Farrier was an entertainment reporter in his native New Zealand when he first stumbled across a professional looking video on Facebook. In it, a group of athletic young men, resplendent in fresh tracksuits, were seen taking part in a tickling competition.
This may initially sound like a hoax. However, given that competitive welly-throwing and wife-carrying races exist, the idea that people should enjoy the sport of tickling was not entirely implausible.
As Farrier began to investigate further, he quickly discovered there was something far more sinister going on. A series of threatening messages were sent to him over the Internet. That’s when things stopped being so light-hearted.
‘I began the camera rolling from that point on,’ Farrier told The Culture Trip recently.
‘Jane O’Brien Media [the company behind the original video] sent three men to New Zealand from America, where they were based,’ Farrier continued. ‘Dylan [Reeve], my co-director on this movie, and I were there, isolated in our home country. Suddenly the company we wanted to make a film about decided to come to us. It was a real gift.’
Though Jane O’Brien Media had sent the filmmakers a few threatening emails layered with homophobic undertones, Farrier and Reeve still greeted its representatives at the airport. As the film shows, the first few meetings were cordial enough.
‘We sensed we had a film. Dylan and I weren’t friends before this although we knew one another via Twitter and Facebook,’ Farrier said. ‘I posted a blog about the crazy correspondence I was getting from Jane O’Brien, and we knew we had something then. Dylan began to dig a little deeper. Tickling is such a visual thing and we knew some of the people involved, so we had to follow it through.’
The initial tickling videos posted on Facebook look so polished that it is easy to believe there is a sporting element to them. Was Farrier taken in by them at first?
‘A lot of people said they were obviously fetish videos, but it wasn’t obvious at all. It is all debatable. [The participants] were all dressed in Adidas gear in a photography studio and not in their underwear in someone’s backyard. If Ultimate Frisbee could be a sport, then why couldn’t tickling?’
Despite the arrival of ‘heavies’ on the scene and the threat of litigation over the very idea of making a film on Jane O’Brien Media, Farrier and Reeve followed a paper trail back to America. Was Farrier ever worried about his personal safety?
‘I was. It’s hard to describe how the legal threats that were piling in from all angles were stressing me out. When you’re an entertainment journalist sat in your newsroom, on not very good money, just living your life, you can feel helpless when trying to get your lawyers to write back to their lawyers. It was scary. The three guys wanting to meet in a hotel room was scary. Also in America you have in the back of your mind that someone could easily be carrying a gun. There were moments where it could have been a setup.’
‘People like the film, but Jane O’Brien [Media] aren’t so happy,’ Farrier added. ‘One of the three men who came to New Zealand, was at our Sundance Film Festival screening and he was furiously making notes. It caused a ripple there and has resulted in me getting two defamation lawsuits that I still can’t talk about. We had to get police in to remove two men from another screening because they were filming the movie from a camera hidden in a coffee cup. It turned out that they were private investigators sent from New York to Missouri, where we were showing Tickled. All the main players from the film turned up and confronted Dylan in L.A. recently. We just live-streamed the whole thing on Facebook.’
As Reeve and Farrier continued their journey across America, they discovered there was far more to tickling than they had originally thought.
The trailer of the film does a great job of not giving away too much…
Below are some MAJOR SPOILERS about the rest of the movie.
In the film, Farrier goes on to meet several online tickling video-makers, all of whom are open about the fetish element involved. After a conversation with an old video producer from the mid-90’s, who had intimate knowledge about the tickling scene of the era, an early Internet pioneer known as Terri DiSisto (also recognised as a mysterious blonde woman going by the moniker Terri Tickle) is found to have links to Jane O’Brien Media.
Then came an even greater breakthrough.
An unsecured file on their own server proved that Jane O’Brien was directly linked to David D’Amato, a former school administrator who had been previously jailed for six months for harassing and threatening to “out” participants of early online tickling videos. D’Amato was also posing as none other than Terri Tickle.
Protected by a sizeable family inheritance that made him virtually untouchable, D’Amato becomes the focal point of the second half of the film.
‘I was surprised by how deep it all went,’ Farrier said. ‘I had no idea about the history or that the world of tickling goes so far. The idea of a ‘tickling cell’ in Michigan, for example, was so unexpected. It was mind-blowing, and so was the amount of money involved.’
‘It tells you a lot about America. It is shocking how protected you can be with money and the influence it can give you. It’s not all that different to what you see from The Jinx and what you see from Robert Durst in that. Life is a lot easier in the United States with money.
I love America and spend a lot of time there, but while we watch Donald Trump being so popular it is depressing. There are many Americans that don’t support him, of course, so it is an unusual country.’
Tickled is also an unusual film. It works best as a viewing experience if approached with little prior knowledge, so be sure to watch this one as soon as possible.
Tickled is released in the UK on August 19