A stranger-than-fiction story of three identical American triplets who become separated at birth and adopted by different families, to finally reunite 19 years later; Three Identical Strangers has become one of the most-discussed documentaries of the decade – a phenomenon for audiences across the world.
Based around the 1980 highly publicised reunion of brothers Robert Shafran, David Kellman and Eddy Garland, director Tim Wardle’s documentary garnered sold-out acclaim at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and grossed over $12 million worldwide.
We talked with the film’s producer Becky Read to find out what she looks for in a documentary, the challenges of working with the film’s subjects, and making feature documentaries which are theatrically viable.
You’ve said as producer that you’re interested in stories that highlight social issues and human interest stories. What caught your eye with Three Identical Strangers?
For feature docs, if you want people to pay and go and see something at the cinema, the thing you’re looking for is a story that’s got universal themes. This is a story about one thing, but really, it’s actually about all this other much bigger stuff that touches on the kind of questions that we would ask ourselves. The nature vs nurture thing for us in Three Identical Strangers is something that people have talked about for decades, we still talk about it. That’s why it’s fascinating. So, you want to look at films that really have another level to them that go beyond the initial story and talk to us about the things that we ask ourselves as humans and bigger questions about ourselves. You want people to leave the cinema and talk about your film. And think about it in a month’s time or two months’ time or six months’ time. Not everything should be a feature doc, lots of stuff is better shorter. But some films really lend themselves to that, if there’s enough beats you can really create something.
Did you realise this was a story that people would see in droves and build word of mouth, which would create and build conversations?
What I’m learning now is that you’re still looking for stuff that’s commercial. People aren’t going to go to the cinema on a Friday night and see something that’s relentlessly grim in a documentary. People still want escapism, people still want entertainment, and I think one of the things about Three Identical Strangers and its festival success is that it felt like a narrative film. The editor did such an amazing job on that front, that you feel that you’re watching a movie, and you get carried away with the story and you forget that it’s a documentary. It’s a different experience. That kind of commercial aspect of whether people will want to go and enjoy your film in a cinema is something that’s important.
As soon as you start pitching stuff for cinema, the business side comes in and you realise, “Oh, yeah, people need to want to buy tickets”. So the film you want to make about this grim thing that’s happening that you want to expose or that you want to have a conversation about is not necessarily something people are going to want to sit and watch.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced producing this film?
I think the biggest challenge was producing a story about a study that people wanted to keep quiet. Finding people who were still alive, who would actually go on camera or even talk to me off camera, about this study when it was such an embarrassment to the scientific community and especially to the organisation, the Jewish Board of Family Children’s Services, who do really good work in social care and didn’t necessarily want a big noisy film about something that’s happened 40 years ago that they feel they inherited.
The paranoia that seeps into your production and worrying about approaching people and asking them to give you information and take part in your film… We assumed that this community of people who knew about the study would all talk to each other about the fact that this film was being made and that would then cause all the doors to close. So, if you ring one person, in 10 minutes, everyone’s going to know about it. So how do you just take the plunge and do it? You have to do your job, you have to get contributors on board, you have to find stuff out. So that was a really difficult thing, the resistance from people to understanding what the study was about and why it happened. And we needed context to that. You want to find those people who can give you that context and that background. So, when people just say no, it makes it even harder.
The schedule and the budget were really difficult. You want to go and spend time and build trust with your contributors. We couldn’t go to America for long periods of time. Our shoots were very strict. There was no extra money. In feature docs, you don’t have any extra money to waste. So, it’s got to be really carefully produced and curated, so you know where you’re going and exactly what you need from each person. That’s always a challenge.
The other big challenge was not knowing the third act. Whether we would get access to the information we needed again, and what we would do if we didn’t, what we would do if we did. What would we do if we open this box that we think is going to be full of amazing stuff, and it’s just not really worth it? What if it’s not as interesting as we think it’s going to be? The unknowns of documentaries are always really hard. You want to control everything.
What do you think the state of the market is for documentaries?
I think it feels amazing to me. I was saying to a friend the other day that as a viewer, I feel overwhelmed by choice, and you’re always missing out on stuff because there are so many different platforms now. As a producer, it’s brilliant. Because you’ve got more and more places to pitch to. So that to me feels incredibly positive. I don’t know how that’s impacting upon TV in the UK, for example. I think there’s an appetite for feature docs as well. In 2018 when we premiered, there were five documentaries which all were close to or exceeded 15 million at the box office including our film, RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbour and Free Solo. Which to me is amazing. People want to spend money on documentaries. People want to hear real true stories.
How important was screening at Sundance and the support of your US theatrical distributor (Neon) to the film becoming such a crossover hit with audiences?
It definitely helped. All of our team had been new to the feature world, apart from Dimitri Doganis, our executive producer, who did The Imposter in 2012. At Sundance, we had we had three or four meetings with Neon, Magnolia and Universal. Neon were just really impressive, and were really detailed about what they liked about the film and had a really impressive strategy of how they were going to market it. We met with CNN Films and a few others, but (director) Tim Wardle and Dimitri Doganis and I felt that Neon were the most impressive and exciting option for us. It was a complete whirlwind for Tim to be on the awards campaign towards the end of the year. In the initial release, it was like a kind of cautious opening, there was a lot of word of mouth. This isn’t a film that has celebrities in it or anything like that, so we really did rely on word of mouth. But I thought Neon were really impressive with their strategy. We felt very involved. I’m sure that’s not a normal experience. We were just lucky, and the film struck a chord.
What’s next for you?
I did some development on a documentary called Rico for Netflix. I’m currently working with producer Julie Nottingham (Skate Kitchen, Trophy), who used to run feature documentaries at Pulse Films. She has just had the documentary XY Chelsea and a few other films premiere at Tribeca. We’re working on multiple American and feature documentary ideas.