We’re looking back on some of our favourite big reads from TimeOut this year. Today, we revisit Chris Schulz's interview with David Farrier. And where better to discuss the weird ride he's been on with his acclaimed controversial documentary Tickled than somewhere where folks pay to get their kicks?

David Farrier is dangling from the ceiling of a sex dungeon, encased in a web of leather straps.

His fists are clenched, his face is beaded with sweat and he can't move a muscle. He's clearly not happy about his situation.

"People are in here nude?" he nervously asks Miss Dior, a dominatrix and the owner of this Penrose business who is standing below watching him squirm.

As Farrier swings helplessly, Dior answers in the affirmative and explains how she'd usually be "torturing" him at the same time.

David Farrier in a scene from his documentary Tickled. Photo / Michael Craig
David Farrier in a scene from his documentary Tickled. Photo / Michael Craig

At this, a clearly terrified Farrier yelps an expletive that echoes around the dimly lit room.

According to Miss Dior, we're in the largest den of its type in New Zealand, and it's decorated with a dizzying array of devices, from sex machines to fetish contraptions, masks, dildos, and yes several feather ticklers.

That last prop explains why we're here. The TV3 reporter-turned documentary maker releases Tickled in New Zealand next week. His new documentary takes a deep dive into the seedy underbelly of competitive tickling and surfaces with seriously sinister stuff.

Farrier thought Miss Dior's dungeon would be a fitting setting for an interview with the Herald, and, once you recover from the visceral shock of seeing so much gadgetry in one setting, it definitely is.

But as an investigative journalist of the weird Farrier recently quit TV3 after nine years covering "light entertainment" he can't help himself. He has to ask Miss Dior about the intricacies of her day job.

"What does mummification mean on your business card?" he asks Dior, who pulls out a roll of black plastic wrap and explains her duties with the rare enthusiasm of someone who loves her job.

It's that kind of inquisitiveness that led Farrier to create Tickled, a film that is less an examination of someone with a tickling fetish and more of a profile of extreme cyberbullying.

Like most of Farrier's sometimes-bizarre reports for Nightline, covering everything from his favourite heavy metal bands to interviewing politician Colin Craig in a steamy sauna, it started when a friend emailed him a link to a website.

"There were all these tickling videos. Four to five goodlooking young men in Adidas training gear, tickling. One of them would be tied down and the others would be tickling him," he says.

"I thought, 'This is crazy'. I asked, 'Can I do an interview?' They replied straight away with, 'We don't want to deal with a homosexual journalist'. And I thought, 'Whaaat?'"

Farrier followed some loose threads, wrote a few blog posts, and he, with fellow enthusiast and blogger Dylan Reeve, soon realised they had a story with enough strange twists to make a great film.

They launched a Kickstarter account, secured funding from the NZ Film Commission and made several trips to America to chase interviews and shoot footage.

They quickly found themselves facing a barrage of legal threats. Cease-and-desist letters showed up daily from lawyers claiming to be acting on behalf of the company Farrier and Reeve were chasing, Jane O'Brien Media.

At some point, their story about the world of competitive tickling became the story itself. Things really took off when three representatives showed up in New Zealand in an attempt to persuade them to stop.

All of this is in the film, and Farrier admits all those efforts to make them quit inspired them to keep chasing the story.

He was bored at TV3. He wanted to make a movie after his previous attempt, a search for the "Mongolian Death Worm", failed to get off the ground. And, he says, "I had nothing to lose."

"The more Dylan and I poked about, the more crazy stuff we found out. No one wants to get sued but at the same time it made it obvious they had something to hide. I'm a light entertainment journalist in New Zealand. I don't have a housing portfolio. If someone sues me, what's the worst that can happen? I lose nothing because I have nothing."

Turns out he had something. Tickled, the result of two years of obsessive work by the pair, debuted at Sundance in January and has gone on to receive rave reviews.

The Hollywood Reporter called it "a chilling account of cyberbullying" while The Guardian awarded it four stars, describing it as "eye-popping [with] countless twists".

Before the film's June 17 release in America, Rolling Stone labelled it "a harassment campaign that would give the Church of Scientology pause".

For Farrier, getting the film into theatres has not ended the story.

New Zealand David Farrier journalist stumbles upon a mysterious tickling competition online. As he delves deeper he comes up against fierce resistance, but that doesn’t stop him getting to the bottom of a story stranger than fiction.

He had someone who appears in the film show up at a Sundance screening to take notes; in Missouri police were called to a theatre to remove viewers with a recording device, and he was served legal papers by someone he thought was a fan.

He says he wakes up to "something new every day".

"I thought when we wrapped the film it would die down. It goes on and on and on. There's now a website to discredit me and the film. But I like that this story is alive and happening. I'm so used to the strangeness that it doesn't worry me."

There's one thing Farrier's not used to and that's tickling. Farrier admits he doesn't understand the appeal.

"I don't like tickling, I don't like being tickled and I don't find it erotic," he says. "What's crazy about tickling is you're laughing, but you're not enjoying it at all. It's just deeply uncomfortable to watch. You're watching someone who isn't having a good time."

But he has become something of an expert of the art.

"It's basically a submissive-dominance thing. It's someone having power and control over another person it's like whips and chains, but bought way down. That's the appeal, the person getting off on it is either the person watching someone getting tickled, or the person doing the tickling. The person being tickled, that's not often an erotic thing, they're just in the moment, but generally it's the act of tickling that's a turn-on."

Farrier's next movie is shifting to Los Angeles.

The rent, he says, is equivalent to Auckland, and he wants to take advantage of some of the bridges Tickled has helped him build in the TV and movie industry there. It's been bought by cable giant HBO, which plans to screen it in the near future. It begs the question, will there be a Tickled 2?

"I don't know," he replies. "There's more to this story, [but] there are other stories floating around in my head. We'll get this out and figure out if we want to dive in more, or move on to something else."

First, Farrier has to escape the bondage arrangement.

"Is there a safe word?" he stammers to Miss Dior, who lowers Farrier to the ground.

"You're not very obedient," she says, slapping his thigh playfully.

There are probably a few people who watch Tickled and say exactly the same thing.



David Farrier


His new film, Tickled, about competitive tickling and cyberbullying

Where and when

: Screening in cinemas from Thursday

Q&A screenings:

• Light House Cinema, Petone, Monday, May 23, 6pm

• The Roxy, Miramar, Monday, May 23, 8pm

• The Bridgeway, Northcote, Wednesday, May 25, 6.15pm

• Academy Cinema, Auckland, Thursday, May 26, 6pm

• Matakana Cinemas, Friday, May 27, 6.30pm

• Monterey Cinemas, Howick, Sunday, May 29, 4.30pm

• Rialto, Tauranga, Monday, May 30, 6pm

• Rialto Newmarket, Tuesday, June 1, 6pm

Info: tickledmovie.com