Q&A: Director David Farrier On Tickled, His Totally Bonkers Documentary About Competitive Tickling

The movie is about tickling, but also about blackmail, fraud, wild abuses of power and privilege, and, unsurprisingly, insidious homophobia

The first thing I tell David Farrier upon meeting him is that his new documentary provoked in me an unparalleled stress response. "My palms were literally sweating during the last 40 minutes," I inform him, before realizing that this is a gross thing to say to a stranger. Fortunately, Farrier is delighted. "Thank you!" he replies. "It was stressful to make, so we wanted to make it stressful to watch." Farrier and I are talking about tickling — competitive endurance tickling, to be precise.

Tickled, Farrier's first documentary, tells the story of his own introduction to this little-known "sport." Farrier is a New Zealand journalist who's been reporting on all things absurd for the last decade. In 2014, he was tipped off to the unquestionably homoerotic but ostensibly harmless practice of competitive tickling by a friend, who sent him a video of muscular, Adidas-sporting young men strapping down, straddling, and tickling one another into oblivion. An amused Farrier reached out to Jane O'Brien Media, the company behind the videos, which replied with a harshly homophobic missive imploring Farrier to back off and refusing to "associate with a homosexual journalist."

Now insatiably curious and more than a little suspicious, Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve began a months-long investigation into the competitive-tickling industry, with Jane O'Brien Media growing increasingly resentful and litigious along the way, even going so far as to send three "representatives" to New Zealand to discourage the filmmakers. But Reeve and Farrier were undeterred, and Tickled, in theaters now, follows the two as they fall down this particularly bleak rabbit hole, uncovering blackmail and extortion plots, fraudulent identities, targeted harassment, wild abuses of power and privilege, and, unsurprisingly, insidious homophobia.

In the months since Tickled's Sundance premiere, the story's taken an even stranger turn, with the documentary subjects showing up at screenings to publicly denounce Farrier and Reeve's film, launching a website that purports to tell the "truth behind the Tickled documentary," and filing lawsuits against the filmmakers. (I suggest watching the movie before peering under these specific rocks.) Before Farrier disembarked to New Zealand, I caught up with him over coffee to talk about his long, strange trip into the world of for-profit, pernicious tickling.

You must get a lot of weird tips, considering your past work has centered on things like Mongolian death worms. Why'd you pull on this particular thread?

David Farrier: I've seen a lot of weird videos and weird stories, I suppose, but this trumped them, because visually, it was such an unusual thing to watch. It was in a photography studio, these young men in bright Adidas gear — I didn't know what I was looking at, whether it was a sport or a joke or a fetish.

Who tipped you off to it?

Farrier: My friend Thana. Because I've been covering weird stuff for 10 years, friends try to outdo me with the weird things they find. Usually people send me things that I've seen before or that aren't very shocking. She sent me the link to Jane O'Brien's website, which linked to their Facebook page. I just remembered sitting in the newsroom and being blown away at the length of them — the videos are long, an hour — and how many of them there were.

So then you reached out to them and they immediately sent you an angry email with these homophobic slurs?

Farrier: It wasn't even an email! It was right on their public Facebook wall. That's what made it even weirder. They had 20,000 likes, and their PR woman wrote, "We don't want to deal with a homosexual journalist." Which is weird because the videos themselves, as I say in the films, are quite gay. And what a strange thing to say! The first communication I had with them was that.

And, ironically, that's why you followed the story.

Farrier: Right. If they'd just replied, "We're a bit busy," or "We've got something else on," I would've just moved on to something else. Because I was in a daily newsroom and it's too hard to chase people. For about two weeks I was blogging about [competitive tickling] as we emailed back and forth, and that's when they started sending legal threats, and that's when I thought, OK, maybe there's something more to this. When [Jane O'Brien Media] talked about sending three guys to New Zealand, that's when I told my friend Dylan — who'd also been blogging about it — I invited him out for pizza and said, "Dylan, I think we should do a Kickstarter, because there's something more here." Plus we had interest from the blogs, we knew we had an audience sitting there. It was maybe three weeks to a month [after the initial Facebook response] before we knew it'd be a film.

As a female journalist, I get harassed online all the time, and as much as I try to steel myself to it, sometimes it still stings. Was there any part of you that was genuinely hurt by the personal nature of these threats?

Farrier: For a little while. For, like, two seconds. You read it, and you think, Oh god. But it was so extreme, it was kind of entertaining. Maybe that's the wrong word, but it was interesting to me, especially with the dissonance of what was in the videos.

I know you've discussed your bisexuality in press for this movie, but how did Jane O'Brien get a hold of that information, especially so quickly after you posted your query?

Farrier: I was in a relationship with a man in New Zealand around the time we were debating the gay-marriage bill, and I ended up in an article in a newspaper. They would've Googled my name and that would've been a result somewhere, that David Farrier was in a relationship with so-and-so, so they'd have found that and got annoyed. It's funny because I look back now and I think, if I wasn't in that relationship, there wouldn't be a documentary, either. You can trace it all back to these semi-random occurrences.

Did you ever consider dropping the story because of those threats?

Farrier: Yeah, I did. It's hard to explain how unrelenting it was. It was daily emails and physical letters threatening various legal things. It just gets stressful — I was at a full-time job at the time. And I also felt kind of bad for dragging Dylan into it, who got involved quite organically. I didn't have anyone to worry about except for me, but Dylan has children and Mel, his wife, so I was like, Oh god, what have we gotten ourselves into?

So when was the point of no return, of knowing you wouldn't let it go?

Farrier: When those three representatives stayed at the Hilton in New Zealand for a week. We had conversations on and on and I debated it that whole week. But when those guys left the country, Dylan and I were like, "Let's just go." Their veiled threats that we'd lose everything if we pursued the story — which were bullying tactics, really — along with the bullying we saw happening with the websites designed to discredit [the competitive-tickling-video participants], we thought we might as well charge ahead.

[Spoilers to follow.]

Near the end of the film, we figure out that David D'Amato has bent over backwards to hide the fact that he's been exploiting these young men for years. But do you think that's all he's hiding? Or do you think there's more to the story?

Farrier: It's strange. I've been sued twice for defamation about this, so I can't talk too much about his motivations, because I keep getting sued [laughs]. But this has been going on for over 20 years now, the pattern of getting these tickling videos and harassing some of the men after the fact. Some people have a great tickling experience: They fly to L.A. and they're paid and they fly home and that's it. But some of them are on the receiving end of this sort of campaign. It was the same in the Terri Tickle days — sometimes people had a fine experience, and some had the videos distributed around their entire college and were sort of shamed. I think it's part and parcel of the same thing. I don't think there's anything else going on. I think it's this pattern of control over these young men and getting them to make these videos, and then controlling them further with these videos.

That was really fascinating to me, how the tickling fetish is at its heart about power and control, and then the videos themselves are used to control the men being tickled.

Farrier: Totally. I don't know which one [D'Amato] would like more. I don't think the tickling is enough, and I don't think the harassment is enough. It's all linked.

What do you ultimately want to come out of all of this?

Farrier: During the making of the film, I reached out to the original FBI agent who was involved a decade ago to say, "This stuff is still happening." I didn't hear anything back. The idea is to make the film and put it out into the world. There are these things that are happening that are unjust, if not illegal — I'm not a legal expert — and by shining a light on it, hopefully there'll be a result. Even just the simple fact that maybe people will think twice before going on a competitive-tickling shoot. If you Google it now, you'll hear about this film that shows the other side.

What's the update on the legal situation at this point?

Farrier: I was at the True/False Film Festival and this woman served me there. She tapped me on the shoulder and asked who I was, and I said "David Farrier," and she was like, "You're served." I was like, "Got me!" There was another deposition in Utah, at Sundance — basically, wherever the film was showing, I was being sued there. Those were withdrawn over jurisdiction. And David D'Amato showed up to a screening in Los Angeles and told us there that they haven't been dismissed, but that they'll be refiled, I think. Don't quote me on that, but that hasn't happened yet, to my knowledge.

Watching the video of D'Amato at the screening, what stands out to me is how calm he is. He's so exacting.

Farrier: When I [first] met him, in L.A., he was very calm. Very flat. That's just the way he responds. He goes instantly into legal speak, and I think that's what he's always done.

How concerned are you about these lawsuits?

Farrier: Well, when you're sued, it costs money. Whether things are being moved around in courts or you're getting your attorney to write a letter, it all costs money. And we're dealing with someone who has a lot of money. I imagine he can keep this going for as long as he wants to. So, yeah, it's a concern.

It's very similar to what's going on with Gawker and Peter Thiel —

Farrier: And Donald Trump.

Does that aspect of it frighten you, as a journalist?

Farrier: I think America is a really interesting place. In New Zealand, we don't sue each other really commonly. There's a really specific reason, like someone's arguing over a fence that's been put up that's too high. Sort of practical things. And journalists are rarely sued for things. Whereas in America, you have a culture where that's the first thing you do. There's an ongoing pattern here where if you've got money, you can bully other people into doing what you want them to do. You don't need to be in it to win, you just need to be in it to be a pest. Donald Trump proudly sues people, and his supporters almost celebrate him for that. The Peter Thiel thing — if you've got a lot of money in this country, you can shelter yourself. You have a really amazing trump card over people without that cash flow.

How much of this movie was designed to fight that specific principle?

Farrier: We wanted to make a very clear point that you've got an individual with seemingly endless funding, preying on people who don't have a lot of money. That's the reason young people get into this tickling competition in the first place, and then that's used against them when it comes to the legal threats. Even the way we graded things: In New York, there's a lot of green in the buildings, the color of money. In Muskegon, we filmed it so it's incredibly washed-out and white and barren and poor, essentially. We wanted to make that pretty clear.

Can you talk about any of the website's allegations, like the fact that you said you wouldn't record the conversations you had?

Farrier: I can't comment on any of that specifically. But Kevin [Clarke], who's one of the gentlemen who came over to New Zealand to see us, has an issue with our ethics, I suppose. But from my perspective, I made sure everything we did was completely legal. We knew we were up against a company with a lot of money. When you make a movie about people who don't want a movie made about them, they're not gonna be happy about it.

One of the things they're fixated on is this idea that Jordan [Schillachi], one of the subjects in the documentary, is a liar. Where does that notion come from?

Farrier: We've now got an instance where Jordan is on Kevin's website apparently recanting his testimony.

So it's possible that he's being paid off.

Farrier: I can't comment on my theories, but your guess is as good as mine. For anyone that's seen the film, I'd actively encourage them to go to Kevin's website and read it. It's really fascinating. In my mind, it's an extension of what we see in the film. It's almost like with Scientology, where you watch Going Clear and suddenly these Twitter accounts from the Church of Scientology are tweeting at journalists. That's all happening now, except with tickling, which is kind of outrageous. Kevin is tweeting at journalists and emailing journalists, and that's been happening since Sundance.

Did you anticipate any of that?

Farrier: Not at all. I still don't quite understand their motivations for turning up to screenings, except that I don't think they understand the world we're living in, where something like that is just making people talk about the film, which will make more people see the film, which kind of exposes what they're doing. It's unusual, I think.

They've also accused you of calling the cops when you saw Kevin at a Sundance screening, and using it as a publicity stunt.

Farrier: That's an example of how interesting it is to see their perspective on things. This year, for the first year at Sundance, because we live in America, they were doing bag checks with everyone. That's just culture we live in, because at the moment, cinemas aren't safe places to be. The second that someone is seen who could potentially be unenthusiastic about the film, by default, they'll just get the police. And that's what happened. An usher noticed that Kevin was in the audience and Kevin was a character on the screen. An audience member next to Kevin said he was flustered. So the first thing Sundance did was bring security in, because this is America, and everyone wants to be safe. Whereas Kevin's perspective on that is that I called the police, I got bomb dogs in, and I did it for a publicity stunt. That's the two angles.

There's so much to unpack in the doc and its ensuing response in terms of homophobia. There's the way Jane O'Brien Media treats you, but also the way they threaten these men and present the videos themselves, which Jane O'Brien actively denies are homoerotic, as if that's the worst possible thing. Plus the fact that the men who were exposed as participants in the videos were ashamed specifically because the videos seemed "gay." What do you think is behind all of that?

Farrier: You're totally right, that speaks to all of this, and there were definitely people involved who are — I'm just thinking about defamation [laughs] — there are definitely issues of people being unsure of their sexuality. An interesting thing is the sheer fact that one of the harassment techniques is making these videos look "gay." It's unfortunate we live in a society where that's an insult. To some of these boys, who are from really red states and have families with military history, to be called gay is the worst thing imaginable, and that's used against them. It's really interesting that these are the people drawn into the tickling world. If the people drawn into competitive endurance tickling, even if they were straight, came from liberal, accepting backgrounds, the backlash of calling them gay wouldn't be a problem. But it's a problem because of where these people are from. That's really fascinating to me.

Originally, when I was first targeted, I think "Jane" [makes air quotes] thought that that would be an insult to me, that I was being called a homosexual journalist, and I'd back off somehow. Whereas we're fairly liberal in New Zealand, and everything about me is already out there. I don't have any secrets, so there was nothing they had over me.

Right, you had that article about you and your boyfriend out there, so that makes no sense.

Farrier: Everything about this doesn't make a lot of sense. Aspects of it do, and aspects of it are just completely ludicrous to me still. I still wake up sometimes and think, What just happened over the last two years? What the fuck is going on?

It seems like a lot of the issues at the heart of this film are issues directly embedded in American culture.

Farrier: Very much so. I don't think this whole world of competitive tickling could've emerged anywhere but in America. The whole premise, if you go to Jane O'Brien's website, is that it's part of a reality-TV production. That's an idea born out of America. These boys are lured in because they'll get cash and head shots for their portfolio, and there's this whole idea of becoming famous and moving to L.A.

All the other things associated with it — whether it's issues of harassing people over their sexuality, or the ongoing power struggle between people with a lot of money and people with no money — if there wasn't that disparity in America between the rich and the poor, which is huge and widening, then this film wouldn't exist. It's made by New Zealanders, but it's definitely an American story. One of my favorite scenes is when the national anthem is being sung at an MMA match. It's toward the end of the film, you're in this really poor place, but everyone is still standing with great pride, singing the anthem. It's just one of those really surreal moments where you go, "Shit, we're in America, and this movie could not exist anywhere else."