27 November 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Three Identical Strangers' Tim Wardle and Michael Harte Talk with IFTN
30 Nov 2018 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN caught up with director Tim Wardle and Irish editor Michael Harte of the hugely successful documentary ‘Three Identical Strangers’, which releases in Ireland - Friday, November 30th.

‘Three Identical Strangers’ tells the incredible story of Eddie, David and Robert, three young men who connected in New York in 1980 having discovered that they were triplets who were separated at birth. Having all been adopted, the documentary follows the story of their reunion and the truth behind why their paths were split in the first place.

From British production company RAW Productions, the documentary was an official selection of Sundance Film Festival in January of 2018 where it picked up the Special Jury Prize. Since then it has taken in $12.5M at the U.S box office and has been hailed as one of the most successful British feature documentaries of all time.

Tim Wardle is a BAFTA-nominated documentary filmmaker, and Executive Producer at Raw Productions. He has also worked as head of development for a number of leading UK production companies, including Century Films, Blast Films, Raw and BBC Documentaries. Irish editor Michael Harte began his career on RTE’s ‘The Savage Eye’ and has gone on to edit on television projects such as ‘The Undateables’. Wardle and Harte worked together on the television movie ‘One Killer Punch’; however ‘Three Identical Strangers’ marks their debut in feature film-making.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Wardle and Harte to discuss the documentary and its success so far.

IFTN: How and when did you first hear about this story?

Tim: “I was working in development, I was the ideas guy for a company called RAW that made documentaries in the past like The Imposter, and this year they have American Animals, in cinemas. In that job you get pitched hundreds of ideas every week, and you get very jaded and you feel you've seen everything before, but this producer one day brought the idea in and instantly I could see it was the best documentary idea I'd ever come across, because it worked from so many different levels.”

“It was a compelling human interest story about these brothers separated at birth and their families, but then it also enabled you to explore these much bigger almost philosophical ideas about nature versus nurture, free will, destiny, that kind of thing. It's quite rare to have a doc that has that much story, but also works on that many levels.”

IFTN: At what point did you and your production actually come into the frame in aiding the triplets in their search for answers?

Tim: “Well, first of all it took about four years to get them on side to make the film, and then a year to make it. During that year we were working with them really to see if we could get them some answers that they never really got. When they first met they were so distracted by the fame and the joy of being together, they didn't really look too deeply at why they'd been separated.”

“Then later on, there was so much trauma and breakdown in relationships that they almost didn't want to think about it. So us making the film was definitely an instigating factor in them trying to go back and get answers and justice on what had happened. It was something they always wanted to do and I think they were coming round to that at that point anyway.”

IFTN: How did you get involved with this project?

Michael: “I had become a little tired of editing and considered pursuing a new career. But then I saw The Imposter by the same producer and production company (Raw), as Three Identical Strangers, and I realised that was exactly the type of film I wanted to make. So I got a job with Raw on a documentary series about Heathrow airport and I was given a load of material that was discarded by other edits to see if there was anything I could do with it.”

“Fortunately the executive producer on the series was Tim Wardle who liked what I did with the footage. So he asked me to cut his single documentary 'One Killer Punch' and from there we built a really good working relationship. I hadn't cut a feature length documentary before so he had to convince CNN films to allow me to edit Three identical Strangers. Thankfully they did and I'll be forever grateful to him for taking that risk, even more so as it was his first feature doc.“

IFTN: As you said, it's an incredible subject matter and I can only imagine that there were so many ways you could have told the story and so many avenues you could have explored. Can you give me some insight into the preparation you had beforehand, and how that influenced your decision as to how to approach the actual documentary itself?

Tim: “Yes, it's a good question. We knew about 50-60% of the story, which was like the back story. So that was relatively easy to prep, especially because I had four years to do that. So I had a really good handle on the story and the aspects of it that I wanted to focus on. Then you've also got the present tense kind of variété observational stuff, and we really didn't know what we were going to get, who was going to talk to us, what was going to happen.”

“That was much more of an unknown quantity, and quite scary to a lot of funders, who kept saying, "Well, what's the third act? What's the third act?" and wanted it all mapped out.”

“For me, it's really important to go into documentaries as much as possible with a plan, but then you also have to be flexible. There's a famous saying, ‘if you end up making a film you set out to make, then you're not doing it right’, and I really believe that.”

“We also, just in terms of focusing it, I think it's such a huge story that it could go in so many different directions and there was definitely enough for a Netflix-style series. There was quite a lot of pressure, actually, to do that, but I always saw it as a feature and I always saw it focused on the story of the brothers and we kept coming back to that. There were all kinds of other avenues we could have gone down, like the other twins as part of the study and all this kind of stuff, but we really just wanted to focus on them.”

IFTN: How crucial a role did this preparation and approach play in helping you get this story across on screen?

Michael: “Tim is always so well prepared. I work very hard in the edit, but a huge amount of prep will always have been done before I set foot in the suite. Usually he has a rough structure for the films going in, but most importantly he is very open to change. This allows us to play around with storytelling possibilities very early in the process.”

“I like to have a rough cut done as quickly as possible because for me the edit doesn't really start until after we've had that first viewing of the rough cut. I'm obsessed with structure and non-linear narrative and always like to be in a comfortable position in the edit where I can try out different ways of telling the story. Although the film feels very twisty it is in fact quite linear as we decided it best that the audience experience the events in the order the triplets experienced them.”

IFTN: In the film you allude to the fact that there were a number of powerful people that didn’t necessarily want this story to come out. What sort of obstacles, if any, did you have to overcome in that capacity?  

Tim: The main one was there was the just extreme cynicism from everyone that we’d be allowed to tell the story because we quickly discovered that there'd been a lot of attempts to tell it before, including two attempts in the '80's and one in the '90's by major US networks. We spoke to filmmakers who’d worked for those projects and they got a long way through telling the story and then being shut down at the last minute and never got an answer to why that had happened.”

“A lot of people were telling us this it'd never happen. Then, when we were calling people who were involved in the separation of the brothers, a lot of them wouldn’t talk to us. A lot said they didn’t know what we were talking about. Then also, we’d speak to some other people who'd be happy to talk to us and then suddenly go dark, go completely silent. It felt like someone had got to them.”

“We also, in the process of making the film and meeting notes from the '80's where it was clear that those involved in the study including Peter Norgaard were shutting down media exposes of what they’d done. He was obviously a very powerful figure in New York and had a lot of connections.”

“Also the adoption agency was very powerful, which was mentioned in the film. That was the place you went to adopt, particularly if you were Jewish in that era and there weren’t a lot of other options. You didn’t want to upset them because they had so much power. Also, I think the other main thing is yes, we were trying to get this secret vault of information opened and the organizations involved were incredibly resistant. We were only allowed to speak to them via their crisis management PR firm, and the brothers were only communicating with them via their medical malpractice attorney that they'd hired.”

“No-one really wanted to talk to us and the people we did find; it was a miracle. For example, Natasha, the psychologist in the film, my producer tracked her down living in the La Hoya in San Diego, miles from it all now. I think because she wasn’t still plugged in to everyone, we had a greater chance of getting her to talk to us.”

IFTN: Do you think that the fact that you were a British production actually aided you in that you could avoid being lobbied in a sense, like some of the preceding American companies might have done?

Tim: That’s definitely the case that we're less susceptible to pressure, but a lot of time has passed since this happened. Actually a lot of the key people involved in suppressing this story have died, which is definitely helpful to us. I also think the media has become more fragmented, so it’s less centralized. Before it was easy, if you had connections, particularly in the East Coast, I think, to close down investigations into you. Whereas now it’s so fragmented and there are so many different media outlets that it’s harder for individuals to do that.”

IFTN: You talked about sources. In relation to the interviews that you conducted in the documentary, as a director, how did you approach speaking with those external sources that were involved in the actual study? Then also, how did you approach conveying your findings to the brothers?

Tim: “Speaking to those people was quite nerve wracking because they were the only people we could get to talk. I knew if they wouldn’t talk it would be very, very difficult for us to make the film or to make a decent film. Certainly it was quite prickly some of the interviews. The one with, again Natasha Josefowitz. She’s very sharp and she shut me down a couple of times when I tried to ask certain questions she didn’t like.”

“I’m also incredibly grateful to her and Lawrence Perlman the psychologist who talks because without them you don’t get any light shed on the study. I think they’re to be commended for coming forward and talking. In terms of conveying the information to the brothers, I think we did that on camera at one point, where it was a key revelation. There were a number of reasons for that, firstly we wanted to be honest about it because it was clearly going to affect the narrative of the film.”

“We could have used all kinds of trickery, put it into the film and make it look like they found it themselves or whatever. I think it was much more honest just to be like, ‘look, this is what we discovered, what did you think about it?’ and it’s also important because it was the antithesis of what the scientists had done. They had all this information and never shared it and were trying to be the opposite of that.”

“There was a lot of talk about how to do that, I think if they had reacted incredibly badly to that information I would definitely have considered at least editing it but they were fine with it. They had so many revelations from this thing they we're a part of that almost nothing shocked them now. They're quite unflappable.”

IFTN: One key thing that stands out in the documentary is the pacing of the film. I would compare it almost to a thriller, in the sense that you have no idea where the next twist is coming; keeping you on the edge of your seat.

Tim: Thank you, I’m really glad you picked up on that. The thing that I’m proudest about, more than anything else in the film is the pacing. The storytelling and the reveals and that is partially due to my love of thrillers and Hitchcock and great storytellers like that. Also the editors, I mentioned the Irishman Michael Harte who's a young editor. This is his first feature as it is mine. He just has a really innate sense of when to reveal information, you want to be one step ahead of the audience, but not so far ahead that people just get lost.”

“It’s really perfectly paced, just the reveals, they come just when you’re about to go, ‘okay is there anything more to this?’ Then there is another one, and then there is a little bit more.”

“He was a huge part of that and I think in getting that right I learned so much about pacing and timing on this project. I think that thriller film-making, I think like the usual suspects really have played into that.”

IFTN: Can you talk me through the editing process and how you were able to achieve this?

Michael: “Raw are excellent at getting this right. Every line in the film is interrogated. Also, one of the clever decisions we made in the edit was that I watched the material in the order we thought it might play out out in the final cut. I tried to forget everything I knew about the story. So I didn't watch the taster tape or read anything about it online. I am also the first audience member to watch the film, so my initial reaction is key. As I was watching the material I tried to guess what was coming next and, if I guessed correctly, I knew that part of the story probably needed more work in the edit.”

IFTN: I can only imagine that there was a lot of old material to go back over, which you utilise in the film to convey some of the twists.

Tim: There's a huge amount of footage and the crazy thing about story, now it's all over the internet, but when we started on it there was really no information out there. We were piecing it together from archives and there was no source text or books. There was a bit around when the brothers were initially famous, but that was just like, ‘hey, what a great story, these brothers were reunited’. Everything else we had to piece together, in quite, almost like old-school journalistic way, knocking on doors and that kind of thing.”

IFTN: So is it fair to say that since the decision was made to taking on this story, the project’s journey has seen it elevate to a level that you never envisaged?

Tim: Absolutely, it totally exceeded any of our expectations of what this project would be. We didn’t think it would necessarily get into the sundance film festival, then that happened. We didn’t think it would get picked up for distribution and then that happened, it’s taken $12,500,000 in the US and is, I think, pretty much the most successful British feature doc of all time.”

“It’s beyond our wildest dreams, but, yes, just in terms of the actual story itself. I always knew it was a great story, but I just didn’t know the layers that we would get, the people that we would meet making it. I think we worked really hard, we also got lucky on a few things and you ride your luck a bit as a film-maker and it all came together on this one.”

‘Three Identical Strangers’ releases in Ireland at the IFI on Friday, November 30th.

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