David Farrier, co-director of TICKLED, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The strange, sordid world of “competitive endurance tickling” is a microcosm of the United States

Last July, I interviewed David Farrier, co-director of Tickled, a documentary about the strange and sordid world of “competitive endurance tickling.” Farrier discovered that world in the same way so much weirdness now enters our lives: he found it on the internet. He contacted the company behind a long-running series of tickling videos, only to receive a barrage of insulting emails in response. The phrase “Little Gay Kiwis” was used; Farrier (who considers himself bisexual and hails from New Zealand, incidentally) knew he had a story. But he didn’t realize just how strange the story would become, as he traveled across the United States trying to uncover just who was paying tens of thousands of dollars to videotape young, virile men tickling each other.

Tickled is an oblique look at how power works in America: who has it, who does it, and how it can be leveraged with little accountability. It’s also about the ubiquity of the internet, and a part of it where anonymity, wealth, and desire converge in strange and unexpected ways.

I interviewed Farrier for a now-defunct website called The Kernel — to future employers: my tenure there was long after the departure of a certain M.Y., and I’m not associated with him, thanks! — just before it was shuttered. I’m presenting our interview, which took place before the Trump Era, for posterity. Tickled premieres tonight at 10 PM on HBO.

As I was watching this movie, I really thought this would be a much different story without the internet — if it could have happened at all. Was that something you thought about as you were putting it together?

Completely, yes. This whole world couldn’t have existed without the internet and I think that it would have taken on a very different shape without it. And I guess from the film, what Dylan and I are quite excited about, if excited is the right word — it would just be able to show the different eras of it. This whole thing started with AOL, America Online. And so we wanted to recreate on screen what it was like back then: we had RealPlayer video and there was no YouTube. You have to download little video clips to watch them. And so it was very fun recreating some of that early internet for use in the documentary. Right through to today, where we have those videos being propagated through YouTube and all these different platforms. So yes, the internet was hugely crucial.

Even apart from what the medium itself looks like, those initial emails that you got: Those strike me as so particular to the internet. It’s anonymous and it’s totally over-the-top vitriol. From a stranger.

Yes, totally. I think Dylan and I both spend a lot of time on the internet and while are not subject to abuse generally (because we’re white males and we are the least likely to be shat on by anybody). You often see all this abuse flying around — and how over the top and unreasonable and ridiculous it is. The bullying and harassment that so many people face, whether it’s Gamergate or a number of movements or individual cases. So to be drawn into that world where it’s “we don’t want to deal with a homosexual journalist” — we quickly realized, okay, we’re in that part of the internet now.

It’s a part where anonymity is crucial, and the threat of ripping it away is a constant.

Completely, and that’s the whole situation we’ve had to play with. It relies on the fact of Jane being anonymous. All we know is that she was female, that she loves tickling. Whereas there are things that she gets on these young men who cross her, where she puts all of this real-world stuff on the internet — doxxing them. Which is another thing that happens. It’s just a particularly unusual example that we come across in Tickled.

The speed with which this goes from being, in your mind, a kind of harmless story about a weird fetish to being something very real and exploitative — that also feels like something disturbingly common on the internet as well.

Yeah, this whole idea is going from zero to 150 and two and half seconds: you’re living your life nicely and then suddenly a tweet or a comment or something, it’s blown out of proportion so quickly. Everything we see in Tickled, if you spend any time on the internet, the patterns you see there are nothing new. It’s just an incredibly graphic and strange place it takes you to. Such a specific example of online bullying and harassment taken to an extreme.

With ultimately a certain amount of money and a certain kind of shadowy motivation behind it.

Yeah, that’s what makes the story quite unique, I suppose. It’s not some pimply teenager in his basement — not to stereotype, though that actually is so often the case with this stuff. He we are dealing with someone who has a lot of money and uses that in some pretty terrifying and manipulative ways. It’s someone who has sheltered himself with money for 20 years now and this behavior, it’s just gotten more strange with the more money they’ve got. So, that’s what I think sets this particular internet bully from the ones we read about daily.

If you spend any time on the internet, the patterns you see there are nothing new. It’s just an incredibly graphic and strange place it takes you to.

Let me step back a bit. I jumped right into talking about this as a very internet story, but I’m curious how, given the complexity and the number of different narrative strands you weave — how do you describe this story when you try to summarize it for people?

I basically just tell them the first part of the film, which is I’m a journalist in New Zealand who is looking for another wacky story and I came across competitive endurance tickling in L.A. These young men have been flown to L.A. once a month, they are being paid really well, and I wanted to do a story. So when I researched on the company, I immediately got pushback in a very unusual way which was, we don’t want to deal with a homosexual journalist. So I started blogging about that; my friend Dylan Reeve started poking around in the domain names of this company, Jane O’Brien Media, this company that runs these competitions.

We both start publishing our findings. At that stage things escalate, where Jane O’Brien hires lawyers, and send these three representatives from America all the way to New Zealand to tell us not to make this film. And I think it’s that point where Dylan and I both looked at each other and said, okay, this is the story.

I say that basically Dylan and I go on a big romp across America to investigate who’s behind Jane O’Brien, and that things get even crazier. That would be my would sort of be where I leave my explanation, because one thing I’m very proud of with what we’ve made is it tries to take you on the same journey Dylan and I went on originally, and to talk about it too much spoils it.

I was going to ask — obviously I find the ending really intriguing,but I didn’t know how much you actually wanted to talk about that.

No, just ideally, I want people to go into the film without even having watched the trailer. I just want people to stumble onto a theater and watch this thing about competitive endurance tickling. But of course the internet complicates things, again, because spoilers exist. The problem with Tickled is that since the film’s come out, the story has been very active. Jane O’Brien Media showed up in L.A. at a screening a couple of weeks ago and we livestreamed that over the internet and now that turned into more headlines, so now if you search for Tickled, you’ll find out so much more about it. It’s an interesting position to be in. The internet’s a blessing and a curse.

There’s also that element of a story that seem confined to this virtual, unreal world suddenly breaking through, suddenly becoming people making real-life threats. That also seems very much of the moment.

Yeah, yeah, totally! When it jumped from emails suddenly to people coming to your country to tell you why you shouldn’t make a film. There are so many examples when I think about it. Dylan and I weren’t great friends before this. We were Facebook friends and we knew each other from Twitter. So we hadn’t properly had a discussion till we were in my lounge eating pizza, going, I think maybe we should start a Kickstarter to try to fund the film. So the internet is responsible for everything; it was responsible for the whole film.

Now that it’s out there do you feel that the stakes have been raised? How do you feel about the people you’re taking on?

I feel really happy that we have this film out there; to have seen something that felt like an injustice, and it seemed like the only tool we had was to expose it. And we’ve done that in a bigger way than we ever imagined when we started. We thought this would be a little Vimeo documentary. And so to have it out in cinemas in America; it’ll play on HBO after that. We feel like we have shone light on this.

So perhaps it’s escalated again but I’m really happy the film’s out there. I think it acts as a warning. I think it hopefully makes people think a little bit about this kind of difference we’ve got in society where if you’re wealthy you can really shelter yourself from being found. And you can shelter yourself, seemingly, from justice. I hope people take some of that away from it. As well as a really simple message of, maybe, think twice before you do a competitive endurance tickling competition.

Some of the more pointed moments in the film, I think, come from the people in rural Michigan. They’re disadvantaged people who are being exploited for their identities, really. They’re exploited, their private performance made public in an intentionally threatening way, and they have no recourse. Meanwhile the person doing this can hide behind the anonymity of not just the internet but through the force of legal threats and intimidation. That feels very of the moment, too.

Yes, the people that are preyed upon by Jane O’Brien Media — to their credit, some of them have a great time. They get tickled and they get paid really good money and they go home and they’re happy. But a percentage of them don’t and they end up on the receiving end. And because of the way they’ve been picked, they’re poor, they need the money, they want the cash. They see L.A. as being this glamorous destination to end up. They’re promised a portfolio of still photos for their modeling career. All these promises are made.

Donald Trump’s a bully and that’s celebrated so there’s a lot of very strange things in American culture. I think, hopefully, your dream’s still there.

And there’s a certain sort of person that’s attracted to that. Even to the point where some of these poorer places, they are from very conservative backgrounds in very conservative states. And to suddenly be called a homosexual tickler — for them it’s like a nightmare. And that in itself is such an interesting thing because that power only exists because they’re in a certain place in society where being gay is not a good thing. And that’s unfortunate. [laughs] If we existed in a world where being gay wasn’t an insult or wasn’t seen as a bad thing, then this person wouldn’t have as much power over these people.

So there’s really interesting things being played with here and in a very manipulative way. That’s a big reason we wanted to make this film, to expose this because it’s fascinating. Trump is incredibly popular in the area and he’s almost celebrated for his boasting that he is suing people all the time. And he’s just a bully. [laughs] Donald Trump’s a bully and that’s celebrated so there’s a lot of very strange things in American culture. I think, hopefully, your dream’s still there. But it’s a very strange country.