Is 'Tickled' Poised to Be the Next 'Catfish'?

Tickled still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The cyber-detective story is too insane to believe, as the Sundance breakout about an international "tickling ring" prepares to roll into theaters ahead of an HBO debut.

Are you ticklish?

That was the question posed by a pop-up ad that led New Zealand TV journalist David Farrier down an internet rabbit hole almost too twisted to believe. Farrier's journey is documented in the new film Tickled, which was nabbed at Sundance by Magnolia Pictures and HBO for an undisclosed sum and which will premiere in theaters June 17 ahead of a future cable airing.

It's easy to see what Magnolia and HBO saw in Tickled. Over the course of its taut 92 minutes, it spins a gripping tale of sex, lies and (online) videotape in the same cyber-detective vein as Catfish, another addictive Sundance breakout, from 2010.

As in that doc, after stumbling into some titillation on the web — in this case, an offer for fit young men to be jetted to Los Angeles and paid thousands of dollars to participate in "competitive endurance tickling" videos — our affable hero and his trusty sidekick (co-director Dylan Reeve, a tech wiz) set off on a road trip to discover the truth about a woman whose online persona is not all it appears to be.

The woman is Jane O'Brien, and her company, Jane O'Brien Media, is behind these tickling videos. The profound weirdness of the endeavor should become instantly apparent to anyone who visits the company's still-standing website, which makes its pitch in the form of an unsettling intro video.

"Out of over 1,000 applicants no more than 12 guys make the cut for my high-paying reality video project," a scroll reads over music straight out of a dragon-slaying video game. "Athletes, personal trainers, extreme sportsmen: Are you ticklish? How much tickling can you handle?"

Farrier, a celebrity in New Zealand for covering the stranger side of entertainment news, watched one of the videos and was instantly amused at what he saw: four upbeat, good-looking young men in Adidas soccer uniforms tickling a fifth guy mercilessly on a foam gymnastics mat.

"It's very formulaic," Farrier, 33, explains in a sit-down with The Hollywood Reporter. "Eleven minutes face-down while four guys tickle you — two on the hands, two of the feet. Then they flip them over."

Smelling his next story, Farrier then requested an interview with O'Brien on her Facebook page — and was startled when a response was posted in the form of a comment from someone identifying herself as "Debbie Kuhn, vice president for marking and operations for Jane O'Brien Media."

"To be brutally frank, [to] associate with a homosexual journalist," Kuhn told Farrier, who is gay, "is not something that [we] will embrace. We desperately do not want a homosexual participant base applying for this project." Farrier was both repelled and fascinated at the bald-faced bigotry of the statement, coming as it did from a company that seemingly existed exclusively to produce videos that were, as he puts it, "pretty gay."

So he kept poking and was shocked to learn that many of the young participants proceeded to have their lives ruined after they attempted to pull out, harassed viciously online as their videos began to appear everywhere: on YouTube, Vimeo, in the inboxes of their employers, school administrators and even at URLs based on their own names. One young man in the film, a gifted athlete, said he was fired as a football coach and ostracized by his community because of the videos.

Farrier blogged about all of this before deciding to embark upon making a film. Before long, his email inbox was clogged with hundreds of "weirdly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic" threats from Jane O'Brien Media employees. "Any stereotypical hatred that someone could have, this company and people in it had," he says. "It was almost a joke because it was so extreme."

Just as swiftly came the legal threats, the first in the form of a cease-and-desist letter from a New York-based lawyer. After a Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund a trip to Los Angeles to try to infiltrate one of these tapings — which typically go down at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles — the filmmakers were inundated with YouTube takedown notices.

Then four men — the O'Brien "ground crew" — flew to New Zealand to strong-arm Farrier into abandoning the project. (Their greeting by his cameras at Auckland Airport makes for one of the more bizarre moments in an extremely bizarre film.) At the Sundance screening, one of those heavies was spotted in the audience, furiously filling up a legal pad with notes and making audible groaning sounds at every sordid revelation.

Following Tickled's True/False Film Fest screening in Missouri last March, Farrier was served with twin defamation lawsuits filed by — and stop reading now if you'd rather not have the movie's surprises spoiled for you — David P. D'Amato, the 50-something trust-funder (his father was a successful insurance lawyer named George D'Amato) who bankrolls the entire operation. In other words, the real Jane O'Brien.

Click here to read the lawsuit.

Like Robert Durst, star of HBO's The JinxD'Amato is painted by the film as pampered and deeply perverse, a bad-seed scion of New York privilege. "No one's being killed, thank God, but it's got the same themes behind it," says Farrier. "Money and control and power."

Those lawsuits, one filed in Utah and one in Missouri, have since been dismissed, but the coast is far from clear. "The next step is whether or not they will be refiled somewhere else," he says.

As for tickling, Farrier hopes this one company's nefarious dealings don't forever tarnish what he considers a perfectly, uh, normal niche fetish. "We didn't want to demonize tickling," he says. "There's something for everyone out there."

Watch the trailer for Tickled below.