When given the choice of interviewing David Farrier in-person or over the phone, I opted for in-person. Considering Farrier’s unsettling documentary, meeting in person seemed like the only way to make sure it was really him. You can never be too careful, apparently.
Metaphorical smoke and mirrors is a prominent theme of Tickled, a film whose plot I’ll get to momentarily. Ever since shooting wrapped, however, the theme has escaped beyond the edges of the screen and followed its creators. At March’s True/False Film Festival in Missouri, for instance, police had to remove two private investigators disguised as patrons who were filming a bootleg through a coffee cup camera on behalf of the film's most shadowy figure. Then, at a recent Q&A in Los Angeles, more henchmen showed up and disrupted the screening. Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve have been recording all these incidents, and by now they have enough footage to practically make a documentary about the documentary.
"I’m worried people will think this is a whole marketing campaign," Farrier says, sitting across from me, his identity confirmed. "It’s almost too good to be true."
He's only half-right, and that's the challenge of marketing this movie. In order to fully understand everything that's happened since Tickled wrapped, you'd have to already know its secrets. (You're safe here, this is a spoiler-free space.) Fortunately, the film has enough ecstatic reviews and feverish word of mouth to practically market itself.
The first time I heard about Tickled, it was described to me as "a peek into the world of competitive endurance tickling." This is gobsmackingly inaccurate and almost certainly the work of someone who hadn't seen it. The second time I heard about the movie, it was in the hushed tones of someone who's just encountered a Vermeer up close. I knew there was more to the story, but not what exactly. This is probably the ideal state in which to enter a theater showing Tickled.
"You don’t want to tell people too much," Farrier says. "If people just think it’s about a tickling competition, that’s not enough to justify a film, that’s like a crazy five-minute video."
Here is my best attempt to describe what does justify a feature film, while still preserving its essential mystery. New Zealand-based journalist Farrier wants to make a documentary about the subculture of competitive endurance tickling he's just stumbled onto online, via a video that looks like a cross between a wrestling match and a group sex video made all the kinkier by the addition of clothing. Soon, he finds out that some seriously disturbing forces are at work behind this competition, and many other things, in ways he couldn't have imagined. Of course, descriptions of the film have evolved during every stage of its creation, as the scope continued to expand.
Farrier had directed hour-long documentaries for New Zealand TV before, and he'd always wanted to make a feature. Previous ideas he'd pitched had been turned down for various budgetary reasons. As soon as the events of Tickled started unfolding, though, things came together very quickly.
"Originally I was just going to make a two-minute video, a weird story for the end of the news," Farrier says. "But when I got this crazy reply from Jane O’Brien [the supposed head of the company behind the tickle competition] saying, 'We don’t want to deal with a homosexual journalist,' that piqued my interest."
This moment is depicted within the first five minutes of Tickled, so technically it is not a spoiler. When it happened in real life, Farrier began blogging about the incident, attracting the attention of his Facebook and Twitter friend Dylan Reeve, who followed suit. Reeve's own amateur sleuthing soon turned up similarly bizarre, aggressive responses from Jane O'Brien, so the two met up for pizza at Farrier's house and decided to make a Kickstarter to raise funds for a film.
This Kickstarter raised about $25K. As the story kept getting crazier, though, the duo sought out more money from the official New Zealand Film Commission, and got it. The events that followed sent Farrier on a year-and-a-half-long adventure of investigative journalism that pushed him to new professional limits.
"We wanted to uncover new information, not just rehash a historical story or reveal a crazy tickling competition," Farrier says. "We wanted to make links between different things and discover new information. I never imagined when we started this, though, that we would be doing stakeouts and things like that."
Likewise, he also didn't imagine some of the personal challenges he'd endure in the line of duty—namely getting tickled himself. In order to better understand the tickling culture that is a piece of the movie (but not its entire subject), Farrier submitted to 10 minutes of safe word-free tickling while restrained. For the avowed lifelong tickle-avoider, it was a skin-crawlin nightmare, and one that ultimately didn't end up in the finished film.
Aside from turning him into a more serious journalist, and a 10-minute tickle prisoner, the film's most lasting effect for now has been to put him more on edge.
"If someone strange emails me with a funny-sounding name that seems like it’s maybe made up," Farrier says, "instead of before when I might have thought, ‘Oh yeah, someone with a funny name,’ I think is this person who they say they are. So it’s definitely made me more on edge."
My phone buzzes on the table just then, and he looks at it before adding, "But maybe just more aware."