After remarking about the unseasonably warm weather in Toronto for a late April morning, UK filmmaker Tim Wardle will attempt to talk to me in an interview about his latest documentary, Three Identical Strangers (which opens in Toronto and Vancouver this weekend, expanding to additional cities over the summer). It’s a difficult film to talk about for two reasons. First, it works best as a narrative to know nothing about what happens before going in. Second, thanks to a shadowy conspiracy that lies at the heart of what started out as a feel good human interest story, there’s still a frightening degree of ambiguity that hangs over Three Identical Strangers.
“The thing with this film is that at a certain point, there are things that I generally avoid talking about too much,” Wardle says over coffee in a downtown hotel suite. “After the film’s premiere at Sundance, I saw some of the reviews, and even if they were generally positive, I think some of them gave a bit too much away. Some of the reviews were just descriptions of the story, and not even reviews of the film. And I’m sure that there will be some people who’ll appreciate that, but I think this is a story that benefits greatly from a certain degree of discretion beforehand.”
Wardle’s hesitancy to talk about certain elements contained within Three Identical Strangers is understandable, as it affords the people involved in a bizarre, convoluted, and potentially insidious situation to share their unfiltered feelings about their lives for the first time.
In 1980, nineteen year old New York City area community college student Bobby Shafran is shocked when he receives something close to a hero’s welcome on his first day of school from people he’s never met before. The outpouring of love is a case of mistaken identity, as Bobby looks and sounds exactly Eddy Galland, a student who stopped going to the same school the previous semester. Bobby and Eddy are put in touch with each other, and confirm that they were twins that were separated at birth. The feel-good story of brothers who haven’t seen each other since they were six months old sparks a media frenzy that only intensifies when a third man – David Kellman – turns out to be another identical sibling. The three hit it off famously and partied hard together with their newfound celebrity throughout the 1980s, but eventually nagging questions about their differences and why the triplets were split up in the first place lead to the darker areas Wardle is disinclined to spoil for audiences.
We met with Wardle on the morning of Three Identical Strangers’ Canadian premiere at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival to discuss the advantages of making such an American film from the perspective of a cultural outsider, gaining the trust of a family that has been burned by the media in the past, and a little bit about the secrets hidden at the heart of these brothers’ stories.
I think there are a lot of people who might remember the happier elements of this story as they were unfolding in the early 1980s, but definitely fewer who saw the darker elements to the situation these triplets found themselves in. When you start making a film like this, how long does it take to distance yourself as a filmmaker from the happier, more vastly established version of events and to cut through all the puff pieces and human interest stories?
Tim Wardle: It’s a good question. I was aware of both sides of this story ahead of time, and I knew a certain amount going into it. I knew there were these three boys who were separated at birth and didn’t know anything of each others’ existence. I knew they were reunited at the age of nineteen and they became famous to a certain degree. I knew the darker reasons behind why this had happened, but I didn’t know everything. I think the duality of the story was always what attracted me to make this film. If it had just been a human interest story about triplets who were reunited, I would have found it interesting, but I probably wouldn’t have thought to make a film about it. When I heard the story behind the story, that was what made me want to make a film about it.
It’s a story that when you try to make it into a film makes you realize the tonal variety of what’s happening, so you have to try and gather as many perspectives as you can to make sure that everything is being served. When you make films and documentaries in particular, I guess, they start in one mode and you stay within that tonal space all the way through. This was a story that has real extremes in its tone. That’s a challenge when you try to research something like this, especially when some of the biggest details are hidden, but that was also what appealed to me.
The film nicely shows that these brothers have had to answer the same exact questions about their relationship over and over for the past thirty-seven years, and I’m sure there was some trepidation on their part to go on camera, thinking they might have to put up with the same line of questioning all over again. What did it take to convince them that your film was going to be different?
Tim Wardle: It was really tough. It took me the better part of four years to win their trust, and the trust of their families, to get them to embark on this journey with us. They’ve been promised a lot in the past, and they’ve been let down a lot during their lives, as you can see from the events that happen in the film. All I could do was say that I was interested both in what has been told before, as well as what hasn’t been told. They’re both equally important, and I was very honest with them that their story will always come with this media spin that’s been put on it.
On one level, this is a film about the nature of storytelling; how we tell stories and how they tell their own stories. It’s fascinating because on one level, this film functions as a critique on the media and how we tell stories, and I have to be aware that I’m doing that myself. I explained all of this to them, and I think they got that. If they believed that I was going to do all of that, I don’t know, but one of the most amazing experiences for me was showing them the film when I was done with it.
Two things happened. One was that they loved the film, which was great, but the stronger emotion that came out was when they told me that I delivered exactly what I said I was going to deliver. I don’t think that’s happened much for them in their lives. That emotion and thanks was so much stronger than their liking of the film. That was really rewarding.
You’re also working with brothers and family members who turned out to be better journalists than the journalists that were covering them. They were the only people asking the question: “Why would a family of identical triplets be separated at birth and not put up for adoption together?” How invaluable was the legwork that the family already did to your film?
Tim Wardle: Extremely, so. You have to remember that a lot of those early years where the brothers were together, they spent a lot of time together partying and enjoying their lives to the fullest, so a lot of what was being done was being done by the families in those early years. It was later on when things started to go wrong in their relationship that they started asking deeper questions.
But you’re right; initially the media reported it as a happy-go-lucky story, which rubbed many people in the family the wrong way. There’s a tabloid journalist in the film, Howard Schneider, who was at NewsDay, but teaches journalism now, who uses this story and what the family was able to uncover outside of the media spin to illustrate the unknowability of a narrative. Journalists thought they knew where this story was going, but the family knew that it ended someplace entirely different that no one else really wanted to talk about.
There are a finite amount of answers that anyone covering this story in-depth – both from your perspective and the families’ perspectives – that anyone can get thanks to people who have either passed away, refused to go on the record, or documents that are sealed. That has to be hard to approach as an outsider, but it could also be an advantage since you haven’t covered this story before and you aren’t a blood relative of the family. Do you think that offered you slightly more access than others have been granted in the past?
Tim Wardle: I think to some degree, that’s true. I think, more importantly, being an outsider who wasn’t from North America ended up helping me more than I expected. Coming in as a British person, I think the people I needed to talk to were more open to me than they might have been to a New Yorker or a family member. It was almost like there was this diminished expectation. “This film’s gonna die. No one’s gonna see it.” (laughs) But I think there’s a lot of assumed knowledge that because I wasn’t from here, everyone felt the need to explain their portion of the story from the start. There’s a curiosity that comes I think from speaking to someone you don’t get to converse with every day. I usually find talking to Americans and Canadians more fascinating than talking to British people. I talk to British people all the time. I think when it comes to the people who hadn’t spoken up before, it might have been an advantage. It also leads to a fuller story with details that some people might have taken for granted, like when we talk about the sort of economic divide that the triplets faced before they met each other. I wouldn’t have immediately known how important different areas were or what a certain car said about the people driving it. People sometimes give more details to outsiders than they will to people closer to the story, and I think that definitely helped here, and it certainly opened a few extra doors.
Not to give too much away, but a key component to this story is currently located in sealed documents that likely won’t be accessed by anyone until 2066, which is almost deliberately too late for anyone involved with this story to discover the missing piece unless someone lives long enough to look into it. Do you hope that someone remembers this story that far down the road and finishes what these brothers and their families started?
Tim Wardle: If I’m alive that long, even if I’m in a wheelchair, I would be one of the first people lining up to see these documents. (laughs) Hopefully, this story has a life outside the film. There are people currently making moves towards more transparency, and I think that’s a really good thing. It’s fascinating as a filmmaker when you have a Pandora’s Box at the centre of your story that you can’t open. When I started, I thought that we had to get this thing open, or else the film wouldn’t work. Actually, what I realized is that even if we don’t answer everything, it’s not the end of the world because the questions that we leave hanging are ones that people will want to research more. If we wrapped everything up neatly in a bow, I think people would like the movie, but maybe then they wouldn’t ever think about it again. I think presenting this as an ongoing story isn’t a bad thing at all.
It’s interesting because there are two kind of key reactions that people tend to have when they see where this story ultimately heads. There will be those who see what transpired as something evil, and others who will see the point and validity of what was happening. There are just as many people who will think that this makes sense and others who will have a lot of ethical qualms. It’s easy to judge with hindsight, especially with a story like this that starts in the 50s and 60s, well before the brothers are even born. It ties into a part of culture that no one likes talking about, but was completely plausible at the time.
I love watching the film with an audience that goes in to this story completely cold, but I always feel somewhat guilty that this story goes down some pretty dark roads. It starts off somewhat cheerful, and then it goes into some much darker places. It’s all thrilling and fascinating, and I hope that we acclimatize the audience to follow us to those darker places. I know this sounds like foreshadowing, but that’s a big part of the film. One of our biggest notes from CNN Films was that we needed to tease things a bit more so that the darker elements don’t come as an abrupt, shocking tonal shift no one can see coming. We also don’t want people to switch off too early and think they know exactly where everything is going. You don’t want to bait people by saying “and no one could believe what happened next,” but you want to tease out the additional layers to the story.
Three Identical Strangers opens at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto and in Vancouver on Friday, July 13, 2018. It expands to Montreal on July 20 and to additional cities throughout the summer.