Three Identical Strangers director Tim Wardle discusses creating a thrilling yet respectful documentary, gaining the trust of his subjects, and making a decades-old story feel fresh and exciting.
The strange coincidences in the lives of twins and triplets seem to persist in the minds of most people as nothing more than myths. That two brothers or sisters might do or say the same thing by accident often appears too good to be true. And yet, I can cite many examples from my own life as a twin to prove that it is not a cliche, but a fact. Tim Wardle’s documentary opens on one such coincidence.
A young boy of 19 goes to his first day of college in a new school, yet everyone acts as if they knew him already. As it turns out, they mistook him for his brother. Not an uncommon occurrence for twins; what is unusual here is that the two brothers do not know each other. By sheer chance, Bobby had gone to the same school that his brother Eddy had been to the semester before.
Wardle’s wildly entertaining film retraces the story of Bobby, Eddy, and David, three triplets separated at birth and sent to live and grow up in three different families for a scientific study on nature vs. nurture. Revealing any more would be a mistake. Although the film features talking-head interviews and archival footage, it is specifically designed to unfold like a thrilling drama, with twists and turns more unpredictable than any screenwriter could have written.
Wardle talked to me about creating a thrilling yet respectful documentary, using re-enactments when necessary, gaining the trust of his subjects, and making a decades-old story feel fresh and exciting.
Seventh Row (7R): The film’s structure is striking: even though you, of course, knew the full extent of it, you decided to tell it chronologically. Why is that?
Tim Wardle (TW): One of the things I’m proud of in the film is its structure. It’s an unusual structure, because it combines two different schools of documentary filmmaking that are completely separate and not usually seen in the same film. We have the past tense side of the story, which has interviews and archival footage; and then the present tense, with the observational element that follows what is happening in the present day. Those two forms are normally completely separate. You don’t usually see them in the same film, and they’re quite hard to mix because they’re quite different in terms of tone and pace. We have a scene where one of the contributors stood up and walked out of the interview space — that was a way of bridging the gap between these two different styles. We had to turn the interview space into an observational, actuality space.
We knew a lot of the details of the past story of what happened, so we were able to quite tightly structure that, to find the narrative beats of the story arc. But then, we also had developments that occurred as we were making the film. We had no idea what was going to happen. You are constantly, almost every day, changing the way you see the film. The main theme of the film — is it nature or nurture that shapes the people that we are? — we changed our opinion on that almost every day!
7R: The film is about how this experience was cruel to the children and their families, but the film still tries to answer the question of nature vs. nurture. How do you find a balance where you both criticise the experiment and try to answer the question without exploiting the triplets all over again?
TW: Firstly, I try and contextualise the experiments when it happened; I’m not interested in saying “these scientists were bad, evil people.” For me, what’s interesting about human behaviour and documentary are those grey areas — the idea of good people doing bad things. In the scene with one of the scientists, we see that she has pictures in her house of herself standing next to liberal icons like Barack Obama. This was to kind of show that this isn’t an evil Nazi type of person; this is someone who considers herself an incredibly liberal, right-on person. That duality in human nature is what I’m interested in. But it’s a good question.'The main theme of the film — is it nature or nurture that shapes the people that we are? — we changed our opinion on that almost every day!'Click To Tweet
What I would say we’re doing is acknowledging that this ‘nature vs. nurture’ question is a fascinating one, a universal one that has been around for a long time, and will continue to be. And I think that the triplets were happy for me to explore that. I will say that I don’t think they themselves are that interested in it; they’re more interested in the injustices that were done to them. The reasons why those injustices were done, they don’t really bother them that much. But I think that, as a filmmaker, you have to have an understanding that the audience will be interested in this wider thematic story. For me, the best documentaries have a brilliant narrative at their heart, but they also ask wider questions.
7R: Did you tell the subjects that the film would have this structure, with things being revealed progressively and in the order that they happened?
TW: I had an idea of the structure in terms of those reveals, but a lot of that did come together in the edit. I had a brilliant editor, Michael Harte, and we spent a long time working out when to reveal certain bits of information. It’s broadly chronological. But sometimes you’ll see one thing from one perspective, then you’ll learn some more information; and then you’ll see, for example, the same archival footage of the boys on a talk show, but it will have a different meaning in the light of what you know know about what’s happened to them.
But no, I didn’t discuss it with any of the people other than the production team. I think when making a documentary, you have to have a plan and a destination you think you’re aiming for, but then you also have to be open to change.
Fascinatingly, Frederick Wiseman takes the complete opposite approach to documentary filmmaking: he sees shooting as gathering research, which he only shapes into a story in the edit. Keeping a completely open mind is key. He talks about this in depth in our Documentary Masters eBook.
7R: In addition to the footage from the past and the things that you shot in the present, there are also sequences of re-enactments. What made you decide to include reenactments?
TW: The film opens on Bobby, a young guy, 19 years old, going to college for the first time. He’s never been there before, but everyone acts like they know him. His twin brother had been there the term before, but neither of them knew that they had a brother. So it’s that coincidence that kind of starts the whole film.'When making a documentary, you have to have a plan and a destination you think you’re aiming for, but then you also have to be open to change.'Click To Tweet
For me, the beginning of the film is so important because that’s where you get the audience engaged, and I really wanted the viewers to be in the shoes of Bobby. The problem was that there’s no real footage or archive before the point where they meet, so we had to find some pictures to put there. We spent a long time debating whether to do reconstruction, and in the end, we decided that this was the best way to put the viewer in the shoes of the contributors.
7R: I was really interested in the moment where the brothers argued. There is this moment where one of their sisters says “Of course they were brothers, and when they met for the first time, they had that instant connection — but they didn’t have 19 years of knowing each other.”
TW: For me, that’s one of the tragedy of that story. We had met and spoken to a number of people who have found their siblings as part of that story at a later age. All of them have an initial period where they’re very close, this amazing reunion, and the majority of them have fallen out, to the point where quite a few of them aren’t speaking. I think it is that process of negotiation that goes into growing up together — I’ve got two brothers — you work out how to relate to each other. And if you don’t have that, and you’re suddenly thrown together in quite an artificial way when you’re much older, it must be really tough. If you share the same DNA, and one of you is doing better than the other — financially, or with relationships, etc — it must be quite tough. It’s natural to compare, to see the similarities, but also the difference, and that can be quite painful.
7R: In the moments where the brothers were talking about the first time they met, they all seemed very happy.
TW: When talking about that period, everyone — the brothers but also their friends — they just lit up! It was such a joyous, incredible moment. They were young; they could go anywhere, get into any parties — they had such a great time! So I think even knowing the sadness that followed, it doesn’t distract from the happiness of those early days. They almost get lost in a reverie, thinking about what it was like.'The beginning of the film is so important because that’s where you get the audience engaged, and I really wanted the viewers to be in the shoes of Bobby.'Click To Tweet
That was a big thing for me, because they told that story a lot, particularly when they first met in the 80s, and getting that fresh is really hard. I think I was lucky that they hadn’t really talked about it for a while when I interviewed them. Also, when I was interviewing them, I told them “you have to tell me the story like you’ve never told it before.” Every time I felt that they were slipping into a rehearsed way of telling it, I would tell them “Stop. Start again, imagine that you’ve never met me before.”
I also had little tricks that I probably shouldn’t talk about. I had them sitting for interviews on deliberately uncomfortable metal chairs, to keep them slightly uncomfortable so that they wouldn’t be able to relax and fall back on that standard way of telling the story — to keep them a bit edgy and moving, so that the story would stay fresh.
7R: Did you have to work hard to convince them to make this film and tell their story again?
TW: Really hard. It took four years to get the project funded and off the ground, and then a year to make. The main reason why it took so long was that I needed to gain their trust. When you see the film, and you see what happened to them, and how they’ve been treated, it’s not really surprising that they find it hard to trust people. Even when we were filming with them, I was constantly worried that they would pull out or stop.'I had them sitting for interviews on deliberately uncomfortable metal chairs, so that they wouldn’t be able to relax and fall back on that standard way of telling the story.'Click To Tweet
When I showed them the film — I showed it to each one of them individually — what was incredible was not just that they liked it, which was great, but it was this real emotion in the room: “You’ve done what you said you would do. You said you were going to tell the story fairly, clearly, and you’ve done that.” I think they’ve been let down so many times in their lives, not just by the scientists, but also by the media in the 80s. A lot of people told them “We’ll make your story into a movie!” and it never happened. I think they spent a lot of their lives being disappointed, and what was lovely was that they felt we hadn’t done that with this film.
7R: There is this moment where it says in the film that everyone was looking for the ways they were alike, but no one wanted to see how they were different. Were they happy to get to talk about how different they are?
TW: Like everyone, they understand that the similarities are what the media is interested in, on one level. But I would say that the differences that they got from their family backgrounds became more pronounced the older they got. That’s what it seemed like to me. But for example, the day we interviewed two of the brothers together, they hadn’t really been speaking, but they turned up wearing pretty much exactly the same shoes. And it’s just extraordinary when these things happen. You get the sense that there are these amazing similarities that are there, unplanned.
7R: Has anything more about the experiment come out since you made the film?
TW: They’ve been handed many pages of heavily redacted reports about the experiments, and we’ve started going through them. One of the things we found out was that Eddy had been adopted previously by another family, and he was given back. So you wonder how that might have affected him. On the last day of the edit, we got the actual footage of the experiment and we included it over the credits. So there are still things coming out, and I think it will continue to come out.'The day we interviewed two of the brothers together, they hadn’t really been speaking, but they turned up wearing pretty much exactly the same shoes.'Click To Tweet
7R: Do you think there will be another film about them?
TW: I think there is another film to be made about what’s happening going forward. Whether I’m the person to make it, I don’t know! I’ve lived with this story for five years, and I’m really pleased with the film. A drama film is going to be made about it, which will be fascinating, as well. The story will be around for a long time I think.