In “The Wolfpack,” director Crystal Moselle documents a group of brothers whose obsessive relationship with films connects them to the outside world in an award-winning documentary with a story that’s almost impossible to believe. We talked with her about the film's origin story.
In 2010, Moselle had graduated from film school and was making a living shooting commercials and short-form videos when she came across a group of brothers on the streets of New York. They looked nearly identical with their long, dark ponytails and skinny bodies. That chance encounter led her on a five-year endeavor in which she befriended the boys and made a documentary about about them called “The Wolfpack.”
The film is shot nearly entirely in their apartment, where these six brothers lived with their parents and a sister. The parents were so fearful of the outside world that they almost never let their children leave the home — at one point they didn’t leave for an entire year.
So the brothers turned to movies, and in Moselle’s documentary you see footage of them reproducing their favorite films like "Reservoir Dogs" with homemade costumes and props. The documentary won the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it opens in theaters on Friday.
We spoke with Moselle in Park City, Utah after her Sundance premiere. She told us how she first spotted the brothers skateboarding in New York on a rare trip outside of their apartment.
"I was walking down First Avenue in New York City, and this kid rolled by me. He had long hair, and he was really just interesting and kind of took me by surprise. And then another one, and another one, and another one. All of the sudden, six of them had run past me, and my instincts took over and I ran after them," Moselle says.
She met them at a crosswalk and called after them.
"I said 'Hey. Hey, hey! Where are you guys from?' And they said 'Oh, we're from Delancey Street. I said, 'Nah, there's no way. I've lived in this neighborhood for about 10 years and I would've seen you before, I just know it.' And they said, 'Well, um, we're not really supposed to talk to strangers.' And I said, 'Well we don't have to be strangers!'"
The boys wanted to know more about Moselle.
"One of them said, 'So, what is it that you do?' I said, 'Oh, I'm a filmmaker.' They said, 'Oh, we're interested in getting into the business of filmmaking.' And I was like, 'Well, I can show you some cameras.'"
Their relationship started as a friendship before becoming a film.
"I really was just interested in them because their personalities were so amazing. And they didn't feel jaded, and I loved that."
The film unfolds inside the boys' apartment due to the beliefs of their parents, with the father in particular feeling that the world is out to get him.
"There was a big transformation when they started going outside of the house. So, they really gained control of the household. So I never really had to have a conversation with their father."
The boys wanted her to come in to be around them and shoot her documentary, while also teaching them about film.
"To be honest, I think that their father saw some sort of opportunity for his kids. Because, at the end of the day, he always had these delusions of grandeur, that they would be pop stars or something like that. A little bit of Jackson 5 essence to it."
Those dreams of pop stardom didn't pan out, but they did develop an intense love of cinema. They're interested in it in a different way than what's usually seen with the degree they go to with their obsession.
"If it's a film that they're super inspired by, and they feel like there's enough characters for them all to re-enact, they will get the movie on VHS or DVD and they will write down, word for word, the script of the film. And they will re-enact the film that way."
Moselle says she asked them why they didn't just get the film's script, but they rejected that idea.
"They said, 'No! We have to do it exactly like the movie. We have to, every gesture, everything has to be identical to the film. The film is directing us.' They have the soundtrack recorded on a cassette tape that they push play. That was like their way to play."
One of the boys, Mukunda, had a movie he was particularly fascinated with — Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight. He wanted that world to be true, and he wanted to enter into that world. He build a Batman costume from cereal boxes and yoga mats. In a way, it was a way for him to get out of the world that he lived in.
"Which is such a beautiful thing. Because Batman is such a strong character, that's like somebody who like looks down on the city and kind of takes care of the city, and here he is at the 16th floor of his apartment building looking over the city in his Batman costume."
The boys have a significantly stronger relationship with their mother than their father. The parents raised them largely in isolation.
"They firmly believe that being homeschooled is the right way to raise your kids. And I think that [the boys] wish they were able to go out and have friends, but other than that, they are 100 percent behind their mother."
Meanwhile, they compare their father to a warden keeping them as prisoners.
"I think that they also believe their mother was a victim to the situation as well."
Moselle says that, if she'd come along earlier before they were being let out of their home, there may have been more concern. However, from what she saw, she didn't see the need to intervene.
"When I came into this story, there was nothing that alarmed me in that way," Moselle says. "At that point, they're on welfare, they're being educated, they're getting their certificates from the government for their education, and they're being fed well. Their mom's actually a great cook."
All six boys and their mother joined Moselle at Sundance in Park City. She gave them an opportunity to travel that probably never would have otherwise come, changing their lives through her observation.
"I did think about that, a lot. That was a hard thing to get through, but I think that the way that we told the story, it really just is the natural process of it happening."
Moselle says what happened was going to happen one way or another.
"That they were going to become assimilated to the world, and that they were going to go out and meet people and make friends."
The boys' incredibly personal and obsessive relationship with the visual arts, particularly filmmaking, had an affect on how Moselle interacts with film herself.
"It's so inspiring the way that they see the world and the way that they interpret things, and not even the films that they make, but just these costumes, and these replicas of these movies that they love."
Moselle says that the boys also taught her about movies.
"I mean, I went to film school, but they're like little encyclopedia cinephiles. You can be like, 'So, who won the Oscar in 1977?' And they'll tell you who it was and who should've won."
Things could have been different if she'd come along at that intersection just 15 seconds later, but Moselle says she thinks she could have just run into them the next week.
"I believe that we were supposed to meet on that street on that day. That's the Northern California hippie in me."
The film opens this Friday, June 12.