Tim Wardle on “Three Identical Strangers”

Tim Wardle on “Three Identical Strangers”

Tim Wardle: Hi, Scott.

Scott Menzel: Hey, Tim. How are you?

Tim Wardle: Not bad. How are you?

Scott Menzel: Good! First and foremost, congratulations on the film. It’s pretty remarkable.

Tim Wardle: Oh, well thank you. I really appreciate it. I’m really proud of it, and it’s been a long time getting to this point.

Scott Menzel: I did not get to go to the premiere at Sundance but I actually saw it at Sundance, but after many people told me, “You have to see this movie. It’s crazy. It’s crazy. It’s crazy.” So, what was it like for you? I know you’re relatively new to the whole documentary world. You’d done a few things beforehand, but what was it like having a film like this premiere at Sundance and received such rave reviews and hype?

Tim Wardle: It was a crazy trip. It was one of the most insane days of my entire life. Everyone who worked on the film was there, but most of us … well, all of us. Pretty much, it was our first feature. We had no idea what to expect. We were just thrilled to be at Sundance. The first screening, I think, Darren Aronofsky tweeted about the film saying it’s a great watch, and really disturbing. You’re like, “Wow. We disturbed Darren Aronofsky. It must be doing something right.” From then, it just kind of went crazy. As you say, everyone was talking about it. I would’ve just been happy to have a film play there, even if it was totally insignificant and no one noticed it. It just turned into a crazy rollercoaster. Every day we’d wake up going, “This is the best day of our lives!” And then the next day was like, “This is the best day of our lives!” It was a lot of fun.

Scott Menzel: There’s so much to talk about with this film, but I guess the first question that I have is how the heck did you come across this story?

Tim Wardle: I was working in development at Raw, the production company that made this and made other movies like The Imposter and American Animals, which is in theaters at the moment. I was running development, so I was the head of development there. My job was to get ideas in, then sift through them and decide which to pitch out to companies and broadcasters and networks. You get pretty cynical and jaded quite quickly doing that. You see so many ideas, hundreds every week. Instantly, when this came across my desk … someone brought it in. I was like, “This is, without question, the single best idea I’ve ever seen.” And I have to make this film. It was because it worked on two levels. It was a brilliant human story at its heart. A story of brothers separated, reunited, and then separated again, essentially, by the end of the story. But it was also, aside from that human story, it had much bigger thematic levels to it that allowed you to kind of unlock and tackle free will, destiny, nature versus nurture, family. The best films for me are the ones that work on multiple levels. You’ve got to have a good story, but you also need it to be about something more, and I think there are very few documentary stories that enable you to do both those things.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. I was going to say … when you were making this, and you were talking a little bit about the story and how you discovered it. How much of this story did you know prior to saying, “We got to pick up the camera, and we have to make this into a movie.”?

Tim Wardle: I think I knew about 50 to 60 percent of it. I knew that there were these triplet brothers that had been separated at birth, raised by three different families, unaware of each other’s existence, reunited after they met by coincidence in 1980s New York, and they’d become famous.  I knew there was some darker story behind their separation, but really that was it. That’s what we set out to explore, the reason behind their separation and the people who’d done it. That was the starting point for the film, and I think that it was instantly clear that it had more than enough story, in terms of what we knew already, to justify a theatrical doc. We didn’t know where it was going to end, and actually, that was a challenge in the UK, where I struggled to get funding because people say, “Well what’s the third act? What’s going to happen?” Whereas when I finally took it to the US, which I probably should have done much earlier, instantly everyone was like, “No. No. No. We need to make this.”

Scott Menzel: Yeah. It’s a weird film, right, because it is almost like … It starts off with this happy story about these three guys coming together and discovering that they’re related. Then there’s whole media circus thing that you focus on, and then you start going into this stark dark series of conspiracy and the adoption agencies and people doing shady shit behind the scenes. It’s more intense and more interesting than most Hollywood thrillers, which is a remarkable feat to you.

Tim Wardle: Thank you. That’s the bar we set ourselves. I think that my favorite genre is Hollywood thriller. Myself and the editor Michael, it was his first feature as well … we were both very heavily influenced by American films, particularly by scripted films. We wanted to bring that understanding and passion for genre to the film. I think that we were conscious that it was going to be different parts, acts, of the film. Some people see it as a three-act; some people see it as more like five … the different bits that you’ve described. We knew that we wanted the top to play link an 80s teen comedy, almost, and then shift. I think that was very planned that we wanted it to feel like that, but it was also scary because a lot of films establish a tone at the top and they try and stick with it. We knew that we were going to try and shift it quite dramatically and it was going to move into more of being … I guess how I see it is more of an identity thriller. Weirdly, as well as all the documentaries I watched before I started making it as kind of a integration. I was also watching things like The Bourne Identity, which weirdly has a lot of parallels in terms of … if you strip the story right down to what it’s about, in terms of someone’s quest for identity, and the dark backstory they have and scientists and that kind of thing. I’m really proud that it traveled through a wide variety of genres and hopefully takes the audience on quite a wild ride.

Scott Menzel: Yeah, it totally does. I can’t wait. They sent me the screener link; I didn’t get a chance to revisit it before this interview, but I can’t wait to show this to my wife, because I know she’s going to think it’s fascinating.

Tim Wardle: Yeah, it’s amazing how many people I’ve spoken to were like, “Yeah, I started watching it at home, then someone else caught a bit of it, and then they sat down and then … I think it’s one that, particularly if you have kids or have had kids or have some kind of relationship to the story in terms of either being … having an identical sibling or knowing something about siblings, or knowing something about adoption, or having Jewish family members, or … Everyone seems to find a different way to relate to it.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. It’s pretty incredible. The other thing that I wanted to ask you … there were so many reveals, or so many twists, to this movie and I think that’s why you’re getting this response because there are so many layers to this story. Out of everything that you discovered in this movie, for you personally, what was the biggest surprise?

Tim Wardle: That’s a really good question. I think, and I’m giving out a major spoiler here, but I think the fact that the study was about parenting was a huge surprise to me. I think, also just the … what we found as we started making the film was that the levels to which people involved in the antagonist of the film, who had been involved in the separation of the boys, the levels of which people associated to them had gone to cover things up, and to shut down other attempts to tell the story were quite extraordinary. When you find a story like this, your first instinct is like  “wow, this is incredible. I’ve got to tell this story. It’s brilliant.” The second one is, “why hasn’t someone done this before?” And it turned out people had tried before. We quickly found out that there were three attempts by major US networks, two in the 80s, one in the 90s, and in most of those cases, they got a long way through the film before they were shut down. We spoke to a triple Pulitzer winning journalist from New York, who in the 90s basically made a film about this story; not just the triplets, but the whole story, and had completed a film and was shut down by the network. He never got an answer about why it was shut down. The degree of paranoia and conspiracy that surrounds this story, that really did surprise me.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. It’s something else. It’s something that you would never think of. It’s something that feels like a made up story, but it’s crazy because when you watch it unfold, you’re like, “There’s no way they could make this shit up.”

Tim Wardle: It’s interesting. The scripted rights … there’s been a lot of interest in them and I think they’re just about gone. Post-Sundance, that went pretty crazy, as well. I’m intrigued to see how it all plays as a scripted film, because it is so beyond belief, the story, and it would be interesting to see. That worked in a documentary, and it will be interesting to see how they tackle that in a drama film because it is so unbelievable, some of the twists.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. Sundance was fascinating this year cause I think some of the best movies that came out of there were documentaries. Your film right now … I absolutely adored Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Tim Wardle: Yeah.

Scott Menzel: Which is fantastic? A couple years ago, there was another movie called Tickled that came out-

Tim Wardle: Yes.

Scott Menzel: Of Sundance. This movie reminds me a lot of that movie, by the way. It’s so batshit crazy that you’re like, “What the fuck am I watching?”

Tim Wardle: It’s so funny you mention that, cause one of the co-directors of Tickled put something on Facebook … on Twitter saying, “Oh. Everyone’s telling me I’ve got to see this movie, and it’s Three Identical Strangers.” and I’d heard of Tickled, but I never watched it. So that evening I sat down and I watched it and I was like, “Wow. Yeah, this would make a really interesting double bill.”

Scott Menzel: Yeah.

Tim Wardle: Also, people keep telling me I should do a double bill with Heredity, which I haven’t seen, but I think is … there are some thematic similarities-

Scott Menzel: Yes there is. Yes, there is. The documentary, dating back ten years ago … I feel like no one really cared about documentaries. They were always for intellectuals and film snobs.

Tim Wardle: Yeah.

Scott Menzel: But nowadays, it seems like documentaries have, in a lot of ways, become almost mainstream. I feel like a lot of people talk about them; a lot of people are more interest in them. Why do you think that is?

Tim Wardle: That’s a really good question. I think that the quality of them has increased. I think there are more of them. I think that there’s a growing recognition that the world is a crazy place and we need to understand it on its own terms, rather than always filter it through the prism of drama. I also think that there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the major tentpole movies, which I personally love, but I also need a range of product. In terms of movies, you’ve got the big tentpole movies, the smaller indie films that used to be the mid-budget films that I used to love when I was growing up in the 90s. They don’t really exist anymore. There are fewer and fewer of them, or they’ve been pushed really into genre. So, I think documentary fills that need for intelligent but entertaining hopefully … that middle ground. I’m a firm believer that documentary need to entertain, as well as educate and inform. My one frustration at the moment is that there are a lot of documentaries being made that are issue-driven films. They’re all issue with no narrative. I think you need both to make a good story. Hopefully our movie, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and films like that … they were cracking the story, but they were also trying to answer a bigger question.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. No, I completely agree. I think you hit the nail right on the head. You are one of many people who I’ve interviewed over the last couple of months who have made that exact same statement, that there is a middle ground missing nowadays from movies. There’s always the big movies, there’s always the small movies, and there’s very few in the middle. Those 20 to 40 million dollar budget movies that don’t have to be great, but they’re just entertaining and fun and they fill a gap. It’s missing, and I don’t know why they disappeared.

Tim Wardle: Yeah. I’m sure it’s due to economics or something, but it’s a real shame. I think a broad range of cinema experience is a good thing, and I’m really passionate. The thing about this film … you talked about showing it at Sundance … I’d never shown a film I’d made in a cinema before and actually in a theater. Seeing an audience react, especially to a story like this, which deliberately tries to put them through it in that Hitchcock-ian way of really manipulating them and taking them on a journey from one place to another … experiencing that in a theater with people is just extraordinary and it made me a complete convert to documentary needing to be seen in the theater more often. Because I think, if it’s the right story, it can really transport people and really entertain. I think when people are just seeing it on television, or watching on their phones, or whatever, it’s not the same experience.

Scott Menzel: No, it’s totally not. In terms of that, back to this film is … How much footage? This is always an interesting thing that I like to ask is that … when you’re making a documentary, and I ventured into this world a little bit, and I haven’t finished one, but I know that you wind up shooting a ton of footage. How much footage did you end up shooting, and when you were shooting did you discover any new stories or new people who experienced the same thing?

Tim Wardle: In terms of the ratio, my ratio on this film in terms of what I shot to what I used was actually much lower than it’s been on previous documentaries I’ve made, mainly because previous films I’ve done have been much more verité kind of observation, where I’m just with a camera following people around. The previous film I made I spent nine months in a prison in the UK, Europe’s largest prison for convicted murderers, and I was just with a camera wandering around for months on end. You end up with hundreds of hours. Because we had more structure with this one, we were more focused and we didn’t end up with as much footage as you can do on a documentary. We heard a lot of stuff about other people who were involved in this study that we haven’t included in the film. All of the key revelations and people that we met are definitely in the film. We really tried to pack it in. I’d much rather go and see a film that has almost too much information, or risks having too much packed in, rather than go see something where it’s stretched out and not really much story in there.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. No, I think it was smart to do it that way, instead of trying to tap into all these other stories that you didn’t know that much about. No, that’s smart. My last question, now that you’ve done this documentary and done some other documentaries before, is your goal to stick with documentaries as a genre, or are you hoping to dive into a different film genre?

Tim Wardle: I would really like to explore scripted. I’m really interested in that space, and particularly the kind of area where scripted and documentary meet … this kind of Kathryn Bigelow kind of approach to doing stuff I’m really interested in. Also, what one of my bosses, Bart Layton has done with American Animals, which is out at the moment, which is a real-life story told through drama but mixing the two. But also, if the right documentary story comes along, I would definitely be keen to do that, as well. For me, the bar is so high now personally, in terms of story and documentary. There is one particular story I’m looking at at the moment, but just finding the next one is a challenge because this triplets story is so incredible.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. I always feel like that’s very hard for documentary filmmakers is that they struggle to one-up themselves; because I feel like critics and audiences, and everyone holds you at such a high standard once you make something, that it’s very hard to top it with your next feature. I think it’s very unfair because I don’t really think you should have to top it because every film is not going to be a masterpiece, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be good.

Tim Wardle: I think you’re right. There’s a lot of self-censorship that goes on when you’re a filmmaker. You feel that pressure yourself. You’re like, “It’s got to be better than my last one.” I think that’s true, but I also think … my experience being a director is that it takes a lot out of you emotionally and in terms of time. If I do a film, I want to do it properly and do it good. So, for me, I have to find a subject that I really am passionate about and that I really think is worth sacrificing my family life and everything else to make a great film. I could never really be one of these kinds of jobbing directors, who just takes jobs to pay the bills. I’d rather go back to developing ideas and doing other stuff while I wait for the right story to come along.

Scott Menzel: Alright. Well, thank you very much. Thank you for taking 20 minutes of your time to talk to me. I really do appreciate it. Best of luck with the movie, and I hope to help promote and spread the good word about the movie.

Tim Wardle: Oh, thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed the film, and I really appreciate your passion for this story.

Scott Menzel: No problem. You have a great day.

Tim Wardle: You too. Thank you.

Scott Menzel: Alright. Bye-bye.

Three Identical Strangers is now playing in select theaters 

Written by
Born in New Jersey, Scott "Movie Man" Menzel has been a film fanatic since he was three years old. Growing up, he watched as many movies as he could and was highly influenced by Tim Burton, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. Scott has an Associates Degree in Marketing, a Bachelors in Mass Media, Communications and a Masters in Electronic Media. He has been writing film reviews under the alias of MovieManMenzel since 2003 and started his writing career as a contributing critic at IMDB.com and Joblo.com. In 2009, Scott launched MovieManMenzel.com where he posted several of his film reviews but in 2011 decided to shut down the site when he launched We Live Film.com, which he founded. In 2015, We Live Film became We Live Entertainment. The domain name changed occurred after months of debate but was done so that he and his fellow staff members could write about anything and everything in the world of entertainment.

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