It starts in the simplest of places, and ends up in the most unbelieveable. Back in 2014, popular New Zealand entertainment journalist David Farrier stumbled across a video of Competitive Endurance Tickling. Finding that the organisation behind the videos were less than open and cooperative, he decided to investigate further with friend Dylan Reeve, who has an extensive career in post-production. Their investigation, which takes them to the US and back in a wild and at times dangerous pursuit of the story, is the subject of the documentary Tickled (out August 18 in Australia from Vendetta Films. The film is at once hilarious and horrifying, one that goes in such unpredictable directions it makes for a nervous watch. I recently spoke with Reeve, who is based in New Zealand, over the phone about social media mysteries, real-life sequels, and what it’s like to be asked questions about Donald Trump while promoting a film about tickling.
I just wanted to first say that the film’s so fantastic and it’s so stressful, I think you might have made the best horror film of the year.
Yeah. It wasn’t what we imagined, obviously, or at least I don’t think it was. It’s interesting how it turned out, it’s so far away from what we thought we were getting into.
Well I guess at the start it looked like it was going to be some sort of quirky subculture.
Well, by the time we knew we were making the film I don’t think we thought it was just a subculture. It was going to be this investigative thing. But I thought we thought it was going… early on we thought we were making a 40 or 50 minute thing for Vimeo, so we didn’t have grand visions about how it was going to turn out. It wasn’t until we started diving right into it did we realise how it was shaping up.
It’s so crazy you never could’ve envisioned where it was going to end up.
Yeah! You couldn’t imagine it going in. People say the truth is stranger than fiction and it’s a cliché but at the same time it is (true). If you wrote this story as a script and took it somewhere they’d go “nah, don’t think so”.
So you got involved when David was blogging about it, so how did that go about?
Well, David and I were Facebook and Twitter friends, and David posted that first Facebook interaction with Jane O’Brien he had. He posted a screenshot of it. I’d already seen one of the videos and I knew what the Facebook page was because I’d seen that slightly earlier. I saw that response and I was like “well, that’s completely insane” (laughs). It’s the most disparate response with what they’re doing..
It’s something you wouldn’t imagine people would say in, was it 2014?
I mean, I’m on the internet, so I know there’s plenty of people that say that sort of stuff, but you don’t expect that to come from this company that is supposedly reputable. And also, if you’re making stuff that has a definite homoerotic subtext.
Well, it’s like even from a PR standpoint it’s such a bad thing to do.
Oh no it’s insane. Debbie Khun is the world’s worst PR person (laughs). If any brand did that, there’d be stories all over the place but luckily enough for Jane O’Brien no one had heard of them at that point.
It’s really interesting because it’s…by the end of the film you get a sense that it’s something that’s right under everyone’s noses that no one’s realised or investigated.
Absolutely. Since making the film we wonder about how much more of that stuff is in the world. It’s probably heaps, but there’s just got to be an occasion that triggers it. I had a weird experience quite recently on Twitter. I got verified on Twitter, I got a little blue tick.
(laughs) Thanks! I got this weird message from some company, like this social media marketing company saying “congratulations, you’ve qualified for a verified on Twitter” and something weird. So I clicked on them, and it was just like 150 of the same message to newly verified Twitter users.
That’s so weird.
So I just subtweeted. I took a screenshot and posted it and said something like “social media companies who do stuff like this don’t inspire confidence” or whatever it was and linked to that. And like a month later they replied. I got this strange message saying “@Twitter Stop @DylanReeve’s abusive…” and I was like “what on earth is this!”. And then you start looking at social media companies and realise that the only thing they ever tweet is retweet. So it probably doesn’t exist. There’s nothing on the domain name. It’s another one like “what is this?”. It’s another one of those strange, little things that exist on the internet that no one ever sees or doesn’t think anything of. You just roll on past and don’t think anything about it.
Amazing! The shitty ‘social media agency’ I called out a couple of weeks ago is now doing… THIS? pic.twitter.com/vSlF46sO58
— Dylan Reeve (@DylanReeve) July 26, 2016
Exactly, it just passes you by without a second thought. Watching the film I was like “what has the world become?” In a way it’s sort of this interesting document of how the internet has changed. You go everywhere from the ones from the mid-90s that were in like forums and things like that and now it’s things like Twitter and Facebook.
Yeah! It hasn’t changed but it has. In this case, the person doing this is doing the same thing they did 20 something years ago but has just adapted to the newer expectations of the internet…the general, operational, you know, strategy is the same. It’s really weird. It’s new but it’s old in that respect.
Well, I was going to say your experience with the tweets and everything sounds a lot like what Alex Gibney got with the Scientology documentary.
Yeah! I’d love to talk to him because in the US we share the same distributor as Going Clear, and so the publicist I was working with in LA when I was there had done publicity for Going Clear, and she was like “yeah, that was a weird time”.
It was journalists getting letters from Scientology going “he’s spreading lies” and everything like that.
Yeah! The thing that happened with the Q&A I did in LA was the same. Because what happened with Going Clear is that they said that to reviewers and not editors. Because if they said that to editors that would’ve made things interesting, but because they sent it to reviewers the reviewers were like “oh really?” It’s so bizarre. As I said, like turning up at Q&As, all it did was generate publicity for us. I don’t know what the thinking behind that was.
Well yeah you wonder if they exist in the same mindset of the 21st century, like have they not heard of the Streisand Effect almost…
Yeah, exactly! We didn’t mention it earlier on because we didn’t want to let them know and give them anything to Google, but yeah, it was funny because you get an impression of a person who is always used to getting their own way.
And they don’t really know how to respond when they don’t get their own way, it’s so unusual.
Well, I was going to say, one of the most refreshing things about it is despite the fact it’s this internet age story, only the beginning is really behind a computer screen and the rest is actually you and David going out and going to America and investigating it. So how do you think that physical investigation affected it?
We were kinda worried when we first started doing it about how we would tell the story. You know, these fictional characters essentially, the photos that don’t have real people attached to them, how we could communicate their stuff. We had this idea to use cartoons or something to personify these characters, but in the end we just let them speak for themselves in a way with their text. We didn’t have to rely to heavily on text which was good. I’ve seen documentaries from time-to-time that use text heavily and after a while it becomes tiring to read text on a screen, no matter how stylised it is. So it was good we didn’t have to do that. All these things that unfold on the internet, it’s not on the internet. It’s people somewhere typing things. If you can get around the internet part of it and find the people and find… the people we spoke to, most of the people we spoke to in the film were people we found through things on the internet, so it was interesting how we found these people, they’d been writing stuff on the internet and doing research, but not having to rely on the words they’d written and hear them speak themselves.
Well yeah, one of the things you did in America was go visit Richard Ivey, who’s an actual tickling fetishist. What was it like showing that side where it’s not hurting anyone, it’s just someone’s interest, and balancing it with the sinister side you uncovered as well.
Well, it was important to us because early on we obviously realised that what we were seeing was not representative of what a lot of people were into. And we didn’t want people who watched the film to think it was, we didn’t want the people who watched the film to think this Jane O’Brien company and how they were operating is representative of what a whole bunch of people were into. We didn’t want to vilify a fetish, a harmless fetish by all accounts. So, having that other side, I suppose you could say… because of how we got in touch with him, we got in touch with him at the stage of the Kickstarter, and he backed the Kickstarter to the point that he got an associate producer credit and we spent a lot of time with him. He was our guide, I suppose, to the world of tickling and things that fitted in, so we kind of knew what we were getting into. He was really helpful for that. It was really good that we had that, because if didn’t have an insider in that world we could’ve made some ugly missteps.
Yeah, exactly. Has he seen the film, did he like it?
Yeah, he’s seen the film, he liked it. He did, I can’t remember if it was one or two, he did a Q&A in Florida. He came to our premiere in New York. We got a tickling chair and he tickled people at the after party.
He came to a screening we did and was great. He came out while we were doing a Q&A and did a big thing and everyone loved him.
That’s awesome! Well, I read that he tickled you while you were on that trip, what was it like?
Well, what happened there was basically we spoke to him and he was like “if you’re gonna interview me, I’m gonna tickle you.” And we were like uh, sure. And then we turned up and it turned out he was serious about that. And David was like “if he’s gonna tickle me, he’s gonna tickle you”, and we all had a go in the tickle chair. My personal experience of it was horrible, I hated it. It was like torture, in a way. Since then I’ve joked that if he’d kept it up a couple more minutes I would’ve given him my PIN number of my credit card or something (laughs). It’s a joke, but at the same time, you know, it could’ve got to that (laughs). I hated it.
(laughs) I bet. So, how long did you spend filming in the States? I was trying to get a sense of that from the film.
It happened in two stages. The first thing was when we first stumbled on the story, we felt like we had to follow it quite quickly because we figured out when they were doing a shoot and we’d have to get on it before they wised up and stopped being ridiculous. So we went for this Kickstarter thing, and all we were imaging then was a 40 or 50 minute doco we’d sell on Vimeo for $5 a download or whatever. So we raised, I think it was about $20 000 on Kickstarter (ed note: 675 backers pledged $29 570 NZD on Kickstarter), and that was enough to get us air fares and hotels and rental cars for about two, two-and-a-half weeks in the US. So we started chasing the story with that, and even before we had a chance to leave the country those three guys flew to Auckland to meet us. So that was unexpected and we sort of hit the ground running in terms of being able to shoot that when they arrived. And then we went to the States and while we were there, even before we got there, we started learning new things and contacting new people and we realised while we were there that this isn’t the whole story. We got what we thought we were going to get, we came back knowing that we had shot what we imagined we were gonna shoot, but we realised we’d only shot half the story.
You had to go back and find the other half.
Yeah, and that also made us make some interesting choices – do we tell the story we’d shot that we thought we were going to tell, or do we step back and reevaluate the whole thing and really try and get the whole story. And we decided we needed to get the whole story. So we went to the (New Zealand) Film Commission, we had to have a sort of break while we got more funding, we went to the Film Commission and they were really supportive, they said it wasn’t a Vimeo thing and we needed to make it bigger and think about a bigger release, and we went back for around three-and-a-half weeks.
So yeah, all together it was around about five weeks of shooting in the US. And then other bits and pieces, like pick ups and reshooting stuff in Auckland.
It was a pretty jam-packed five weeks (laughs).
Yeah, there wasn’t a lot of down time. We had travel days and that was about it, our time off was going from one place to another.
Geez. Well, one of the most interesting things about the film is how specific a group of people these boys seem to be that get drawn into this. They’re these white boys with mostly conservative backgrounds that have a military history, which really allows Jane O’Brien Media to create panic by making these videos ‘look gay’.
There’s probably quite a wide demographic background to the guys. Like obviously we only saw a few. But I think overall it’s quite a wide background and it just depends… I’m not sure what makes you make the decision to go into it. I mean, I’m also not sure what makes you a target, because many go and they do this thing, they get tickled, they fly there, they fly home, they have a fun weekend, they go home, they get paid, and they never think about it again. Like, many people have that experience. But for some reason a number of them, a small number but a large enough number to be worried about, have this really negative experience and it’s really unclear why. You look at what they did vs. what everyone else did and it doesn’t make sense.
Well yeah, you obviously can’t talk about this much, I’ve read about the number of lawsuits you’ve been served, but do you think the people who work for Jane O’Brien are drawn in by a similar measure?
No, I don’t think so. None of the people we spoke to seemed to share a particular, strong interest in tickling, it was just work. And they weren’t getting involved in any of the other stuff, for them it was just…they were just selling, they were just doing their job. Which is fine in respect, and a lot of what Kevin and Marco were trying to tell us when they came to New Zealand was like “well there’s these guys that come and they get really good things happen to them and they get this money they really need” and we were like “well, that’s fine, but there’s also these really bad things and we think they outweigh the good things”. They were justifying it to themselves, I suppose, by the fact it was their job and they were seeing people have really good experiences.
Yeah, I get that, but I don’t think if I was in the same position myself I’d make the same decision.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, are there any inklings to do a follow-up, because there’s already a sequel of sorts playing out in real life with the confrontation at the Q&A and such.
Yeah! Well, as much as possible we’re documenting that stuff where we can. And obviously a lot of people reached out to us when the film came out and we hear from more people pretty regularly. So, the story carries on, and we are still engaged in it in a manner of speaking with how the story’s going on. But what comes next is still a big question mark, it’s not clear how, when, or where we would do something else. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Yeah. It’s really a film that thrives on knowing the least before you see it, so is that your aim, that people go in knowing as little as possible?
I mean, it kind of is. That’s sort of our personal aim. But the problem is no one will listen to us when we tell them that (laughs). No one listens to the filmmakers going “the film’s really good, I can’t tell you anything about it, just go see it”, cause that’s ridiculous. So it’s great that lots of other people are saying that too. But on the flip side, there’s people like…there’s this podcast called The Dollop and they did a story about it early on when we were first uncovering it. A lot of people have heard that and think they know everything about it as a result of that. So, you know, they go and see the film and still get something out of it. And people who know the story or think they know the story go and see the film and get something out of it. So I think of course you can go in knowing as little as possible and that might be the most fun way through it, but at the same time if you know stuff you haven’t completely spoiled it for yourself. It still unfolds, and you’re bound to learn things you didn’t know or get a perspective you didn’t have.
To finish off, I just wanted to ask: in doing my research I found you’ve been asked a lot about Donald Trump and power in wrong places and that type of thing. So what’s it like for the film to exist in this other conversation you couldn’t have anticipated?
It’s interesting and it didn’t really start until we started doing press in the US and people started saying it to us. I guess we hadn’t really thought about it, to us it was still a lot just “tickling, ha ha”, I mean it’s not obviously where it ends up, but the idea of power and control is really universal. There’s tonnes of examples where you see it playing out in front of different people in various ways, and Trump is one example, and Gawker, they kept mentioning Peter Thiel. This kind of idea about lawsuits and payback and things like that. It’s interesting, and there’s no difficulty finding parallels in other people. It was unexpected to have that conversation, but it’s interesting.