did you curate the multitude of behind-the-scenes people talking about Fyre?

Chris Smith: It was very difficult to find and get people to feel comfortable about going on camera. I think a lot of people wanted to put the festival behind them. What we were hoping to do was to put a face on a human story about Fyre – one that was relatable, and where you could truly understand what the people on the ground went through.

The people that were actually helping to put the festival on were incredibly thoughtful, conscientious people that were just caught up in a no-win situation. It’s nothing embarrassing.

I have a lot of respect for people who can revisit something they were part of that was so publicly shitty. Have they had the opportunity to see the documentary?

Chris Smith: We’re having a screening this week, but a lot of them have. Reliving the experience brings back a lot of emotion. It was traumatic, even though they do appreciate it. They've been really supportive and loved what they've seen so far, and it’s been a cathartic experience. I think it has added closure for many of them.

How do you strike that tone between this wild Spring Breakers-like downfall and a serious character study?

Chris Smith: Going into it, I had no idea if those involved were going to be a bunch of undesirable people that had ill-intentions and tried to half-heartedly put together a music festival. When we actually started to talk to the people that worked on the festival we found this incredible group of people that came together to try and make this thing less of a disaster than it was destined to be. It was all down to them.

“It adds a lot of depth and dimension that I don’t think people expect” – Chris Smith

This is a really visual story – the Instagram influencers, the viral image of the cheese sandwich. How did you approach that?

Chris Smith: The story is very much about social media and how we interact with that world. So you’re constantly seeing text messages, emails, Twitter posts, Instagram posts on screen. It was very much a story that lived online, as much as it lived in the real world. So for us, it was important to represent that side of things in a way that felt very contemporary.

Is there a moment that speaks to you the most?

Chris Smith: After the festival falls apart, you see reflections from some of the Bahamians that I find very affecting. It’s at complete odds with the coverage that existed to date on Fyre, which was very much sensationalised, headlined as influencers being stuck on an island. I think that when you see it from this perspective, it adds a lot of depth and dimension that I don’t think people expect when going into a movie like this.

So much about Fyre was condensed into clicky, satirical headlines. Do you think this is reflective of the modern age of the media?

Chris Smith: It feels that way with the barrage of information – I’m guilty of it myself, how often do you read the article behind the headline? Sadly, not as much as you should. There’s an overload of information that we're faced with on a daily basis. People will hopefully sit back and sink into what the real story was.

Do you see this then as a cautionary tale for our times?

Chris Smith: In some ways, I don’t think it’s particularly reflective of this point in history. These sort of characters, ambitions and scams have always existed. But then I don’t think it was a scam – I think they really did want to put on a festival, and advertised something they would not be able to deliver. It’s a deception, maybe fraud, but not necessarily a scam.

So what’s the ultimate takeaway?

Chris Smith: I think the ultimate takeaway from this is that there was a lack of honesty from the beginning to end. They were deceiving investors to get additional money to make it work. I think the film does a good job of showing why Billy felt he probably had to do that, when the festival was his only way out.

If they had been honest with people about what was happening, there’s a chance that some people may have rallied around it and been more supportive. The fact that they weren't being more straightforward with people, in terms of what to expect is ultimately what brought it down. There’s a number of people in the movie who talk about ‘if we could just get the messaging out’, that this is not a luxury festival, but it's something different, there was a chance that it could have succeeded on some level. It’s one of many things to be attributed to the spectacular implosion.

FYRE is available to watch on Netflix January 18