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Dublin: 8 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019

You shouldn't Google the film Three Identical Strangers before it hits Irish cinemas

We talked to its director about the fascinating story – but don’t worry, there are no spoilers.

2 - TIS_Eddy, David, Bobby_Courtesy of NEON Source: Neon

WHATEVER YOU DO, don’t Google the film Three Identical Strangers before you watch it.

The documentary film, directed by Welsh native Tim Wardle, is about three young men in 1980s New York who are happily going about their lives when something extraordinary happens: they discover they are identical triplets.

That much we can say, but the film delves even further into their almost unbelievable story. To tell you more would be to spoil the experience. But as our chat with Tim Wardle shows, the film brings up many different themes – ones that will have you thinking about your own own life and the forces that shape it.

Meet the brothers

First, to the – brief – story of the three brothers: Eddy Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran. All three of them grew up in different parts of New York, not too far from each other. They each had an adopted sibling, and two of them ended up going to the same college.

At 19, they discovered each other existed. First, two of the brothers realised they were twins, then the third found out he was the missing triplet.

Because of how incredible their story was, they became well known, being trotted out on different TV shows to demonstrate just how similar they were. Their body language and conversation was evidence to viewers of how they were facsimiles of each other. 

“[Their story] was quite big in America in 1980 and around that time, but it kind of disappeared,” explains Wardle of what happened next. “So even in America when you talk to people about it, prior to this film coming out, they don’t really know that much about it – I was amazed.”

1 - TIS_Courtesy of NEON

He first heard their story about six years ago, when he was head of development for Raw – which made documentary The Imposter and the film American Animals – and a producer brought him the story. “When you do that job you just get very cynical, you feel like you’ve seen every idea under the sun,” he said.

But when he heard the brothers’ story he thought “this is the best documentary idea I’ve ever come across”. He realised it “works on multiple levels: you’ve got the human interest story, these guys are separated and reunited. But then it enables you to explore much deeper almost philosophical questions about nature vs nurture, free will, family, destiny”.

He had no experience of directing a feature, but soon it was a project he knew he had to complete. Wardle developed it with producer Grace Hughes-Hallett for two years, then for another two years on his own. Then producer Becky Read came on for the actual production.

Though there were big name directors talked about for the film, Wardle jokingly says he “sort of muscled my way onto it to the point of it where they couldn’t get rid of me”.

Was it easy to get the film off the ground? In a word, no. “It was a slog, mainly convincing the brothers to take part,” says Wardle. “When you see the film, you see the full extent of what they’ve been through, you understand why they might find it hard to trust people.”

The budget for his previous work usually amounted to about £170k – for this, Wardle and team had to raise $1.2million.

Though it seems hard to believe now, given the rapturous praise it has received, it was hard to raise funding for the documentary. “So many people said ‘maybe – we’re not sure how commercial it is’, also ‘where does it end, what’s the third act, where does it go’.” 

Tim Wardle Headshot Director Tim Wardle

Conspiracy theories

The filming had to take place in the US, with a UK-based crew. Wardle says this made him become very focused. “The good thing about it was it forced me to have real discipline, because if you’re flying a whole crew out to America you have to be really specific about what you want and what you can achieve in that time.” 

But there were many challenging moments, particularly as Wardle said there are “a lot of conspiracy theories around the story and why it hasn’t been told in the past”.

“People would talk to us on the phone and we’d try and call them back and they’d suddenly [go] dark,” he says.

It was very hard not to get completely paranoid about the whole thing. If you were in the same country you’d probably go and knock on their door and go ‘talk to me’. We couldn’t do that.

He believes the brothers were more receptive to him and his team than they would have been to an American filmmaker.

“Also what was helpful for me was that they explained a lot of things that maybe to an American filmmaker or certainly a New York filmmaker they wouldn’t have explained, like the differences between the areas they grew up.” This lack of assumed knowledge only added to the narrative.

“We had no idea that by the end of the film things would have moved on quite significantly from an investigative journalistic point of view,” adds Wardle. “It was a weird mix of knowing a lot about some parts of it and nothing about other parts of it.”

3 - TIS_Eddy, David, Bobby_Courtesy of NEWSDAY

‘You have to be ahead of the audience’

At one point, there had been pressure to make a Netflix-style mini series, because “there’s easily enough information” for one, says Wardle. But he was focused on making a feature. He and his editor, Donegal native Michael Harte, had to make sure the film was pacy and revealed information at the right parts. 

When pacing a documentary, “you have to be slightly ahead of the audience, move on just before everyone’s getting get bored and then you throw some more information in”, explains Wardle, adding that Harte was particularly talented at doing this.

How did the brothers find having to talk about tough times in their life? “I think they found it really tough,” says Wardle. “I had warned them at the top that if they were going to do it we had to talk about everything. I think it’s very important to be honest with people when you’re interviewing them. But also it puts a real duty of care onto you as a director to take them through it.”

In terms of how the men have reacted to their story being told publicly, Wardle says “they’ve been pretty robust actually so far, and have really taken it in their stride”. It has even affected their relationship.

And the lovely thing that was really unexpected is that the film seems to have brought them closer together. They weren’t in a very good place in terms of their relationship when they were making the film.

The brothers described their relationship recently as “a work in progress”. “But the experience of making the film and sharing it with people had brought them closer together, which was not in any way the objective but which was a lovely unexpected side effect,” says the director.

Nature vs nurture

As a former psychology student, Wardle was keenly interested in the idea of nature vs nurture, something that is a big theme in this documentary.

“What’s nice is nature/nurture is a very big question that everyone can get stuck into and get really interested in but [the brothers] embody it as well,” he says. “They are like us as people trying to find out how much agency they have over their own life and how much it’s determined by their genealogy, and so it was something I was aware of from the start.”

It just became more and more interwoven with the narrative of it – we have got a really strong story, can we get this philosophical argument in there or discussion in there as well. But it’s what gives it some depth and makes it more than just a human interest story.

He says initially he went into the film with a “nurture is everything perspective”, but this began to shift. 

“I think it really shocked me to see just how powerful nature can be. Also I had my first child when I was making the film and I think I was really shocked by how much personality he was born with. I thought kids were more like blank slates.”

“At various points in the film I was like, my goodness look at how strong nature is. But then by the end I’d seen how I feel that as they got older the brothers … you’d see the influence of their families on them more as they’ve got older and I think that led me to realising that nurture is a significant factor even if nature is very powerful too.”

Wardle is currently deciding on which project – from some scripted and documentary options – to work on next. Right now, it’s all about Three Imaginary Strangers. The movie is a fascinating watch – troubling, emotive, leaving you with lots of questions about what’s going to happen next.

The reaction to his debut feature has been “completely overwhelming and surreal”, says the director.

“I thought it was just going to be a small film that maybe went on out Channel 4 or something,” he says. “And then suddenly we got into Sundance [film festival] which was a miracle. And it got picked up for distribution, and pretty much everyone who worked on this film was a first time filmmaker.

[Editor] Michael Harte said we will never work on a story as good as this the rest of our lives, which is true.

“It’s been brilliant sharing it with the rest of the filmmaking team but I think it will take all of us about five or 10 years to process it fully.”

Three Identical Strangers is released in cinemas this weekend.

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