On a lovely sunny afternoon in a completely empty Irish bar in Toronto's downtown core, I met up with New Zealand journalist and former television man David Farrier for a chat about his Sundance (and HotDocs) hit documentary (or in his parlance, 'Doco') Tickled.
If you have been following the push-pull of the marketing, trailers, and festival reviews of the film, you may have noticed a delicate tight-rope of *Spoilers* - *No Spoilers* in regards to the details of the journey Farrier, along his co-director Dylan Reeve, embarked upon with the film. A film that started with a quirky underground sport of "Completitive Endurace Tickling" but got really weird when their PR department went from zero-to-sixtiy with vitriol homophobic attitude to a simple foreign journalistic inquiry on the details of the league.
Farrier, here on the opposite side of the interview process while promoting the film, was enthusiastic, candid and still very much inquisitive about the chain of events and discoveries that resulted in his first feature; events that, in fact, continue to follow him around from festival to festival. Without the structure of a timeframe for this conversation, we might still be talking about things, some of the concepts here, like the film, are just the tip of the iceberg.
With Tickled getting its rollout from Mangolia Pictures, below is a transcription of the conversation that has been gently edited for structure and brevity. (UPDATE: As of yesterday, Tickled was just hit with a $40 Million law-suit).
Kurt Halfyard: I do not believe it is explicitly indicated in the movie, so I will start off by asking what was the full time line from beginning of your discovery of Competitive Endurance Tickling as a thing?
David Farrier: Two years. From posting on Jane O’Brien’s media page, and asking for an interview on this thing, to the final edit of the film, edited and locked and graded. Which is quick, I think. The average doco takes, what, five years?
It started as this series of three long-form blogs, their no longer online because we got legal threats about it. I was writing them in real time as I was trying to contact this company, and I was really public about this. As I posted, they would just give me more crazy content. At the time it felt complete, but as you know, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Dylan Reeve, my co-director, started writing me purely because we were friends on Facebook. I had met him once in real life, but we are into similar things and talked a lot on Twitter. Dylan also started writing a series of blogs that were on the technical side, domain names and that sort of thing, and I was more on the people and the emotions involved.
When we saw there was a Competitive Tickling shoot happening in Los Angeles -- and it was complicated figuring out where it was because it was not made public, but we ended up finding where it was happening from a combination of a million things, and Google Street View, looking at all the studios in the area, and what would look like the photos online -- we launched a Kickstarter, and from there, we were into it super-quick. It is not like we found this topic and had to apply for funding and then wait for 6 months. We were in America within the month making the film.
Even with the film on the festival circuit, and on the verge of release, it appears things are not over. You mentioned that you were served papers at a recent screening of the film in Missouri.
The legal aspect is ongoing. There was that one, and there was also one filed in Utah when we were in Sundance. At the time, we were served in each state we’ve shown the film in. I’m not sure how long it will go on for. Jane O’Brien media has a lot of money, and obviously they don’t want the film out. And suing seems to be their recourse for shutting it down. The film has been vetted by our legal team, and I’m incredibly proud and happy with it. So as far how this stuff goes along in the legal system, I simply don’t know. There could be another two years. There could be 10 years.
It’s fascinating that the fallout could be that long.
Totally! There is lots of weird things: People from Jane O’Brien have shown up at the screenings. [And have been thrown out of screenings for illegally filming the film.] But I am filming along the way, and recording all of our Q&As at the screenings. I don’t know what is next. We might think we are at the bottom of the rabbit hole, but there might be a whole other rabbit hole. God Forbid!
When watching TICKLED, I had the sense that this is a story that one should be able to attach some kind of simple moral, but I found myself struggling with what that might be. It kept slipping from me. I am wondering after spending so much time with this material how you feel about indended or unintended life lessons imparted to the viewer.
I didn’t want to hit people over the head with one big moral message. It is a strange story. I think there are themes of what money and power can do to people, and the underlying idea about bullying; the variety of ways that can be damaging. But there are many questions left unanswered. I can see how you might possibly want more. I don’t think that is bad thing, though. The perfect thing is that after seeing this film, people will jump online and start doing some research for themselves.
More than any documentary I’ve seen, TICKLED addresses, head on, the concept of Doxing. And with the internet in play, all vagaries about how this type of information posting, is so hard to wrestle to the ground, beyond simple defamation laws. Jane O’Brien Media is doxing people as shown in the film, but then you are using sources of information to dox them back, with the film.
When you look into any story, you have to look at the pros and cons of exposing anything. Dylan and I did not want this to lead to more bullying, of anyone. There is a lot of victims that are shown in the film, and I didn’t want any kind of ‘Reddit Effect’ -- of people going out there for their own crazy retribution-vigilante thing -- but anything you expose potentially has that risk. For us, it seemed like this whole thing had been going on for a long time, and the only way to keep it from happening is to shine a light on it.
I feel a lot of this kind deep investigative journalism has moved out of print or TV, you know the kind of exposé piece, and has moved either onto web, but more interestingly, the documentary space. You have done both TV and now this feature length doc, could you talk about that?
Yes. I was in a crazy situation because I was in a newsroom in New Zealand for 10 years, which I absolutely loved, and we’ve got a new CEO that has come on board and back in May…[*pauses*] Let me ask you this, who in Canada is your most loved news icon, like mother of the nation or father of the nation in terms of trust?
I dunno...Peter Mansbridge?
Right, so Hillary Barry is the Peter Mansbridge of New Zealand, and she just walked away [at the end of May]. That’s how fucked it is. So I left the newsroom when this film was coming out. And I wanted to travel around with it, and talk to people like you about it, and get the word out. But also, all our current affairs show got axed, and sure, I worked in light entertainment, but part of the joy of working in that newsroom was getting to talk to amazing reporters and the amazing work they were doing. One show, “3D,” that we had back in New Zealand which was like our “60 Minutes”, freed a guy from prison, that was wrongfully convicted. And now that has all been wiped out. But there is still a demand for this stuff. People still want investigations to be done, and whether or not it is Serial or The Jinx or Tickled — I’m not saying we’re in that category — but it makes me happy that people still want that. And I am encouraged by the fact that people want a really deep dive into these sorts of things. That is really rewarding.
And you can structure things more when it is a film...
Totally! There is a lot of breathing space when it is not the news cycle; where you have two minutes in a programme. You can take people on a longer journey in a documentary.
I want to talk a bit about breathing space, because my favourite shot in the film is the one in New York City, where you have a dog barking at a squirrel, and then it is cross cut with a hawk flying away with the corpse of the squirrel. It is gorgeous and fascinating. Not only is that a brilliant shot, but it is the whole ambiguity of the film in a single shot. For me, pleasantly so, it was impossible to pin down which party was the squirrel, which was the hawk and which was the dog! You would never get away with something simultaneously poundingly obvious and subtly nuanced like that on a television journalism segment.
I know! Who is right and who is wrong? Totally. And you have to build up the framing to the point where a series of shots like that mean something. And it is not my voice narrating at you or you are not listening to anyone talking. You are watching these things play out. I wish I could take credit for that. I can’t. We were walking through the park in New York. Dylan and I were there, and Dom Fryer is our director of photography, and we saw this animal interaction happening, and Dom just crept forward in the snow and just captured this amazing image. He has a fucking amazing eye. And in the edit booth, Simon Coldrick crafted that sequence together, and that was him being awesome and playing with these images. We knew the idea of this hawk played into this idea, in a really heavy-handed way, of destroying things, and power, and control. We said to Simon, here is this, and this is here, and he took it and turned it all into something really fucking beautiful.
Also beautiful, I noted that half the soundtrack is composed by Shane Carruth. How exactly did this come about?
Yea, that’s nuts. That’s fucking crazy, because Primer is my obsession. And then Upstream Color blew me away on a very emotional level. I watch that movie and I tear up every time, and I don’t even know why!
Now we are speaking the same language, sir!
I find Carruth as a filmmaker intimidating, as he does everything: he writes, directs, stars, cuts, and scores his films. When Simon was cutting Tickled, he temp scored the edit with Nine Inch Nails Ghosts, because I love all of that, and I gave him some tracks from Upstream Color, and that is how it started. When it came to getting all the rights to the music — stupidly we didn’t do the from the beginning - we started contacting people and Shane said yes, we can use it, it will cost this much; and we could afford it. And fucking great, total gentleman, it was a bargain. He saw the film. Trent Reznor said we could use Ghosts, and it would cost this much. We couldn’t afford it. So we ripped all of that out, and by that point, the picture was locked, so a New Zealand composer Rodi Kirkcaldy came on board and composed all that. We got to keep Shane’s music in there, Rodi’s stuff came together, and the rest was production music.
The soundtrack connection really worked for me, because ‘rabbit hole’ films are the kinds of films that Carruth makes. It really blew my mind a TICKLED gets deeper and deeper that Carruth's music seemed such a natural fit.
Some times it is as simple as a producer sending an email, getting in touch and a getting simple yes. I still can’t believe that Shane Carruth and Trent Reznor have seen Tickled! That is everything; a dream come true.
And that - artists you look up to watching your work - is likely a function of the difference between a feature film and television. If it were a broadcast segment it would be too ephemeral.
TICKLED has played a few festivals, you’ve done a lot of these interviews at this point. Is there something that nobody has been asking that you are thinking to your self, “I wish someone would ask that.”
Well, the music a big thing, so thanks for that. I am really glad that you are asking about it. But the thing that I keep thinking about is just, the idea of where else but America would this story happen?
You are currently in Canada, so we collectively, intuitively echo that sentiment.
[Laughs.] It is a crazy place and we have to acknowledge how mad and crazy it is.
And nevertheless there is the freedom for a foreigner to come in and kind of blow it up, and, hopefully, do it consequence free. Well, relatively consequence free...
I have found that is completely right. I got a Journalism Visa, and America was one of the easiest places that I got that granted to me, and travel was easy and incredibly open. The country is so full of paradox! And that is what makes it so infinitely fascinating.
Tickled opens in select US markets, June 17th with a Canadian roll-out starting June 24.