David Farrier was a broadcast and print journalist in his native New Zealand, and one of his regular gigs called for unearthing and reporting on quirky stories for network TV.
When he uncovered an endurance tickling competition in America (where men are paid to be tied up and tickled), it seemed like the kind of weird but harmless story he was used to, so he dutifully wrote off to the production company to enquire about doing a story on it.
What happened next sparked off a story of intrigue, hostility, harassment and the threat of legal action that was so strange and scary it must have felt like he’d penetrated a domestic terrorist network.
Travelling to the US to dig deeper, Farrier and his cameraman and co-producer Dylan Reeve stirred up a hornet’s nest of scary letters from lawyers, multiple fake identities and what seems to be a front organisation for the sexual perversions of a man very well protected by his wealth.
They kept cameras rolling the whole time, and the critically acclaimed documentary Tickled is the result. He spoke to Moviehole.net by email (maybe holed up in a nondescript apartment with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, we’re not sure).
Had you intended to make a documentary about the tickling competitions before everything else you unearthed?
No, I wanted to do the usual thing I would do – a two-minute segment to play at the end of the 10.30pm news programme I reported for in New Zealand.
When Debbie from Jane O’Brien Media told me – very publicly on their Facebook wall! – that they didn’t want to deal with a homosexual journalist, I started blogging about it. I’d share the crazy emails back and forth and theories on what was going on.
Then Dylan Reeve started blogging and digging into them and we both got cease and desist letters from lawyers! It was around then that we thought ‘okay, there’s more going on here. Should we maybe make a documentary about this company?’
We really, really knew we had something when Jane O’Brien Media sent three representatives all the way from America to New Zealand to ‘mediate’ with us. After a week of them telling us if we made the film we’d be ruined, well, that was like a red flag to a bull.
Did you have a producer to back the project from your work as a journalist or start from scratch when you realised there was something there?
It started as a Kickstarter project. We reached our goal – even people like Stephen Fry backed us – so that was encouraging, and it meant we could go to America for three weeks with friends helping us for free, lending us gear and so on.
Thing is, once we were on the ground things got even crazier. We came home, went to the New Zealand Film Commission and applied for funding. We got it and then went back to America for another three weeks.
We got to bring our director of photographer Dom Fryer, a great editor Simon Coldrick, producer Carthew Neal and executive producer Justin Pemberton – a dream team, all great New Zealanders who had the same vision of what this thing could be, but also bought their own unique quirks to it.
The film talks at one point about how even your producers got nervous about all the legal threats. It must have taken some guts to continue with and release the film, making them look a bit silly?
Carthew is quite a gutsy guy. I imagine he was pretty stressed out during all this. While we were in America chasing the story he was back in New Zealand producing another film [Hunt For The Wilderpeople]. He’s a great guy and he’s always had our backs.
I don’t think that scene makes him look bad, it was just the reality of the situation. He knew we wanted to release the film and to do that we needed to minimise the rapidly growing pile of legal threats. He just wanted us to back off. It was frustrating for us at the time, but in hindsight I understand where he was coming from and glad he told us what was going on! He’s a dream producer, that guy.
The text at the end of the movie says the threats and letters stopped. Has anything happened since? Are you or Dylan still worried?
I was served with two defamation lawsuits while at True/False film festival in Missouri, but I can’t talk too much about that stuff right now.
The Jane O’Brien media website is still online, so it doesn’t seem like you stopped the perpetrator behind all this trouble. I thought your work would have been enough to warrant some action by the law?
While the whole story was going on you had no idea how much material you’d have to work with, how did you handle whittling it down during editing and/or deciding what to leave out?
We planned in advance very carefully who we’d talk to and where we thought the story may go. We shot with purpose, I guess you could say. Then Simon Coldrick was great to work with in the edit with fresh eyes, and the story evolved while we worked with him in some really beautiful ways.