Talking about the gobsmacking new documentary Three Identical Strangers is tricky. The ideal experience would be to see the film absolutely cold, with no knowledge whatsoever about the identical triplets of the title, who didn’t know about each other until they met by happenstance in their late teens. But for the purposes of a trailer or a review — or the interview you’re about to read — it’s impossible to avoid some of the twists and turns that director Tim Wardle has so skillfully detonated throughout the film. This is the rare documentary where spoilers for real life are best avoided, though our conversation does dip lightly into the reasons why these brothers were separated at birth and the issues of nature versus nurture raised by the case.
Then again, the story was widely talked about when it broke in the early 1980s, something of a viral sensation long before such a term existed. Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman were all over the tabloids and daytime talk-show circuit when they discovered each other at age 19. Though none of them knew the others existed, their similarities were so uncanny that they become a kind of TV novelty act, which naturally raised the question of whether their very different upbringings had any bearing over the men they would become. But the joy of their reunion started to curdle when revelations about their past surfaced and interpersonal tensions between them slowly intensified.
What happens next is also public knowledge, though many of these darker developments are not broached in this interview. In a hotel lobby the morning after a public screening at the True/False Festival in Columbia, Missouri, in March, Wardle talked about turning this amazing yarn into his first feature, the “rogue” psychology that made it possible, the brothers’ reluctant participation in the project, and the difficulty of surprising audiences with a true story.
Last night, you talked about this story surfacing among a thousand other stories that passed in your direction. What stood out for you about this one?
I was working for Raw, this production company that made The Imposter and various other great docs. I’m used to seeing a huge turnover of stories at Raw — hundreds every year, thousands probably. And this one just instantly struck me as the best documentary story I’d ever heard. I had to make this film. It’s so layered. It’s a human story and a scientific story, with universal themes about family, free will, destiny. It had everything. It was instantly compelling. It had to be made.
What went into convincing the brothers to participate in telling their story? Obviously, they had been burned before.
They’ve been messed around a lot. People have promised to tell their story so many times. I think they have a hard time trusting people as well, because of what happened to them. To be honest with you, getting them to come around was kind of attritional. We kept meeting them. Even during filming, we wondered, “Are these guys going to stick with us the whole way through?” I think being British helped, the fact that we felt so passionate about it that we were willing to fly out to the States to do it. It was really, really hard to convince them. It was probably the hardest part of the whole film.
The first thing you think when you get a story like this is, Wow, this is an incredible story. You wonder why nobody has told it before. And the truth is, when we made the film, we realized that people had tried to tell it before. There had been at least three attempts on major U.S. networks — two in the ’80s, one in the ’90s — and each time they got shut down. And no one could tell us why they got shut down. There’s a multiple Pulitzer-winning journalist who made a film for a major U.S. network in the mid-’90s, but it it got pulled from on high. He never got an answer as to why. That made us quite paranoid. We thought, We can’t give in to paranoia about this. We did have some people who readily agreed to be interviewed, but never answered or returned our calls again. You wonder who got to them.
Lawrence Wright [the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Looming Tower and Going Clear, and a subject in the film] is not the type of guy who’s prone to conspiracy theories, but he says there are a lot of powerful people who would prefer this story go away. And that’s demonstrably true if you look at the history of it.
What happened to these boys came out of what you referred to a “rogue” era in psychology. You had some background in psychology before switching to film. How would you describe this era?
I did psychology at university, and I’m fascinated by this period in the ’50s and ’60s when psychology was really trying to establish itself in the public consciousness as a legitimate science. But it isn’t very well-regulated. So there were all these scientists trying to make a name for themselves as psychologists, and you have things like the Milgram experiment and “edgy” enterprises like that, and I think it’s a fascinating period because these people were pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable morally and ethically to try to tell us something about ourselves. The question then becomes, “How far can you go as a scientist to further human knowledge?” A huge part of this story is what was driving these [scientists]. It was a quest for knowledge, I’m sure, but there’s a lot of ego, too.
If you completely divorce yourself from the ethical aspect of this study, it’s an intriguing experiment. And it bears out in the film that you’ve made. On the question of nature versus nurture, what these brothers end up having in common as adults is uncanny.
As a filmmaker, we got to piggyback onto this theme without having to do the amoral experimenting that produced these results. You have to be conscious when you’re making a film. On one level, you’re thinking, Oh my God, this is a great story! And it would be so incredible to discover all the things we were finding out about what happened. But at the same time, it’s their lives. They lived it and it was awful for them. It’s a Truman Show existence. To discover at the age of 21 that your entire life has been shaped by forces you didn’t even know existed.
How much was the effect of the study itself part of the study?
The scientists were probably sitting around going, “Why do all these kids have problems? Maybe it was the forceps used to deliver them.” [Laughs.] At no point do they consider, “Maybe it was us separating them that caused these problems.” They’re careful not to allow that to be a factor. One of the problems for us, in pitching the film, was that you’d ideally want to talk to [investors] without giving anything away.
That’s the other thing I wanted to talk about. The story has so many twists and turns and they’re so explosive in the film. How much do you want people to know about this story going into it? Can there be such a thing as spoilers for reality?
It’s a filmmaking dilemma. I would love for people to go into this film cold, and the best reactions to it have been from those who know absolutely nothing about this story. But we have to have people come and see it, which means they’ll probably have to know a bit about it. What we generally do is tell the story up to the point where the three boys are reunited. That’s just the beginning of the story, and the film follows what happens next and the reasons behind their separation. But it’s really hard, because there’s so much more to talk about.
There’s a pleasure in pure storytelling. It’s a film about storytelling on one level. In fact, the word “story” is repeated about ten times in the first 20 minutes. The film is about the nature of storytelling, and I hope that people go in without much preknowledge. You can still enjoy it no matter what, but at last night’s screening, there were some gasps when certain twists were revealed. That’s what going to the movies is all about for me, thinking you’re going one way and then being taken someplace completely unexpected.
I was old enough to where I’d have been cognizant of this story in the ’80s when it broke, but any memory of that disappeared. So every single aspect of the story was a surprise. But as a critic, if something actually happened in real life, I’m not at all coy about revealing what that is. Yet Three Identical Strangers gave me pause.
I was surprised during Sundance by how many U.S. reviews, which were mostly great, literally described the whole story and then at the end say, “Oh, this is really good.” Major publications. They’d say, “It’s an incredible story. This happens and this happens and this happens and this happens. Amazing twist after amazing twist. And this happens and this happens and this happens.” And in the end, just a little critique.
The thing about the film is that the story sells itself. People come out of the theater and want to talk about it. And so, when people write reviews, they want to talk about the narrative. Stylistically, the film is relatively simple because you didn’t want to get in the way of all that storytelling. Having [the brothers] sit down and tell the story to the camera is quite old-fashioned at the moment, but it was the right approach for us. We played around with trickier devices, but they just got in the way. All the people we interviewed for this film are such good storytellers. So we just let them tell it.
Did you have an idea of how you wanted to shoot this? Did that change once you got going?
I think [producer Becky Read] and I have a more vérité background. That’s what I know. But being in the U.K., we couldn’t do that. We didn’t have endless time to film. We had to really focus because we were flying in and out of America and had to control costs. And we knew that two-thirds of the story was in the past tense. The interview space becomes this vérité space for us. It moves from being a past-tense storytelling with archive reconstruction into the how these people are feeling now. We needed that gearshift. I love really stylish docs like The Imposters and Man on Wire, and given more time and money, we might have gone harder on the visuals. But our focus was on getting the best subjects we could find for it, and Becky found some amazing contributors I had no idea existed.
You’ve presumably shown the film to the brothers and other people involved in this story. What has been the reaction?
I think universally positive. Quite emotional. David told me that he cries every time he watches it. I was really nervous, because [the brothers] had been so tricky to work with and so protective of their story and their legacy. What you want from subjects is emotional honesty and they gave us that, and entrusted us with how they really felt about stuff. So there was a huge responsibility. They liked the film, which was great, but what was incredible is they were like, “Oh my goodness. You said you going to do this and you delivered.” And that was a big deal for me. We were the custodians of their story.
The film seems to have brought them together, too. That’s what they say to us. They definitely weren’t talking much during the filming process. They had a very fractured relationship for a long time. And I’m sure there will still be ups and downs. But making this film was helpful to them, I think.
The documentary covers so much time in their lives, and because it’s a film, it compresses those events over 90 minutes or so. You’re immediately introduced to the utter joy that they feel discovering each other and that’s placed so close to the much darker twists and turns that the story takes. Maybe this film allows them to remember again how they felt at the beginning, which was so long ago.
You worry about that compression, too, because you know you’re taking huge chunks of time and simplifying it. There’s something about the intensity of emotion, though, in their reunion, that they can still tap back into quite easily. As their aunt says [in the film], “If you asked me to say what’s the purest expression of joy I’ve ever seen in my life, it’s the three of those boys wrestling on the ground like puppy dogs.” She saw a lot since then. And that moment is still as clear to her as the day it happened.