On Sunday at the annual True/False Film Fest, David Farrier, the New Zealand co-director of “Tickled,” was served with papers for a defamation lawsuit filed by David D’Amato, one of the subjects of his Sundance hit documentary. The legal action stemmed from Utah, where “Tickled” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, and in Missouri, where True/False is based. It was hardly a surprise for Farrier, and it wasn’t even the most bizarre interaction he had over the weekend with representatives from Jane O’Brien Media, the company “Tickled” eventually reveals to be run by D’Amato.
The strange history of “Tickled” started well before the documentary was even conceived. Farrier’s relationship with Jane O’Brien Media — according to the filmmaker — began a couple years ago, when he came across the company’s peculiar website. The site called for men 18-24 to submit head shots to be considered as potential contestants in an endurance tickling contest. If selected to participate in the filmed competition, contestants would be given $1,500, flown to Los Angeles and put up for a lavish all-expenses-paid weekend. Farrier, a New Zealand-based journalist and blogger, contacted Jane O’Brian Media, first via email then Facebook, informing the owners of his interest in writing a story about their contests.
“Their first reply was ‘we don’t want to deal with a homosexual journalist,'” Farrier told Indiewire in a conversation during True/False. “That comment is what kicked this whole thing off. They wrote that on their public Facebook page. Not only is it homophobic, it’s odd, especially because this tickling sport does seem a little gay.” Initially, Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve started blogging about the incident, which prompted notices from a New York attorney and a local lawyer in New Zealand, both alleging defamation. “They sent a whole haul of abusive emails about my sexuality that got weirdly racist, anti-semitic at times — just hateful, weird emails,” Farrier said, “but hearing from a real lawyer was when it became a real thing. So we knew right from the onset this was a litigious company.”
For Farrier and Reeve, the initial lawsuit was also an indication there was far more to the story. So they started an investigation, in the form of a documentary film, to find out who was behind Jane O’Brien Media. To protect themselves, they received help from two pro bono attorneys and were meticulous to make sure they did everything necessary to protect themselves against potential lawsuits.
The movie goes on to expose troubling practices committed by the company. D’Amato is now suing the filmmakers claiming defamation and negligent in the infliction of emotional distress.
During Sundance, a Jane O’Brien staffer attended one of the screenings. “Sundance security told me that he was there, but I didn’t want to tell the audience,” Farrier said. “Essentially the audience is watching this person on screen, and they aren’t necessarily coming across in a good light, and I didn’t want everybody there going, ‘Oh, God, he’s in the cinema.’ From what I understand [during the screening] he made a lot of loud ‘hurmph’ noises and took extensive notes on a legal pad.”
That same man was at the True/False, but this time he brought many others, as Farrier was informed the company had bought a number tickets to this weekend’s screenings. During one, an audience member was alleged to be pirating the film
“Security noticed someone was in the theater holding a coffee cup in a very suspicious way,” Farrier said. “He wasn’t moving the cup, just holding it up like he was filming the screen. So they told me and asked what they should do. I requested they stop him because I was assuming there was a camera in the coffee cup.” After festival staffers confronted the man and another audience member, both of whom Farrier has reason to believe were private investigators from New York. When the festival’s security requested that they leave, they refused — until the movie was turned off and a pair of police officers removed both men.
Farrier is confident that he and the film are on solid legal ground — and it’s clear that the involvement of both HBO and Magnolia, who recently signed on to distribute the film, has given him peace of mind.
“Their confidence was reassuring,” Farrier said. Still, he admitted that he’s a little jealous of his fellow documentarians, who were carefree as they shared their films with the doc loving True/False crowd. “Being served,” he said, “really takes you off guard…even though I was expecting it to happen.”