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Interview: Director Tim Wardle Talks “Three Identical Strangers”


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What do we believe in? Why the nature or nurture must come together to define the future of not one but three individuals? Why not leave everyone alone and let them decide how would they like to handle their own life? The problem is, we humans like to experiment, study and change the course of history be it on a small or a large scale.

What happens in “Three Identical Strangers” directed by Tim Wardle is outrageous but reminds us why this life is so complicated and even taken for granted.

During my interview with the director Tim Wardle that took place in Toronto, I sat like a pupil in front of a professor who had the most interesting story to tell, the story which sounded like legend, but unfortunately was sadly real.

This is why I am extremely proud to present this piece to you, so you know what to expect from the year’s most outstanding, heart-warming, yet absolutely fascinating documentary movie called “Three Identical Strangers”.

MOVIEMOVESME: This is probably the stock question, but I think I was really struck by just sort of the arc, because it started sort of pop culturally and light and fun, and then it got pretty sinister. I’m kind of curious – when you discovered this story, was that sort of the evolution of it for you as well or did you know sort of the whole thing going in?

Tim Wardle: Look, man, I love it when people spot that, ’cause not everyone gets that, that kind of arc and how planned … The truth is, when I got the story, we knew about 50 percent of it. We knew that there are these boys who had been separated at birth, raised by different families, didn’t know anything about them, and they’d be reunited at 19 and become famous. We knew that it was a sort of darker, slightly darker story about the reason for that.

We didn’t know exactly how it was going to pan out. I’m like a movie nut. Like I love drama films as much as documentary, and so I’m always interested in films that play with genre and tone. I think most films, you start with one tone, you establish it at the top, and then you keep that tone the whole way through.

And the opportunity and the challenge of being able to start in one place                          totally and move somewhere completely different was really exciting to me.

So we definitely went for that. Me and the editors are saying it’s our first feature, both of us, but we were like we love ’80s movies and sort of high school frat boy kind of movies. But then we love serious identity thrillers and stuff like that. It was like can we kind of combine these elements?

MOVIEMOVESME: Once you heard this story, what is it the most striking you found about this experiment between the triplets or even twins, or the way the society even allowed that to happen as you were discovering this?

Tim Wardle: I think the most shocking thing is just what human beings are capable of doing to each other, and sometimes for the best intentions. I don’t think any of the people who are involved in this story are like evil people or bad. That’s why there’s a section in the film where one of the scientists is showing off all the pictures of her with all of these liberal icons, like the Obamas and stuff like that.

I’m not interested in making a film which is about bad people doing bad things. I think it’s much more interesting, like really good people doing bad things and why that happens. But I think that was quite shocking. The people in this, these people who’ve done a huge amount of good. The scientists involved. Peter Neubauer is the founding father of child psychiatry in America, so he’s done amazing work for children. But at the same time he was involved in this thing that was really ethically suspect. So I think that’s fascinating, but also quite kind of dark insight into human behavior.

MOVIEMOVESME: It really does sort of play out on that level as well, because this is a common misconception with documentary film that there can’t be an entertainment value to it. But there has to be an entertainment value to it, really.

Tim Wardle: I mean this is my slight bugbear about documentaries. At the moment sometimes there’s a sense that they have to be hard work and serious and issue-driven. And I think the best films may have a great story at their heart, but also tackle a big issue. But a lot of films sometimes have just issue-driven, but no story.

And I think, I used to work for the BBC and they have this mantra. Films have to, and programs have to inform, educate, and entertain. And you need all of those elements. And sometimes documentary forgets the entertaining bit, and I think that’s a mistake if you want to engage people.

MOVIEMOVESME: Is that how you find that balance? Because I can imagine it’s easier to go one way or the other.

Tim Wardle: Yeah. I think we’re lucky that we have the BBC and we have that, I have that kind of grounding. But I think it’s like I don’t like films that just entertain for the sake of entertainment. Like my favorite narrative movies, I guess, tend to be ones that have maybe genre, but in an intelligent way. Something like “Get Out”, where it’s a horror film, but there’s a social commentary there as well or whatever.

And it’s the same with document … And, look, documentaries of Broad church. I love all kinds of documentaries. Probably my favorite recent one is “Act of Killing” for the last 10 years. And that’s very formally experimental and quite an art film in some ways. But I love that. And I think document … it’s a Broad church. They’re all valid. I just think sometimes there’s a sense that they have to be worthy and they have to be good for you. And I don’t agree with that. I think they can and should be entertaining, but they need to be about more than just the story. Like dramatic films do as well.

MOVIEMOVESME: I have identical twin and I know that one of us is emotionally stronger. The other one is maybe sometimes lacking or panicking quickly. Robert was the first one who started telling this story in such a fun way. You don’t really expect, if you don’t know anything about it, that there’s a dramatic part to it. And then David comes later and then you know that through his face, as you watched his facial expressions, that there is something happening. Was it challenging for you to see who will be the first one to leave the story and who will continue?

Tim Wardle: That’s a good question. I think that because the story plays out broadly chronologically, we’re kind of forced to be with one person or the other based on where they discovered … I wanted the audience to discover the story as they discovered it, and that’s what that first section with the reconstruction and all that, that’s why we had reconstruction, because we wanted people to be like right in the moment with them, ’cause we didn’t have many pictures from that era. So we really wanted everyone onsite and experiencing the story as they experienced it, ’cause it means that you’re in their shoes and then when things happen to them later, you’re kind of really invested.

I think that they serve, it’s interesting, they serve very different roles. Bobby gets you into the story and he’s like sets it up. And then David later becomes more central to the narrative and he’s the one doing the investigation later in the film. So they’re capable of doing both, but their role in the story, it was different. It was just like who can tell this bit of the story best. Who’s the best person?

It’s amazing how many people have seen this film have either come up to me afterwards wanting to talk about it, have either had children who are twins themselves or are a twin. They react to it more powerfully even than like a normal audience member. The idea of being kind of separated and it’s that …

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MOVIEMOVESME: If you look more into the analytical side, so just to look into that process of the experiment, what I found that it’s not just the triplets who were tested but the parents as well. The one thing what I found is just the three different families. One is rich, another one not so much, and the third one is just enough to make enough money to feed the family. And then there’s the nature vs nurture. What’s your take on this?

Tim Wardle: I don’t know I think as far as I can work out the idea was you take these three individuals who are genetically the same and you put them in different environments and you see how similar. Are they gonna stay the same? Because the environment doesn’t matter, or are they gonna change depending on their environment? And I think the families were very carefully selected for those reasons to represent different environments.

What they found out, I still couldn’t exactly tell you ’cause you know, with the information we’ve got it’s very conflicted and confusing. But I think it’s really hard to know exactly what went on in the experiment ’cause there’s so much secrecy you know they’ve got some notes now, the boys, but they’re very heavily redacted and photo copied so they can’t see the original. So it’s very hard to know exactly what went on. The families, they didn’t know, honestly they thought they were just getting a single child. They were told the child’s part of a normal study and you know, that was it. A normal study of development study and it was only later that they found out there was this big experiment.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you find the right balance between what needed to end up in the film and what shouldn’t?

Tim Wardle: It’s really difficult. I mean it’s really difficult, there’s lots in the film that, you know the film could’ve gone in so many different ways. There’s a whole separate story about the wives of the triplets, about their children now. They have children who are essentially genetically half siblings, even though they’re cousins because their fathers are genetically identical. It’s very tricky, sometimes there’s a balance you strike to be sensitive to the contributors so like Eddy’s father, we had other people saying more negative things about the relationship between the two of them. And it was like finding a balance where you were honest about the fact they didn’t have a great relationship. But you also weren’t going so far that is was being unfair on him, he’s an old man and he did his best kind of thing.

So, it’s just a judgment thing. It’s also time, I think very few documentaries should be over ninety minutes long. Act of Killing being a rare exception. But I think ninety minutes a good length for any film, drama or documentary. I wanted to leave it with people wanting more rather than being like , ugh you know, you’ve exhausted every part of this story.

MOVIEMOVESME: There are so many elements in this story that you could’ve manipulated as a filmmaker and a story teller, but it really didn’t feel like you did. You stayed sort of on track to make sure you told the story and not told a version of the story.

Tim Wardle: Yeah, yeah, I mean, one of the reactions, the most interesting reactions, ’cause we showed it to pretty much everyone, all the key people in it. Eddy’s widow said she liked it, it’s very clear, she kept saying. And I was like what do you mean by that? I think she just felt that various attempts had been made before people who’d, when she heard it orally, told the story, people got sidetracked by different things. And she was like now you’ve found a really clear through line.

And I think I was really lucky I had an editor, it’s our first feature both of us, he’s actually out here in Toronto this evening, Michael Heart, and we were just really focused on how do we tell this story the best way possible and the clearest way possible. ‘Cause there was so many people in the film and I think the relationships are quite complicated like who’s who, which family. It kind of doesn’t really matter, sometimes on second viewings what we’re finding is people get more, oh, she’s his aunt, okay I get that. But it kind of doesn’t matter and we spent a lot of time sort of just working, and it was just pretty much clear what was going on most of the time hopefully.

MOVIEMOVESME: I know that Eddy, or not Eddy but the person playing, that’s not going to be the outcome of the film but how did the brothers, how did the twins accept the film? There’s a reason why they didn’t want to trust anyone yet they let you in. And do you think what you have given them is something that might justify and so they can dedicate to their brother?

Tim Wardle: Yeah, I think I was really, you know winning that trust was so hard because they’ve been treated so badly in the past. Both by, you know manipulated by those controlling their lives but also the media coverage in the past, people have promised them all kinds of things. And showing them the film, was an amazing experience. I showed them separately not because they liked it, but they did they loved it, and that was great. What wasn’t prepared for was this kind of emotion, which was like thank you for delivering on what you promised. It was like I don’t think that’s happened that much in their lives, you know people have promised them a lot. And so it was like, you did what you said you were gonna do. And certainly, Eddy’s wife and daughter feel that it’s a good representation of him and a fair representation of him. On what made him a wonderful guy and also his demons. So I mean the triplets and their families who’ve seen it have been very positive.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was the most positive things you took out of it or even the saddest part?

Tim Wardle: I think the saddest one is seeing the damage that mental health and suicide in particular can do to families. When someone kills themselves a lot of people start blaming themselves and there’s a lot of guilt that goes around. And the repercussions of that are so far reaching and deep. I’ve known people who’ve killed themselves, but I hadn’t really seen the devastation that can cause a family first hand. And that was quite shocking and that was very sad.

I mean I think that the film hopefully, despite the dark tonal shift, it ends on a uplifting note in terms of the theme. Which is that is does matter actually, how you raise your kids and the environment you’re in and that does have an effect. And so I think hopefully, at least that side of it is positive. You see the little old lady in the film, Aunt Heidi, she is David’s aunt she is like the moral center of the film. And although his dad, Bubula, who they all talk about isn’t in the film, she’s his sister and you get a sense of what a warm, loving family that was for David to be in.

And you can see that in how he is today, so that was kind of reassuring. You know that nurture, for all the power of nature, nurture is important as well.

MOVIEMOVESME: So you think the families should exercise the power of nature in people and also the nurture as well? So if they want to parent their children like to raise them.

Tim Wardle: Yeah I think you have to. And the thing I learned is you have to be respectful of the biology and the nature side of things. I didn’t really appreciate how powerful it was, everyone comes into this world with predispositions, your biology is pushing you in a certain direction. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change and that people around you can’t help you change. And so yeah you have to be, I think, mindful of both of them. I still change my mind almost every day about the relative power of the two different forces, but I think as a parent if you have kids you have to be mindful to both important…

MOVIEMOVESME: Well it hits on certain philosophical levels too, its a great story that allows you to ask more questions after the fact rather than having sort of a resolution with a bow on top, you know?

Tim Wardle: Yeah, I mean you know the scary thing is when you get people that really know philosophy or biochemistry or whatever. And I’m like, I’m on the edge of my knowledge here. But you’re right, I think when I was making the film I was terrified we didn’t have an ending. We didn’t have any bow to tie up. And I always thought we have to get them answers, we have to get the truth about what happened. But actually sometimes it’s good in a narrative device to have something sort of, Pandora’s Box that you never open. It’s there but you never answer because at the end of the film, people come out wanting to talk about it.

MOVIEMOVESME: And that’s family too right? That’s that Pandora’s Box they could never really answer.

Tim Wardle: Exactly. And I think that’s what I learned as a film maker making this film, that it’s okay sometimes not to have answers. If you learn screenwriting and stuff its like everything has to be pointing towards this big denumerable at the end where everything gets explained. But actually it’s okay sometimes not to have that, particularly in docs. You have to provide some answers but you don’t have to provide all of them.

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