What would you do if you found out that you have an identical twin whom you have never seen? Or when you find out that actually there is three of you? In this incredible yet real story, the three twins meet through a series of coincidences. An interview with Tim Wardle, director of the documentary Three Identical Strangers, provided by Mozinet to Arthereartnow.
When you first met Robert and David, two of the three identical strangers, what were your impressions of them?
They are engaging, natural storytellers—they have real charisma—but they were also guarded and not particularly trusting of anyone. When you see what’s happened to them over the course of their lives, it’s not surprising that they don’t trust people easily. One of the advantages of the project taking five years to get off the ground and make was that it enabled us to build a degree of trust with them, which was essential for strong interviews.
What did it take to persuade them to do the film?
A lot of time, really: meeting them in person, meeting their families. Lots of people have tried to tell their story before, and for a variety of reasons it has never happened. When they first became famous in 1980, there was a lot of hype around them and people saying, “We’re going to make your story into a film or a documentary,” and it never happened. They’d been promised a lot that never materialized, so while they were interested in doing the film, I think they were also quite cynical about it. When I showed them the finished film for the first time, and they loved it, there was the sense that I had delivered on my promise and that was great.
The triplets’ unique backstory threw up all kinds of interesting dilemmas for us. For example, normally with this kind of film where people are delving into really difficult things from the past, you would put them in touch with a psychologist before filming starts to ensure that they are emotionally robust enough to deal with it. But at the same time we were also acutely aware that the brothers don’t have a very high opinion of psychologists because of what happened to them. Ultimately we did make the offer to them and they chose not to take it up, and after careful consideration we decided to press ahead without it.
Throughout the production, we had to be constantly aware that while it’s an extraordinary narrative from a filmmaker’s perspective, it’s also the reality of the triplets’ lives; they were manipulated and lied to over decades and decades.
The film takes a very unconventional and ultimately very powerful approach to the telling of the story. When did it become clear to you that you would construct the film in the way that you have?
The benefit of spending four years trying to get the film off the ground was that it allowed me to spend a lot of time thinking about the triplets’ story, and when we would reveal certain things. There are elements to their story that play out like a psychological thriller, a Bourne-style film with questions of identity. I thought it was really important to do justice to that story. And to do justice to the triplets’ story you really have to think, When were they discovering information? You want the audience to be in the same position that they were and to go through it with them. To align audiences with the triplets’ point of view, you have to keep your audience in the dark just as they were.
What’s really interesting for me as a filmmaker is that in this movie you have two completely separate genres of documentary filmmaking going on. You have the past tense, archive and reconstruction story, and then you have present tense vérité or what we call in the UK “actuality.” They’re very different types of filmmaking in terms of tone and pacing and it was a real challenge to make those work together. Past tense stories work are often cut so tightly it’s almost like watching a drama play out, whereas when you’re in vérité mode things tend to be much more loose and free-flowing. To move between those two is very challenging. It’s why I included that section in the film when the triplets stand up and walk out of the formal interview – it’s like a decompression moment in between the two styles of filmmaking.