In 1980, through a series of coincidences, two complete strangers—19-year-olds Robert Shafran and Eddie Galland—made the astonishing discovery that they were identical twins. They had been separated at birth, adopted, and raised by different families. Even more incredibly, when their story ran in the New York Post, another 19 year old, David Kellman, realized he was their triplet, adopted to yet another family. After an overwhelmingly joyful reunion, they became instant media sensations, interviewed by Tom Brokaw and Phil Donahue, clubbing at Studio 54, even appearing in the film Desperately Seeking Susan with Madonna. But the brothers’ discovery set in motion a chain of events that, decades later, unearthed an extraordinary and disturbing secret.
I sat down with director Tim Wardle to discuss the process of working on his award-winning documentary, Three Identical Strangers, which also features writer Lawrence Wright.
Danny Miller: I was absolutely riveted by this film! I was obsessed with these guys when their story first broke in the 1980s. I even met them once when they were working at Sammy’s Roumanian restaurant on the Lower East Side before they opened their own.
Tim Wardle: Oh, I’m going to tell them that, they’ll love it!
But, of course, everything I knew about them was couched in this feel-good fairy tale. Even for the first 20 minutes of the film, I was thinking, “Well, yeah, it’s sad that they didn’t grow up knowing each other, but these things happen.” And then, as I watched the documentary, my outrage just grew and grew. How many of those details about what happened to them did you know when you first started working on the film?
We knew about 50 to 60 percent. I knew there was some kind of reason for their separation that had something to do with science, but I really didn’t know many details about that. That was why I was so interested in making this film — to try to investigate what really happened. We were learning a lot of new things throughout the making of the film and we still are, there was such a secrecy about it. Some of the people that we ended up interviewing in the film who were part of the experiment — we didn’t even know that they existed when we started.
The whole film has the feeling of a thriller. Did you have writer Lawrence Wright involved from the get-go? He’s such a great addition to the documentary.
He came on board around the time we went into production because he was one of the first people to publicly expose the study. I was so nervous calling him because I thought he’s such a legendary journalist and so busy and he has some ownership over this topic, but he was really generous with his time the whole way through and came on as a consultant.
The structure of the film is so interesting. There’s that point where we think, “Ah, we’re going to find out who the birth mother was, but in a way that ends up being a kind of red herring — that’s not the story at all!
You’re right. We had a lot of debate about whether to even include that section but everyone I talked to about the triplets always asked, “So what about their birth mother?” I felt there were certain factual details we had to acknowledge, otherwise people would always have those questions.
When we find out that each of the boys had an older sister in their adoptive families and that these sisters were all the exact age was, that whas when I first started thinking, “Hmmm, something’s up here.” And yet not at first. I barely registered the first mention of the sisters.
I’m a real fan of the kind of movies where you seed information that seems irrelevant early on and then you play with it later. I love when I’m watching a film and the information is there all along but it takes you a while to put it together.
Like in the movie The Sixth Sense — everything was there that we needed to know but we just can’t see it at first.
Right. I think as audiences we like being deceived on some level, there’s a sort of pleasure in that. And this film encouraged that technique — not in an exploitative way, but because we were revealing information in the same way that it was revealed to the brothers.
It’s such a compelling story and I’m still processing my feelings about it. I mean there’s no way that I think what happened to them was okay, but I’m trying to get my head into what the people involved in the experiment were thinking.
I know. The truth is that the field of psychology in the 1950s and 60s was a little bit like the Wild West. They were trying to establish it as a new science and there were people really pushing the boundaries and doing all kinds of experiments back then like the Milgram Experiment about obedience to authority, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and all sorts of things that you’d never be ethically able to do today. But I also think the people at the time did have a sense that what they were doing wasn’t ethical because they had approached other adoption agencies at the time for kids for this study and were told that it was just not possible to separate identical siblings.
You can kind of understand the motivation, it was a fascinating study, but the way they went about it was unconscionable.
Yeah. It’s not about saying these people were Nazis or that they were good. Lawrence has this phrase “noble cause corruption” which is about how good people can end up doing really bad things.
I don’t have any problem with the underlying desire to have that particular research. The part I can’t wrap my brain around is that these people were visiting one of the boys and then going straight to the others and never telling them that they existed.
Yes, it’s the omission that was really key here, and denying them the opportunity to have a relationship with each other, you just can’t imagine a closer relationship than with identical twins or triplets. And there was important medical information that was withheld that they knew about that would have been extremely helpful for the other families to know. But, of course, if they told it would have blown their cover.
Was it hard to get the brothers to participate in the making of the film?
I’d say that the first several years of planning the film was about earning their trust. And after knowing their story, you can see how they’d have some issues trusting people. They didn’t have a burning desire to tell their story again, but they did want to learn more about the reasons for the original separation which was obviously very different from what they were told about it when they found each other in the 1980s. They’ve been through a lot of trauma since that time.
Did working on this film for so long change your ultimate feelings about the “nature vs. nurture” debate? I have to say that my feelings about that changed several times as I was watching the documentary.
Oh, absolutely! Those feelings would change almost on a daily basis. I went into it very much thinking from a nurture perspective and that children are like blank slates when they come into this world but now I think that biology and genetics determine our future much more than I realized. I mean, it’s both, of course, and I hope that the film encourages audiences to grapple with these issues.