Emmy-nominated director Chris Smith (Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond) saw the headlines coming out of 2017’s Fyre Festival, initially pegged as a “luxury” music event in the Bahamas for an elite clientele. He saw the video footage of the harsh reality — attendees huddling in hurricane shelter tents and fighting each other for mattresses — and he saw that viral photo of the saddest sandwich in the history of sandwiches. But it wasn’t until he started “digging deeper” that he realized there was much more to the story.
EW’s exclusive trailer for Fyre, Smith’s documentary hitting Netflix on Jan. 18, is but a taste of what resulted in what is now the Fyre Festival fiasco.
“It [started as] an exploration into the story and then it just kept unfolding in a million different directions,” Smith says. “At that point, there was no turning back.”
Co-founded by rapper Ja Rule and entrepreneur Billy McFarland, Fyre Festival was sold as a posh music festival with pricy villas, thanks to a misleading promotional video and social media posts from models. By the time guests arrived on the Bahamian island destination, they found themselves stranded with no flight back, hurricane tents instead of the promised resort, and a blaring speaker instead of A-list bands.
“Fyre really played into this idea of perception versus reality,” Smith says. “They created this amazing facade in their marketing materials, but in the same way that social media is often used to show the best parts of our lives, what was beneath the surface was something entirely different that had very dramatic real-world consequences.”
A lot of what Smith needed was already online — the photos and videos from those present — and some of his interviewees unearthed the rest. One of his subjects, Brett Kincaid, whose production company Matte shot the festival’s promotional video, offered Smith behind-the-scenes footage of McFarland and Ja Rule’s team in the lead-up to the perfect storm.
McFarland, who’s currently serving a six-year jail sentence for defrauding investors, had planned on sitting down for Smith’s doc, which the director started making in October 2017. “We were set to film with him on two different occasions,” Smith recalls. “We had a camera and a crew and we were ready to go and then it would just get postponed right at the last minute. And then it just never ended up materializing.”
After EW’s initial interview, Smith adds in an email provided to EW through Netflix that “Billy wanted to get paid” for appearing in the film. “We didn’t feel comfortable with him benefiting after so many people were hurt as a consequence of his actions,” Smith writes.
The director ended up with countless more interviews, including with the development team wrangled into working on the Fyre Media company’s website and app, the local Bahamian workers exploited for labor, the attendees who admit to adopting a “looting mentality” during the chaos, and the event producer allegedly pressured by McFarland into his own #MeToo moment with a Customs official.
The editors behind Fyre had to start cutting footage from day 1. At one point, Smith had so much material he considered releasing the project as a docuseries.
“We actually were going back and forth between the two and I was really interested in exploring it,” he says. “As we worked on it and kept working with the material, there were a million stories that were all interesting about the build-up to the festival and there was all this footage of the promotional video being made and all these stories that took place on the island. But in terms of moving a narrative forward, a lot of the times they felt similar but different. We actually were cutting a [docu]series and a feature at the same time. We were cutting a parallel edit. In the end, we just felt that the feature was stronger, that the story and this event and the character study all felt very contained.”
People were, understandably, “hesitant” to discuss the Fyre Festival on camera, due to the “traumatic experience” associated with it, Smith believes. Then there was the “very negative” portrayal in the media that didn’t help much. As glimpsed in the trailer, Fyre Festival and the duped attendees became a punchline for comedians on late-night TV.
“One thing that I hope the film does,” Smith says, “is to show that there were a lot of really caring, conscientious people who killed themselves trying to make the festival happen.”