It started off as a routine story for openly gay New Zealand journalist David Farrier – and led to something more complex and troubling than he ever envisioned. Seeing a competitive endurance tickling video online, he decided he wanted to investigate it further and do a short sequence about it.
His initial inquiries to the production company, Jane O’Brien Media, were met with hostility and homophobic comments. That spurred him to investigate, traveling to the company in Los Angeles, talking to some of the participants in the video (including one who was outed – despite being straight – after he protested his involvement in the project) and having the situation get odder and odder, including finding out who was pulling the strings.
His journey has yielded the acclaimed new documentary “Tickled.” We caught up with Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve to talk about the movie, the craziness that ensued and the tickling fetish community.
David, what kinds of stories did you normally work on before this?
Farrier: I tended to focus on entertainment and pop culture stories, everything from interviewing Justin Bieber when he was touring to a story about a survivalist who likes to eat frogs. I tend to like the humorous content.
What piqued your interest?
I wanted it to be a two-minute story. It sounded like the weirder version of Ultimate Frisbee. I noticed that New Zealanders were being flown over and being paid good money to be tickled. What elevated it was when they responded that they did not want to deal with a homosexual journalist. That was such a dismiss of what the videos were and what they seemed to be about. I thought, there has to be more here. Dylan saw my post and poked around as well.
How did they know you were gay, David?
There was debate going on about gay marriage in New Zealand at the time so it was a hot topic. They Googled my name and found out I was in a relationship with another guy and I took offense with the replies we got.
Dylan, was there any hesitation in joining this?
Reeve: We started independently. David was writing about it and I was intrigued, wondering who was behind this. I was wondering if it was real. I started looking at domain names. Both of us started getting legal threats and it was getting complicated to write about. I went to his house and we thought a documentary made sense.
Did either of you know anything about tickling?
Farrier: There is a fetish for everything but I had never thought about tickling before. We discovered a lot of people like it in a sexual way. We talked to Richard, a professional tickler, and it was interesting to look into this world. We learned a bit more.
Were these subjects gay?
We didn’t conduct a survey, but I think they were interested in straight people. $1500 and flight and hotel accommodations is appealing to a lot of people.
What was it like taking the film to Sundance?
It was amazing. It was the first time we watched the finished film with an audience. It was nerve-racking and surreal but validating in many ways.
So we understand that when visiting Richard [the professional tickler], you tried getting tickled?
Reeve: It was pretty difficult. It’s one thing being tickled as a joke, or by your brother growing up, but strapped in and not being able to get away, you’re laughing – but it’s not at all funny.