In 2017, director Chris Smith was wrapping up Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, his documentary on Jim Carrey’s transformation into Andy Kaufman for Man on the Moon, when he added a simple line to “a bunch of half-baked ideas” he had written down: Fyre Festival. Organizers of the inaugural luxurious music festival, set to take place over two weekends in the Bahamas in 2017, promised attendees exquisite villas, hangs with supermodels and a lineup featuring Blink-182, Major Lazer, G.O.O.D. Music and Disclosure, among many high-profile acts.
There was only one problem: It was all a fraud and a byproduct of too much marketing and too little actual planning. When guests, some of whom paid tens of thousands of dollars for the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, arrived, the “villas” were mostly FEMA disaster tents; the supermodels were either sequestered or not there at all; and the artists either hadn’t been booked or had backed out of the festival. As confusion gave way to fury and guests were denied basic needs like food and water, social media lit up with Lord of the Flies and Hunger Games comparisons. The “rich millennials get screwed and are trapped on an island” narrative quickly solidified as sun-baked schadenfreude warmed the souls of anyone who wasn’t there. (Festival head Billy McFarland was eventually sentenced to six years in jail for defrauding consumers and investors.)
Smith had read the headlines like everyone else. But he also noticed that many of the people involved in the festival never spoke publicly about their experience. A mutual friend led him to Gabrielle Bluestone, a Vice journalist who had extensively covered the festival and began walking Smith through all the hierarchy of Fyre’s major players. “We filmed the Gabrielle interview and started pulling clips and information down off online,” Smith tells Rolling Stone. “The next thing you know, we had this 45-minute edit of a movie — just a broad stroke of ‘What is this story and who are the people?’ Little did we know that was barely anything.” [Laughs]
The result, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, utilizes astonishing behind-the-scenes footage (“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser,” McFarland admits during an early company outing to the Bahamas) and interviews with many of the principals to show what happens when you sell the sizzle, not the steak. It’s equally a time capsule, a dark comedy and a horror movie that exposes McFarland’s most selfish, hubristic instincts and the people, wittingly or otherwise, who were complicit in the most disastrous music festival since Woodstock ’99. Smith spoke about how he got so much behind-the-scenes footage, why McFarland didn’t agree to an interview and the one scene that he “couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
Fyre Festival made global headlines as it was imploding. Are you concerned people think they know everything already?
It’s interesting you say that, because one of the concerns going into it was wondering if there actually was a movie there. When I started reading all the coverage, most of them just reprinted the same, few facts — and there was very little actual information. But that didn’t make me think that there was this great story hidden. It made me think the opposite: that there probably wasn’t anything there. But you realized that there were a lot of people [who worked for the festival] that had never spoken publicly.
Were Fyre employees reluctant to speak on-camera, or were they immediately willing to open up?
Most of them didn’t want to go back to Fyre, especially when we first approached them. One of the things that would be surprising to a lot of people is that it was actually a fairly traumatic experience for a lot of the people that worked on it.
One employee in the film talks about having PTSD.
Yeah, and I don’t think that’s a joke. It was a very traumatic experience to go through for a lot of the people involved.
That same employee admits Billy asked him to perform a sexual act on the Head of Customs to release a trove of bottled water for the festival.
I’d never been in an interview and had that moment where I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
What was the closest in your career before that?
Nothing compares. Nothing.
There’s an astonishing amount of behind-the-scenes footage on the festival. How did you obtain that?
We connected with Matte Projects [the production company hired by Fyre]. At the time, Matte was about to start their own film on Fyre and obviously, they had all this footage from their experience of working with [the festival]. They gave us access to it; one of the Jerry Media partners [the agency hired by Fyre to promote the festival] had been doing a daily vlog and actually had footage of the first time that they met with the Fyre people. They also had documented their trip down to the festival. Even they didn’t know what they were walking into, and they were supposedly one of the main contractors for the festival.
The teaser video feels like a horror film even though everyone knows how the movie ends. How conscious were you of setting up that tone?
I’ve always felt like you have to react to the material as you get it. It was very easy as an outsider to look at [this] in hindsight and approach it like, “Of course this was going to be a disaster.” But before it fell apart, there was a lot of enthusiasm and optimism around the idea, especially at the launch. After the launch, you can start to see the cracks begin to appear. The core Fyre team was still trying to give the illusion that everything was okay because once you let that go, then it would have unraveled much quicker.
It was an interesting challenge to try to take the audience on that journey where instead of saying, “Oh, this was just doomed from the start,” you showed people that there were a lot of people that were sold a bill of goods that were pitched a version of what Fyre could be.
“What they overlooked was the actual work that it would take to put on a festival.”
A post-event conference call among employees finds one person outright calling Billy’s actions “fraud.” Did that feel like a smoking gun when you saw it?
It did seem like a smoking gun. Somebody had leaked [the footage] and what was most interesting to me about that was that I had read that quote in writing and it didn’t have the resonance or impact that it has when you actually hear it in a conference call. What was most shocking to me was how this stuff came to light by actually being in the room.
Billy screwed over a lot of his employees. Did this feel like they wanted to get back at him by talking about how bad the event went?
You’d have to talk to the people that were involved, but my feeling was that they were not trying to get back at Billy. I really felt that people had realized that they had gone through this crazy experience, and I think there was something cathartic and adding closure to it by telling your story on film. People realize that this story was going to get out there in one way or another. But that said, most of the people that we interviewed were very hesitant to engage and it took a lot of hand-holding to get people to actually go on camera. I was hoping people would realize from the film that there was nothing to be ashamed of in terms of working for Fyre.
They may have thought they’d be connected to a toxic brand.
Yes. Saying that you had anything to do with Fyre, especially at the time of its implosion, had a very negative connotation and people wanted to just put this behind them. They also recognized that this was this crazy story, but a story worth telling.
What was your impression of Billy before you started this movie, and did that view change by the time you’d finished this?
When we started, we didn’t know who Billy McFarland was. He was very low-profile in media appearances surrounding Fyre. Obviously he recognized that the models were a much better image for this festival than he would be. It took a long time to really understand who was behind it and the genesis of who Billy McFarland was. That was a journey that continued for the entire year that we were making the movie. It ultimately became a character study on this individual who was a product of social media and to give the audience a window into his world.
Were you at all optimistic that he would speak for the film?
We actually had a camera and crew set up twice to film Billy. We were in talks to shoot him near the beginning, and then in the end, he wanted to get paid. We found it very difficult to pay Billy when so many people had had such hardships based on the festival.
Had you considered it or was it off the table immediately?
It was something we definitely talked about because we felt his interview would be very valuable, but in the end it was a decision that we didn’t feel comfortable with. There was so much of Billy in news clips and archival footage and just people talking about him that he still felt like he had a voice.
One employee says in the film, “These guys are either full of shit or they’re the smartest guys in the room.” Where did you land at first?
I always thought of the Simpsons episode with the monorail. [Billy] was an incredible salesman. Time and again in interviews, people would talk about his charisma and ability to sell this dream. In the world we’re in today, you see the result of work; you see on Instagram people living a certain lifestyle. They focused on what they knew, which was how to market something. That part was the fun part. What they overlooked was the actual work that it would take to put on a festival. I would assume that a normal process would be to figure out a festival and then market what you’re going to deliver. They did it backwards and ultimately paid the price.
“The failure of this festival was built for Twitter.”
What do you think of Billy now?
He’s a complicated character. I didn’t see his charm and charisma from the news clips that I had seen. He seemed somewhat awkward, and it was only in working on the movie and hearing people talk about their interactions with Billy and his enthusiasm and how infectious it was, that I felt like I got a better understanding of who he was.
He actually has an incredible ability to see opportunity where others don’t. He’s living in a social media world and realizing that everybody is aspiring to this lifestyle and then he’s spending time in the Bahamas and puts it together that, “Wow, I could sell this vision of what everyone’s seeing on Instagram.” And it was successful. You can’t deny that he was tuned into something, but there’s more to having the idea than just having the idea.
One person says Billy “went from … thinking he was the entrepreneur of the decade to essentially being a massive viral disgrace and joke.” Was there any part of you that felt sympathy for him?
Ultimately, I try to remain objective wherever possible. As the story unfolded and you see where Billy was going, he becomes a less sympathetic character. Talking to some of the people that are still dealing with the fallout of Fyre Festival makes it much harder to be sympathetic towards him. One guy I talked to this morning is still dealing with Fyre on a weekly basis. He was the one whose company brilliantly, against all odds, was able to build this state-of-the-art stage on an island. He’s still paying the price for that Herculean effort. It’s been incredibly difficult for him.
As much as you want to say, “Oh, this was just this rich kids that flew to an island,” there were a lot of real-world consequences for professionals that are still going on today. At that point, you start to have very little sympathy. The fact that Billy was back in Manhattan living this lifestyle while there were a huge number of Bahamians that were not paid … I don’t know how you could live with yourself. To me, that was the part that made me feel much less sympathy for him. A lot of people didn’t get paid, but there’s a couple of people that actually put in significant amount of money that was very crucial to their livelihood, and those people are the ones that I feel for the most.
Let’s talk about Ja Rule: He was the festival’s highest-profile musician, but isn’t in the film. Did you ask him to be in it?
He felt pretty present. I was interested in telling a story from the point of view of the people that were actually on the ground doing the work and I feel like Ja’s role was sort of this cheerleader. He pretty much disappears from the movie after the launch of the video. So, I really think when you look at the SEC indictment and everything, it’s like Billy with the assistance of a few other individuals were really at the heart of this fraud element. Ja just trusted that these guys were for real — and in the end they weren’t. We felt like he was well-represented in the archival footage.
This idea of rich people battling each other in a Lord of the Flies scenario became an overarching theme on social media that made it ripe for ridicule.
The failure of this festival was built for Twitter. You couldn’t design anything better. For everyone that was envious of the people that were going or felt like they were going to miss out, for it to fail was a gleeful moment. The failure of the festival was very one-dimensional, yet the reality of the festival was very multi-faceted.
What surprised you the most in the course of making the film?
The thing that surprised me the most — and it shouldn’t have been a surprise — but it was just the caliber of people that were working on Fyre. You assume that it would just be a bunch of idiots that were trying to pull off a music festival, but when you actually started talking to everyone that was working on it, they were incredibly earnest, smart, intelligent, hard-working, conscientious and thoughtful. They were people that were doing their best to keep this from being a bigger disaster than it was destined to be.
So what does the festival say about our culture and how social media now plays into the idea of how we experience events?
People are seeing a world around them and so much is being informed by that. Fyre was very much a product of showing the best parts of your life and created a fear-of-missing-out event. It was a lifestyle that a lot of people that are on Instagram would aspire to. So from a marketing perspective, it was brilliant and obviously very successful for that reason. They worked on the part that was what they knew best, which was creating the façade. But there was nothing beneath there. Once reality set in, you see the wheels start to fall off.