Alex Gibney eat your heart out.
David Farrier, a fledgling Kiwi filmmaker with a dry wit, caused a sensation at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival with his documentary Tickled, a film far more serious than its title might suggest. Farrier, a former television presenter for a New Zealand lifestyle and entertainment program, was always on the lookout for oddball stories. When he stumbled across competitive endurance tickling on the internet and discovered the elusive company behind it, Jane O’Brien Media, he was convinced it could be the subject of a short film. As he dug deeper he was encouraged by Dave Gibson, the Chief Executive at New Zealand Film Commission, to turn it into a feature.
Farrier did so with fellow first-time director Dylan Reeve and, as with Gibney, they are front and centre on the perpetrators’ tails.
Sundance audiences watched in disbelief. “It has to be a spoof,” one woman was convinced. Yet there in the audience of a later screening sat one of the men Farrier had tracked down and included in the film. The man was taking copious notes, so that audience members took to Twitter and it seems the story in Farrier’s film might be far from over. And that’s what the 33 year-old wants.
What kept your interest going?
David Farrier: It was strange. Jane O’Brien Media did everything wrong in the PR handbook as far as not wanting somebody to cover them. They reacted in a really aggressive way to me, saying, “There’s no story here, there’s no story here,” which of course makes you think there is. The film organically flowed on from a series of blog posts I did about them and people were following the story. As crazy emails were flying around between me and this tickling company, people were asking, “What happens next?” Dylan and I launched the Kickstarter, thinking we’d do something of around 30 minutes to an hour that we could put on Vimeo or YouTube. Then it ballooned once we found out more about it.
So what did you find out?
DF: The young men who go and get tickled in LA think Jane O’Brien Media is doing a reality TV project of some kind, some weird wacky thing like people do on Japanese TV.
Is it sexual?
DF: They’re wearing Adidas gear, so they're not being asked to remove clothing. But tickling is a fetish like a foot fetish or any kind of fetish, so it is sexual. These boys are getting into something and they don’t realise what it is. They haven’t got much money and they’re promised an all-expenses paid trip to LA, they get per diems and the money is really good. is The minimum fee is $1500 and it shoots right up from there, and if they’re a favourite then it’s pretty attractive. Other people arrive and they’re all in same boat, all going “It's a bit weird,” but they put on Adidas gear and it begins.
Is Jane O’Brien Media doing something that is possibly illegal?
DF: The legality of it is really murky. There are definitely issues with people who come into the States from all over world being paid to be on camera when they’re traveling as tourists. Then the moral/ethical issue, the harassment, is big. Who do these guys in the videos turn to? Do they email the internet police? Some of the people we talked to tried the police in desperation, but the police don't know how to deal with this internet world.
Did you worry about your own safety?
DF: I did for a while. I didn't know the scope of what they could do really. When they ended up sending those guys from New York (to New Zealand, as depicted in the film) it was like, "This has gone on to the real world now". It’s not just emails and lawyers. It’s people in front of me with money.
So what did you decide in the end?
DF: Dylan and I figured the best thing we could do is put the film out there so this company is completely in the limelight, and hopefully it gets as much attention as it can. Maybe more people will think twice before they go and get tickled in LA.
Tickled may have missed out in the Sundance awards, but just before the ceremony it was announced that the film had sold to US distributor Magnolia Pictures for a US theatrical release and to HBO for television.
“I'm just over the moon it will be on HBO, alongside my favourite shows. I'm tickled pink,” Farrier said. Reeve added: “When we started out on this journey my expectations for the film were very modest. To have the film headed to the big screen in the US is beyond exciting.”