by Steve Prokopy
If director Tim Wardle's first feature-length documentary were simply about male triplets separated at birth (FYI–separating twins or triplets is an almost unheard of practice for most adoption agencies) who later find each other as young adults, THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS would still be a fascinating film. Certainly, the first portion of the film, dealing with the accidental reunion of the now-19-year-old men (circa 1980) feels like a joyous tale of three boys raised in different households in and around New York City who are brought back together by coincidence and immediately become the toast of the town and international stars, all in a matter of weeks. Hell, the even managed to get a cameo in Madonna’s DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN.
The brothers become almost inseparable, even going into business with each other years later in a wildly popular restaurant enterprise that ended up souring their relationship. THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS might have been a film about perception. Did the boys and others see dozens of like traits and preferences because they were looking for them, when in fact these three men led quite differing lives until they met? It’s certainly an issue brought up during the course of Wardle’s movie. But where his investigation—done with the help of researchers and journalists in the film—takes us regarding the reason the boys were separated, who their mother was, why she gave them up, and a sinister, almost unspeakable set of circumstances that kept them apart for so long is almost more than audiences will be able to wrap their heads around, much less their sense of morality.
The film won a Special Jury Prize for Storytelling in the Documentary category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it’s easily one of the leading candidates for the best documentary of the year. With that in mind, saying anything more before you see the film would be criminal, so proceed cautiously through this interview with Tim Wardle—perhaps even holding off reading it until after you’ve seen THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS, which opens on Friday, July 6 at the Music Box Theatre.
Question: I guess the obviously first question is, how did a British director like yourself find out about this story, and what about it really grabbed you and make you want to spend several years of your life piecing this together?
Tim Wardle: A producer brought it into the production company where I was working—the company is called Raw, and they made films like THE IMPOSTER and AMERICAN ANIMALS, which is in theaters now. Although I have done a bit of directing for television, my job over the years has been primarily has been as an idea guy and head of development for Raw. So my job is to sift through all the ideas that come in and pitch them out to the BBC or whoever. Doing that job, you become quite jaded and cynical quite quickly, and you think you’ve seen every idea there is to see. I’m not someone who lends themselves to hyperbole, but I was instantly thinking, “This is the best story I’ve ever heard.” It worked from a human level—it had this story of these brothers separated then reunited. But then it also tackles these much bigger themes of free will, destiny, nature vs. nurture. I thought “I’ve got to make this film.”
There were certain aspects of this story that weren’t even known to you at the time, correct?
Right. From the initial pitch and early research, I knew about 50-60 percent of the story—separated at birth, raised by different families, unaware of each others existence, reunited in 1980, became famous. I knew there was a darker story behind their separation, but really didn’t know that much about it. So that’s what we set out to investigate with the film.
So who made the decision that you would then direct?
That’s the thing, no one made the decision [laughs]. It took four years to get off the ground, with a combination of winning the trust of the brothers and also raising the financing. I got to the point where I managed to get myself so intertwined with the story and the people that I couldn’t be gotten rid of. It was quite the cunning plan on my behalf. I don’t know how conscious it was, but toward the end, there’s no way I could ever live with myself if someone else makes this. I was very lucky that CNN Films and Raw gave me a chance to direct. I used all of my skills in developing to get this thing off the ground. No one was saying in the beginning “Who’s going to direct this?” They were more wondering, “Can this happen? Will the brother ever agree to talk?” And I was lucky that it was such a hard job getting it off the ground that when it did and someone finally wondered who was going to direct, I was like “I really want to do this one. I know the story inside-out, I know the people. Let me do it.”
In a sense, you’ve got one documentary built from archival footage, news material, sources that people might remember seeing at the time. Then you have these new interviews and updates to the story, and you’re going back and forth between the two stories. You’re essentially directing two different movies. Talk about combining the two. What was the challenge of having two different styles of documentary?
You’re right. Two completely different styles of documentary—the past tense stuff, you can cut that stuff much tighter; it has a very different tone. Whereas the footage in the present tense, which is much of what I’d done in the past, making films embedded in places, like prisons. That has a slightly looser feel, just naturally. It isn’t structured or framed as tightly. It was a challenge to move between them, and I think that’s why we have that scene where the brothers are pictured walking out of the interview. I needed that interview space to become a decompression section between these two styles of documentary making. I needed the interview space to become an actual observational space. That’s what we were trying to achieve there.
This has got to be a tough film for you to talk about with giving away so much. The orphanage part of the story feels almost like a thriller than a lot of feature film even do. Did you have to dig in and make sure a lot of account of that orphanage’s practices was all accurate.
Absolutely and you’re right. The paradox I have about promoting this film is that, I want people to see it but I want them to see it as cold as possible. That’s how I like to see films, and that’s how audiences enjoy this best, where they don’t see the twists and turns coming. We have to be very rigorous in terms of our research, in terms of being able to stand everything up with teams of lawyers, who are looking over everything. But it did become like an investigation. This story occurs in this period where a diminishing number of stories exist pre-internet, but the people are still alive to talk about them. We have to do a lot of old-fashioned, journalistic work. My producer spent a lot of time in archives in New York, and we had to meet people. We couldn’t just look it up on the internet.
You mentioned how it felt like it was in the thriller genre; I’m very heavily influenced by U.S. scripted genre filmmaking, and there was definitely a conscious effort to have that tonal variety in the film. The top of the film feels almost like a high school comedy, and then we move more into an almost BOURNE IDENTITY-type thriller.
You had to have so much material to work with, and we’re living in the age of the serialized true crime documentary series. Did you ever consider breaking this apart into six or ten chapters and really digging in?
Absolutely. In my opinion, most documentaries you’re stretching the material to fit the time slot, and this is one of the rare occasions that I’ve worked on something where it was really hard working out what to cut out. And various people did suggest that we do this as a miniseries, and we might get four or five episodes out of it. But I always aspire to make films that people sit down and watch in a movie theater. Until I made this, I hadn’t worked out why that is so important for documentaries. When you see audiences, you see them go through all of these different emotional states, and they feed off each other. People are laughing, then crying, then angry. The scale of the story justifies the theatrical setting. I’m really glad we did. My previous films have gone out on television, and I don’t think we got quite that reaction.
You couldn’t have anticipated how this film was going to end or whether certain materials were going to be made available to you. How did you know when you were done? When di you know that you had enough footage and now it was time to settle in and start putting this thing together?
[Laughs] The answer is, you don’t. The hardest things as a documentary filmmaker is knowing when to pull the plug and say “We’re got it” or “We’ve got as much as we need.” The truth is, it’s also about when the money runs out and getting into Sundance. We weren’t expecting to get into Sundance, and then it was a rush to get it done. You have to go with what you got, and that can be incredible frustrating on some levels. We got the footage of the triplets that appears at the end of the film on the last day of the edit, and it appears over the credits now. The thing that this film has taught me is, I’d always thought that for this to work, we had to answer all the questions in it and have everything tied up neatly in the end. But actually, having some questions unanswered in the end is a good thing because people leave and they want to look into the story even more. They’re angry because things haven’t been resolved. It can be a really positive thing, having open-ended elements to your story.
You not only got into Sundance, but you got a Jury Prize there as well. Talk about what that meant to you and how would you describe your Sundance experience?
It was the most surreal experience of my life. We got into Sundance and we couldn’t believe it. Almost everyone who worked on the film, it was their first feature experience. At our premiere, Darren Aronofsky was there and tweeted about the film, and we had no idea that was going to happen. He said it was disturbing and a great watch, and all I could think of was that I’d disturbed Darren Aronofsky. My life’s ambition was fulfilled. And then it went mental, and people were cheering, fighting to get into screenings. For me, being part of that experience was incredible, but winning that award, if you could have picked any of the awards I’d want to win there, to win the Storytelling Award, that is why I’m in this whole game and world. That’s what I want to do, tell stories and entertain and educate audiences. To win that, that was the icing on the cake. That whole experience was like a dream. My editor was with me, and every single day, we’d wake up and go “This is the best day of my life,” and then the next day “This is the best day of my life.”
Have other people tried to tell this story before? My first thought after seeing this was “I can’t believe no one has tackled this before.”
Me too. Well, my first reaction was “This is an incredible story; I have to tell this.” But my second was “Why hasn’t this been told before?” What we find out quite quickly is that people had tried to tell the story before. Not specifically the triplets’ story but about the study. We know of two attempt in the ’80s and one in the ’90s, both by major U.S. networks. In a couple of cases, especially of the one in the ’90s, the film was complete and then it got pulled by people higher up on the food chain at the network. With the one in the ’90s, we spoke to a triple-Pulitzer-wining journalist who worked for The New York Times who was on that film, and then it got pulled, and he never got an answer as to why it got pulled. So when we were making it, there was a huge amount of paranoia. So many people told us “You’ll never finished this film. It’s going to get pulled. Someone will sue you. You’re going to get shut down.” Until it actually played at Sundance, which was the world premiere, we had no idea if we were going to pulled.
So being a part of something like this does make you more paranoid.
It did! And I’m not a person who lends themselves easily to conspiracy theories or paranoia, but we were. A huge part of the relationship that myself and the producer, Becky Read, had was to calm each other and reassure each other, because it’s easy to get paralyzed by that paranoia, when you’re saying “Well, we can’t contact that person because they may have connection, and they may shut everything down.” We had to put all of those thoughts to one side, despite the fact that everyone we met was telling us “There are very powerful people who don’t want this story to be told.”
Your film has made me question to purity of scientific research, which is supposed to be reliable and not be influenced by outside forces. And it’s also made the question the things that are kept secret about the adoption process. Did you views change on either of those subjects as a result of making this movie?
I studied psychology at university and gave it up after a couple of years to change to filmmaking at the same college. And the reason I gave it up was because I found it a bit of a pseudo-science, to be honest with you, and some of the thing didn’t really add up to me. What’s fascinating, in that period of the ’50s and ’60s, when psychology is really trying to establish itself as a science, and there’s something of a paradigm shift, there are a load of experiments—like the Milgrim obedience experiments and later the Stanford Prison Experiment—that today you’d never get past an ethics committee. And I think that happens when areas of science push the envelope and establish new paradigms, and I think that’s what was going on. I do think, in this case, there is a historical defense that at the time there was a lot of this type of thing going on. Having said that, I think the people at the time knew they were on ethically very dodgy ground, and they definitely contacted other adoption agencies to ask for children to take part in this study and were told no, you can’t split up twins and triplets; that’s just wrong.
In terms of adoption in general, I know less about adoption. I do know today, people are trying to be much more open. I know in the UK, there’s been a move to more open adoptions and not these closed ones where there’s no information. Transparency and information for adopted children can only be a good thing, and you do wonder why it’s taken so long to reach this point.
A key component of this film is that you subjects are so emotionally open with you, and they certainly couldn’t have been eager to recount some of these details. Talk about establishing that relationship with them.
You’re absolutely right. Documentaries are only as good as the contributors or subjects who appear in them. What you look for is that emotional honesty. People can just tell you their story, and that would be fine, but to elevate the film, you need emotional honesty and go back to that time and remember what it was like. Earning that trust and getting them in a place where they’re happy to do that is tough, and it all comes down to time—time with people involved, time with their families without cameras, just answering questions, just being straight with them, not trying to say everything will be fine, letting them know that there will be moment where they’ll wish they hadn’t agreed to be in this film and wish I’d go away. I'd just be up front with them about that, and I think people appreciate that honesty. Beyond that, it’s an instinctual rapport you get with some people, but they have to be open to it, and I was very lucky that they were. They are emotionally intelligent people, and I was lucky they were willing to unlock that for me and the film.
Whatever you do next, can you imagine yourself devoting as much time and energy as you did to this film?
Hopefully the next project isn’t going to take five years. I have some things I’m looking at, documentaries and scripted, but what I’ve learned from my career is that when I find something that I really want to do, I don’t mind the time investment or the emotional investment that I have to put in to get things off the ground. What I could never be is a director going around project to project just to pay the bills. I’ve always has this development career in the background so I can develop stuff when I’m not directing. But once I’ve hit on a project, I will go as long as it takes to make it work.
What do you want people thinking and talking about when they leave this film?
That’s a great question. More than anything, I want them feeling things when they come out. I want them to feel the complex range of emotions that hopefully the film elicits. I'd like people to talk about medial ethics, which is slightly dull but an interesting conversation. Also about nature/nurture and what is it that makes us what we are, and family and what is family really. Is it about genetics and bloodline, or are families about who we’re related to or who loves us? I think that was a question that was at the heart of what I was trying to do. I’ve had such strong reactions from people who’ve watched this film and are adopted, and I really hope that it makes people think about that.
I’ve seen the film hundreds of times, but I’ll come in a key moments just to hear the reactions from the audience. I was influenced by that Hitchcock quote when someone asked him “What do you want do with a film?” and he said, “I want to put the audience through it.” And that’s what I wanted to do. I want them to experience the highs and lows that the boys experienced over this period. I always feel a little guilty going in to watch the audience at that start and hearing them laughing and feeding off each other and enjoying themselves, because I know what’s coming. I guess that’s the joy of being a filmmaker.
Tim, best of luck and congratulations on everything so far. Thanks for talking.
Cool. Thank you.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”