It sounds like harmless YouTube fodder: young men tying each other down and trying to make each other laugh on camera. But when a television entertainment reporter from Auckland, David Farrier, began digging, he was met with abusive emails and legal threats. So, armed with Kickstarter campaign money and the blessing of Stephen Fry, he and co-director Dylan Reeve we went to America to uncover the whole sordid and astonishing truth in the movie Tickled, opening this week.
David, congratulations on the film. It’s amazing the trouble an unsuspecting entertainment reporter can get into.
I never anticipated that it would go where it went, and I also feel like the story is ongoing because people from Jane O'Brien Media have showed up to screenings in the States, so it is sort of ongoing legal thing. So yeah, it’s been a real journey.
Could talk a little bit about the premise of the film?
I am a light entertainment reporter in NZ and I’ve been doing this job for about nine years and friends know I do this kind of crazy stuff, so a friend sent me a link to this competitive tickling competition.
They had a website and a Facebook page. They had something like 20,000 likes and it looked like this legitimate thing. They were all in this Adidas gear, so I thought it must be pretty well funded. I thought it must be someone's odd idea of some sort of tickling league or something.
So I contacted the organisation, Jane O'Brien Media, and that's when I got that crazy response of: “We don't want to work with a homosexual journalist.” Which was a super-weird response to get because, you know, the videos themselves were a bunch of good looking guys tickling each other. It seemed very homoerotic. So with that response, it sort of peaked my interest. If they had replied ‘we’re a bit busy’ or ‘try another day’, I probably wouldn't have even followed up with it.
And then sort of a few weeks after that they started talking about sending three representatives to New Zealand [to speak to me]. So I mean, obviously, you’ve got to start filming then.
“He lubed up my feet with K-Y jelly and went at it”
For me, the film is about the how the rich can do whatever they want because all they have to do is bring the lawyers in.
It's a difficult film to get across to people. I mean, it's called Ticked so people think it's sort of a light-hearted story about tickling. But it does end up [being about] those ideas. A lot of the film takes place in America where you have possibly Donald Trump as the next president, and all he does is sling around how much money he has and how many people he has sued, and he is almost celebrated for it.
In this film, people are drawn into the tickling contest because they don't have very much money. They are from poor backgrounds and they are lured into this world and it gives a lot of power to Jane O'Brien Media, and they use that to manipulate people further down the line. I don't see it as a documentary about tickling: it’s about power and control and manipulation, especially in the United States.
You are subject to legal action throughout the film. Did you come out of this feeling more or less worried about those kinds of threats?
It was a real panic initially when we started blogging about it and there were real threats coming from real lawyers, an American attorney and an Auckland lawyer as well. But you never really get used to it. I mean there are still real lawyers involved in it at the moment and that's not a great feeling. But that's America right?
In the movie you also go and meet a benign practitioner of tickling, Richard, who demonstrates the harmless side of the fetish.
Yeah, Richard was really cool. All of his models know exactly what is going on. We didn't want to paint the whole tickling community with this dark brush, and we also wanted to make sure that the tickling community were happy with the documentary. Richard sort of let us into his world. Our whole crew was tickled on that chair.
What was it like being tickled by a professional?
He would find out where exactly where your weak spot was and he would just go for it. It was pretty fucking bad [laughs].
Where was your weak spot?
Feet! He lubed up my feet with K-Y jelly and then went at it with a sort of bristly hair brush. He has these little shoelaces and he ties each of your toes back so that you can't close them in. And then he goes to town on you. So that was bad – that was some real nasty shit. It didn't make it into the film but it’s on YouTube. It was a good insight into what this world is about and when you are tied down and tickled you are incredibly helpless.
“This was a reminder that there is always a way for you to get scammed or tricked on the internet”
The way that the unscrupulous use the internet is the other theme of this film.
I think that this was a reminder that there is always a way for you to get scammed or tricked on the internet because of the way that the internet is set up and how easy it is to remain anonymous. It is a tricky place to navigate safely and it reminded me of that. Also the whole cyber bullying thing. It is a bit of a wild west out there.
And how did Stephen Fry come on board?
We tweeted him saying “here is this Kickstarter you might be like”. Because the project had elements of homophobia and also bullying, we thought it might be something he might respond too. Then he tweeted about our Kickstarter one night and suddenly our funds jumped significantly and it was Stephen Fry! And even better than that, the backing tier that he picked was an in-association-with credit that essentially lets us put his name on the film. And so there were a lot of emails back and forth making sure he didn't mind us doing that. And he got on board the whole way, he watched cuts, and he gave feedback. That was kind of this other mind-blowing side story that came out of it.
Tickled opens on Thu Aug 18.