Tickled co-creator David Farrier - interview

by Bill Ralston / 23 May, 2016
An initially amusing story about the bizarre world of competitive tickling has turned into a smash-hit doco that’s been landed with a lawsuit from the “angry guy”.
David Farrier: “I don’t want the tickling to put people off.”
David Farrier: “I don’t want the tickling to put people off.”

You know David Farrier. He’s that slightly geeky guy who used to be on TV3 and did all those off-the-wall wacky entertainment stories. He’s the one who interviewed sweaty Conservative Party leader Colin Craig in a baking-hot sauna. He fronted the ill-fated late-night news show Newsworthy with his flatmate Samantha Hayes, then left TV3 and went on to make a documentary movie that became a smash hit at the Sundance Festival this year. Oh, yes, and now some weird American guy who features in the film is suing him.

Here he is sitting in the sunny courtyard of Fred’s cafe just off Auckland’s Ponsonby Rd drinking a cup of gumboot tea. He tells me he got the idea for a story on compe­titive tickling competitions from a friend while he was at TV3.

“I started thinking it would be a two-minute crazy story for the late news.” Two years later, it has turned into a critically acclaimed 91-minute documentary film picked up by cable network HBO and it’s about to hit the big screen in New Zealand and the US. In June, it will premiere in New York, which, as he points out, is ­fitting because the Big Apple is “the home of competitive tickling”.

A quick plot summary: what starts as a quirky look at the weird sport of competitive tickling quickly becomes, as Variety put it, “an alarming cautionary tale about how easy it is in the internet age to ruin people’s lives while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, [and] the pic boasts a humorously titillating entry hook that soon gives way to engrossing conspiracy-thriller-like content”.

Make no mistake, this is a true ­investigative story, dark and sinister, complete with a murky villain, a producer of bizarre online tickling videos who hides behind a wall of threats and litigation. He is now suing Farrier, in the US courts, his collaborator Dylan Reeve and others involved in making the film.

The legal action sparked a small flurry of stories in US media, but then, according to Farrier, the journalists also found themselves targeted by the angry man.

“People who mention his name in stories – they’re hearing from his lawyers as well. It’s crazy. He’s a very litigious guy.” Farrier adds quietly for my benefit: “Just as a heads-up.” It’s not just journalists who seem to be in the line of fire.

“A few people have compared [the harassment] to making a documentary about Scientology … and strange things happen.”

He laughs. It’s not that funny. Farrier talks about film reviewers getting calls from people who work for the “angry guy” who describe the film as lies and lambast him and the reviewers. Luckily, Farrier had legal insurance. You have to get that to be screened at the Sundance Festival. He is also certain, having had Tickled “legalled” before screening, that it is not defamatory of anyone.

The film first sparked plenty of media attention at Sundance and got a ­further boost when employees of the “angry guy” and, allegedly, private detectives were ­discovered at screenings taking voluminous notes and, in one case, reportedly recording the movie using a camera hidden in a coffee cup. Police removed them from the theatre.

Then, at a film industry function in the US, a woman tapped Farrier on the ­shoulder, asked him his name, gave him some papers and declared, “You’re served.” The case is in its early stages.

The film – and its aftermath – is a multi­layered, many-faceted story that has had successive waves of bizarre publicity that at least should ensure good audiences both here and internationally.

“It’s kind of fun when people go into the film thinking it’s this light-hearted story about competitive tickling sport and it very quickly becomes a mystery and tickling becomes secondary to this kind of chase that we’re on.”

He is worried people might be deterred by what might seem the central point of the film. “I don’t want the tickling to put people off.” It will not, I suspect.

The sale of Tickled to film company Magnolia and TV giant HBO has ensured he and Reeve have covered their costs in making the movie and now any profit will depend on how it fares on the big screen.

Farrier laments the demise of the TV3 culture that kept him working there for 10 years. Talking of the film, he says, “It was so exciting to do something where everyone was pumped, whereas in the newsroom it was the opposite. People were just turning up and being depressed.”

Making a documentary, it seems, beats the hell out of working for the TV ­channel. “Film is fun. People are ­passionate about it. They’re not worn out. They just want to do the best they can.”

At the moment he’s tied up with getting the film into theatres but is still mulling over ideas for other documentaries. A ­Tickled 2 perhaps? Maybe, if the story keeps on rolling with more “angry guy” stuff. “I’d love to work on another documentary. This story kind of fell in my lap. I’ve got other ideas, but whether they happen or not, who f---ing knows?”

There certainly seems to be a public appetite for his style and approach. As he puts it about Tickled, “It’s been a dream. Sundance went really well. I’d lost perspective after two years of being in it, of how good or bad it really was. So the response has been great. When we made it, we wanted to take people through the journey that I made discovering this stuff. This completely mad world I’d dived into.”

New Zealanders will discover just how mad when Tickled opens in theatres on May 26. 

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