Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction – and provide the basis for the most sensational documentaries – as Simon Chinn well knows.
The award-winning producer has thrilled the box office with a string of hit documentaries in recent years, including Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man, which earned him two Oscars, plenty of kudos and no doubt nachas for his family.
There were perhaps few better qualified to help decide this year’s special jury prize winner at Sundance, with Chinn happily voting for Three Identical Strangers.
The documentary, currently showing across the UK, explores the inconceivable story of Jewish triplets separated at birth and adopted into three socially diverse families, as part of an undisclosed scientific study on ‘nature versus nurture’.
Chinn, the son of philanthropist Sir Trevor and Susan Chinn, tells me he recognised something “extraordinary” about director Tim Wardle’s debut feature film.
The 48-year-old, who lives in north London with his wife Lara and their three children, enthuses: “It’s just one of those crazy stories you couldn’t make up. You couldn’t write in fiction, because no one would believe it.
“The best documentaries are the ones that keep surprising you and this one surprises more than most – perhaps even the most twists in any documentary ever.”
Now on release in the UK, Three Identical Strangers has already grossed $12million in the US. Chinn’s 2008 award-winning debut feature film, Man On Wire, achieved the same figure, but globally. It’s all part of what Chinn describes as a continuing “feature doc boom”.
“We had a doc out this year about Whitney Houston, which did $3m in the US,” says Chinn. “That’s a respectable figure, but somehow this year it’s nothing to write home about! It’s been slowly gathering pace over the past decade and platforms like Netflix now provide an amazing showcase for documentaries.”
The formula for a successful documentary is, in Chinn’s own words, “very unscientific”, but generally boils down to “a combination of the market, what resonates with people – and following your gut”.
Of all the films he has produced, which includes The Green Prince (2014), the enthralling story of a Hamas leader’s son who worked undercover for Mossad, Chinn found My Scientology Movie one of his most challenging. Featuring broadcaster Louis Theroux, who has known Chinn since their school days, the quirky documentary proved harder to sell distributors than first anticipated. He jokes that he had to “twist the distributor’s arm” before the film was finally released.
Chinn explains: “It did £1.1m at the box office at the UK based on a very limited spend, so that was incredibly gratifying after such a tough journey. Sometimes it’s nice to be proved right.”
Then there are titles that just seem to sell themselves. His film about Harvey Weinstein has only just reached the cutting room, but has already been “presold to 20 theatrical buyers”.
Chinn – who once met the disgraced Hollywood mogul – can’t go too much into detail, but says he feels “very confident” about the end product.
“It’s very much under wraps. All I can say is we’ve interviewed a lot of people and have extensive testimony. We are telling the story of Weinstein in the pre-Me Too era and hope to ask really huge questions about where we are now and what’s changed.”
- Three Identical Strangers is now on general release.