“To be honest,” he tells Deadline, “from Sundance onwards, life has been a bit of a blur.”
That’s what happens when you make one of the most acclaimed nonfiction films of recent years—a hit not only with critics but the moviegoing public. Wardle’s “truth is stranger than fiction” tale of identical triplets who were separated as infants and then reunited only by chance as young men, won a storytelling prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and then exploded at the box office, earning more than $12 million in North America alone.
“When it it got to $1 million, we were like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s made $1 million! It’s incredible!’” Wardle recalls. “And then it was $3 million, then it was 5 and it was 10…The whole thing has been a fairy tale.”
The fairy tale has continued into Emmy season, with the documentary from CNN Films earning nominations in a trio of categories—Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking; Outstanding Picture Editing For a Nonfiction Program, recognizing the work of editor Michael Harte, and Outstanding Directing For a Documentary/Nonfiction Program, for Wardle’s skill behind the camera.
“I’m just incredibly thrilled to hear about the Emmys,” the British native says. “In the U.K. they’re obviously regarded as the gold standard for not just American but kind of world television. I feel really honored, really thrilled for the brothers, whose story we told because I think it’s recognition of their story and how they told it.”
It’s a story of extraordinary twists and turns, to say the least, dating back to 1961. It was in that year that an adoption agency in New York called Louise Wise Services took responsibility for placing triplet baby boys. The agency chose not to try to get a single family to adopt the infants, but instead placed them in three separate homes—and never told the adoptive families their child was one of a set of triplets.
The secret might never have been revealed had not one of the boys, Bobby Shafran, gone off to Sullivan County Community College in 1980.
“It was the first day of school,” Shafran remembers in the film. “All these people were coming up to me saying, ‘Eddie, how are you? Eddie, hi!’ And I’m like, ‘My name’s not Eddie. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Eventually, someone convinced Bobby he had a doppelgänger who had attended Sullivan the previous year. Within a matter of hours long-lost brothers Bobby Shafran and Eddie Galland were reunited.
“And then the story went from being amazing to incredible,” as a Newsday editor puts it in Three Identical Strangers.
News coverage of the twins’ chance reunion reached a third young man, David Kellman, a dead ringer for the other two and born on the same day, who realized they must all be siblings. The story became a media sensation and the long-separated triplets made the rounds of TV talk shows and morning programs, dressed alike and eager to report how eerily similar their tastes and interests were, despite not having grown up together.
“There’s that line one says [in the film], ‘We wanted to be alike. We were falling in love with each other.’ It’s like they were playing along with it.” Wardle notes. “The media were focusing on this one aspect of the story that was sort of the obvious selling point and the boys wanted that to be true as well. So they kind of went with it.”
The triplets turned into instant celebrities in New York, even scoring a cameo appearance in the 1985 Madonna movie Desperately Seeking Susan. Fame, inevitably, proved short lived, and the brothers’ joy at being reunited could not paper over the pain of their decades apart, or the realization that life experience had made them different from each other.
And then there was the question of why the boys had been torn from each other in the first place. Wardle got to the bottom of the sinister reason, one that involves a chillingly inhumane experiment in nature versus nurture.
“It was like a journalistic investigation, and all these really top journalists had failed to get all these answers [before],” Wardle comments. “There was real code of silence around what happened and what had been done to these brothers. It felt almost insurmountable at times.”
The story, with its many layers and light and dark motifs, has captured the attention of Hollywood. A fictionalized version is in the works, with Wardle as executive producer.
“It’s in development,” Wardle tells Deadline. “It’s being written by Anthony McCarten, the writer of The Theory of Everything…For [a single] actor to play three roles, I think is very, very exciting. Presumably that’s what they’ll do with CG or whatever.”
The brothers (only two of the three survive) are “heavily involved” in the fictional film, Wardle says.
“I still speak to them most weeks,” he shares. “So I’m just thrilled for them. Potentially their story is going to have another life in a scripted film, and hopefully even more people will go out and see.”