The bizarre story behind a 'tickling' documentary that led to online bullying and lawsuits

It all started for David Farrier two years ago, when he stumbled on a company called Jane O’Brien Media, which specialises in making videos that capture “competitive endurance tickling.”

Farrier, a New Zealand television reporter, is known for highlighting the bizarre, so doing a story on so-called competitive tickling — which, in the O’Brien videos, means a man being tied down while other men tickle him — seemed like a slam dunk.

But when Farrier reached out to Jane O’Brien through its Facebook page, he received a reply from a woman named Debbie Kuhn saying the company did not want to “associate with a homosexual journalist.”

Following a few more unpleasant emails and Farrier writing about the bizarre back-and-forth on his blog, editor Dylan Reeve came into the picture. Farrier’s reporting inspired Reeve to delve into the company’s internet activity, and he found that Jane O’Brien is one of hundreds of tickle-related sites that funnel back to one parent company.

Farrier and Reeve decided to combine forces and make a documentary about the “tickle wormhole” they had just discovered.

The movie, “Tickled,” which is out in theatres Friday, was one of the most talked-about documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It goes from a bizarre investigation of a “sport” very few know about to thrusting the viewer head-first into a multimillion-dollar fetish industry and an internet bully who is one of the main players behind it.

But the story has far from ended. Farrier and Reeve have been served with lawsuits from Jane O’Brien Media. They allege private investigators illegally recorded the movie at a film festival. And now one of the subjects in the movie who works for Jane O’Brien has created a blog to discredit the film.

David Farrier Magnolia PicturesMagnolia PicturesDavid Farrier.

“We were expecting it,” Farrier told Business Insider this week in New York City. “We were warned going into this that we would be sued.”

But they admit they weren’t prepared for everything else, and it has become an “annoyance.”

Initially, Farrier and Reeve only saw the story as an hour-long documentary they would charge people $5 to see on Vimeo. But things quickly escalated. They captured incredible footage of Jane O’Brien staff coming to New Zealand to speak to Farrier, only for both sides to get into a heated argument, and then the two first-time filmmakers flew to Los Angeles to try to walk in on one of the company’s “competitive tickling” shoots, only to be asked to leave. That’s when the directors realised there was more to the story.

They went back home and showed the footage to the New Zealand Film Commission in hopes of getting financing (the previous filming was funded through a Kickstarter campaign). The commission agreed. Farrier and Reeve would not disclose how much financing they received, but they did say that one of the stipulations for the money was to make the documentary feel more cinematic.

So now working on a feature-length doc, with the help of producer Carthew Neal, Farrier and Reeve went back and reshot interviews with ticklers they found in LA and expanded the scope of the story, looking into who exactly is behind Jane O’Brien Media.

“One of the best things Carthew did was he said, ‘How about we look at this as if we were making a drama,'” Reeve told Business Insider. “So we shot with a path [in mind]. It’s not just throwing random footage on a timeline to see what we want. We now knew how to move through the story, and that was important.”

Reeve said one of the ways they found their subjects was by seeking out people who had negative websites set up about them, allegedly made by Jane O’Brien after the subjects asked for videos of them being tickled to be taken down.

But many were reluctant to go on camera as they didn’t want to feel the wrath once more of Jane O’Brien.

Dylan Reeve Magnolia PicturesMagnolia PicturesDylan Reeve.

“Getting people on camera was very difficult,” Farrier said. “There were a lot of email conversations. Because we didn’t want everyone speaking out to have their face blacked out. We wanted to see their eyes and how they emoted.”

A Jane O’Brien employee, Kevin Clarke (who’s also featured in the movie), has created a site to discredit “Tickled,” On Monday, the site posted a video of one of the subjects in the documentary, Jordan Shillachi, claiming that he was coached by Farrier in what to say in the documentary to disparage Jane O’Brien, he was paid $1,200 to be in the movie, and he was promised a cut of the film’s box-office gross.

Farrier told Business Insider that he never coached Shillachi to say anything in the movie and never promised him any of the grosses. But he and Reeve do admit that they paid Shillachi and other subjects to be in the movie.

“As a fixer, we agreed to pay him $400 a day for compensation of his time,” Reeve said. “He got $1,200 for three days and, along with interviewing him, he agreed to show us around the town to hopefully introduce us to some other people, which didn’t pan out.”

“Basically we could only be in Muskegon [the Michigan city where Schillachi lives] for this very set time,” Farrier said. “He was working those days, so the idea was to compensate him for that.”

The filmmakers say the money they gave subjects (around $400 a day — Schillachi got the most out of all who were paid) was simply for the time commitment, and they do not feel that they got untruthful interviews because of the payment.

When asked if they think they should have noted in the film that subjects were compensated, both said that they thought about it and decided against it. Paying interview subjects is “not an unusual practice,” they argue.

“A lot of tabloid newspapers pay people for stories, but it’s not uncommon for journalists in general to compensate people for their time,” Reeve said. “We were quite clear that we weren’t paying people to talk to us.”

(While it is more common in other countries, paying sources is widely frowned upon in American journalism.)

All the lawsuits that Jane O’Brien Media filed against Farrier and Reeve have been tossed out in court. But Clarke told Business Insider that he plans on personally suing the filmmakers and the film.

Kevin Clarke Vito M YouTube finalVito M/YouTubeKevin Clarke.

“David Farrier was so unethical, it was mind-boggling to me,” said Clarke, who notes that Jane O’Brien Media has not produced any tickling videos in the last six months because the documentary has been “consuming” its time. The latest video on its Facebook page is of tickle participants saying how great the experience is.  

Clarke has seen the movie at the Sundance Film Festival and the True/False Film Festival, where two people were removed from a screening for allegedly illegally recording the movie — Farrier claims they were private investigators hired by Jane O’Brien Media.

Clarke believes he and his associates who went to New Zealand to talk to Farrier and Reeve were misled. He says they believed their first meeting would be off-the-record. Instead, the filmmakers started recording the O’Brien employees with a camera as soon as they got off the plane in New Zealand.

One of Clarke’s associates, he tells Business Insider, was so shaken up that he started to cry. This led to Farrier telling the group, Clarke claims, that if the footage was used, the man’s face would be blurred out, which did not happen.

“I have been portrayed as a thug,” Clarke said. “This has impacted lives for profit, and why is that ok? That’s what’s frustrating and that’s the reason for the blog.”

In response to Clarke’s accusations, Farrier provided Business Insider with the following statement: “We stand by the film we’ve made and invite people to watch the movie and draw their own conclusions.”

Clarke would not comment on accusations in the movie from ticklers who say they were bullied by Jane O’Brien Media when they asked for videos to be taken down. But he denied the story of one former tickler, TJ, who said that Clarke told him the videos would involve men and women tickling each other (the shoot was all men) and that the videos were being produced as a tool for the military to test the effectiveness of tickling as a means for torture.

“I never said it,” Clarke said. “I would never say anything like that. I’m very clear to anyone who comes to do it exactly what they are doing. I never asked anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do.”

But the filmmakers disagree. Though the movie does form into a detective piece on who is really pulling the strings at Jane O’Brien Media, Farrier and Reeve believe the film’s main motivation is something very simple.

“The thing that interests me, and we had this discussion with Kevin in person, is he completely fails to understand the point of the film,” Reeve said. “The point of the film is this bullying and harassment.”

“Each day, and that’s not an exaggeration, we get emails or Facebook posts or Twitter DMs or Instagrams of people saying, ‘This happened to me,'” Ferrier said. “It’s become an obsession for us. It just doesn’t stop.”

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