“I like warped sickos. That’s my happy place.”
Beyond the normal is where documentarian David Farrier feels comfortable. The New Zealand-born journalist-turned-filmmaker has tackled dark tourism scandals, the world of competitive tickling, scientology, and other variety of topics that make him one of the most unique documentarians working today. In doing this, he focuses also on figures that are controversial and need a light shined on them to see their unethical practicing they are manipulating daily.
His latest project seems to be his strangers and most dangerous project of his career, Mister Organ. Farrier explores the figure Michael Organ, a pathological liar who emotional ruins everything and everyone in his path. His latest victim is an antique shop owner named Jillian, whom is under the spell of Organ’s snake charming ways. Over the course of the film, we learn about Organ’s dark complicated past, legal history, absent family, and how controlling and cumbersome he can be. With this, we also see him turn his tactics on Farrier, pushing the filmmaker to personal limit he has yet explored in his career.
When I sat down with Farrier at this year’s Fantastic Fest, he was full of energy and excited, not only about the world seeing his new film, but putting to bed a five-year project that was the most challenging of his career so far. We discussed his process in picking a topic, his mental state making Mister Organ, and if he would be interested in exploring more of Michael Organ’s story down the road.
Ryan McQuade: When I usually start these things, I ask the interviewee “how they’re doing?” And I think that that’s the most appropriate way to start this, by asking how are you and how do you feel with the release of this film? Do you feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders? Because watching the film, it feels like there’s this massive amount of catharsis you’re going through.
David Farrier: Yeah. No, it’s absolutely a weight lifted off. I’ve been sitting with the film for a long time. And yeah, I don’t like sitting in with people watching (the film). I’ve got that thing everyone has, where you don’t want to hear your own voice droning on. I still have that. But I wanted to sit in the theater and just see how people reacted and how they felt. That felt wonderful. And there was… I can’t even remember what point it was in there, but I did tear up during the film. And I didn’t expect that. And I think that was me going, “Oh yeah, fuck, this is sort of sitting with me and this is a release and it’s out now.” And that just feels fucking wonderful.
RM: You mention that you have a sort of weirder, more obscure take on wanting to do topics for not just your writing, but for film. I’m curious, what is that process for you in selecting that? What in your mind triggers that this is a ‘David Farrier project’?
DF: I started working in a newsroom in New Zealand in 2005, and I was working on a late-night news show, and I was given the slot on the show that was towards the end, and my job was to bring something weird to it. And I loved the idea of discovering something that maybe other people didn’t know about. And I could show them this sort of crazy story. It might be an artist doing something really interesting, or it could be a musician, or it could just be a hobbyist doing something incredible. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I think the longer I do it, stories sort of start to come to you and you get way better at understanding what is a nothing and what could be a something.
And in the last couple of years, I write a newsletter called Webworm, and three times a week I’ll send out a missive to people’s inboxes about a story or a rabbit hole I’ve gone down. And from those rabbit holes come more rabbit holes. And at the moment, it’s almost like this self-fulfilling cycle where I put weird things out into the world and then other people will tell me about other things that are weird, and I’ve gotten better at understanding what is a story that will go nowhere and what is something that will go somewhere. I feel I’m battling a lot, but it’s the stranger stories you tell, the stranger stories come your way.
RM: Have you always been like that?
DF: Yeah. I put it down to having… I grew up super Christian, and my view of the world was quite focused. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but when I went to university and started to realize that “Oh, there’s a bunch of people in the world that have incredibly different beliefs and they’re all fucking interesting and fantastic, and things aren’t black and white, they’re gray.” I just got increasingly obsessed with trying to find those extremes of things just because I hadn’t experienced any of that when I was younger. And so, I think it’s part of it is just I like meeting people who are doing things that are surprising and operating in that gray area where it’s not good or evil it’s this really interesting, honest thing in the middle.
RM: The movie feels like it is a dance between your curiosity and Michael’s obsession and how they meet in the middle. So can you talk about your process as a writer, as a filmmaker, when you’re doing the subject matter with someone that has become dangerously, now even more than you have in your past with something Tickled or other films that you’ve done, or other work that you’ve done. How you balance the curiosity of staying in the moment with the project, but also knowing that this is getting to a line in which you might have to back off?
DF: I get so narrowly focused and honed in on whatever I’m doing that I get quite obsessive. And so, I don’t think there’s ever an option for me to back out and to not do it. You just become… It just takes… You don’t leave your work at home when this happens. So what I found is that, oh, this person, Mr. Organ now knows where I live and has made that pretty clear. Okay, I live with housemates in New Zealand. I’m responsible for them, it’s not just me. And that, it just starts too great in a different way where you can’t stop thinking about it. Because you’re thinking about your safety and your friend’s safety, and it just becomes, I would just say it just becomes more tiring. It’s just exhausting, because you can’t put the work out of your brain because when the person you’ve been focused on turns their focus to you, you just have to be hyper-vigilant all the time. And it’s just fucking exhausting.
RM: How long after you put the key into the door, did you change the locks?
DF: That day. (Laughs)
RM: Yeah. I was going to say.
DF: I also went and got security cameras and put them all around because, yeah, that was incredibly unsettling. And I still don’t know how he got the key to the house. I talked to the locksmith. Can you back engineer a key from a specific…? Can you take a mold of the door or something? And you can’t. It’s incredibly difficult to do. So, I don’t know how he got it. So yeah, I changed the locks that day.
RM: How frustrating was it going through this process? I mean, we see it on the screen, but there’s got to be more to it than just what we see. The frustrations of not being able to just get him to answer a straight question, a confession of guilt or something like that for you, because in your other works you’ve had more definitive this is how it ends, but this guy (Michael Organ) is not giving you anything.
DF: Yeah, you are completely right. But I describe him as a void and that’s what I still think of him as. It was frustrating for twofold. It’s frustrating making it because every conversation with them is hours. So, you’re shooting with them. One question is 20 minutes. And so that’s one frustration is shooting with them. The next is the edit because you are then trying to make sense of these answers in a way that illustrates what you’re trying to say in the film and makes sense to an audience. I don’t know how to explain that. I think I got across about 10% of the frustration of spending time with him in the film. The problem with this is there are so many scenes we shot with him that just don’t translate to film because it’s like watching something nonsensical, and you can’t turn a three-hour conversation that’s just so fucked and has its own… If you know the story inside out, you know what that three hours is about and why it’s relevant, but you can’t put that in a film because its three hours. If you truncate that conversation down to a shorter amount of time, it makes zero sense.
And so what Michael Organ does is he gives you so much that you can’t do anything with it. It’s this weird trip that he has where he’s like the antithesis of what you want as a documentary subject. And the entire time I was riding this line between thinking, you’re incredibly interesting, just because of what you do and what you’re good at as you insert yourself into people’s lives. But everything he gave me was the antithesis of what you can use in a documentary. And that was super hard. It just meant many hours of me and my editor, Dan Kercher, just going crazy in the edit. It was a process.
RM: So I’m curious, you asked him a lot of questions, you’ve spent years covering him and everything, but now you’ve had time to reflect. Was there something that you regretted that you never asked him or a subject you never got to talk about that you’ve learned about now, just to see his reaction and how he would react?
DF: Yeah. There’s a moment in the film where I understand the way he has been talking about himself, but I hadn’t realized. I wish I’d put more scenarios that I knew he had been involved in to him in a very direct way, but got him to explain his understanding of those instances. So instead of just asking him, “Did you do this? And he’d…”
RM: Deny it.
DF: Denying it or lying. I wish I’d pushed more on his theory of how that had happened. Because as I found towards the end of the film, there’s a certain way that you can get him to talk about himself where he almost… He makes sure that the guilt doesn’t come back on him while still talking about things that he’s done. I wish I’d pushed down that line a little bit more.
RM: The other subject that is involved here is Jillian, whom you never got to speak with in a one-on-one conversation.
DF: No. Yeah. (Nods)
RM: Going back to the last question I asked, what was something that you were hoping to learn about her, maybe about her relationship with Michael that you never got from a solo conversation?
DF: Yeah. Because essentially Jillian is Michael’s current mark, right? I wish there was a way that I could have talked to her honestly about what it’s like spending time with him. Because I believe she’s giving very edited answers constantly. All I wanted was some…(pauses). It’s a really good question because I feel so sensitive about her and the situation she’s in. And I almost think it’s unfair to focus too much on her because she’s the victim in this and Michael is the one that we need to be pointing the finger at in a way.
DF: I wish she could get away from him.
DF: And I hope she does get away from him.
RM: No, that’s fair because I mean, you didn’t speak to any of Michael’s family, but you spoke to some of hers and the regret in those scenes and the unwillingness to be able to do anything. That’s what it kind of feels like at the end.
DF: But there’s so much hopelessness in this. It’s such a hopeless thing. There’s hopelessness all throughout this documentary, I think, because people have just given up because Michael has won. He wins. He’s twelve steps ahead of everyone else, including me. He knows it. And that’s how he has had a certain level of success.
RM: Does this experience make you change your thought process in the future with certain projects? I mean, this seems to, we see it in the film, takes such an emotional toll because it’s years of your life, it’s years of work, it gets to some dangerous personal confrontations. Do you think now that, maybe, obviously, you might have to find a different line in the sand terms of creating your topic?
DF: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I went into this, I rushed… I didn’t rush… I did rush into this, and I wouldn’t rush into something like this again as quickly. If I had two timelines, one where I hadn’t ever met Michael Organ and didn’t have a film, I would absolutely take that option. Which is a weird thing to say. So, I think future projects, I want to spend time with someone who’s pleasant (laughs), I think, but problem is pleasant people are dead fucking boring and I don’t think documentaries about pleasant people are particularly compelling. It’s not what I want to watch.
RM: Not in today’s culture.
DF: Not in today’s culture. I like warped sickos (both laugh). That’s my happy place. But it’s, in this case, more of an unhappy place.
RM: Lastly, when you were done with Tickled, you came back to the project because there was more information, there were more things that came out afterwards.
DF: Yeah, totally.
RM: You have ceased at the end of this film to talk to Michael, you’ve cut off all communications. You seem to have almost put this in a drawer. But if something does come up, would you explore and go back down this rabbit hole? Would it be a different way than what you did with Tickled in that you’d have to come back to it even more personal than before?
DF: Yeah. It makes my skin crawl thinking about that option. (laughs)
RM: (laughs) Sorry.
DF: It’s…so fuck you. (laughs) Yeah, no. I think, as I said before, Michael is always way ahead of everyone. He pays a long game. I have no doubt that he has some sort of long game in the works for me. This film is in New Zealand in November. It’s in cinemas in New Zealand, all across the country. So, Michael isn’t, I imagine, going to be happy about that. I imagine he knows I’m going to be in New Zealand for that and he’ll have a plan and, yeah, I want to cover that off. It’s not like I’m going to push events away and not document it in some way, because I think he needs to be documented. People need to be warned about him, and I’m very glad that when they Google ‘Mr. Organ,’ they will find this document about this man. And, yeah, hopefully other people that have similar people in their lives can clock that behavior a little bit more clearly as well and maybe get away from people like him before it’s too late.
RM: I just hope he doesn’t come to the States and read my review. (laughs)
DF: Well, look, he knows people. (laughs) He’s online. And him and David D’Amato are very similar. David D’Amato threatened to sue Andrew Todd who wrote a review of Tickled, and David D’Amato, pretending to be a lawyer, was in touch with him immediately. It wouldn’t surprise me if Michael Organ reached out with some batshit things to a few reviewers. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him.
RM: Well, thank you so much, David. I appreciate your time.
DF: Thank you.
Mister Organ played the 2022 Fantastic Fest.