It all started with a video of a guy wearing bright colored athletic gear in a sparse room laughing uncontrollably with a bunch of other guys on top of him. New Zealand journalist David Farrier received a tip about “Competitive Endurance Tickling” and started looking into it and tweeting about it. Farrier reached out to the company sponsoring this “competition” and releasing videos of it—Jane O’Brien Media—and received a refusal to participate in his coverage, on grounds that Farrier is a “homosexual journalist” (he’s actually bi, though). Farrier and his straight friend Dylan Reeve kept digging and the response from Jane O’Brien Media turned even more hostile. Farrier and Reeve were on the path to uncovering the truth behind the operation and its seemingly exploitative nature. Soon, they would be pulled into the world of tickling for profit, blackmail, bullying, and international schemes.
They captured their story in the new documentary Tickled, which they co-directed and both appear in. It’s a curiouser-and-curiouser-than-fiction slice of vérité filmmaking and a delightful entry into the bonkers canon of New Zealand cinema (which also includes the work of Peter Jackson, What We Do in the Shadows, and my personal favorite, The Monster’s Christmas). Farrier and Reeve stopped by Gawker HQ earlier this week to tell me about the making of their film, dissect the appeal of tickling erotica, and to catch me up on the continuing threats issued by Jane O’Brien Media associates. An edited and condensed transcript of our discussion is below.
Gawker: Things described in this movie remind me of what Peter Thiel is doing to Gawker. In both situations, you have people with a pile of money working very hard to kill stories and expression—in, frankly, perverted ways.
Dylan Reeve: Would you believe that you’re not the first person to tell us that? It’s true. Of course, anyone who feels justified should be able to take legal action that the law allows them to take. At the same time, it’s not like you can file a legal case and everyone just turns up to court to make their arguments. There’s a lot of money involved even without getting to court. That could be crippling.
David Farrier: When you’re dealing with someone with a lot of money who’s dealing with someone with much less money, it can become very perverted quite quickly.
Dylan: It’s very asymmetric.
It almost feels like in the same way that sexuality—or at least, our perception of it—is being consistently modified, to the point where options seem infinite, there are more creative ways than ever to do fucked up shit with your money.
David: I think that’s a completely fair call. One of the big points in the film is about power and control, and just the point that if you’ve got money, you have those things.
Dylan: But also that you should be free to be the person you want to be without having to fuck with other people in the process. There’s no reason you can’t be into tickling and whatever else you want to if you are OK with everyone else. Don’t be a dick. That’s what it all comes down to, in our case anyway. If the people involved weren’t being dicks about it, nothing would have happened.
At the same time, sex is about power and control, especially kinky sex.
David: There’s imagery of tickling throughout the film [suggesting] that it is a massive power play between two people. You’ve got someone who’s tied down, they don’t have any power, and you’ve got someone who has power over them. As someone in the film describes, it’s like BDSM brought way down. Tickling is a very simple illustration of it, but there’re other examples of power being exerted over other people all throughout the film. We end up in Muskegon, Michigan, this very poor town in the United States, and there come face-to-face with this extremely wealthy company that’s manipulating people in [that] town to do things that they typically wouldn’t do.
Dylan: When we started looking into it and we found these websites—with these guys with these videos—calling them perverts and posting their contact details. That was a point where we went, “This is really not OK.” One of the things we talked about when we started doing the documentary is: Could we help in some way? Could we make things better by exposing what was really happening, or trying to find out.
If we think of sex as a drug, at least for the purposes of my next point, any good drug movie shows you why people would do that drug. And in Tickled, you make a very good case for the attractiveness of this genre of erotica. One could discover a tickling fetish from your movie that he or she didn’t know they had.
Dylan: And some have!
David: We’ve had audience members come up to us and say, “I felt something stirring in my stomach that I hadn’t felt before.”
Intellectually, I totally get tickling as a fetish. The cumshot is so important in porn because it’s undeniably real as a physiological response, no matter how much pretending and put-on moaning it took to get there. Similarly, laughing is a very real, uncontrollable response to tickling. And also, people who make tickling videos are recruiting straight guys to interact with each other, much like gay porn often does, except in the case of these tickling videos, their straightness is completely preserved since they don’t have actual sex.
David: That’s the unusual thing about watching the videos that Jane O’Brien Media makes. You’re like, “Why is this a sexual thing?” but in your brain, it is a sexual thing. They’ve got clothes on, there’s no sex. The other aspect that’s interesting to this is part of the company’s joy in making these videos is straight guys are involved and they don’t know what they’re involved with.
Dylan: In other aspects of gay porn, the idea of straight guys going gay is a big deal. With the tickling thing, they want straight guys to be doing this stuff without it being gay. They don’t want anything gay involved in it...
David: Including me.
But you’re bi.
David: The funny thing about making this film is that I never initially wanted to make it about my sexuality because it wasn’t a story about that. The reaction from this company was: We don’t want to deal with a homosexual journalist. I never really went into that, that was just a statement they made.
Did your sexuality have anything to do with being interested in this genre of erotica in the first place?
David: No, the appeal was the unusual nature of it. I wasn’t personally turned on by the tickling videos, but I thought it was an interesting thing. I thought it was interesting that tickling was a thing that existed that I hadn’t been aware of, and just the fact that there was big money involved. People were being flown from New Zealand to Los Angeles once a month to take part of this tickling competition, and that fascinated me.
$1,500 is the starting amount and it goes up from there. There are people being paid $12,000 for a tickling session. So it was the money combined with what are these videos, what do they represent, what are they being made for?
Did the attack on your sexuality roll off your back as easily as it’s portrayed in the film?
David: It did, really. You feel a lot of emotions. Mainly it was so extreme and over the top that it was, to me, unusual and funny, as opposed to offensive. There was an element of being offended but that disappeared pretty quickly, especially when the insults escalated. It got to the point where it was so extreme that you couldn’t do anything but be surprised and amused. It wasn’t coming from the leader of a Baptist church, it was coming from a company that makes videos with young, attractive men tickling each other. That’s what made it outrageous.
I ask because it does seem to inherently politicize things when people make reference to your sexuality.
David: For sure. The reason it came up is that I was in a gay relationship in New Zealand and that around the time that marriage equality was being debated in New Zealand. That’s why that turned into an article that they Googled. They last time I had been hit up about my sexuality, it was in a political sense. In a lot of places in New Zealand, we’re pretty liberal and no one gives a shit about people’s sexuality. It is still a problem in certain areas, but compared with certain places in the States, we’re pretty liberal.
I’m fascinated with the treatment of bisexual men who are all but erased from our culture.
Dylan: Bisexual women exist, but bisexual guys don’t.
David: That’s something in New Zealand as well. I haven’t really thought about it a lot until this came up.
I think a lot of it has to do with the negative reaction that straight people have to versatility. It deviates too far from the heteronormative binary.
David: People like to organize things very clearly in their heads. It makes them feel better in the world. When things fit outside of that, it panics people for some reason.
Look at Orlando...
David: “It’s not a gay thing!” I think it might be!
Dylan: There’s a whole sense that it can’t be a gay thing and an ISIS thing and a gun-crazy crazy person thing. It has to be one thing. That’s stupid. It can be all three.
The world is so complicated and we have so much space to walk through all of this to understand it, and yet people still want the one-sentence narrative.
Dylan: It’s silly. It’s dumb. It’s the same in media in general: You have to be able to tag it. It’s this thing.
David: In every interview I’ve done with this project, everyone just assumes that I’m gay and rolls with it. Maybe that’s fine as well, that’s not really an issue for them.
Dylan: A couple of times, I’ve been parenthetically clarified as straight, which I quite like.
It’s about time for that caveat. I’ll make sure to modify your name with that, too. There’s a conversation that takes place in this movie with one of the Jane O’Brien media employees that he says is off the record that you put in the movie...
Dylan: We quite carefully never agreed to being off the record. What we agreed to is that we would not film. The footage that you see during that scene is a recreation.
David: In each place we recorded, we checked what the applicable laws are and in New Zealand, we have a thing where if one party knows the recording is taking place, it’s legal, so we rolled with that.
Was there any point in which you were afraid while filming this?
David: I was. Early on, the legal threats I found disconcerting. When [the Jane O’Brien employees] came to New Zealand, they originally wanted us to meet in their hotel room. That scared me. I wasn’t going to meet with three men in a hotel room with one exit. There were certain people in the United States that when we approached them, they didn’t want to be approached. America, it’s pertinent to say, has some gun issues. In New Zealand when you walk up to someone, you’re not expecting them to have a gun and in America you don’t know.
Dylan: Most of the time in those confrontational situations, I was behind a camera or viewfinder, looking in a monitor. I wasn’t at the front, so I felt a sense of disconnect through a lens. The legal threats, I’m not sure why they didn’t bother me as much. There was a sense of a physical distance that somehow helped us. Some of the legal threats were just so ridiculous that it was like, either this lawyer is an idiot, or these threats aren’t as legitimate as they would have us believe. I wasn’t concerned about them as they would have liked me to be, I’m sure.
The only time I was slightly scared is when we were visiting Muskegon. We were meeting someone there who we didn’t really know much about. We knew they’d been working for this Jane O’Brien Media company recently, we knew they were an MMA fighter, but we didn’t know if they were trying to trap us or if it was the real deal. It turned out to be the real thing, but there was a period of time before we actually met him that we were like, “This might not actually be what we hope it is.”
What have you heard from the people involved in these movies since you wrapped shooting on yours?
David: [Jane O’Brien Media employees] Kevin [Clarke] and Marko [Realmonte] have turned up at festivals. Our second Sundance screening was interesting because Kevin was in the audience getting a bit grumpy, sort of furiously scribbling notes. The audience around him are watching him onscreen, and he’s sitting next to them, and that created a certain uncomfortable atmosphere in that part of the cinema. It was a 4D experience for them, almost.
In Missouri a couple of months ago, there was a festival. I got tapped on the shoulder and a woman said, “Are you David Farrier?” I thought she wanted to talk about the film, and she said, “You’re served.” She served me with two lawsuits for defamation. Working through those. At a festival there were a couple of private investigators that had been sent from New York to Missouri to try and record the film. We had to get police to physically remove them because they wouldn’t stop recording.
So there’s been lots of things going on, which we expected. If things were this amped up when we were making it, we expected things to go up another level when we released the film, which they have.
Our main website for the movie is tickledmovie.com; Kevin has made tickledmovie.info. It’s made purely to discredit the film. It’s interesting reading if you’ve got a couple of hours to spare. He’s been tweeting journalists, emailing journalists who reviewed the film to say, “You’re siding with liar Farrier.”
Dylan: It’s like Scientology, but not as polished. They need to take some lessons, but it’s the same thing.
David: We’re in New York. This is where a lot of people live. As we get to our public screenings, I’m wondering if they’ll turn up, as they have at festivals. You’re very aware of what’s going on around you, which I never had been before.
Dylan: What’s interesting about the comparison to Scientology, though, is that they genuinely seem to believe that by discrediting or critiquing a person’s past or a person’s history that it somehow discredits everything they say, which is ridiculous. Unless they have a past of lying about experiences they’ve undergone, nothing in their past is really relevant. But that’s the approach they take, and it’s the same approach Scientology takes—when you see the way they critique their critics, they say, “This person has affairs,” and, “This person has debt.” It’s like none of those things matter. That’s the approach Kevin’s taken with this: “This person makes porn,” “This person assaulted some people.” Sure, whatever, but who cares?
I don’t understand why they are so invested.
David: I think a lot of it is driven by money. But that’s a question audiences will have leaving the theater. It goes to a pretty dark place—what other dark things are going on around this story potentially?
Tickled opens in select theaters on Friday.