'Chatting Freud'? No, Schadenfreude. The Intemperate Pleasure of Watching Emmy-Nominated 'Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened'
Chris Smith's Netflix documentary on ill-fated millennial fest contends for four Emmys, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special
If the Germans hadn't conveniently created the word "schadenfreude" (taking pleasure in another person's misfortune) it would need inventing for the experience of watching the Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.
The anonymous person at Rev.com who transcribed my interview with director Chris Smith evidently hadn't heard the term -- he/she transcribed it as "chatting Freud" instead of schadenfreude. In any case, the word best describes witnessing the much-hyped Fyre Festival, created by now-imprisoned entrepreneur Billy McFarland, go down in flames.
If you don't recall news of the event from spring 2017 - it was billed as the arts and music party of the century, tucked away on a private island in the Bahamas. Kind of like Coachella but with luxury accommodations. Tons of millennials with disposable income signed up for the party, but when they got down to the Bahamas they were in for a rude surprise (cue the schadenfreude): the promised chic cabanas turned out to be leftover hurricane emergency tents. And that was by no means the worst of it.
They were offering access and exclusivity [to] people that wanted to live the lifestyle that they were seeing portrayed on social media.
Smith's Fyre doc is nominated for four Emmys, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special and Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program.
I spoke with him about the selling of Fyre Festival and how the event went terribly wrong.
What was the Fyre Festival supposed to be, in all its glory?
Chris Smith: I think that was part of the problem, just the fact that their focus was what the festival was supposed to be rather than what the festival actually would be. It was supposed to be a luxury music event, art, food festival in a tropical paradise. That was what they set out to do.
The first step, in their minds, was to make the video to sell tickets to this festival. The video that was created is the vision for what they hoped the festival would be.
In terms of the marketing. the key was hiring "social media influencers" to spread the word -- the dreaded social media influencers.
CS: [Billy McFarland] used a lot of the top name models and Instagram influencers to sort of promote the festival. And I think very wisely -- it had a huge impact. And that part of the whole endeavor was obviously very successful as a result.
They scored big in the hype department. There's no doubt about that. And, I almost shudder to ask this, but who are the people who shelled out money for this? You found that damning bit of footage where Billy says, "We're selling a pipe dream to your average loser."
CS: It was hard for us to really get to the bottom of if there was a general profile. It definitely felt like a younger millennial crowd that spends time on social media.
But even from the people that we interviewed, it was a wide range of kids. I think the prices of what they were offering... it was actually oddly affordable. So I think it really was targeting people that wanted to be part of this. They were offering access and exclusivity [to] people that wanted to live the lifestyle that they were seeing portrayed on social media. So it [offered] the ability for them to participate.
You found so much footage that I would imagine Billy and Ja Rule [Billy's early partner in the venture] would rather not be seen. How did you get it? Where did it come from?
CS: When you talk about this being a product of social media, definitely a consequence of that is that people are documenting everything. So we were able to benefit from that. There was a lot of footage that was taken at the festival during the collapse. People filmed before and after.
There was so many different people that had footage that we were able to work with and sort of pull together this bigger picture.
What went wrong with Fyre Festival?
CS: I think that they did it backwards, ultimately. Instead of figuring out what the festival was and figuring out how to pull it off and then marketing what you were going to do, they went out and created a video representing a fantasy of what they hoped the festival could be. And then they were faced with the reality, which was trying to figure out the logistics and the feasibility of actually pulling something like this off. And ultimately that was their downfall.
I am indulging in schadenfreude [or "chatting Freud," if you prefer the Rev.com transcription] here. I don't know whether I should say 'shame on me' or whatever. But along those lines, Fyre Festival was an event made for Instagram in a way. And if you live by social media, you die by social media. One of the things that really encapsulated the whole Fyre fiasco was that photo put out by an attendee--
CS: The cheese sandwich.
The lowliest cheese sandwich. It seems terribly appropriate that this sad image shared on social media should really come to represent the whole misbegotten adventure.
CS: Yeah. I don't think you could have found a better image for Fyre.
Someone in the film says the scene turned into something out of Lord of the Flies, after attendees got to the Bahamas and discovered there were not enough tents, the whole area was a mess from heavy rains, etc. It descended into something certainly chaotic. I mean, no lives were lost I guess--
That we know of. But it got pretty ugly down there, didn't it?
CS: Yeah, I think it did. I mean it was -- everyone had a different experience. We had a range of people. Some were really terrified. Others [were with] a group of people and they were trying to make the best of it. So you did have an actual range.
But I think diving deeper into the stories of people that we obviously felt the most compassion for were the Bahamians, because they were sold this bill of goods by this flashy production and then sort of were left high and dry. And so you saw many examples of that.
One that we highlighted in the film was [caterer] Mary Ann Rolle, and that was one of the positive things that came out. A few weeks before we released the movie, I contacted her and I was trying to get her to set up a GoFundMe. She was not cooperative, not communicating because she just assumed anything [to do] with Fyre was a scam.
And finally I was able to get through to her and we got the GoFundMe set up. It was one of the positive aspects of social media is that you saw this outpouring of people wanting to help. And so she actually recovered everything that she lost and then some. So it was a nice, nice end to the story.
That's really wonderful that through your efforts she got a form of restitution, if you will. Because obviously also a heck of a lot of other people didn't.
CS: No, but we also had a separate GoFundMe that raised, I don't know the exact number, but there was another one that raised money for a lot of the [unpaid] workers. I don't know the details. I know Mary Ann raised to date $231,000.
One of the things that makes the film very rich is what it says about American life. Part of it is where we are as a contemporary culture, but there's another aspect of it about the grifter, entrepreneur-type. There's deep roots of that in American culture.
I certainly thought about Donald Trump. What's the difference between Billy McFarland and Donald Trump and Trump University, for example? I don't know whether you want to get into that.
CS: I'm going to steer clear of that one.
I certainly saw parallels.
CS: You're welcome to expand upon it.
Well, let me ask it in a broader way. What do you think this whole Fyre Festival thing says about the culture? It's just so much about our absorption in social media. We want to be part of these events and we feel our lives are irrelevant, I guess, if we're not in on it.
CS: Well, it really played on this idea of perception versus reality. They were able to create some amazing facade, but what was underneath it was something totally different. And the way that we're portraying ourselves in social media a lot of times is the more positive aspects of life and what is underneath is maybe not always -- it might not always be the same thing. So I think that as a reflection of where we are as a culture, it felt very much a story that was definitely of the times.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.