The Director of Netflix's 'Fyre' Doc Wants to Humanize the Disastrous Music Festival
In April of 2017, Chris Smith, the director of Netflix's rollicking ripped-from-social-media documentary Fyre, learned of the ill-fated music festival the same way most people did: He read about it on the internet. In the midst of finishing his first movie for Netflix, the genuinely out there Jim Carrey doc Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, the filmmaker followed the Fyre phenomenon, with its flashy model-filled marketing and dystopian influencers-meets-Lord of the Flies reality, and added it to a list on his phone where he stores ideas for potential projects. A little over a year later, Fyre arrives on Netflix in a minor-key shit-storm worthy of Fyre itself.
Could it have gone down any other way? After Thrillist's interview with Smith was conducted, Hulu announced the "surprise release" of Fyre Fraud, its own previously announced documentary about the Fyre Festival, only days before Netflix's Fyre was scheduled to drop. Subsequently, The Ringer reported that the Hulu documentary had paid for its interview with Fyre's young mastermind Billy McFarland, who is not featured in the Netflix doc for reasons Smith outlines in the interview below; at the same time, Smith's Fyre has faced criticism for being produced in collaboration with both Jerry Media, the company that created the promotional materials for the festival, and Matte Projects, an advertising agency that also worked on Fyre. It's Armageddon vs. Deep Impact, but with a journalistic ethics twist.
Eating sushi in a conference room before these stories broke, Smith was in a contemplative mood. The director of the 1999 Sundance breakout American Movie, which followed an ambitious Hollywood outsider in Wisconsin trying to make his low-budget filmmaking dreams come true, he's clearly attracted to stories of oddball visionaries, a label that could apply to Fyre's con-artist subject McFarland, who was sentenced to six years in federal prison back in October.
Still, Smith hopes his film, which more than delivers its fair share of schadenfreude, can also shine a light on some of the "great, competent people working on the festival." That gentle, keen-eyed curiosity about process, specifically what keeps individuals going in the face of possible humiliation or disaster, distinguishes his work, and perhaps makes him the ideal chronicler of an easy target like the Fyre Festival.
Thrillist: There had been so much writing about the Fyre Festival online, including some in-depth reporting on the event. Were you wary to wade into a subject that was already so obsessively covered?
Smith: I was! But in looking back at all the news coverage, I realized a lot of it was fairly one dimensional. A lot of the people that were closest to the inner circle hadn't talked [to the media]. After getting further and further into the story and meeting more people and getting these interviews, I started to think there was something there. Up until then, I agree with you: There was a worry that this was a retread of what had already been reported, but as we got one person who would vouch for us and then another, it started to unfold and we started to realize there was a much bigger story than I had first anticipated.
Your movie features some great footage of Billy McFarland and Ja Rule shooting the promotional material, and that forms the backbone of the first half of the movie. When did you know you were going to get that footage?
Smith: Fortunately for us, we had started making the movie and so we were bluffing our way through. No one had started at that point. We were the first people to start doing interviews. There was the company that did the promotional video for Fyre called Matte Projects, and unbeknownst to us, they actually were just about to start their own documentary. They had a director, they had footage, they had financing, they had a producer. So that was a big piece of this coming together: Without them or without their cooperation, it would've been very difficult to make something that didn't feel like a pedestrian retelling of facts that were out there. But through that vérité footage, I think you get to know people and you get to understand so much more than what could ever be said with an interview.
How much of that footage did you have? Were there hours and hours?
Smith: There was quite a bit actually. Yeah, I would be hesitant to put a number on it, but there were hours of footage. Unfortunately, this was such a massive story and trying to condense the narrative into 95 minutes, there was a lot that was lost. So there are great moments and beats and things that existed in that footage that we weren't able to use just because we were moving through the story at a pace that didn't allow for it. But still, the pieces that they contributed were the things that really make this into what it is.
What were some of the best moments that didn't make it in?
Smith: When you get obsessed with a story, everything seems important. There were a lot of playful moments of [McFarland and Ja Rule] interacting with the documentary crew. There was a lot of footage of Bahamians that were working with them, but they were characters that never reappeared, so it would be hard to integrate them into the film. The Bahamians that we interviewed, we obviously had their stories from beginning to end.
I assume a lot of the people who you interviewed were hesitant to participate in the documentary because they were worried you were going to make fun of them or they would come off looking stupid. How did you gain their trust?
Smith: A lot of people wanted to put Fyre behind them. That was the hardest part of making the movie. There were two things that really helped make it work. One was people could look back at the work I've done -- the Netflix documentary had just come out and had done well -- so I think people had a level of comfort from that. The other thing was I was working with Mick Purzycki over at Jerry Media, and Mick had his own story with Fyre. Their company had a loss. [Fyre employees] were able to relate to [Mick] because they had both gone through the experience of working for Fyre and getting burned by it.
To be honest, Mick also had a lot of relationships from the festival. He was on the ground when the festival imploded and he went to the Blue House and tried to help where he could. People remembered and recognized him from that, and they realized he had tried to help. So, in terms of the access, Mick is the unsung hero. This movie, more than any other movie I've ever worked on, really needed so much attention and hand-holding to actually get people to actually do the interviews. That required countless evenings of drinks and dinners and meetings to get people to feel comfortable telling their story.
How would you describe the movie in those conversations with people early on?
Smith: This was this crazy experience that everybody went through and we wanted to tell a fair and balanced -- sorry to use those words. The story had been represented in the news as a very sensationalized story of Lord of the Flies with Instagram's top influencers or whatever. We wanted to put a human face to the story. That was the guiding principle: To help the audience understand how this happened and what happened, and to do that while at the same time being respectful of the people that were involved. That's one thought.
It's very easy to look back at Fyre with the perspective of, "Of course this was never going to work and everyone involved with Fyre was an idiot." It was an interesting challenge to take yourself back to before it imploded and capture the promise and the excitement that surrounded the launch and what they hoped to achieve. The marketing campaign was incredibly successful. In terms of the target audience, it was successful in the volume of people it hit, particularly the energy and enthusiasm it elicited.
Did you know from the beginning that you were not going to get Billy to sit for an interview?
Smith: We did try to interview Billy and we were close a couple times where we had a camera crew and were in talks with him. But in the end, Billy wanted to get paid for his interview and we didn't feel comfortable after filming so many people whose lives were hurt by this experience, it felt unfair for Billy to get paid.
What about Ja Rule?
Smith: We were really interested in trying to tell the story from the point of view of the people that were on the ground. I think Ja helped with some promotion, and you see that in the movie, but after the festival was launched, it felt like he faded in terms of the nuts and bolts and logistics of making the festival. We felt comfortable with the footage we had.
It's interesting to compare this to the Jim and Andy documentary, which is built around one long interview with the subject. Fyre is basically the opposite of that. How challenging was it to create a portrait of Billy without actually having an interview with him?
Smith: It was incredibly challenging. That was the thing that we wrestled with for the entire year. I'm happy with where we ended up but it was the most challenging aspect. Ultimately, the movie is a character study, but you're trying to tell that story with limited resources. That was far and away the most challenging thing, but I think that with the pieces of the footage we had and the stories people tell, I think we get a good sense of who he was and how things unfolded.
I think one thing the movie does really well is show how Fyre's failure didn't just affect the venture capitalists funding it or the wealthy fans trying to go to it, but that it also hurt the people on the ground. Did you know that was going to be such an important part of the story?
Smith: No, I think in covering it you want to cover all the angles and see what the fall-out was. I don't think that we knew exactly if that existed, and if so, how these people were affected. But in doing the research and talking to people, you realize there were real consequences for some of the people that were involved. [Caterer] MaryAnn [Rolle] put a lot of her own money up to help make this happen because everyone said they were going to pay people. Of course, you look at something like that and you can't imagine it failing. They had all these bands coming, all these people are coming. This was such a big thing. There's no way this couldn't work. They're telling you there's nothing to worry about, so you invest in good faith. To me that was the most heartbreaking interview to do because you could feel her pain.
The other part of this story that the documentary looks at is the NYC VIP Access scam that Billy committed after Fyre. How did you get all of that footage of him hanging around that apartment?
Smith: There was an artist named Akindo, who is in the movie, and he was filming that, so we worked with him. We had already been in touch with him because he had filmed a lot of the Magnises days. When news broke about [NYC VIP Access], I think he realized he had footage from that time.
It's just wild to see Billy go right back to the behavior that got him in trouble.
Smith: Yeah, you would think that if you're out on bail, you would be on your best behavior. That's the part that's most shocking about that material.
Do you think Billy was sincere in his pursuit of the Fyre Festival?
Smith: Yes, I do. You'd be a fool to try to do a fraud where you're going to fly people to an island and have nothing there. Billy wanted to be at the center of that world, and to do this festival -- with these models and that talent -- to him that was the goal, living that lifestyle. There's no doubt that he wanted the festival to be a success. The downfall -- and possibly this is a result of growing up in the Instagram age -- [was that] they did the marketing before they figured out the logistics, which was disastrous, and you see that in the movie. They basically created the fantasy, the ultimate festival experience, and put that out without having done any of the work to understand what that meant.
Still, there are moments like that moment with Billy and Ja Rule on the beach when Billy says he's "selling a pipe dream to your average loser." It feels malicious, where in other moments he seems a little more naïve. Do you think he saw his customers as suckers?
Smith: I think Billy was really good at recognizing opportunity in his own life experience. With Magnises, he recognized that when he moved to New York, he felt like an outsider. He knew there would be other people who were having the same experience, so he could create this members club that allowed people to have a sense of community and understand where to go and what to do in New York City. From there, he's now moving into this other circle and seeing that everybody wants to live this certain lifestyle. He's going to the Bahamas, he's got a Maserati, he's flying on private planes. If he can sell that experience to people on Instagram, who are seeing influencers live those lives, than there's a market there. He was good at recognizing those opportunities in the world around him.
If you had been able to get Billy for an interview, what would you have asked him?
Smith: I have the questions somewhere. I read them near the end of the process and it was heartbreaking to reread because they were great. I would have loved to sat down with him but it just didn't happen.
After I watched the movie, I looked up Billy online and I had forgotten how --
Smith: Young he was! That's the part that's incredible. He was doing this when he was, like, 25 years old. He had done a number of small companies when he was in high school, but this was the third company. It was impressive in what he was able to achieve by that age. Part of the problem is that when you're in a startup environment where you're raising money, building the decks and selling the vision can sometimes feel like that's the job. So the success comes when you're like, "Wow, we raised the money!" But that's just the start! For them, raising the money and creating the facade was where they put their energy.
That's what's interesting about the movie: You have this contrast between the VC and marketing people, who just need to sell an idea, and the festival organizers, who need to execute.
Smith: They're two totally different things: Marketing a festival and putting a festival on are two different things, yet they were taking on both. It obviously had disastrous results.
With Billy being so young, do you think he'll learn his lesson and what do you think he'll do in the future?
Smith: I never would have predicted that Billy would have continue doing crime once he was out on bail. At that point, I have no idea who he'll be when he comes out. He's incredibly smart, incredibly driven, very passionate, and sees opportunity where others don't. If he can harness that energy… Marc Weinstein at the end of the movie says, "I wouldn't be surprised if in 10 years we hear about some new thing and Billy is behind it." We put that at the end of the movie for a reason: I believe that will be the case.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.