“When You’re In the Position of Power You’re Put In When You’re Making a Film About Somebody, It’s Just Immense.” Interview With Tim Wardle, Director Of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
We spoke with Tim Wardle, director of the great documentary Three Identical Strangers, about the psychology of the film, its subjects, and more!
Emerging in theaters among a glut of documentaries profiling famous individuals is Three Identical Strangers, which if you have yet to see you should probably stop reading now as it (like most films) is best experienced going in cold. Did you see it yet? I’ll wait.
Now that there’s no danger of spoiling anything for you, we can freely discuss this psychological thriller/comedy/tragedy. Or rather, you can read my discussing it with its director, first time feature filmmaker Tim Wardle, as we sat down while he was in town for the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Tim Wardle: He’s gone now, but I have a brother who’s been in the Bay Area for 10 years, 15 years? I don’t get to see him very often, so it’s cool coming out! I love San Francisco, but it’s so far from the UK.
Arlin Golden for Film Inquiry: Did he move because he got like forced to kind of?
Tim Wardle: That’s a very good question. I think he was in The Misson for ages. I think the rents were pretty crazy. But I think also he just wanted sort of a change, I think. He moved in with his girlfriend, they wanted to get a place together, and I think it was just crazy in town.
It is crazy, yeah.
Tim Wardle: It’s kind of a shame when it gets to that level. I mean it sounds like Oakland is really exciting at the moment, but London is having the same thing were it slightly culturally starts.
Yeah…I mean, you know, that’s kind of the knock against San Francisco continuously, that the culture which is tied in with lower income artists and residents, you know, we just can’t afford to live there. So we moved to Oakland, now that’s just spreading, you know, and Oakland’s under threat.
Tim Wardle: The same thing’s happening in London, but I would say I’m so shocked by how expensive it is. Like when Josh talks to me about how…like I always think of London as crazy, crazy expensive. It’s just like, hey, here’s a whole other level.
Oh no, It’s obscene, man. And my office is a few blocks down Mission, and we’re across the street from a needle exchange, you know, it’s not the best neighborhood, but a studio a block away, it’s like $4,000 a month.
Tim Wardle: Wow, that’s crazy. You wonder where it ends up. Like in Paris what’s happening, obviously everyone’s been pushed out, all the artists have been pushed out, and they’re all in the banlieu sort of areas and stuff, but it’s really, it’s kind of totally dead, and London is getting like that as well. It’s kind of sad, especially when you have places that are quite small, small centrally. And in London there’s just a lot of investment, you know, people buy up blocks and then don’t live in them. Like Russia and money from the Middle East.
Right! Yeah, yeah, I was at a film festival in Bradford last year and they were telling me there’s a lot of Chinese investment in these abandoned high rises that just stay abandoned.
Tim Wardle: Totally. Because I think, I’m sure it’s the same in the US, but the countries are seen as stable, economically stable, to stash your money, you know?
Tim Wardle: But yeah, that’s cool that you went to Bradford. Bradford is not someplace that a lot of people go to, but it’s really interesting culturally and artistically, I think.
Yeah! I actually was doing the documentary programming for a film festival there.
Yeah! It was a good experience. I’d never even been to Europe, so Bradford is my…
Tim Wardle: Oh Wow! So that’s your Europe, yeah. Bradford is very different, I mean London’s like fancy. But there’s a big doc festival in Sheffield, which is near.
Right, right. Yorkshire, right?
Tim Wardle: Yeah.
Cool. Well, speaking of documentaries…
How has the festival circuit been treating you? You premiered at Sundance.
Tim Wardle: Yeah. It’s been Sundance, True/False, Miami, and then Full Frame and then here. It’s all still a bit of a new world to me.
Oh, you were at Full Frame? So you just travelled across the country!
Tim Wardle: It’s crazy.
Oh my God.
Tim Wardle: Yeah, they’ve got me doing it. Neon, the distributors, the guys who do like I, Tonya and stuff like that, they’ve got me on quite a crazy schedule.
Yeah, no. That’s insane.
Tim Wardle: I know, but it’s been cool! I mean I love talking about this film so I just, it doesn’t bother me. And it’s also…this whole thing is new to me. This whole film festival thing, it’s my first feature. I’ve done TV docs before. I’d been to the Berlin Film Festival, that was the only one outside of the UK that I’ve been to before, so I’m loving it. And the audiences you get in the States are just genuinely amazing. I hadn’t really registered like, how important it is for a documentary to play in the cinema because the reaction you get is just so different to what you get on television, you know? I watch Twitter when my film goes out on television, but it’s nothing like a shared common experience of watching with like 500 people in the Mission last night, or a thousand people at Full Frame. It’s like I suddenly get why it’s really important why documentaries are in the cinema in a way that I sort of felt but never really kind of witnessed firsthand.
No, a hundred percent. I mean there’s like a feedback kind of that goes on and the audience, you know, and you wait for certain moments to react certain ways and, your film especially I feel really nicely carries the audience through this narrative in a way that’s both unexpected and entertaining.
Tim Wardle: Yeah. Last night I was sitting behind this elderly couple who clearly didn’t know anything of the story and they were sort of gasping every minute, and it’s like “that’s what I was trying to do!”
I was reading that you came across the story as an idea scout for Raw?
Tim Wardle: So I was head of development for Raw, one of their ideas guys in the office. You know, you have a million ideas come across your desk and I’d previously done the same job for the BBC so I’ve been the head of documentaries development so I’ve seen a lot of ideas in my time and you get quite cynical, quite jaded and you just like, you must as a film reviewer as well. Like I’ve seen this story before, I know how it’s going to end. And then suddenly this came across my desk and I was like “wow, this is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” It’s got a great human story at its heart, but it’s also got these bigger themes about free will, destiny, family. And I had a background in psychology, I had studied it at college.
So it was like “I’ve got to. I’ve got to do this film.” And I managed, it took me a couple of years, but I managed to talk them into letting me do it.
And, how did that go? What was your pitch?
Tim Wardle: Well, I’d done some TV docs before, but it was collaborative. To be honest I just kind of made myself so indispensable to the development of it, they couldn’t extract me from it. And I was very lucky, you know, CNN films, who came in who were the people who really, I mean we had some money from channel 4 in the UK, but CNN films were the ones that enabled us to really kind of take it off the ground. They took a chance on me, you know, and I’ve had unbelievably good experience with them. I’ve worked for quite a few funders before, but nothing like them, they’ve been pretty cool. You know, they did Blackfish, and they’ve got RBG here.
In that role had you scouted any ideas like that you’re proud of that you didn’t make? That went to other filmmakers?
Tim Wardle: I mean, a lot of television, basically a lot of the television documentaries in the UK. Some US stuff like I had an idea for a big Discovery drama series called “Harley and the Davidsons” about the birth of Harley Davidson, which is a drama series actually.
I love ideas. I loved doing that job, but for me to direct something… my experience directing is that it’s so all consuming and it takes that much out of you that you’ve got to really, really care about it. So I’ve tended to make a film every kind of two or three years rather than doing kind of back to back films. So yeah, most of my stuff has been made by other people in the UK for television.
Gotcha. Well about Three Identical Strangers. I was feeling some shades of Errol Morris, both in the style and the content, you know, it’s such a strong mystery. I’m wondering if his films influenced you at all.
Tim Wardle: I mean, you know, you’ll struggle to find a documentary maker I think who isn’t influenced by Errol Morris; Thin Blue Line particularly is such a touchstone for me, and almost all documentary makers. I feel this one was a combination of all the different styles and companies that I’ve worked at. So my background as a filmmaker is much more verité kind of going. So like my previous most recent films before this for television, I was in a prison in Europe’s biggest prison for life-sentenced prisoners. Just me and a camera for like seven months.
One of the reasons I went to Raw is because they’re really great at that kind of past-tense storytelling. The Imposter I think of particularly. They refined that kind of style being the Errol Morris kind of style, I think taking it to a, you know, not necessarily a different level, but more kind of a modern storytelling sensibility to kind of apply there.
So it’s like a combination of those two elements and for me they’re like two completely different genres. Past tense storytelling in documentary is, you know, you’ve got archive, you’ve got reconstruction, you can craft it very tightly, the narrative, and really have it almost structured like a Hollywood screenplay.
Whereas verité by its nature is just more organic and slightly more fat, in narrative terms. It’s slightly looser because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You can have an idea what you want. So combining those two things was a bit of a challenge in the film. Because I mean it’s like a horror film in a romantic comedy in narrative terms. That’s where you’ve got that section in the middle where the guy gets up from the interview and walks out. Well both of them do. It was like kind of an area of decompression; we wanted to make the interview space suddenly into an actuality verité space, so it could take you through to the end.
Yeah. Well there’s the scene where one of the brothers is calling Yale where it’s sort of a combined interview/verité experience.
Tim Wardle: Yeah.
Also talking to the former researcher who was a part of it and was just learning things. You kind of see his experience of learning what you’ve uncovered through the making of the film; a really clever kind of way to combine what exactly what you’re saying, the reconstruction and verité.
Tim Wardle: Thank you. I mean, what I’ve come to realize in my career is that narrative is what I love. Storytelling is what I’m really keen on. It doesn’t mean it has to be, you know, all tightly paced, kind of Hollywood style storytelling. But the story trumps everything else, that’s what I’ve realized for me. And so in this film I guess I sacrificed a bit, some of the sort of stylistic tricks and things that I would have done normally, just to allow the narrative to be front and center. And that was really interesting. You know, there’s the old shot, I’m obsessed with Brian De Palma, and there’s a top shot when they’re on the phone, you know, but generally I just sort of had to stand back from that. And sometimes I look at just the sit down interview and think I could have done something a lot more interesting stylistically, but it was important just to full-ground them and their story and not get in the way of that. Sometimes you just have to let people speak.
Yeah. It kind of felt like really the narrative took center in a way that you weren’t restricting yourself to any one or two formal devices. Like for instance in the beginning there are few more reconstructions, and then sort of as archive footage becomes available to tell the story, you sort of drop reconstructions. Is it just a matter of using the best device to tell that given moment?
Tim Wardle: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. I was like, what is the best way to tell this bit of the story? Even if it stylistically feels like there’s a lot of textural elements to this film the story, everything is below the story, you know, everything is sacrificed in the pursuit of the story. And that was interesting because I was a bit nervous about that. But what I’ve realized is if you’ve got a good story, people will follow you anywhere with it.
Documentary is really broad church, you know? My favorite doc from the last 10 years is probably Act of Killing. I love that film and so I really embrace all forms of documentary, but it was just on this one there was a great story. It was like, oh, I’ve got to tell this as well as I can.
Yeah, I love that film too. So the majority of the subjects in the film are very sort of New York characters. They have thick accents, they’re embroiled in that culture. As an outsider, it seemed like you really, over the course of making this film, you must have really ingratiated yourself to them and to get them to open up sort of the way they did. How did you find that?
Tim Wardle: It was really hard to get them on side, firstly because they’d been treated appallingly in their lives and find it quite hard to trust people, understandably. And secondly, I think around the…when they became famous in the eighties a lot of media people promised them all kinds of things that never materialized. And actually showing them the film, the most amazing experience for me was not that they loved the film, which they did. It was that there’s this emotion, they were very emotional, I think because we delivered on what we’d said we’d do, and I don’t think they’ve had that happen lots in their lives.
But in terms of getting them on side, I think being an outsider was helpful. I think if I’d been in New York trying to make the film, there might’ve been a bit more resistance to me, but I was very lucky. And also the peripheral contributors who are often kind of neglected in documentaries, they’re as important as your central contributors. Everyone gave me this kind of emotional honesty, which is ultimately what you need to make a film. You know, the contributors can be good and bad in lots of ways, but as long as they’re emotionally honest, you can make a great film. And that’s what they gave me.
Yeah, absolutely. David and Bobby, trying to keep the brothers straight, they kind of express thoughts along the lines of…their life has sort of been constructed for them, that there’s some sort of invisible hand that’s been guiding them. And I’m really curious, in this film, you’re basically constructing that life for us, the viewer. I’m assuming they’ve seen the film and so how have they internalized that or experienced that kind of, in such a way that they’re then with us looking in from the outside?
Tim Wardle: That’s a really good question because, you’re right, there are lines of sort of been…it’s almost like The Truman Show and the act of making a documentary is effectively doing that again. And getting their trust, I think, was a huge – because of what’s happened to them, because of their life – allowing them to give me the trust to do that. And you know as a documentary maker, I think it’s so easy to kind of lose sight of that, you know, sometimes we’d be willing to make a film. “Wow, the story’s amazing, look what happened here!” And then every now and then we’d have to check us out and go, “wait, this happened to them. This is their life, you know, this is real life.” I think sometimes documentary makers, it’s easy to lose sight of that ethically, just as the researchers in this film did.
I think that their experience of it was…I mean, it’s a good question. They really liked it. They feel that it’s fair and that it’s done a good job. And the extended family, like Eddie’s wife, saw it and she said she had this weird thing. “The one thing I would say” she loved it, she said “it’s very clear. It’s very clear about what happened and why it happened. And everything you’ve got in there is correct as I remember it, but you’ve kind of managed to strip away some of the confusion that was going on while we were doing it.” So it was really fun.
The thing I’m proud of about the film more than anything is the structure and how it works, and the pacing. And a lot of that’s due to the editor, Michael Harte, who’s a young Irish editor, it’s his first feature as well. We met on a TV series about an airport in the UK, you know, but he really brought something to it in terms of just the pacing of the storytelling and just knowing when to move on from certain things. I think particularly that first 30 minutes. So I’m so proud of the structure.
And that first 30 minutes really draws you in, and you’re there.
Tim Wardle: And your question about the recon, you know, we originally didn’t want to have any recon, but what you realize is until they meet, there wasn’t much sort of photographic evidence of anything. And that scene, that section is so important in terms of getting an audience on side with what…you know, if you want the audience to go on a journey with these guys, you’ve got to hook them in at the start and make them like the guys and see it from their perspective. And so it was really important to make those scenes work. And the only way we could do that without pictures was to do recon.
Yeah, well I mean I thought it was a great choice how that first story was narrated where we haven’t really met any characters yet, but we’re going through this subjective experience that’s very bizarre and surreal and you have that impressed upon you as the jumping off point for the story. And then to sort of go back and figure out who they are; I thought that was very well done.
Tim Wardle: Yeah, you’re starting from the point of view of the audience, of lack of knowledge. But they’re telling you just as as they experienced it. And that was a huge challenge, getting them to tell the story they’ve told a million times before in a kind of way that feels fresh and you know, as they’re experiencing it for the first time.
Something this film really grapples a lot with is the ethics of psychology. But it also benefits from what that has wrought, you know, in terms of, “well, okay, maybe we can make some real judgments here about the concept of nature versus nurture as a result of these ethically questionable experiments.” I’m just kind of curious personally where do you stand? Do you feel this whole enterprise was immoral entirely?
Tim Wardle: I think that historical context is everything and I think that you have to understand that in the era that this experiment was done, things were acceptable that aren’t acceptable now. You know, one of the things I loved about psycho-review is that that kind of era in the fifties and sixties, which Lawrence Wright, the journalist in the film, described to me as the Wild West. When psychology is establishing itself as a science and people are doing all kinds of crazy things like the Milgram obedience experiment and the Stanford prison experiment, you’d never be able to do today for the pursuit of knowledge. And so it’s really important to me that the people in this film who are the antagonists aren’t judged in black and white moral terms. What I’m interested in as a filmmaker are those areas of gray, and I think that to a large extent they thought they were doing something justifiable at the time. They definitely lost sight of the ethical implications, but there was a sort of intellectual reasoning behind what they were doing.
I think there’s also probably a lot of ego as well, when you have a science or an area of new paradigm establishing itself, people at the forefront are often driven by ego to a certain extent. And if you can definitively prove the nature/nurture problem, you know, some answer to it, you go down in history as one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. So you can see the attraction. It’s all too human.
Yeah well it seems like it’s really sort of a question of opportunity almost. It’s like, “well, we have these abandoned children that are genetically alike, how can we take advantage of this?”
Tim Wardle: Yeah one of the scientists apparently said later on to one of the mothers, went back once they found everything out that happened, they said “we knew it was wrong, but as a scientist, how can we resist?” Yeah, I mean it’s fascinating. And as I said, the lack of remorse I suppose shown by the psychologists who appear in the film I think it’s just indicative of the fact that they don’t… well A) they’re quite peripheral to the actual establishment of the experiment; I mean Natasha who speaks in the middle wasn’t involved with it at all. But also they felt that it was justified by the era in which it was taking place.
Well, I wonder how much of that you feel is also just sort of protecting themselves emotionally.
Tim Wardle: It can be true. And I also think, I mean, I think Lawrence Pullman, who appears in the latter part of the film, who worked in the study for about 10 months, he’s one of the only people involved in the study who’s come out and talked about it. And that is…you know, I’m hugely grateful to him because he’s exposing himself to quite a lot by doing that. And there are psychiatrists working in New York today who were much more involved than him in establishing the study and worked across it for a number of years. So I think he feels guilty and I think he feels bad about what happened and that’s why, having met him, that was my assessment.
He did seem to be… I think those feelings were there, but outwardly he was saying he doesn’t regret it, or he didn’t have remorse about it.
Tim Wardle: He said that. And that’s true, he does say that. He says in retrospect, it was undoubtedly ethically wrong. I think that you’re absolutely right, he doesn’t say that, but my experience of being with him… I kept trying to push him on why are you the only guy who will talk about this? And I think there’s something about it that bothered him for a long time and he went back and he’s been involved in quite a lot of the finding out of information about the study. I think he doesn’t necessarily come across as the best contributor and that’s just how some people are slightly more awkward than others in presenting themselves. Whereas Natasha [Josefowitz] in the middle, she’s a bit more sort of completely like brazen about it, you know? “Yeah, it happened, justified at the time”, you know. But I suppose even she is saying “I want to make it very clear that I wasn’t involved.” She kept restating that the whole way through.
There’s a huge kind of shame and embarrassment for those involved with it. It’s been known about. The reason Lawrence Wright found out about it was that it was known about within twin research circles for a long time, but everyone kind of felt like it was this sort of dirty secret that no one really wanted to talk about. So when Larry found it, he realized there were a few people who knew about it, but the wider public had no idea.
Was the difference that gave it that sort of air dirtiness was that it was surreptitious? That no one knew they were participating?
Tim Wardle: I think that. I think there was no consent and consent was coming in as a really important thing, but also I think those involved did know that it was ethically very, very dubious. They were at best sailing very close to the wind, at worst violating the subject’s ethical rights.
So I feel like after seeing the film, there might be some coming away that might have some dubious ideas about the concept of psychology reinforced. Coming from having studied the field, what would you say to those folks?
Tim Wardle: I mean, I think in any field of scientific inquiry that there’s good and bad practice. I have quite a complicated relationship with psychology. I find it interesting, but I think it has got a fundamental problem at its core that, that problem…isn’t it a science? And I find it quite frustrating studying it, you know, there was a lot of stuff we were doing that I just felt “this is so obvious”. You’re proving things that are very, very obvious and that the research methods available to psychologist these days are very limited, probably rightly so because of ethical concerns in terms of you can’t get people to give fake electric shocks to each other any more. But it just feels quite limited. There’s amazing stuff that psychology does. But because it’s on the edge of science and humanities it’s problematic. At its core is a kind of contradiction and a paradox, which I’m not sure I ever resolved when I was studying.
So is the human mind… do you feel that it’s, if not knowable, is it at least study-able in some sort of manner that’s at all objective?
Tim Wardle: Yeah, no, I think it definitely is studyable, but I think, I guess what’s interesting about psychology is that for me it throws up more questions than it answers, and that’s valuable. But it’s frustrating as a science. Do you know what I mean? And I think there’s definitely with neuroscience in particular, as you know, is getting far closer to understanding brain chemistry and how that works.
Look, I think psychology is valuable as an area of inquiry. I just think I never could quite work out in my head whether I was studying something that was a science or a humanities subject that was more interesting. You know, I found the philosophical side of it and the kind of philosophical ideas almost more interesting than the research. I found the research quite frustrating.
I mean, as the film bores out, nothing’s black and white. It’s not nature or nurture, it’s both. Yeah, I mean do you have to ruin lives basically to bore that out?
Tim Wardle: Yeah I mean that, you know, one of the reasons I was fascinated by this story is that I do think nature/nuture is this kind of universal fascinating question. And the whole way through it kind of we went back and forth on what we felt. Bringing the audience through that as well. But I think ethics are really important, both in documentary making and in science. And I think documentary makers have got…you know, there’s the central hypocrisy at the heart of a lot of documentary making, which is that most documentary makers would never let someone make a film about them, if you speak to my experience. And I’ve asked this at film festivals before and that is problematic and something I think most, or a lot of, filmmakers don’t want to go there. And I remind myself a bit all the time because when you’re in the position of power you’re put in when you’re making a film about somebody, it’s just immense. The scope for abusing that is huge as well.
What is fascinating is that those kinds of experiments, like the Milgram experiment, you could never ever do now because of ethics committees in psychology, you can absolutely do for a TV show that’s made for, you know, Big Brother or whatever. So it’s almost like television has kind of taken over that kind of experimental, kind of scary end of psychology.
I mean yea, It’s like you were saying earlier, it’s this whole Truman Show thing, right? And now it’s everybody I guess is an analyst to some degree watching lives under the microscope.
Tim Wardle: Absolutely. But if you’re studying psychology at a reputable university and said, “I want to put some people in a room and stick cameras on them and they’re gonna live there for ages and I’ll set tasks and feed them alcohol until they’re” be like, “no way is that ethical.” You can never do it. So yeah.
Well I think that’s a good place.
Congratulations again on the film.
Tim Wardle: Oh thank you very much!
Thanks for taking the time it was a great film and I, I hope a lot of people see it when it’s released.
That’s now! Make my hopes come true and check out showtimes near you at http://www.threeidenticalstrangers.com.
Film Inquiry thanks Tim Wardle for taking the time to talk with us.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.