Documentary Spotlight

From 'Leaving Neverland' to 'The Inventor': Docs Unmask the Biggest Frauds Onscreen

Courtesy of Netflix
Musician Ja Rule (left) and Billy McFarland were co-organizers of the ill-fated Fyre Festival.

Creators reveal how they exposed the swindlers behind the cons and deceptions investigated in Emmy-nominated specials: "There's a very thin line that separates the fraudster from the visionary."

If the current era of fake news, manufactured crises and deepfake GIFs hasn't set a river of fraud streaming through your consciousness, it's at least streaming through your TV. Three films on the subject have been nominated for Emmys in the outstanding documentary or special category, including one by two-time winner Alex Gibney, who added a third nomination for his HBO film The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, an exploration of Theranos, the high-tech company that promised to revolutionize blood testing. Nominated for four Emmys is Netflix's Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, director Chris Smith's insightful look at the infamous music festival that promised pristine model-strewn Bahamian beaches and delivered camping tents in an empty lot lacking food, light and water. HBO also nabbed four nominations for Leaving Neverland, Dan Reed's examination of grooming techniques practiced by alleged child sexual predator Michael Jackson.

"Michael Jackson perpetrated one of the most high-profile frauds of the late 20th century in claiming he was not a pedophile," Reed tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Simply because you had a rotten childhood does not mean you need to surround yourself with children. And if you do want to surround yourself with children, why would you need to sleep the whole night with them night after night?"

In interviews, pop choreographer Wade Robson and James Safechuck, now adults, recall in detail their childhood emotional and physical relations with Jackson and the complicated reasons why they acquiesced. Vital to the music icon's M.O. was a support system that either facilitated or turned a blind eye to the abuse, including the victims' mothers, who allowed their children to sleep in the same bed as a grown man. Reed attributes such judgment lapses to an aura surrounding certain people that stirs in others the impulse to believe, despite their better instincts.

Gibney shows the same phenomenon at work in The Inventor, focusing on Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford University dropout with limited scientific background who founded Theranos, a Silicon Valley company that raised $700 million in venture capital on the prospect of a machine called Edison that could perform 500 diagnostic tests on a single finger prick of blood. Among those on the board were former government officials like Henry Kissinger, George P. Shultz, James Mattis and other assorted CEOs and senators.

The problem was that Edison didn't work. Yet somehow they all found Holmes' explanation of how her groundbreaking machine functioned perfectly adequate: "A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel."

Says Gibney: "Look at all the people she conned — and they had a lot of experience dealing with deception. She had a story that was so compelling, people wanted to believe it. And that was her great ally."

Gibney's challenge was to chronicle the rise and fall of Holmes without her participation. "One of the things that was most difficult is that nobody wanted to talk," says Gibney. "Late in the game we found somebody who was able to leak to us a vast amount of material which had been shot by Theranos, some by Errol Morris, some by others, which included hours and hours of Elizabeth Holmes talking about her vision and dream for the company. That's how we got it."

Even more than miraculous blood-testing machines, people want to believe in white sand beaches and beautiful women in bikinis. That's what Billy McFarland and his team were selling in May 2017 with their bespoke music event, Fyre Festival. What they were really selling was "a pipe dream to your average loser," as McFarland says in the film.

"Billy recognized there's an opportunity in our evolving culture based around social media and people selling a dream. It plays into this idea of perception versus reality when you look at platforms like Instagram," says filmmaker Smith. "He saw there were a lot of people that wanted to participate in this lifestyle, and if he could create this platform, he would have an audience."

To add a little spice, Fyre was supposed to happen on a private island that once belonged to drug lord Pablo Escobar. But then McFarland and company got booted from the island for revealing that detail in a promo video featuring models like Bella Hadid in bikinis. Kendall Jenner promoted Fyre on Instagram, and Ja Rule was an organizer behind what was to be a one-of-a-kind experience including a private jet, gourmet cuisine and luxury lodgings costing ticket buyers thousands.

By the time they arrived at the event on a chartered commercial jet, and not the advertised private jet, lodgings looked like FEMA tents and gourmet cuisine turned out to be cheese on bread. When the headliner, Blink-182, canceled at the last moment, Fyre was doused for good. McFarland was later found guilty of bilking $26 million from more than 100 victims and sentenced to six years in prison.

Filmmakers, like fraudsters, are people who create stories for willing audiences. To make their film, they make promises to investors they're not always sure they can keep. Their fake-it-till-you-make-it ethos is the same one applied by Elizabeth Holmes and Billy McFarland.

"As a filmmaker, you're always selling the dream in terms of what you're trying to make," says Smith. "It's unknown how it will come out, especially with a documentary. But I think there's a little bit of taking a leap of faith."

Gibney agrees. "I've said I can do things that I had no business saying I could do because I thought I wasn't going to get the gig otherwise," he confesses. "There's a very thin line that separates the fraudster from the visionary. The visionary is overpromising but finding a way to deliver on that promise" — something Holmes and McFarland never came close to doing.

It takes two people to commit fraud: one willing to lie and another willing to believe. "We're all complicit," says Reed, indicting fraudsters, filmmakers and audiences alike. "Michael [Jackson] received so much positive reinforcement, Lady Diana telling him how amazing he is, President Reagan telling him how amazing he is, everyone is applauding. And he is this amazing performer and a kind of superhuman character. Everyone's making a huge amount of money, and they just got swept along. They sleepwalked through this dream, and it ended up being a nightmare."

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.