Last year, Billy McFarland was one of the chief architects behind Fyre Festival, a multi-sensory luxury influencer festival on an island in The Exumas which became a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone interested in participating in a surprise survivalist cosplay party. It quickly emerged just how messy everything was behind-the-scenes leading up to the fest. McFarland and fellow organizer Ja Rule were hit with multiple lawsuits; the festival's name became synonymous with scams; and McFarland eventually pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with the failed fest.
Then last week there was a new twist: McFarland was charged with perpetuating another fraud offering fake tickets to elite events—and allegedly sending out solicitation emails to past Fyre Fest victims—all while awaiting sentencing for the Fyre Fest scam. And there is reason to believe even more scams may still emerge.
Hulu is producing a forthcoming docuseries about Fyre Festival and its fallout, set to premiere in early 2019. Gothamist spoke to documentarian and co-director Jenner Furst, who produced the Newark-focused series Brick City and directed TIME: The Kalief Browder Story and next month's Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, about the latest charges against McFarland, his enablers, and why you can't learn morality on the Internet.
I wanted to start off by asking about the most recent things and then go back a little bit. Billy McFarland's latest scam allegedly took place in late 2017 through March 2018. Were you talking to him while this was going on, did you have any idea about this? You know, there were a lot of suspicions as far as what Billy was really up to. We had made an effort to probe him, prior to us sitting down for this really long, explosive and in-depth interview. We had been in talks with him to see if he would want to tell his story. And a lot of people were on the sidelines saying Billy is still out there doing X Y Z.
But it was so hard to pinpoint one thing or the other. You can even look at the Vice article. They end up publishing an article right on the morning of him turning himself in to the FBI for these new crimes. And they don't even connect the pieces even though they were hot on his trail with this NYC VIP access situation. So I think a lot of people had suspicions, but I think that Billy was very careful and very cunning in how he conducted this latest scheme.
Considering that he was still allegedly engaged in these types of schemes, why do you think he agreed to the interview in the first place? I have encountered this with other subjects before and I think that there's just a human instinct to want to make sure that your story is told as you see it. Especially in this day and age when so much of our identity is reflected in social media or in traditional print or television when people reach this level of notoriety. The idea that their story would be out there without them having any hand in enlightening the storyteller as to what their motivations were, or where they came from, or who they are, really is troubling for people even when they're as troubled as Billy McFarland.
I think he saw us as legitimate documentary filmmakers who were going to take all sides into consideration. Myself and my partner Julia Willoughby Nason, who I'm co-directing this with, and my partner Mike Gasparro, we recently had done some really hard hitting work and he took note of that. We were just coming off of Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, in which we were trying to give a lot of gray tones to what had been a very black and white story. And I think that in this piece that we're doing about the Fyre Festival and about Billy McFarland, that's our intent as well: to give gray tones to this, because it isn't simply black and white.
Someone like Billy McFarlane doesn't get this far in the world without a lot of people carrying him. Not to use the cliche of, "it takes a village," but it certainly takes a village to pull something like this off. And I think that Billy had a whole ecosystem of enablers who took part in this journey and before he was a complete and total crook on the news, with people saying that this was a Ponzi and he was a millennial Madoff, he was an "It Kid" and he was a very promising investment for a lot of venture capitalists who saw him on the rise and saw nothing but success in this kid. So it's a complicated story and it's our intent as storytellers to tell a complicated story and I think that Billy wanted to make sure that he was in the hands of really good storytellers because he himself feels his story is complicated. And after sitting with him for eight hours, we agreed with him.
Did you get the impression that he thought that he could really pull off Fyre Festival? I think that's a really interesting question. I think that being as smart as Billy is, there's no way that he didn't have serious, serious doubts about the viability of the festival leading into the target date.
But I don't think it was a Ponzi. I don't think that Billy set out to take money from one investor to pay off another with no product. I think that there was a number of things that happened, which we're excited for viewers to get an inside look at when the film comes out, that show that some lines were crossed and some very unethical things went down. But in the end you have someone at the center of this story who I think wanted to pull off the music festival. And of course it doesn't happen because it's pretty much impossible for it to happen because there were logistical nightmares that were presenting themselves months before the actual event. There's evidence of that, and there's emails that show that. Working with our partners at Mic.com and Billboard we just amassed a very huge arsenal of facts that tell this story.
But I think on a bigger level, you have a generation that has grown up with this concept of instant gratification and they go out and they use social media to create this absolutely explosive phenomenon. It's one of the most successful social media advertising campaigns in recent history. It went completely viral. And at the time that it went completely viral, that trailer and the orange boxes that were on everybody's social media feeds with all the influencers getting them out there—they had basically nothing in place. And so the thing becomes a success on the Internet. But there's no real structure in place on the island that could support all of these ticket sales.
And I think that in our interview with Billy, what's most interesting is that you have a young man who has been incredibly successful at what he was trying to do, which was be an entrepreneur and be a technological savant. He's programming in middle school, he's selling two companies on the internet before he gets to college. The kid goes to Bucknell with a huge degree of financial freedom because he had sold two companies completely on his own. So all of these type of facts you learn in our documentary, you learn through that eight hour interview, that he really had had nothing but success to that point. I think he didn't know how to hear the answer "no."
I think that that's a common thing in our generation, this instant gratification and this virtual world that people are living [in] through social media. The tangible, the physical, the things that people work very hard for like construction and planning and adequate resources and infrastructure and water and electricity—those things you can't just click through. Those things actually take time to build.
And I think you had a perfect storm, for lack of a better metaphor, and all of this stuff collided and there was certainly criminal intent with some of the aspects of what happened with Fyre Festival. But somewhere—even if it was just vanity, even if it was just delusion—somewhere, the people involved wanted to have a music festival. They just didn't have the tools, or the sense of reality, or really the ethics that would have allowed them to carry that off.
Do you feel as though he's addicted to success? Is he addicted to the grift? I think he displays a lot of those qualities. He just found himself so deep that there was no way out. And I think that one of the most fascinating things in our interview is that there was sort of a construct for him that making the investors happy was the most important thing. I think that that's a cultural thing—coming up as he did as a young sort of savant who was just incredible at coding, and coming up with these businesses, and navigating celebrities, and doing this song and dance—he put value more on the investors than he did on the customer. You hear that in this interview, you hear someone who is obsessed with making the investors happy.
And what he was willing to do to make investors happy both completely and totally compromised his relationship with his users and with the guests, and also compromised his relationship with other investors. So it's sort of a morality tale, in which he loses sight of what's important. That's our goal is to create a story that's so much bigger than the Fyre Festival—this is really an archetype. This is a cautionary tale for a whole generation. This is about the corruptive power of ambition. This is about the deceptive nature of social media.
This is about what happens when venture capitalists and when a whole online community rallies behind something that frankly doesn't exist. Reality sets in, and that's what we're excited to show viewers once this thing comes out.
William McFarland in March (AP/REX/Shutterstock)
In light of the recent developments, are you trying to talk to him again, or adding another episode? We're in touch with his lawyers, and he knows he always has an open channel to explain himself. I'm sure a lot of people are fascinated to hear his explanation for the most recent charges, as are we. But a lot of things that have happened recently have confirmed other investigative threads that we have been working on.
It all comes together in the documentary, and whether that's in a later episode or whether it's folded into the ones that we're currently working on, it's very much part of the story and we're following it. Once we got confirmation it was happening we were there, we were the only outlet in the courthouse when he was detained by the FBI turning himself in. I was in the courthouse with my partners. I think that this is an ongoing story that we're still covering, and next week there'll be another break. We'll see how he's sentenced, and I'm sure the sentencing won't go as planned, as far as he's concerned, now that he's turned himself in on new charges. I'm sure that there's going to be some real jail time.
Do you think that he is realistic about what is going to come next? As a storyteller, I [try to] get inside someone's mind, but I really can't imagine what he's thinking, because I've never been there, I've never never gotten myself into such a bind. But I'm sure he is having a serious reality check right now, and I'm sure that whatever he thought was going to happen as far as leniency is not going to happen anymore.
Do you think that there are any more scams that are going to come to light? Yes. I can't really go into them, but we have a whole dossier of potential leads as to other allegations and as to other potential crimes.
Did anything surprise you about him from the interview? Yes. When we were doing this eight hour interview with him, we basically went from birth to the present. And I was taken aback by his ambition. I was taken aback also by the people he was associating with at a young age. He had worked his way into the upper echelon of the investment community in his early 20s. And there was something both genius and twisted about his story. Myself and my co-director Julia, we approach these stories much bigger. I was taken aback at just how archetypal Billy was. He was almost like sort of a modern day Icarus. He flew too close to the sun and his wings melted. And he had so much promise.
But the key component in Billy's story that I think is fascinating, that we want to explore in our documentary series, is that you can't learn morality on the Internet. You can teach yourself anything: you can go and you can Google things, you can figure out how to code, you can figure out what people want, you can figure out how to make an incredible social media campaign, you could find partners for it, you can link up with influencers. But you can't teach yourself morality on the Internet. And that I think is at the crux of what our docuseries explores: how there is a vacant quality to this whole thing. There is an absence of ethics and morality, and it's generational. And I think it's a wakeup call and we have to examine how these aspects of our culture are corroding our sense of reality and our sense of morality.