Robert Shafran’s first day of college in 1980 got off to a peculiar start. Classmates he’d never met kept calling out to him, welcoming ‘Eddie’ back to school, as if greeting an old friend. When Eddie’s slightly bemused roommate – who knew that Eddie hadn’t planned to return to class that year – found Robert, he was stunned. Whilst certain that the man standing in front of him wasn’t Edward Galland, he was the spitting image of his absent friend. The hair, the eyes, the nose, the mouth, even the way Robert carried himself, was indistinguishable. After a frantic drive to Eddie’s house, the two men, newly reunited, soon realised that they were, in fact, identical twins. When the story ran in the New York Post, and another 19 year-old, David Kellman, realised he was their triplet, the story went from a happy accident to an unthinkable coincidence.
After their reunion, the three brothers became an instant media sensation, interviewed by Tom Brokaw and Phil Donahue, clubbing at Studio 54, even appearing in a movie with Madonna. But as their notoriety increased, so did a central question – how did the brothers come to be separated in the first place? Determined to unearth the truth behind the events that tore them apart Three Identical Strangers is a gripping, heart-felt endeavour to answer that very question. Equal parts conspiracy thriller, family drama and philosophical mind-bender the film explores questions of free will, nature vs nurture, what constitutes family and how we understand identity. Ahead of the film’s release this Friday, we spoke to director Tim Wardle about what it was like to work on the most extraordinary documentary of the year.
What prompted you to investigate this story now?
It was about six years ago that a producer called Grace Hughes Howard brought the idea into the company that I was working at. Instantly, you recognise that it’s an extraordinary story – it’s incredibly human, almost tabloid like, about these triplets being separated, reunited, then separating again – but more than that, it enabled you to ask all these bigger, philosophical questions about nature vs nurture, free will, the nature of family and destiny. That really appealed to me. I studied psychology at university, I’m one of three brothers, my wife is Jewish, I felt like I had a real connection to it. The story of the triplets is a universal story about what makes us who we are.
Do you think it was only possible to tell this story because it largely took place during a pre-internet age?
It’s part of a diminishing pool of stories from this pre-internet era where the people involved can still give first person testimony. When you get an idea like this, you think why has no one done this before? We quickly found that lots of people had started to try and work on it, in particular in the US. We learned of three attempts by major US networks – two in the 80s and one in the 90s – to do a story about not just the triplets but the whole, bigger picture investigation, and in every case the film was pulled by people higher up the network and the producers never got an answer. There were all these conspiracy theories about why this story hadn’t been told before and a lot of people who warned us that we’d never get this film finished. There was a very real sense that very powerful people in all sorts of organisations had been suppressing the story for many years. I think the passage of time has helped us in that respect. Some of the people responsible for suppressing it have passed away and the media has become more fragmented, so any connections they might have had, particularly east coast media in the US, not as powerful as they were before. I think it’s also to do with the tenacity of my team, particularly the producer Becky Reed, spent a lot of time doing really old school journalist tricks, knocking on doors, going to archives. There really wasn’t much to go on before we started work on it.
Why do you think it is that our culture is so fascinated by identical twins and triplets? In the same way we’re drawn to crime stories because it allows us to flirt with the idea of danger, do you think we’re drawn to these stories because it allows us to flirt with the possibility that we’re not unique, not individual?
This fascination with identical twins and triplets goes all the way back to Romulus and Remus. Lawrence Wright, the journalist we speak to in the film, has written a book called Twins And What They Tell Us About Who We Are – it talks about how twins have always been a subject of fascination, in some cultures they’re revered as demi-gods, and in other cultures they’re murdered because people saw them as aberrations. We like to question, what would it be like if you had another life? If you’d made another decision? There’d be another clone of you walking around making different decisions and what would it be like to be that person? There’s an escapist fantasy about what if I’d married someone else? What if I’d taken another job? What if my life had turned out differently? People are interested in the multiverse, those alternative possibilities. It taps into something I think we all wonder about subconsciously, how much control do I have over my life? How much am I not an unique individual? There’s a paradox – most people like to think they have agency over their life, but the thing identical twins points towards is that is that we don’t have as much control as we think we do. Biologically so much of our body and our behaviour is determined. I talk to Lawrence a lot about that, we all want to believe that we’re free and that we make our own decisions, but these twins tell us the opposite. Maybe there’s a recognition on a base, subconscious level that we don’t have as much control as we think, and that’s why we’re drawn to these stories.
Is it too simplistic to suggest it’s a film about free will ultimately?
No, I think absolutely it’s a film about free will. I think it’s about what makes us who we are. Were we shaped into what we are today or were we just born this way? Free will is an inherent part of that. Working on the film it was quite shocking to see how strong genetics and our biology are in determining who we are. The scientists making this, when they split the triplets up, they absolutely believed that the environment was 90% of who we are, kids were blank slates, and it’s down to parents. The study confounded a lot of that. Where we are today, a lot of people are saying now, no, genes and biology are a significant part of who we are, 50% if not more.
It feels like one of the central conflicts of the film is a drive to release the data, and let the brothers read what has been written about them, VS the Pandora’s Box of what could happen once this data is made public. How will we cope if it turns out our actions and behaviours are predetermined…
It’s a huge concern. What happens if the study shows that the brothers have a much higher rate of serious mental health problems? A much higher rate of suicide? How will that shape their lives? Ultimately the institution is controlling access to the study. Their process is, if anyone approaches them and says, “Were we part of the study?” they’ll tell them, but they won’t go out and proactively contact subjects. They feel it’s not their place to tell people in their 50s and 60s, you have an identical twin and you were separated at birth. There is an ethical conundrum there and certainly making the film, we had many talks about what we’d do if we discovered information that could be disturbing to the brothers. Ultimately, in discussion with them, we decided that we would present everything we found to them. They said, “We’re in our 50s now, and we want to know.” It’s their call to make, whether they want to see that stuff. It’s kind of like 23&Me and services like that, if they sequence your DNA and tell you what diseases you’re likely to get, do you want that information? That’s your call. So we deferred to them.
Am I right in thinking other twins have found one another after seeing this film?
Yea, so you can see it a video on The Atlantic. When the film was out we got a call from someone based in New Jersey to say, “I’ve seen your film and it’s prompted me to get a DNA test. I was adopted from the same agency and I’ve just found out I have a relative in California.” Twins, 54 year old women, separated at birth and I filmed them meeting for the first time which was extraordinary. As far as we’re aware they weren’t part of the experiment, they don’t remember scientists coming to their home. It’s really hard to work out who was part of it. The twins in the film, the two women who were separated at birth, one of them dropped to a birth weight that was dangerously low – the scientists felt they weren’t a reliable comparison so they excluded them from the study. I don’t know how many people were separated, some people say 11 pairs, some say 21. All kinds of numbers are mentioned. I don’t think the institution even knows. We know of a pair called Doug and Howie who were part of the experiment, who approached the Jewish Board Of Family And Children's Services in the mid-2000s and asked, “Were we part of this experiment?” The Board said no, absolutely you weren’t, but then the twins met Lawrence Perlman, the scientist who we spoke to in the film, and he was like “Oh yea, I remember you guys, I came to your house to study you.” I don’t know if that’s just incompetence, it could be nefarious, but because of all the secrecy I think there’s just a lot of confusion about how many people were part of this.
On an intellectual level, I can see why the psychologists wanted to investigate this topic, but why would the adoption agency agree?
In the 50s and 60s it was a wild west for psychology, you had all these experiments which would never be countenanced today, they’d never get past an ethics committee, so the historical context is important. Having said that we’ve spoken to a lot of people at the agency who were totally against it at the time, no other adoption agency would take part, despite being approached by Peter Neubauer, so the idea that no one was saying this is not a good idea is just not true. It’s what Lawrence Wright calls ‘noble cause corruption’ – why do people do bad things in pursuit of a noble goal. I think ego was a huge part of it to, when you get people trying to push the envelope, to definitively prove if we’re shaped by nature or nurture, I think you’d have been one of the most famous psychologists in the world. I’ve no doubt that was a huge factor in this.
How do you think someone could go about making amends for the tests that have been done on these twins?
It’s a good question, ultimately I think it’s a question for the brothers and those who were part of the experiment. I think the main thing they want, is for the data to be made available to them. Nothing from this study has been seen, it’s all under wraps. There’s been a lot of debate about whether material gathered by unethical means should still be used. I think the brothers want an apology. They got a sort of apology after the film came out but there hasn’t been a big public apology.
What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
I want them to feel a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s very deliberately told with the same chronology as the brothers found out about it. That’s why it feels like it has these amazing twists. I want people to feel different emotions, and to think about the fundamental issues that the film is discussing, do we have free will? What makes us who we are? What is the role of nature vs nurture? What is the nature of family? How is power abused and how easily can those abuses happen? I felt quite conscious of the similarities in power dynamics between the scientists and my role as a documentary maker, you control your subject – put a camera in front of someone and they’ll tell you almost anything, then you have to edit that together into a film. That’s a huge responsibility. I hope people think about that power imbalance. I don’t think it’d ever happen in psychology today, but there are other areas of science – genetics, AI or neuroscience, where researchers are crossing boundaries because it’s a new frontier, the rules aren’t set, we haven’t realised yet, but we might look back and think, that shouldn’t have been done. I didn’t want to make something just about issues, I also wanted to make it entertaining but to use that packaging to explore deeper issues. It makes those thematic ideas more palatable.
Do you ever think you’ll work on a story like this again?
I’ve had to reconcile myself to the fact that I’m unlikely to work on something like this ever again. I remember during my first week, my editor, he watched the rushes, and by about day four, he turned to me and said, we’re never going to work on a story like this again in our lives. He was definitely right. I think you have to make peace with that.