Interview : David Farrier and the twisted web of Mister Organ

The legendary Kiwi journalist becomes wrapped up in his own, most outlandish story yet in ‘Mister Organ’.

Growing up in New Zealand in the mid-to-late 2000s, David Farrier was (and still is) synonymous with a uniquely Kiwi approach to journalism.

He was, by all means, professional – but the kinds of stories he covered, and the way in which he approached them was quite unlike most of what you’d find on television. Farrier looked for the strange happenings of small-town New Zealand; the larger-than-life personalities; and even when he was covering international music acts or big-name celebrities, his disarming demeanor gave an undeniably charming vibe to it all.

It’s been many years since his early days of national late-night news, but Farrier’s still doing his thing. It’s just on a much bigger stage. After grabbing headlines across the world with feature documentary Tickled (which followed the bizarre world of online fetish tickling content and the dark personalities behind it), he even got his own Netflix series Dark Tourist, and currently hosts the podcast Armchaired & Dangerous alongside actor Dax Shepard and Monica Padman.

His latest project is Mister Organ, a documentary in a similar vein to Tickled – but one that goes places much more personal and dark than even Farrier himself intended.

Journalist and filmmaker David Farrier (Tickled, Dark Tourist) unwittingly stumbles into a game of cat and mouse with a mystery man creating havoc in his neighborhood, wheel clamping cars at a local antique store. That clamper was Michael Organ, and little did Farrier know that delving deeper into who Organ really is, would be a thrilling and tension filled three year long investigation—unearthing a trail of multiple court cases, inflated claims of royal bloodlines, ruined lives, and at least one stolen boat.

We had the pleasure of interviewing David at the world premiere of Mister Organ at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, delving into the complex figure of Michael Organ, David’s approach to handling stress as a journalist, and much more.

The early part of the entire saga, when you were investigating Bashford Antiques, feels like a quintessentially Kiwi story in a similar vein to the ‘Florida Man’ phenomenon. What’s your perspective of what makes a quintessentially Kiwi story?

David: We have a lot of odd-balls. I don’t know if it’s to do with our smallness or just our isolation on the planet, but we’re just very good at cultivating odd-balls. Even foreign odd-balls like Kim Dotcom – I don’t think someone like him could exist in any way without New Zealand. [The country] brought out all his weirdness.

I think there’s a lot of New Zealanders with quirks. There’s a lot of collectors, a lot of obsessive people. And it’s so small that any community you’re a part of is full of gossip and drama, just by the nature of everyone knowing everyone. It’s very hard to be anonymous; stories travel really quickly. That makes people operate and think in a certain way that’s different to where I am right now in the States, where there’s just so many people. New Zealand’s just great at getting odd-balls. It’s what we do.

We’re unparalleled.

David: It’s a Number 8 Wire thing, as well. It is a stereotype, but we’re very good problem solvers in coming up with fresh ways to do things. Unfortunately, that applies to people that are slightly more unsavory as well, because those sorts of people will find really quirky No. 8 Wire solutions.

I think that’s where something like this car park terrorist incident comes into it. Just trying to explain clamping, and the fact that this man clamped, and why he clamped, and why people were parking there – it’s difficult to explain to Americans. But if you’re in New Zealand, you understand all that and how that works.

As you got deeper into the clamping debacle, the trajectory of the story became a lot darker and a lot more universal. I mean, it starts off like an episode of Neighbors at War.

David: [laughs] Yeah, totally! People yelling in a car park and yelling in a service station.

But it spirals off into something that, frankly, reminded me of cosmic horror fiction. You stepped into something that had the hints of darkness and danger, and once you were in there, it was very difficult to pull yourself back out. Looking back, what was the tipping point where the investigation became something deeply personal and maybe even dangerous?

David: Probably two things. For me, personally, when those signs went missing from the back of my house that I was renting. I had four flat mates, and knowing that somebody – probably at night – had crept around the back of my house and removed those things for a very specific reason which you find out in the film, that made me go, “oh, okay.”

When someone knows where you live and has been onto your property, and you aren’t aware of it but suddenly become aware of it, that’s a very visceral thing. That was an “uh-oh” moment. It was also a signal that the main character of the film was ahead of me, but he has a long game. That was the beginning of the long game playing out. 

So it was that, and it was Jillian’s son Israel getting in touch and saying, “that’s my mum.” That was another moment. I got an indication from her son of how this man was operating, and that made me want to dig in deeper into that dynamic.

Mr. Organ is a deeply complex man from what we see in the film. I wonder to what degree there’s any self-awareness in the way he operates, or if it’s just an automatic behavioral thing.

David: It’s a really good question. There’s a version of this film where we’d get a psychologist to analyze Mr. Organ and talk to that. Impossible to do in New Zealand. You can’t get a psychologist to comment on someone who’s not a patient. It’s just not something you can do. Also, I didn’t want to do that in this particular film. I think it’s better to let actions speak for themselves. Thanks to defamation and New Zealand law, I can’t muse too much on it myself. But I think, like most of us, Mr. Organ is probably a product of genetics and his environment. And that has done different things to him that it has done to probably yourself and me. 

The course of your investigation seemed to take you close to breaking point, in the emotional impact of your proximity to Mr. Organ as well as the stress of keeping control of all the moving parts. It was quite incredible to see that vulnerability from you. Generally speaking as a journalist, what do you do to manage that kind of stress in the job? 

David: I’m lucky in that I had a super supportive team on board: Ant Timpson, Emma Slade and Alex Reed. They’re all super supportive, and they’re always there. And I’ve got great friends around me that I could tap out. But the problem with this film in general is that the point that you’re talking about, where I’m sort of having a mini mental breakdown, that’s probably about as emotional as I’ve ever got in my life. 

Like every New Zealander, we keep our emotions fairly close. We don’t know how to use emotions [laughs]. So it was that realization that I needed to make the film, because people had told me enough of the story that I knew what needed to be told. I wanted to tell it. The problem was, I knew that to complete the film I would have to spend more time with this man, because I hadn’t got the answers that I wanted yet. As I was doing that, he was getting more and more difficult to spend time with. 

Unless you’ve spent hours and weeks and months with him on the phone or in front of you or emailing you…I still can’t get across to you how fucked up that makes your brain. He turns it into mush. A lot of what he’s saying doesn’t make logical sense. There’s bits of intriguing information he’ll put in that might be real, or might not be real, to draw you in. But then it’s another half hour of fantasy – and not fun fantasy – quite boring fantasy. So it was just that feeling of being trapped, which was just awful.

But as far as managing that stress, it was the belief that with me and the talented people I was working with, like Dom Fryer who shoots all my stuff – he’s by my side the whole time for most of it – the belief that we can do it. It’s just having that faith, and lots and lots of walks and petting the local cats of Grey Lynn and blasting metal music on headphones as I walk around Auckland. Lots of little escapes in the middle of all that stuff.

Do you feel like your experiences on Mister Organ have impacted the kind of stories you choose to investigate, and your approach to those stories?

David: It’s pushed me off documentary. I don’t want to make another documentary right now. I’ve always wanted to work in documentary, always been inspired by ones that I like. I like the format, and I love telling something in ninety minutes. It’s something that I personally enjoy watching and learning from, so it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

But yeah, for this one, it’s made me reconsider whether I want to do that. Generally, I’m drawn to strange topics, and I’ve been drawn to men doing bad things. This one has made me reconsider spending time with people I don’t want to spend time with, because it’s a lot of time. A [documentary] is between three and five years, maybe – you don’t make them quickly. So it’s made me reconsider who I want to focus on next in a film. I know I don’t want to spend time with someone that is a ray of sunshine, because I think it’s boring. I want to focus on interesting people, and they’re usually the ones that don’t want to be on film. 

But it’s put me off the medium a little bit, to be honest. It was a bit too much of a 360-degree experience. [laughs] You can’t turn off from it when you’re putting up security cameras at your flat and your flatmates are kind of fucked off with you because someone keeps trying to break into the house. It’s not worth it. [laughs]

It feels like it’s not worth it. So I’m negative on [documentaries] at the moment. I’m negative on making them myself. That might change, but right now I’m just very grateful to have this out in the world, and it’s fucking done. I’m very proud of it, but I’m not wanting to rush back into another one right now.

That’s totally understandable.

David: If Spielberg, or if Tom Cruise approaches me and says, “look, you’re the man to do a documentary on me. Come into my life and follow me, Tom Cruise, and my religion.” I would do it in a heartbeat. But it would have to be something like that. 

I’ve been watching your stuff since the days of 3 News, and –

David: Oh, no way. Fuck. Yeah.

I think this film is an interesting summation of your trajectory since then.

David: It was those late-night slots that tore my brain up, to find something a bit weird and surprising each day. I think that’s what did it to me. Five nights a week, come up with a weird story. That’s what has sent me to this place, I think. [laughs]

MISTER ORGAN releases in theatres across New Zealand on November 10, with Philadelphia Film Fest and Brisbane Film Fest screenings to follow. More dates and information are available here.

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