In David Farrier’s and Dylan Reeve’s documentary Tickled, in theaters Friday, Farrier, a New Zealand TV reporter, goes down the rabbit hole of “competitive endurance tickling.” I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that made me say, out loud, “Oh my God,” quite as many times as Tickled did—not just for the slo-mo scenes of ticklees squirming under the attentions of ruthless ticklers but for the entirely bananas, globe-spanning conspiracies Farrier and Reeve uncovered in the process of their reporting. I talked to Farrier and Reeve about whether Donald Trump is a tickling fetishist, learning how to be investigative reporters on the fly, and being sued while showing your movie at a film festival.
David, what kind of journalist were you before the story of this movie began? What was your beat?
David Farrier: Yeah, so primarily I worked at TV3, one of the two main channels in New Zealand, as sort of a pop culture/entertainment reporter. So I do 1½-minute stories on musicians or movies or some weird thing I found on the internet. I’d been doing that for about nine years when I found these tickling videos. New Zealanders were being flown, all expenses paid, to L.A. to be tickled once a month in this tickling contest. When I reached out to the organization to do a story, I was hoping for an interview that I could turn into one of these TV stories. But they responded really aggressively, saying they didn’t want to deal with a gay journalist. And I just started blogging about these responses back and forth because they were so unusual and so weird. And Dylan, who I didn’t know incredibly well before this, but we were Facebook friends, he saw a post I made about the company, and he started investigating the internet background of this whole thing and started writing as well.
Dylan, did you work in media?
Dylan Reeve: I work in television, but not journalism, not news. I work in postproduction for scripted television. But I used to work for ISPs with development and stuff. When I saw the exchange that David had on Facebook with this company who were making these videos that were quite clearly some sort of man-on-man fetish content and then they say they don’t want to have anything to do with “a homosexual journalist,” I’m like, well, that doesn’t make any sense. There’s something very strange happening here. So I started digging into the web stuff.
How much serious investigative journalism had either of you done before this?
Farrier: I’d done none.
Reeve: Yeah, I had done none.
Farrier: Really, I mean, the closest I would’ve gotten is when I first started in the newsroom as a junior reporter—I did some door knocks. So-and-so has died. Go and knock on their parents’ door and tell them and get a reaction. So like that’s awful sort of confrontational stuff but never an investigation like this.
Did you have any models for what you were trying to do, or were you mostly just figuring it out as you went along?
Farrier: The Imposter was something that we thought was great, ’cause it told—it had some re-creations, and really captivating interviews. And of course at the time we had all been pretty addicted to Serial, and we’d all watch The Jinx.
I found the footage of tickling fetishist Richard Ivey tickling that dude, like, almost unbearable to watch.
Reeve: It certainly sticks in people’s minds.
I’ve certainly never seen anything like it.
Farrier: You don’t often stop and think about what tickling is and what it means. And when you’re suddenly watching it in slow motion, it kind of illustrates in this really straightforward, clear way that you’ve got someone tied down, completely powerless, while someone has complete control over them. I was unaware that tickling was a fetish. Of course it is when you think about it.
Of course it is. And the obvious result of discovering that is realizing, oh, well, like everything is a fetish.
And so in everything there are probably these same tracks of power going down from someone at the top who is into this down to the bottom. You visit a down-at-its-heels community in Muskegon, Michigan, these aspiring mixed martial arts fighters who just—
Farrier: —just want to make it.
Trying to improve their lot by beating each other up in a ring is not that different from trying to improve their lot by tickling each other on a video.
And it made me realize, oh, well, there must just be like shit like this happening everywhere.
Reeve: And we sort of wonder if we’ll stumble onto it again. It’s a dynamic that plays out in every facet of life, from your day-to-day employment through, yeah, all this weird stuff that happens on the internet.
I don’t want to give away who it is you guys discover at the center of all this.
Farrier: It’s Donald Trump.
I’m trying to think whether that would be his thing. I don’t think that that would be his fetish.
Farrier: I don’t want to know what his thing is.
Reeve: He’s got a thing, though, doesn’t he?
I feel like it just involves like money, like physical money.
Farrier: Oh, like Scrooge McDuck.
I came to think of the people at the center of this thing that you discovered as a kind of director, too, right? They’re doing it from a distance, and they’re doing it through money and surrogates and intimidation, as opposed to the way that many directors work, hopefully. But they’re still exerting a force over performers, and they’re incorporated in this sort of Hollywood mechanism of making movies. Did you guys worry about your movie exploiting the people in it, even if you were doing it in the spirit of justice, or in a nonpredatory manner?
Reeve: If nothing else, the film provides a context for those people. So, for example, TJ, who we speak to in the film, he’s an athlete who got involved in these videos in Los Angeles, and really started to suffer in his personal and professional life. And our argument to him was that by creating the film, by telling his story and telling the story of these people and the harassment, if he started to feel fallout from the people at the center of this, that he could point to this and say, this is—this is what happened.
Did either of you consider getting tickled? Did you consider tickling someone else?
Farrier: Originally that wasn’t the plan. But when we were reaching out to Richard Ivey as potential talent in the film, his joke in emails was, “If I give you an interview, I’m going to tickle you.” And so by the time we ended up in Florida at Richard’s place, it turns out he wasn’t joking, and—
Reeve: We spent some time in that chair.
Farrier: And it’s awful. When you’re physically restrained and you’ve got a professional tickler going at you, it’s like a nightmare.
Reeve: It is torture.
So did you—agh, I can’t even imagine.
Farrier: You are now!
Have you heard from the people at the center of this since you finished the film? Have further threats been made?
Farrier: Yeah. So since the film came out at Sundance, things have escalated again. People from Jane O’Brien Media have appeared at festivals.
That’s the company that you first discovered, who sent you those angry emails and Facebook messages.
Farrier: Kevin from that company created a bit of a buzz at Sundance because he was furiously scribbling notes in the cinema. And people around him noticed he was there, and then that he was the guy on the screen. The police had to come in and stop a screening and physically escort two men out who were allegedly recording the film. They ended up being two private investigators from New York. And then in Missouri I was served with two lawsuits for defamation from a certain individual. (Note: Those two lawsuits were dismissed, though another suit has just been filed against a person interviewed in the film.)
Reeve: And also Kevin has made it a point to email journalists that have written about the film and correct them on our apparent lies.
Oh, I can’t wait.
Reeve: It’s a real treat.
This interview has been edited and condensed.