About midway through “Fyre,” you can hear Chris Smith just off-camera ask one of his subjects, “Did Andy ever tell you how he had to get the water out?”
The screen had cut to black just before stopping all momentum in the film as if someone stopped you in in the street after having raced over just to tell you something important, and it doesn’t disappoint as you hear one of the most outrageous stories in a film packed to the gills with them about the infamous 2017 music festival that never was, where partiers from around the world descended on the Bahamas with the promise of villas, private sushi chefs and Blink 182 and got disaster tents, bread with Kraft slices and what could only feel like a steady stream of chin music for those who paids thousands to take part.
Fans of Smith’s from films such as “American Movie” and “The Yes Men” have become familiar with this maneuver when the most innocent of questions can spiral into the wildest answer you’ve ever heard and although it’s likely anyone could’ve made an entertaining film about the Fyre Festival, a catastrophe of such epic proportions that you can’t avert your eyes, Smith is an inspired choice for the reasons you’d expect as one of the great documentarians of our time and others you might not. The calm, collected and curious filmmaker is once again able to elicit tales you can’t imagine anyone else would about the calamitous event, listening without judgment as he has with conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert in “Collapse” or with Jim Carrey in “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond,” to organizers and attendees speak of the mismanagement and outright duplicity of Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, partners in an event booking app that saw the concert as an attention-grabbing stunt for their launch.
There’s no shortage of jaw-dropping interviews or footage as Smith teamed with Jerry Media and Matte Projects, companies hired by organizers to shoot promotional material for the Fyre Festival and end up with damning B-roll of McFarland as he runs up a $25 million bill that he appears to have no intention of ever paying. However, the filmmaker knows how to bring out the larger story in “Fyre,” which fits snugly into his longtime interests, not only of profiling colorful characters whose reach exceeds their grasp, but in becoming an indictment of late-stage capitalism as McFarland is massively successful in creating an illusion of wealth and luxury that doesn’t actually exist with a canny campaign using social media influencers, arguably even suckering himself into buying into his own bullshit as he doubles down when the festival descends further into chaos, convinced that all the lies he’s told and bridges he’s burned won’t ever catch up to him even after he’s doomed by his own poor planning. While it’s difficult to feel all that sorry for those with enough expendable income to travel to Great Exhuma thinking that they’ll party with Emily Ratajkowski and Bella Hadid based on the promotional materials, there’s a real ugliness that Smith exposes in how McFarland’s con was built upon the work of Bahamians who will never be fairly compensated for erecting what haphazard accommodations there ended up being.
Shortly before “Fyre” made its debut on Netflix – but before being aware of the surprise drop of rival doc “Fyre Fraud” – I spoke to Smith about what led him to his latest feature, how his own experience in the tech world gave him an understanding of the roots of Fyre, and creating a character study without the participation of its central figure.
How did this come about?
I wasn’t aware of the festival when it was launched, but like everyone, I remember seeing some headlines when it imploded. I was in production on another documentary at the time, and as that was wrapping up I was just starting to look around and see what other ideas might be interesting to explore and this was on the list, so I ended we set up to do an interview with a journalist who had been covering the story [for Vice], just to get an understanding of what had happened. We thought instead of doing a lot of digging and talking to people, we might as well just start documenting that process, so filmed that interview and then we were heading out to L.A. for a screening of “Jim & Andy,” and invited one of the event contractors to a screening, and were able to get an interview with him. That was Mark Weinstein and that was when it became real, just because you started to get a sense of the story from the inside and it became much more relatable and much more human, talking to Mark about his first-hand experience.
Soon thereafter, we connected with Mick Purzycki, who became a producer on the project, from Jerry Media, and working with Nick, we brought in Matte Projects, who were just about to do their own documentary on Fyre. They had shot the promotional video and they already hired a director, had a producer, had financing, but Mick was able to convince them to work with us. So the three of us, with Vice, joined forces and pooled resources. From there, it just was a year of looking in every corner for anyone we could talk to whose lives were touched by Fyre.
Often, you tackle larger themes through character studies. Was it any different to build a film around an event rather than somebody you had access to?
I still think of it as a character study around Billy, but this was different from the other films because he wasn’t directly participating. But I do feel like the movie is still Billy’s story. It’s just told in a different way. The nice part is that people would have different recollections and different observations that were often complementary to each other, [because] just in terms of the way the operation was handled, people’s access to information was very limited often. They would be siloed so they would only know one little piece of the puzzle in an effort to mask what was really going on. And it was really a case of, as we would film one or two people, someone else would feel comfortable and you would get further, so the more people we got, we were able to then get connected to others that had equally interesting stories.
To that end, I loved the backdrops you have for your subjects that say so much about them – do they have much of a say in where you would film them?
Often, I would just ask them what the space looked like, and if it wasn’t quite right, I would suggest another place that we could find. I tried to find environments that felt reflective of the personality of the person that we were filming, so they weren’t always necessarily their space, but they were spaces that felt reflective of who they were.
It was surprising to see the film start out with interviews with app developers, which of course was actually the end goal of the Fyre Festival. Having developed an app yourself, could you bring that experience of bringing it to market to telling this story?
Yeah, they were more successful than we were I think, but I have to say, it was very relatable in terms of the journey that they were going on from a tech perspective. In terms of the festival, I had never known this from reading the headlines, but the festival was actually originally just supposed to be an event to promote the app. That was something that I felt like wasn’t very clear in a lot of the coverage I had seen, so I felt like if they were getting into this, if there were things like that that you were discovering along throughout the process, that it would be a really engaging film.
I imagine that you were already in editing by the time the arraignments came down. Did things change as Billy McFarland was getting sentenced or you might learn of new things from the court filings?
Yeah, it definitely changed. An early version of the movie, you were left wondering if this person had just gotten in over their head, and I think when you see how things unfold, it starts to color that opinion.
Was there any piece of footage that you came across or that you knew was out there that was difficult to track down. Something that became a Holy Grail?
Any piece of archival footage that we were able to get our hands on was incredibly useful in terms of helping tell the story because you’re relying on all these interviews, but ultimately you need footage to help tell the story and for us, I think working with Matte Projects was really, would be the equivalent of the holy grail. They had a front row seat to this whole operation at the outset, so the documentary footage that they had was instrumental in telling the story.