One of the most widely-hyped documentaries to play this year at the Melbourne International Film Festival is Tickled, which sees New Zealand journalists David Farrier and Dylan Reeve follow the very strange rabbit hole that is competitive endurance tickling in the United States. While they were here in Melbourne, we spoke to them about the film’s production, lawsuits, and saunas.
How did you initially approach funding for the film? I know that the New Zealand Film Commission was involved at some point in the process.
Dylan: It started on Kickstarter. The Facebook exchange at the beginning of the film happened in mid-May and we, straight after that, both started writing about it and there was this barrage of legal threats and all sorts of stuff and I think it was like a week of that before we actually sat down and met and went “This is bigger than writing, this is a documentary”. [To Dylan:] At that point, I don’t know what your expectations were, but mine were that this is 40 or 60 minutes of something we’re gonna sell on Vimeo for $5.
David: Dylan and I didn’t know each other before this. So we were friends on Twitter and Facebook, very organic. I found the story online, started blogging about it; Dylan joined in, started blogging about it pretty much at the same time. It seemed just like—especially by the time they were talking about sending representatives to New Zealand—it seemed like a documentary and Kickstarter was a way to… it was the first Kickstarter I had done, was it yours?
Dylan: Yeah. I tried to Kickstart my way to NAB once but, yeah —
David: — it just seemed like a good reason to try Kickstarter and get money quickly and that worked. So we went and did an initial shoot in the US and then we brought that footage back and went to the New Zealand Film Commission and they came on board.
Dylan: We got to the US and probably by the time we had landed we knew we’d underestimated what was happening.
David: The story kept growing.
Dylan: So by the time we got back from that shoot we were like “We’ve got everything we thought we were gonna get but it’s just not everything, the story is bigger and crazier and needs more… more.”
David: The Film Commission were really supportive.
Dylan: Dave Gibson, who’s the head of the Film Commission in New Zealand, was at times our biggest champion. It was great.
How have you found the film has had a different response in New Zealand and America?
David: I’ve found it to be a fairly similar reception in audiences. There hasn’t been a dramatic difference between Canada and America and New Zealand. Seems to be similar reactions that we get.
Dylan: The themes, though, are universal. This idea that people have these weird desires for power and influence and control, that’s common. Then the internet, obviously, we all embrace the internet in a similar way and have similar experiences so it all seems pretty adaptable. Some people outside of the US get a little hung up on some of the things that Americans sort of take for granted, like money. People outside of the US are like “Why would you ever do anything like that?” and people in the US are like “Sure, someone offers you money, why not?”. They’ve got Craigslist ads asking for all sorts of weird things so, yeah. That’s about the only difference I can think of.
What struck me was just how litigious everyone in the film in. You’re getting sued left, right and center.
David: Yeah, that’s something in New Zealand and Australia that we’re not really used to. You know, I’ve been putting out stories—some of them probably fairly offensive—over the last ten years and no one’s ever sued me, so that was a real surprise and it came thick and fast.
Dylan: That’s a caricature of the US, almost. That idea of a society that sues to get ahead and what they want. So that was interesting.
Your film also seems very relevant to the US today because of its eventual focus on a class divide and the exploitation of the working class by the anonymous rich.
David: I think that there’s things that you can respond to in there, whether it’s that or online bullying. Especially in America it’s this perfect example of what is fairly fucked up about that society and this is something that American journalists are writing about, we’re seeing this with Donald Trump. You’ve got this rich bully who just loves suing people and, to an extent, that’s what is in our film as well, just with tickling as opposed to political gain. But it’s the same story: power and control and manipulation. Obviously the people drawn into this, the competitive endurance tickling, are drawn in because they don’t have a lot of money, so instantly you’ve got this fairly poor base that is being run by someone who is extremely wealthy and then that is used to their advantage.
In your film you play a bit with the idea of truth and journalism. I know that you’ve mentioned Nick Broomfield as an inspiration for the film.
Dylan: It’s kind of hard not to think of him.
Well as soon as you go on camera, it’s hard not to.
Dylan: We didn’t give David the boom, though.
That would have been amazing. I have read in a few places that your film is being compared to Catfish too, in that audience members don’t entirely trust the story you tell.
David: Yeah, I mean that’s something we’ve found out right early on in the test screenings, people were coming back and saying they thought it was a mockumentary, which I first thought of as a compliment. The unfortunate thing about that is that, I suppose, on some level it is irritating that people think it isn’t real because it is real. The Catfish comparison, that’s both good and bad because Catfish is a film that I really enjoyed. There’s debate around the authenticity of certain bits in that film but I know people who are fairly close to that production and I think it’s a lot more authentic than people make out.
Dylan: I used to work in reality TV and it’s the same idea. Everyone thinks reality TV is straight-up scripted and it’s not. It’s, well, some of it might be but most of it is… you talk about your Survivors or shows like that, they’re not scripted, people are just good at editing a story and they’re good at having a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen ahead of time. Ours is not reality TV but we had a fair idea of what we were walking into and we were pretty clear in the edit suite afterwards about how the story needed to flow to get our experience across and be engaging.
Yeah and it’s packed into only 90 minutes. It’s an efficiently told story.
David: Well it had to be, I mean we want to be straight in there in the first five minutes with things and move very quickly for us over the… under two years, that it took to make and so it unfolds pretty quickly in the 90 minutes in the film.
The film’s broken up into distinct sections. You have your introductions which fill us in on your careers in television and journalism and then, at one point, you have this sequence about fetishism that almost feels like it’s intended to educate the viewer.
David: I think that having Richard… you know we meet this tickling fetishist in Florida, and it was important to acknowledge that tickling is a fetish. It was something that I was unaware of when we started this journey but, of course, it’s a fetish and also Richard is an example, and it’s important as the film unfolds, that it’s important to be happy with yourself and what you do and that that can be very healthy, whereas other aspects to the film are examples of how that isn’t the case.
Dylan: And we wanted to make sure that no one was gonna walk out of this film and think ‘This is what these people who are into tickling are’ because it’s not. You know, we’ve met dozens of them now and they’re some of the nicest people we’ve met around.
David: Yeah we didn’t want one particular story to taint the whole tickling crowd. The tickling crowd’s great. We’ve had Richard come over at some of the America Q&As. When Dylan and I do the Q&A people are like “oh, yeah” but when Richard comes on everyone’s like “yeeeah” [claps] and just ecstatic to see him and that’s what we wanted, we wanted him to be a hero and he is. Richard’s great.
Speaking of editing, your wonderful trailer sets up the film as being some kind of thriller.
Dylan: That was sort of important. It was really difficult for us, even trying to pick a title. How do you sell this idea that this film is, you know, is what it is? You can’t really… it’s so hard to explain and so the film is Tickled and then our tagline in most cases is “It’s not what you think” and even that’s not really doing it justice but it’s so hard for us to find a path through it.
David: I don’t think many people, well some people would, want to watch a 90-minute film about tickling. I think its appeal would last for about 30 minutes. We wanted to show that it’s not about tickling, I mean, this film could be about anything it just happens to be couched in tickling but it could be about a million other things. Someone likened it to The Jinx but with tickling instead of murder. That’s a bit extreme.
Well, you’re lacking the blue-tinted re-enactment sequences for starters.
David: No no no. Well, I think that’s it’s important that, hopefully, that people realise that it’s about more than just tickling. At the same time, it’s my hope that people walk in without really reading reviews or what it’s about and just know that it’s related to tickling and there’s a bit more.
Dylan: Some of the best feedback we’ve had is from people who have gone in completely blind. If you do that you probably end up having the same experience we had going through it. You blithely walk into this tickling thing and then it just spirals.
There’s that sense that what is happening within the film is echoed outside of it, not just in terms of the audience. I think it’s weirdly beautiful that someone has set up a website that’s anti-Tickled, the film.
Dylan: He’s forgotten to pay his hosting service, it’s just gone this morning.1
David: That suspension – is that a pay thing or?
Dylan: Yeah last time it was, he didn’t pay his bill.
I was so keen to dive in and read it this morning too.
David: Since the film’s come out, obviously Jane O’Brien Media have taken exception to it and, you know, they’ve certainly been very active on the internet and I think that’s… all power to them but I think if people see the film and then read some of that content, it’s almost like a special feature.
You’ve got special features playing out in real life. Dylan, you were confronted at a screening in the US?
Dylan: Yeah, that experience was so bizarre because normally when I do a Q&A I turn up five minutes before the film is finishing and just stroll on in but for that one I was sort of at a loose end in L.A.. I didn’t have a rental car and was just kinda trapped in the hotel so I thought ‘Well, I’ll go early’ and I met some people going out of the previous session and I just hung around, playing on my phone. At first I saw one of the guys, Marco I think, I saw [him] going in and I thought ‘That’s a bit weird, what’s he doing here?’. You know, he lives in California so I was like ‘OK, something’s gonna happen’ and next I walk out and I see Kevin [Clarke] outside and, you know, ‘Oh, shit’ and then I’m sitting down and the wizard himself walks in [David D’Amato, the film’s eventual subject] and then I’ve got an hour and a half to steel myself for whatever’s about to come. I still can’t… every time I think back on it I can’t fathom what the thought process was that led them to decide to do that.
Magnolia Pictures’ video upload of the altercation.
All it does it help your film. The fact that Magnolia shared the video online —
Dylan: They were so excited! You know, they want news stories, they want people to pay attention. This was, for them, brilliant.
David: It was one of the more interactive Q&As that Dylan found himself in the middle of.
Dylan: That’s one of the things I’ve seen cited as proof that we’re fake, is that we clearly paid our actors to come and stage —
David: — oh so they’re actors, they’re too good —
Dylan: “That’s not real, no one would do that”
David: [facetiously] Our budget was very big and we’re using the excess —
Dylan: — we’ve been planning this.
David: I wish we had the intelligence to do that.
Again, that’s the same thing levelled at Catfish.
Dylan: The best criticism I have seen about Catfish is that they had a much clearer idea all along what was happening and, to some extent, that’s true of us but at the same time we thought we knew things and then, just because of the craziness of the story, we’d think we knew something and then totally roll back on it. Obviously it’s very hard to convey that part of it in the film but we were never sure. That final phone call, that was literally the last thing we did before we left New York because we didn’t know what the connection or the relationship was and we didn’t want to make that phone call and risk tipping someone off or something. All of that, that constant stuff about second-guessing. When I first emailed David Starr, who is in the film, I was terrified that it was a trap, that he was in league with all of this as well; just constant second-guessing yourself about who is behind what.
David: The reaching out to talent was always a fairly sensitive affair.
The awkward interactions between you and the people in the film is one of the best things about Tickled.
David: Yeah, some of the scenes in the film I watch now and still feel a bit awkward.
It’s got that vaguely Louis Theroux thing about it, going into the rabbit hole and talking to people far outside your normal comfort zones.
Dylan: I think it frustrates David a little bit because, even before we made this film, he was getting compared to Louis.
It’s the glasses.
Dylan: Well he does the funny stories and he has the glasses.
David: Usually it’s an insult.
Dylan: Because people are always like “You’re a low-rent Louis Theroux.”
David: “You’re like Louis but not quite as good but keep trying”.
Dylan: This film has just turned that up to 11.
David: I sit here and simmer when people bring up Louis.
Well, HBO’s already bought the film, you’ve just gotta convince them to make you his New Zealand equivalent.
David: I watched Louis’ scientology film [My Scientology Movie, also screening at MIFF] and a couple of people in the audience thought I was Louis because, you know, my accent sounds British to Canadians. So of course I said I was.
Something that’s also interesting in Tickled is how you deal with the concept of journalism. At the start of the film you each have your blogs and there’s the very real sense, in that sequence, that it’s the modern way; it’s your blogging that gets the first big reaction from them. Then the documentary almost seems like a followed through threat, like ‘Fuck it, you can’t stop us’.
Dylan: It kinda was, in a sense. It was like our weapon, our tool. Not in a malicious way but we found this harassment and this bullying and we wanted to make a change. We saw it and you don’t just wanna walk away from it, you kinda wanna do something. At that point we literally sat down and said, I think, “Well what is the thing we can do to make a difference?” and just randomly calling up FBI agents from across the world, which we’d tried, just doesn’t work. What we do know how to do is make pictures and tell stories, so that was our way to kind of make a difference. It’s funny because some subjects of the film criticise it for what they consider to be lapses in journalistic ethics and a documentary isn’t journalism per se but it’s not exclusive from it either. We’re not a newspaper but we are still telling a story in a certain way.
David: The whole thing has been an interesting process. One of the first blogs that I’d written was when our newsroom was trying to increase the blogs that we wrote and so all these journalists are trying to figure out how to write blogs. I happened to write that one and it got popular really quickly—so did Dylan’s—and so very quickly we also saw through the blogs that we had an audience. That audience from the blogs came over to Kickstarter and that Kickstarter audience propelled us to making the film. So it’s been a very organic thing.
Making a film in part about online harassment with the financial aid of an online audience, it’s a bizarro circle of life thing.
Dylan: The media is changing as well. You look at how even YouTube and things like Vice and the way the media is evolving. I watched Spotlight on the plane and this idea that you have a group of four journalists at a newspaper somewhere who can devote a year to a story, that’s not happening anymore. At the same time, though, there’s hundreds or thousands of people out there who are keen and self-motivated and committed to telling a story that they know about and some of it’s really good and some of it’s crap. Hopefully it cuts through, some of it does.
Is the intentional next for you to push forward to make another documentary or to do something, you mentioned Vice, that kind of shortform investigative documentary work?
David: Not necessarily. I think the Tickled thing has gone on a bit longer than we thought, there’s been legal issues to do with the film and just getting it out there so I think that’s kind of taken over a lot more than we thought it would. We’re keeping an eye out on other stories. Dylan and I, this all started on Facebook Messenger and we still send through links to each other and just go “Look at this” so I don’t know where it’s gonna go next but we’ll see.
Good to hear you’re hunting down more mysteries.
Dylan: We’ve got Google Docs, we’re all over the place.
Google Docs is the real documentarian’s tool.
David: Yeah Google Docs really is, I don’t know what we’d do without that.
I find it amusing that you [David] run a podcast about cryptozoology as well.
David: Yeah with Rhys [Darby], I’ve done that as a hobby for a while, with our friend Leon.
You’re finding mythical monsters on radio and now you’ve made a film where you find a different kind of mythical monster.
David: Yeah, a mythical monster that turns into a real monster.
Were hoping for more from that final altercation in the film? So much builds to that meeting and he just gets in his car quickly and avoids answering.
David: No. Like most of the film, I didn’t know what to expect and that’s just what happened.
Dylan: We went into the doco just not having any idea when or how we’d be able to finish it and it’s frustrating [being] in that position because you want to be able to finish it but you can’t force an end and you can’t really predict how things are gonna play out so you just have to trust that something will happen that makes sense. Even after that encounter it was still a little unresolved for us until the phone call and then that felt a little more rounded off. That encounter… the reason that David goes up on his own and doesn’t have Dom with the camera right on his shoulder is because there was still some hope that if we played it kind of softly softly that he might agree to an interview with us or something.
Then you really would have had The Jinx.
Dylan: Well The Jinx was probably playing in our mind when we did that because it was just this idea that maybe we could actually really get into that part of it.
Convince him he could clear his name?
Dylan: Yeah, I think so. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen but we didn’t completely rule it out.
How did you navigate being on screen and having to take on something of a documentary persona?
David: There was a discussion at the beginning about whether Dylan and I would be on camera or not but I think pretty quickly it just became the logical way because we were so heavily involved from the get go that ignoring that would be a disservice, I think. Dylan and I would be on the road and we’d share this journey together and there wasn’t, as far as personas go… what you see on screen I feel fairly accurately represents what we’re like. That was pretty organic, we didn’t overthink that too much.
Dylan: We tried, before we went out shooting, to imagine if we could do it without us. Some critics have still made this complaint, that putting yourself in front of the camera is kind of a gimmick and cheapens the film.
David: Which is a fucking ridiculous criticism.
Dylan: It’s dumb but, at the same time, we were aware that would be a criticism so we spent a while thinking about it and there was no way that we could tell a story that was so much about a thing that happened to us without being it.
How big was your crew?
David: The team was a very small, organic team: Dom Fryer, our DP and Cam Lenart, our soundie and Dylan and I. We were travelling around together, we were sharing, double bunked and it was a very small, tight team. Dom has a great ability to capture things on the fly and to be, while he’s shooting, very aware of what’s happening around him and I think it made it, for me and Dylan, fairly easy because we were surrounded by people that supported it.
Dylan: And we hadn’t worked with them before so it was a gamble for us. We picked these guys, they didn’t know the story, so we’d try and brief them on what’s happening and just go out and do this thing. We all got on really well, spent three weeks in a van together, basically. We really quickly fell into a good working pace.
David: What really kept the team together was, at the end of the day, if we possibly could, if there was a sauna in any hotel, we would all go and have a sauna and saunas bond a team and no matter what happened during the day if you’re four dudes sweating together at 11pm at night you’re in a good spot.
Dylan: Yeah, we did have more than a few production meetings in saunas.
David: Saunas are the key for team bonding.
Dylan: Can’t take notes, though. You can’t take paper in there.
David: Too soggy.
Dylan: You just have to remember it all.
David: Honestly, and I’m not joking, saunas were a really key part of this whole thing.
That’s good to know. I now need to have a scout around Melbourne for some saunas.
David: There’d be a sauna in this hotel here.
Dylan: There is, it’s on level 36.
David: We’ll be in there later.
That’s about all I have. Thanks for speaking with me.
David: Thanks for watching the film.