"Three Identical Strangers" (Courtesy: Provincetown International Film Festival)
"Three Identical Strangers" (Courtesy: Provincetown International Film Festival)

In the mind-blowing doc Three Identical Strangers, which plays this week at the 20th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival and opens theatrically on June 29, a curly-haired trio of groovy college-aged dudes discovers they share the same birthday — July 12, 1961. And that they were separated as infants!

After a period of reunited-and-it-feels-so-good, as the brothers hit the talk-show circuit, party at Studio 54 in its heyday, and score a cameo in the Madonna hit Desperately Seeking Susan, darker forces emerge. How alike are they really – even if they all smoke Marlboro reds? Who was their birth mother, who split the vulnerable infants and placed them with three sets of adoptive parents – and why?

Tim Wardle’s riveting documentary took the Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance for storytelling – and what a twisted, thriller of a human tragedy it is, raising questions of nature versus nurture, determinism versus free will, and the lengths some scientists will go to sacrifice individual lives for the “good” of supposedly greater knowledge.

RealClearLife talks to Wardle, the film’s award-winning director, to discuss Three Identical Strangers – and what makes for gripping nonfiction filmmaking:

RCL: How much of the story of the brothers – Eddy Galland, Robert Shafran and David Kellman– did you know at the outset of the project, Tim?

Tim Wardle: We had no idea where it was going to take us despite a broad understanding of the situation. The pitch was that it’s an extraordinary human story that allows us to tell a wider story about family, free will and destiny — but it was hard to pitch without a third act.

Particularly in documentary filmmaking, that initial choice of subject seems critical to the project’s final success.

TW: That is absolutely true. A lot of documentaries you see at the moment are issue led, are issues looking for a narrative. To me, the best films have a story at their heart. They have to speak to bigger themes. In many ways, this film is about storytelling. When you make a documentary, there is a duty you have to your subjects. For me, I had a duty to the story.

How did you know that this particular story had legs – and how did you uncover it?

TW: I didn’t find it myself – someone brought it into [my production company] Raw. Amidst the hundreds of story ideas, this one immediately struck me as the single greatest story I ever came across in drama or documentary. I had to tell it.

What was the original kernel that became your movie?

TW: We had a very broad understanding of the story – triplets separated at birth, three separate families, reunited, become famous, the 1980s in New York – and then a darker story about their separation [SPOLER ALERT: as a part of a psychological study] emerges….A lot of people, prominent psychiatrists living in New York, they’d say ‘I can’t talk about this,’ or ‘I don’t know anything about this.’ It was a frustration not getting them to talk, but it also shows you you’re on the right track.

Why hasn’t the brothers’ saga been told before?

TW: Various people had tried: Three attempts were made by a major U.S. network — 2 in the 80s, one in the 90s. An investigative journalist had made the film, completed it and it was pulled and he never got the answer why. When we were making the film, there was this constant paranoia that we would get shut down. I lost track of the number of people who said you’ll never make this film because people had tried before.

Did those attempts make it difficult when you approached the brothers?

TW: One of the hardest things in getting trust from the brothers was that they had been told [it would happen] before. Winning their trust was 90 percent of getting the project off the ground. When I showed the film to them the first time, they loved it. The expressed this emotion that you said you were going to do it, and do it right, and you did — and I find that overwhelming.

The tick-tock of the story – what really happened and how much can we ever know – also inspires larger philosophical questions about identity …

TW: Nature versus nurture, do we have free will or is our destiny programmed in our genes, the abuse of power and the ethics of science? These [latter] issues are also reflected in the filmmaker’s dilemma: the power you have over your subjects is comparable and you have to be extremely conscious of how you use the power. Is family about being related to someone, or is it about love?

While those are crucial questions for study, it seems like these triplets – and other twins used in the study – paid a high individual price ignored by the researchers.

TW: Perhaps it’s the case of the corruption of a noble cause. Why do good people do bad things? These people involved in this research ethically were not okay. I’m interested in that and that area of psychology in the 50s and 60s, kind of the wild west of the field – the Milgram obedience experiments at Yale, the Stanford Prison Experiments, bending and breaking the rules. I’m interested in people’s motivations for doing things. It’s a really interesting area for me: the greys, not the obvious blacks and whites.

What would you like the film to achieve?

TW: I’m looking for the film to have a positive outcome and to achieve transparency around the investigation.

As you look ahead to new projects, will you continue working in documentary?

TW: I’m looking at other feature documentaries, and narrative features, particularly those that blur the lines between fact and fiction. In features, I look to filmmakers like Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Greengrass who employ documentary storytelling techniques in their fiction features. For this film, I looked at Searching For Sugarman structurally, and for historical reconstruction to Errol Morris and Bart Layton’s The Impostor. Genres I love include the Bourne Identity thriller films. It may not translate directly on screen, but it’s a thriller about identity, about these guys: who they are, why things have happened, and what the implications are. Are they preprogrammed to be a certain way in the future? And Bourne is an experiment. There are a lot of parallels. I’m not sure how the boys would feel about that, but they would appreciate being compared to Matt Damon.

How are the siblings holding up in the aftermath of the movie?

TW: I think they’re in as good a place as I’ve seen them in five years. Their relationship wasn’t real good while we were making the movie. As a result of the film, they’ve been brought closer together – including their families, cousins and half-sisters. I hope they are in a better place. And certainly, audience recognition of their pain has been healthy and good for them.

While at the film’s beginning, it’s hard to separate the individual brothers in the found footage, by the end decades later they’ve matured to the point where that’s not the case – that in itself shows the impact of this emotional journey on each brother.

TW: It’s fascinating how different they look. Weirdly, from a filmmaking perspective, it’s helpful that you can differentiate them. It shows the older you get, the stronger the influence of family and experience. When they were 19, they were trying to be alike. Robert says: “We wanted to be alike. We were falling in love with each other.”

That desire to connect only makes the film more poignant. How could that intense love last?

TW: To me, that’s one of the most heartbreaking lines in the film.