- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Tickled is an astonishing documentary that unfolds thrillingly, with a story that constantly surprises. It is tense, intense, funny, and ultimately nothing quite like what you might have expected going in. It’s a magnificent piece of investigative reporting and certainly one of the most surprising and impressive documentaries of recent years.
Home Theater Forum had the pleasure of speaking with David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, Co-directors of the film, about the film and the process of bringing the documentary to the masses.
Tickled is available November 1, 2016 on Digital HD.
HTF: Let me jump right in. I saw the movie last night. I've seen hundreds of documentaries in my life, and there have been some fantastic documentaries just recently that I've seen, Ivory Tower, Food, Inc., that really grip hold of you, and Tickled was absolutely one of those. And it's caught me by surprise. Even the tagline says, "It's not what you think," and I understood that, but I couldn't have written the bizarreness that you went through. So at what point did you know for sure that you'd stumbled on something that could really be something?
Dylan Reeve: Just that as soon as that reply came [back from Jane O’Brien media], then certainly, there was something weird happening. And then once we started digging into it a bit, I think it became really apparent that there were some very unusual things going on. It wasn't clear exactly what they were necessarily, but things definitely weren't normal.
David Farrier: Yeah, I think we were hooked from the minute we saw these guys in Adidas sportswear tickling each other in that photography studio. I remember seeing that in the newsroom and just being completely fascinated. And then that reply just added the next layer. And it was like from then on in, it was just layers being added, making the whole thing more and more intense.
Dylan Reeve: Yeah, I guess that's where it culminated early on. And the guys arriving in Auckland to talk to us that was the point in which there was no way we weren't going to make something.
HTF: I have a question about that first meeting [with Jane O’Brien media representatives] because it seems much more cordial. When you're waiting in the airport for them and first introduce yourself it's a much more cordial moment than I would have predicted. But it turned very quickly, and I'm wondering if that caught you off guard?
“…Up until that point, this was a company who had been sending really insulting, personal emails. There had been emails and letters from lawyers. So the company that was being incredibly aggressive suddenly says they're sending three representatives”
David Farrier: Well, I wasn't sure what to expect. I went up to the airport about 6:00 AM that morning. And up until that point, this was a company who had been sending really insulting, personal emails. There had been emails and letters from lawyers. So the company that was being incredibly aggressive suddenly says they're sending three representatives. We talked a lot about how we'd approach that airport pick-up. And it just seemed to go in really casually and lightheartedly, and making up a rainbow-colored sign to just flip things over. Not go up there aggressively, but just kind of just be there and just see what reaction would happen.
And obviously, things did start incredibly cordially, just because I don't think they expected me to be there. And they didn't really know what to do, like they were incredibly caught off guard. But then once they noticed there was a camera there that scene sort of flipped. And I think that whole scene is a good representation of the whole film because it starts somewhere, and then it ends somewhere incredibly different from where it started.
And it's interesting because we were having these weird emails from “Jane” and from the lawyers for Jane O'Brien Media - kind of threatening and aggressive emails. And Marko from the film reached out to us, and was being kind of friendly. He was like [the] good cop. And then a new person in the Jane O'Brien legal department emailed, and they were being friendly as well. And they were the ones who were like, "Oh, we just want to come and talk to you," and "We will send some people over." So they were also being good cop.
And so we had this one set of people were sending these kind of [threatening] emails still, and this other person apparently, in the Jane O'Brien legal department, [who] was trying to be a friendly, mature person trying to make things better. And it was all very strange. The people who arrived [to meet us]; were they coming from the grumpy and aggressive side, or were they coming from the friendly, make things better side?
Dylan Reeve: Yeah, basically, it was all very confusing [laughs]
“So we kept writing and eventually, that sort of turned into this idea of, "Hey, why don't we use all this energy and create a Kickstarter and start filming some of this and see where that takes us?"
HTF: After you'd done your initial research and discovered that multiple sites were owned by the same group out of Germany, you made the decision to begin blogging about your research; to make it public and start to present your findings. Was that decision to do that to publicly shine a light on the oddness of it, or was it a salvo to help you pry open the doors and see what kind of response you might get, to see if there was an opening for you to dive deeper into this thing?
David Farrier: Initially, because I was aiming to do a TV story for TV3 and I didn't get anywhere on camera because the replies were so negative. I just thought, "Let's just start writing about these emails back and forth," and then Dylan came on board because we're friends and know each other. So he jumped on board and started digging into the back end of it. And we didn't have a huge aim in doing this, we were just incredibly curious about what was going on.
We weren't thinking about a documentary at that point, we were just, "Here's a fascinating story, let's just write about it." The response we got from people to those blogs on social media was really from people who were really intrigued by it and drawn into it. So we kept writing and eventually, that sort of turned into this idea of, "Hey, why don't we use all this energy and create a Kickstarter and start filming some of this and see where that takes us?"
And I think the funny thing about it was part of the reason we liked doing it as a documentary was because it was getting too confusing to write about. Trying to understand all these things from what we were writing down was really difficult. So we thought it will be easy to just put it on a screen and explain it. Little did we know!
HTF: The documentary lays out the narrative wonderfully. I don't really want to spoil the ending because it's fascinating where the film ends up, but I'm wondering if you could ever have predicted that you would end up with such a nicely-packaged narrative at the end of your efforts? Or did this wonderfully contained, bizarre, funny, and scary story take you by surprise?
“…it was an effort in the edit to get everything flowing in a really logical way because it was also so complicated. But when I look at the final product, I'm really proud of what we and the team put together.”
Dylan Reeve: We had a really good idea going into it of how we might tell our way through the story, but there were lots of points where we thought it would all fall apart. But there were lots of stages that where, if one thing didn't work out, then we couldn't easily imagine how else we'd get through something. And a couple times where just things did not work out the way we expected and we found other ways through them. And then other things where we were just lucky and kind of got roughly what we hoped for. But yeah, we were able to sort of tell the story we thought we were going to tell, I suppose. David?
David Farrier: Yeah, we were lucky in that that was a story that did escalate. It started somewhere incredibly simple and innocent, and it's a story where the more we got in, more and more layers were revealed. So obviously, it was an effort in the edit to get everything flowing in a really logical way because it was also so complicated. But when I look at the final product, I'm really proud of what we and the team put together because you're in on the ride that Dylan and I went through. There were lots of people behind the scenes on this. All these people came together to share that story in an accurate and entertaining way. They all brought their A-game very much, great. Everyone who helped us was amazing.
Dylan Reeve: Yeah, we're kind of lucky in that way. We all ended up having a really good time on the road. I thought it was ridiculously stressful, but also really fun. Everyone wanted to make this film the best they could make it. I think that's a credit to everyone [and now] that it’s going out into the world, people seem to be enjoying it.
“We were incredibly lucky. There were moments we worked incredibly hard to get to certain points, but there were moments that were [just luck] -- that's just life…”
HTF: The investigative journalism process is on display in the film. It's a rather good anatomy of what investigative journalism can be, the contemplations you guys had, and whether what you were doing might hurt the subjects that were being harassed by this Jane O'Brien Media. But there also seems to be moments where you got incredibly lucky, and I don't mean that to take away from your incredible work here, but were you surprised at times when you would come across a cache of information or when you found a My Documents folder filled with information that shouldn't be so openly accessible?
David Farrier: We were incredibly lucky. There were moments we worked incredibly hard to get to certain points, but there were moments that were [just luck] -- that's just life. You have these moments of huge luck - and those moments sort of get you through the hard moments - and then you slave away to get to something else, and then you have another moment of luck. Yeah, there were some incredibly surprising moments along the way. And yeah, finding [those documents], that was just crazy.
Dylan Reeve: The weird thing about it is, you think about it too much, every bit. If David hadn't seen the video, if someone hadn't sent David the video, we never would have gotten [involved]; if the reply [from Jane O’Brien media] had been more rational, like “we don't really want to do any media at the moment,” then the story would never have happened and everything would still be going on as it was. There's lots of points where there's huge amounts of luck and yeah, we got amazingly lucky at some points.
HTF: Now, there are a few moments in the film where I got nervous. The first moment was when the attitude changed in the airport, the second was when you decided that you were going to confront the people in the Los Angeles studio who were in the middle of filming. You decided to approach and you're very cautious. And then, of course, there's the final encounter near the Starbucks. What goes through your mind and how does your body respond? Because there's got to be some fight or flight that you’re pushing through because you're dedicated to the story.
Dylan Reeve: So David and I had quite different experiences of these things that we went through together because in those situations you described - the confrontations or stake-outs, I guess you'd call them - I was behind the camera. I was looking through a viewfinder and David was not. So in both those circumstances, for me, my experience of the situation was on a little screen, and David's was full surround sound. And so I didn't get that intimidated because I was focused more on technical things, would we get the shot, how would it go. But David was focused on pursuing close-ups. So what was your experience David? Because mine was slightly removed.
“I felt ready to run if I needed to run. But you can detach yourself slightly in those situations and try to be calm. And so I think, Dylan and I both managed to do that in different ways, which is good. I could have been a sort of a slobbering mess in some of these situations, and that doesn't help anyone…”
David Farrier: I don't like to get in these situations where I'm having to confront people that I don't want to confront. Usually, Kiwis are sort of more willing to sit down and talk. And there's a few times in my work in the newsroom in New Zealand where I've had to approach, do death knocks, and turn up in someone's door step and try and get comments from them, and that kind of horrible stuff that you occasionally have to do in the news room. And so I can kind of mentally detach slightly, as well. So I felt ready to run if I needed to run. But you can detach yourself slightly in those situations and try to be calm. And so I think, Dylan and I both managed to do that in different ways, which is good. I could have been a sort of a slobbering mess in some of these situations, and that doesn't help anyone [laughs].
HTF: So when you finally get to talk to the stepmother, I'm curious of your feelings about the person that you'd been investigating, that you discovered that this person was. And then [the person you’d uncovered behind all this], who was by all accounts, dangerous, abusive, and a deeply unsettled person, but did you pity them at all in that moment when talking with the stepmother?
“And you're reminded that this is a person, we're all people, and there's reasons, not necessarily justifiable reasons, but there are reasons that make us react and do certain things. And so I think getting that understanding was incredibly important.”
David Farrier: Well, when we were sitting in the car, we probably thought at that point that this person was, I guess for want of a better word, a fairly scary figure. But listening to her telling us a little bit about [their] background and that's where [they] came from, yeah, I think we definitely felt some empathy. And you're reminded that this is a person, we're all people, and there's reasons, not necessarily justifiable reasons, but there are reasons that make us react and do certain things. And so I think getting that understanding was incredibly important, and that was the whole idea, that our theme is to make you realize that this is a person, and there's a reason that people end up the way they are. So I think if you didn't feel sympathy or empathy that would probably be unusual.
Dylan Reeve: There's an interesting thing I find with that scene especially, is that the feelings that the audience go through watching it, having just watched 80-something minutes of that kind of buildup, is exactly I think, the feelings that we went through the moment we hung up that phone. It's the whole film in a sense. All those feelings that you feel during the film are very similar to what we were feeling at the time. But that scene especially when we hung up the phone and the cameras stopped rolling, I think we had the same realizations and emotions that you had, as an audience watching that.
David Farrier: Yeah, and it was interesting, when we did the commentary tracks for the release, we had a room full of people. It was Dylan's idea, actually. We recorded the commentary to the room full of people that had just watched the film. And we got to that point, they're talking, talking, talking, and you get to that point where we hung up the phone, and everyone's just silent. And seeing that reaction to all the screenings we've had, you get to that point at the end of the film where you don't really know what to say because it's such a turnaround in your mind about how you think about this person.
HTF: So when you think about how you randomly uncovered this bizarre, shadowy, seemingly impenetrable world –a sort of house of cards and a lot of misdirection - has that changed how you think about the broader world in any way? And I guess what I’, asking is, we’re insulated from most of the bizarre things going on and how people's lives are being genuinely negatively impacted by things that we can’t even imagine. But does it color your view of the world knowing that this kind of stuff goes on in the shadows that no one's talking about?
“…it does make you think, if you did dig deeper, what you would actually find there. And I find that it’s really a combination of inspiring and terrifying.”
Dylan Reeve: I think the main thing I come away with is, I wonder how much more there is where it isn't an easy way to find. This clearly isn't the only example of this type of behavior. Maybe the only example of tickling, but there's bound to be 100 other similar things going on in the world, in various ways. And I wonder where they are and how they're taking place, and I sort of wish that there was a way we could find them because I'm sort of fascinated by them. That's what I've come away with.
David Farrier: I think Dylan and I both spend a lot of time on the Internet because we really like the internet. You constantly see something, you go, "Oh, that's a bit weird," or "That's a bit crazy," but then you move on to something else and you don't dig deeper. And you just imagine that all those different things that you see online, or read about in the newspaper, or conversations you have with people at the bus stop that you're like, "Oh, that's a bit strange," and you don't dig further. And it does make you think, if you did dig deeper, what you would actually find there. And I find that it’s really a combination of inspiring and terrifying.
HTF: And so have you been surprised, pleased I'm sure, but surprised by the reaction to the film? And are you encouraged to do another documentary on something else that you uncover perhaps, bizarrely?
David Farrier: Yeah, I think the reaction has really blown [us away]. It's been exciting to see it roll out and even end up on some people's lists for Oscars, and that's completely beyond anything we would have ever imagined. And so yeah, I think Dylan and I would both love to start on something else if the appropriate kind of thing comes up. Because despite being an incredibly stressful journey, it also feels really rewarding.
Dylan Reeve: I think both David and I have been bound in our professional lives, making things for other people, in a sense. So it was really great, at least for me, to be able to make something of our own. And then to have it be so well received was amazing.
HTF: Well, I agree with that entirely. Congratulations. It's a fantastic piece of work and I wish you sincerely the very best for the future.
David Farrier: Thank you very much.
Dylan: It is a real thrill, the idea that people can actually, will be able to download it and watch it because we've had the cinema run, which has been awesome, but yeah, we were like, "Oh yeah, we're out in like 50 cities," or whatever, and we were really excited about that, but it's difficult for people to get to the cinema. And so the idea that people can actually watch it en masse, and I'm kind of fascinated about the other stories we'll hear off the back of that.
HTF: Well, thank you again.
David Farrier: Thank you, Neil!
Dylan Reeve: Yeah, thanks Neil!