Telling an Alternately Funny and Tragic Nonfiction Story That Unfolds Like a Hollywood Thriller

Three triplets – Bobby Shafran, Eddy Gallman and David Kellman – discovered each other’s existence when they were 19 in 1980 New York, began hanging out and appearing on talk shows and partying at Studio 54. British director Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers is an extremely slick plot-driven documentary which quickly expands its vision and raises much larger issues. The reason for the triplets’ initial separation involves a long-running psychological experiment which is no less sinister or, frankly, anti-Semitic for being perpetrated on Jewish children by adult Jewish scientists. Wardle and DP Tim Cragg capture his subjects’ stories with a mix of archival footage, present-day interviews and reenactments; that description sounds fairly common, but Wardle proves to have a real gift for constructing a compelling narrative and then undercutting the spectators’ expectations. Three Identical Strangers is a good start for a future in fiction, yet it’s grounded in a palpable anger at very real abuses of power.

StudioDaily: The film has a very definite narrative structure. Did you know the answers to all its questions, to the extent that anyone does, before you began interviewing its subjects?

That’s a very good question. I knew maybe 50 to 60 percent of the story, particularly the backstory. I knew about these three brothers who had been separated, raised by three different families and then found each other and been reunited. I knew there was a darker story, but I didn’t know the full extent of it. That was what we set out to find. We knew how to set up the backstory, but when we went into the present, we had no idea what we were going to find out.

The experiment was begun by Peter Neubauer at the Child Development Center, which later merged into the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, yet the parallels to German doctors’ experiments during the Holocaust are brought up by several people during the film. Do you think it’s a case of Jews seeing other Jews as disposable? 

There are a lot of reasons why this study happened, some due to personal ego and some due to what was going on in psychology at the time. You got experiments like Milgram’s obedience experiment and the Stanford prison experiment, which were pushing the envelope of what was acceptable. A lot of what happened was justifiable by the times when it took place. Many of the people who approved the study were liberals. The reason there’s a scene in the film where a woman is talking with photos of Obama and Gore is to show that these people were not Nazis.

There are a number of recent films that cover similar territory: Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, which is a narrative film, and Errol Morris’ Wormwood, which mixes fiction and documentary, although I’m assuming you couldn’t have seen it by the time you made this.

I’m a huge Errol Morris fan. Before every film I make, I go back and watch The Thin Blue Line. These stories seem to be in the air now. I don’t know if it’s the abuse of power. We can certainly look back and say “This was completely morally reprehensible.”

vintage photograph

A vintage photograph from Three Identical Strangers
Courtesy of Neon

Your film starts out as a very lighthearted film about three men who meet each other, discover they’re brothers and start hanging out and going to nightclubs together. It quickly gets much darker. Did you have any trouble modulating the tone or figuring out how soon to dole out information?

It was a primary concern for us. I’m a big lover of U.S. narrative genre films. A lot of movies stick to one tone. I wanted to switch it up. I had all kinds of influences when we were editing, particularly from ’80s knockabout comedies like The Secret of My Success to The Bourne Identity and Hitchcock. It was a challenge to modulate between them. The hardest thing in the film was moving from the past tense to the present, with a more vérité style. That’s why there’s a scene where the brothers stand up from the interviews they’re giving and look out. That was an attempt to bridge those two styles.

The film seems to change its mind about the importance of nature versus nurture. Halfway through, it seems incredibly fatalistic. But it comes out more on the side of nurture. Is that a narrative trick, or does that represent a change in your thinking you went through making the film?

It’s both. We wanted the thematic element of the film to go from nature to something closer to nurture. I went into it thinking that nurture is completely dominant, and speaking to people like Lawrence Wright, I realized that nature can be quite powerful. From day to day, I changed my mind. It definitely represents both a conscious structural plan in the edit but also my experiences making the film.

What kind of camera did you use?

The Arri Amira. I was fortunate enough to work with a DP, Tim Cragg, who shot both the interviews and reconstructions. There’s a little bit of Canon C300 footage there, but pretty much everything was shot on the Amira using Angénieux zoom lenses.

Eddy, David and Bobby.
Courtesy of Newsday

Given the genre film elements, do you have any interest in making a thriller or horror film?

That’s what I’d really love to do. Genre-wise, thrillers are my favorite, and I love horror movies as well. I’d also like to make another feature documentary. This film is going to be made into a fiction feature, although not with me directing.

For me, there was a pleasure coming from the film’s narrative aspect, its level of storytelling and the overtones of a thriller, but I also felt a certain sense of guilt about that because of the real tragedy that eventually gets underway.

I totally accept what you say. I think the brothers know how good and entertaining their story is, as well as how tragic it is. They wanted me to represent everything — something funny at times but dark and serious as well. So I don’t feel bad from an ethical perspective. But I do feel guilty watching audiences laugh and enjoy it and thinking, “They don’t know how dark this is going.”

How did CNN get involved in the project?

I started it in the U.K., with the broadcaster Channel 4 involved, but I couldn’t raise the full budget. I came out here after about four years of development and talked with CNN and Netflix. The production company had prior history with CNN, on films like Blackfish. I got along well with the commissioner at CNN Films, so we decided to go with them, which also enabled us to keep the U.K. rights.

I found it hard to come up with questions that didn’t involve spoilers. There are things that are revealed at the half-hour mark that I’ve brought up, but there are other things that happen near the end that I absolutely wouldn’t talk about in this context. How have you been able to talk about the film and promote it without giving the story away?

That’s the big paradox of this promotion. I want to talk about it, but I also want people to see it knowing as little as possible. If you go in cold, it’s a more enjoyable experience than knowing loads about it. What I generally tell people is the backstory of the three boys getting together. And then I say, “They became famous and the film explores what happens next, but it also explores the darker reasons why they were separated in the first place and the people who separated them.” But I understand some people want to know more than that before they see the film.

Three Identical Strangers opens Friday in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, TX, and Tucson, AZ. For more information, visit the film’s official website.