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Competitive tickling

David Farrier on his new movie Tickled

Co-director David Farrier (left) discovers that the goings on in the competitive endurance-tickling world are no laughing matter.
Co-director David Farrier (left) discovers that the goings on in the competitive endurance-tickling world are no laughing matter.

David Farrier is a New Zealand journalist who set out to do a human interest story on the world of competitive endurance tickling videos. But the nasty and virulent resistance he encountered made him think there was more to the story, and Tickled is the result of his investigation. What he discovered is fascinating, unpleasant, and more than a little sad.

Matthew Lickona: Did the character of the film shift as you went along?

David Farrier: Yes. It started, for me at least, as wanting to tell a story about this crazy world of tickling, and how expensive it was. [Some participants were flown in to L.A. and put up in nice hotels, and well compensated to boot.] But as we got deeper, co-director Dylan Reeve and I shifted into looking at it as a story of online harassment and bullying and power and control.

Video:

Tickled official trailer

ML: In some cases, the release of the tickling videos onto the internet did seem to have a punitive aspect — “If you’re not going to keep participating, we’re going to make your life very unpleasant.” But when you’re talking to Dave Starr, who helped recruit talent for some of these videos, he says they just started showing up online, contra the agreements with the performers and for no apparent reason.

DF: Yes, it varied. Sometimes, the videos would pop up with stage names. That didn’t bother David or the contestants, or if it did, it wasn’t a breaking point. But then some popped up with the names in the title, and also tagged with the names, so that they would turn up on internet searches.

ML: Would you be willing to opine as to why the Mastermind — I’ll call the responsible party that so as not to give too much away — would go public with this stuff? If the videos gave him pleasure, why risk it by putting them out there where they would upset the participants?

DF: From what I can tell, the harassment seemed to be as big a part of it as getting the tickling videos in the first place. I think it was part and parcel of the same thing.

ML: Would you go so far as to suggest a connection between the kind of control exercised when you’ve got someone tied down...

DF: Certainly. There’s this really obvious power that someone has when they’ve got someone tied down and they’re tickling them. They’re absolutely powerless, and the tickler has all the power. And the film is dealing with someone who has a lot of money and is manipulating these young men who have nothing — no power or control — into doing something that they don’t want to do. The image of tickling is definitely a metaphor that we saw pretty clearly when we were making this thing.

ML: There’s a scene near the end where you manage to contact someone who knows the Mastermind, and I found it a little heartbreaking.

DF: Oh, I agree.

ML: I wanted to ask, especially in light of that scene: did your opinion of the Mastermind change during the film? Jane O’Brien Media’s rep is so very antagonistic from the very beginning of your efforts to do the story, and in retrospect, I started thinking that the extremity of the response could be read as panic. “Oh my God, I need to make this guy go away! I’m going to say the nastiest things I can!”

DF: I agree. After the phone call, Dylan and I both felt a shift in the way that we felt about [the Mastermind]. Up until then, we hadn’t been able to talk to anyone close to this individual, and he’d been very confrontational with his personal attacks and his hiring lawyers to tell us not to make the film. That scene on the phone was one of the last things we filmed, and it gave some explanation as to how, perhaps, this person got to be the way they are. I think that’s important. It’s important not to make anyone in the film one-dimensional. We’d like to think that some people are just not good people, but usually, there’s a reason behind people’s behavior. I think it’s incredibly important to show that.

ML: At one point, you find tickle video-maker Kevin Clarke at the sight of a shoot, and he refuses to talk to you. What would you have asked him if he had talked to you?

DF: We had a lot of talks with Kevin when he came to New Zealand, and we went round and round in circles because we had suspicions that things weren’t as they seemed. I would have pressed Kevin on that — “There are a select number of people who have a terrible time after [making these videos], and they’re subject to this huge online harassment with this company that you seem to be involved with. I want to try to get my head around why you’re involved and what you have to say about that.”

ML: Could you describe some of your research methods? I was amazed when all of a sudden you knew the make and model of the Mastermind’s car.

DF: All I have to say is that we live in a world, for the moment, where information about everything — the car you own, your address — is really easy to find if you know where to look. In a way, it’s scary that we live in a world where that is the case, but if you want to find out something for a documentary, that can be incredibly helpful.

ML: You guys have been having a sort of running series of confrontations with Mr. Clarke at screenings, several of which have showed up online, to the point where some people have suggested that it’s all just marketing.

DF: When we showed this to a test audience in New Zealand and one of the main comments we got back was, “This can’t be real. It must be a mockumentary.” Then when we released the trailer on YouTube, all the comments there were saying, “This can’t be real.” We live in a world where people are very aware of so-called viral marketing. All I can say is, I assure you it’s not.

ML: I believe you. I spent an hour on Clarke’s anti-Tickled website, and I don’t think anyone could make him up. One of his big points is his claim that you agreed to blur the face of his assistant and then did not. Your co-director argued with him at a post-screening Q&A, saying that you used his image in a way that you thought was appropriate. Would you be willing to expound on that?

Movie

Tickled **

thumbnail

David Farrier is a New Zealand journalist who sets out to do a human interest story on the world of competitive endurance tickling videos. But the nasty and virulent resistance he encounters — the people behind the videos want nothing to do with a “little gay Kiwi” and even go so far as to lawyer up —  makes him think there is more to the story. Together with co-director Dylan Reeve, he travels to Los Angeles and starts finding people whose participation in the videos has led to online harassment and humiliation. (The ticklers were well paid, but they didn’t sign on to have their names trumpeted on the internet.) The more he investigates the “tickling empire,” the more everything points toward a single, mysterious, unpleasant, even malevolent source. What he eventually discovers is nasty indeed, but also more than a little sad — such that the turning of the tables on a media bully may leave you wondering if all the flying, driving, staking out, and surreptitious recording was entirely worth it. There are lessons to be learned here; hopefully, they will shine through the murk.

Find showtimes

DF: We were incredibly aware during the edit that, of anyone to kind of keep out of the film on some level, it was going to be that man. Because my feeling is that he had been drawn into this whole thing without really knowing what it was. So I didn’t want to put him front and center. But the fact is, it’s a documentary, and he flew all the way from America to New Zealand for a week. He was at the airport, and so we showed him briefly there. And then for continuity, at the shoot in Los Angeles, he was there, so he’s briefly going to pop up. But we weren’t going to make a big point out of him. And I think the film provides a lot of context as to what everything means. We’re not plastering anyone on a billboard without context. You can kind of see what’s happening, and you can make these judgments for yourself.

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Co-director David Farrier (left) discovers that the goings on in the competitive endurance-tickling world are no laughing matter.
Co-director David Farrier (left) discovers that the goings on in the competitive endurance-tickling world are no laughing matter.

David Farrier is a New Zealand journalist who set out to do a human interest story on the world of competitive endurance tickling videos. But the nasty and virulent resistance he encountered made him think there was more to the story, and Tickled is the result of his investigation. What he discovered is fascinating, unpleasant, and more than a little sad.

Matthew Lickona: Did the character of the film shift as you went along?

David Farrier: Yes. It started, for me at least, as wanting to tell a story about this crazy world of tickling, and how expensive it was. [Some participants were flown in to L.A. and put up in nice hotels, and well compensated to boot.] But as we got deeper, co-director Dylan Reeve and I shifted into looking at it as a story of online harassment and bullying and power and control.

Video:

Tickled official trailer

ML: In some cases, the release of the tickling videos onto the internet did seem to have a punitive aspect — “If you’re not going to keep participating, we’re going to make your life very unpleasant.” But when you’re talking to Dave Starr, who helped recruit talent for some of these videos, he says they just started showing up online, contra the agreements with the performers and for no apparent reason.

DF: Yes, it varied. Sometimes, the videos would pop up with stage names. That didn’t bother David or the contestants, or if it did, it wasn’t a breaking point. But then some popped up with the names in the title, and also tagged with the names, so that they would turn up on internet searches.

ML: Would you be willing to opine as to why the Mastermind — I’ll call the responsible party that so as not to give too much away — would go public with this stuff? If the videos gave him pleasure, why risk it by putting them out there where they would upset the participants?

DF: From what I can tell, the harassment seemed to be as big a part of it as getting the tickling videos in the first place. I think it was part and parcel of the same thing.

ML: Would you go so far as to suggest a connection between the kind of control exercised when you’ve got someone tied down...

DF: Certainly. There’s this really obvious power that someone has when they’ve got someone tied down and they’re tickling them. They’re absolutely powerless, and the tickler has all the power. And the film is dealing with someone who has a lot of money and is manipulating these young men who have nothing — no power or control — into doing something that they don’t want to do. The image of tickling is definitely a metaphor that we saw pretty clearly when we were making this thing.

ML: There’s a scene near the end where you manage to contact someone who knows the Mastermind, and I found it a little heartbreaking.

DF: Oh, I agree.

ML: I wanted to ask, especially in light of that scene: did your opinion of the Mastermind change during the film? Jane O’Brien Media’s rep is so very antagonistic from the very beginning of your efforts to do the story, and in retrospect, I started thinking that the extremity of the response could be read as panic. “Oh my God, I need to make this guy go away! I’m going to say the nastiest things I can!”

DF: I agree. After the phone call, Dylan and I both felt a shift in the way that we felt about [the Mastermind]. Up until then, we hadn’t been able to talk to anyone close to this individual, and he’d been very confrontational with his personal attacks and his hiring lawyers to tell us not to make the film. That scene on the phone was one of the last things we filmed, and it gave some explanation as to how, perhaps, this person got to be the way they are. I think that’s important. It’s important not to make anyone in the film one-dimensional. We’d like to think that some people are just not good people, but usually, there’s a reason behind people’s behavior. I think it’s incredibly important to show that.

ML: At one point, you find tickle video-maker Kevin Clarke at the sight of a shoot, and he refuses to talk to you. What would you have asked him if he had talked to you?

DF: We had a lot of talks with Kevin when he came to New Zealand, and we went round and round in circles because we had suspicions that things weren’t as they seemed. I would have pressed Kevin on that — “There are a select number of people who have a terrible time after [making these videos], and they’re subject to this huge online harassment with this company that you seem to be involved with. I want to try to get my head around why you’re involved and what you have to say about that.”

ML: Could you describe some of your research methods? I was amazed when all of a sudden you knew the make and model of the Mastermind’s car.

DF: All I have to say is that we live in a world, for the moment, where information about everything — the car you own, your address — is really easy to find if you know where to look. In a way, it’s scary that we live in a world where that is the case, but if you want to find out something for a documentary, that can be incredibly helpful.

ML: You guys have been having a sort of running series of confrontations with Mr. Clarke at screenings, several of which have showed up online, to the point where some people have suggested that it’s all just marketing.

DF: When we showed this to a test audience in New Zealand and one of the main comments we got back was, “This can’t be real. It must be a mockumentary.” Then when we released the trailer on YouTube, all the comments there were saying, “This can’t be real.” We live in a world where people are very aware of so-called viral marketing. All I can say is, I assure you it’s not.

ML: I believe you. I spent an hour on Clarke’s anti-Tickled website, and I don’t think anyone could make him up. One of his big points is his claim that you agreed to blur the face of his assistant and then did not. Your co-director argued with him at a post-screening Q&A, saying that you used his image in a way that you thought was appropriate. Would you be willing to expound on that?

Movie

Tickled **

thumbnail

David Farrier is a New Zealand journalist who sets out to do a human interest story on the world of competitive endurance tickling videos. But the nasty and virulent resistance he encounters — the people behind the videos want nothing to do with a “little gay Kiwi” and even go so far as to lawyer up —  makes him think there is more to the story. Together with co-director Dylan Reeve, he travels to Los Angeles and starts finding people whose participation in the videos has led to online harassment and humiliation. (The ticklers were well paid, but they didn’t sign on to have their names trumpeted on the internet.) The more he investigates the “tickling empire,” the more everything points toward a single, mysterious, unpleasant, even malevolent source. What he eventually discovers is nasty indeed, but also more than a little sad — such that the turning of the tables on a media bully may leave you wondering if all the flying, driving, staking out, and surreptitious recording was entirely worth it. There are lessons to be learned here; hopefully, they will shine through the murk.

Find showtimes

DF: We were incredibly aware during the edit that, of anyone to kind of keep out of the film on some level, it was going to be that man. Because my feeling is that he had been drawn into this whole thing without really knowing what it was. So I didn’t want to put him front and center. But the fact is, it’s a documentary, and he flew all the way from America to New Zealand for a week. He was at the airport, and so we showed him briefly there. And then for continuity, at the shoot in Los Angeles, he was there, so he’s briefly going to pop up. But we weren’t going to make a big point out of him. And I think the film provides a lot of context as to what everything means. We’re not plastering anyone on a billboard without context. You can kind of see what’s happening, and you can make these judgments for yourself.

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