Director Crystal Moselle stumbled upon a unique group of six brothers by accident, and the result is one of the most fascinating looks at family, film, and passion at Hot Docs.
When The Wolfpack premiered at the 2015 Sundance Festival, the Guardian compared it to the iconic Maysles Brothers film Grey Gardens, thanks to its immersive access into one very strange household. Generations of fans of that movie can only imagine the shock, intrigue, and impulse to pick up the camera that the Maysles experienced the first time they met Big and Little Edie Bouvier. But first-time feature director Crystal Moselle might have a more first-hand knowledge of that situation, after her serendipitous discovery of the Angulo family led to a close friendship with the six brothers, several years of documenting them in their home, and one of the most fascinating documentaries to hit Sundance, the Tribeca Film Festival, and now Hot Docs.
The Wolfpack is the self-appointed moniker for the Angulo brothers, who grow up spending between 360 and 365 days a year inside their Lower East Side apartment in New York City, with their older sister, mother Susanne, and father Oscar. When not being homeschooled by Susanne, the brothers’ only outlet is movies: horror, action, and comedies, but especially Tarantino-esque thrillers, which they painstakingly recreate with incredibly detailed homemade costumes and props (so lifelike that their cardboard guns even alerted police attention). Moselle’s documentary begins as the brothers start pushing back against their father’s strict house arrest and follows their frightening and emboldening discoveries, Susanne’s conflicted but pure adoration of her children, and Oscar’s peculiar and paranoid world view.
Torontoist spoke to Moselle following The Wolfpack‘s screenings at Hot Docs, before it begins a wider release in Canada this summer starting in Toronto on June 12 (with more cities to be announced soon).
Torontoist: How did you find out about the Angulo family?
Crystal Moselle: I met them on the street. I was walking down Fifth Avenue and these boys ran past me, and they were just very fascinating and I instinctually ran after them. We started talking and I asked them where they were from, and they said Delancey Street. Then Govinda asked me what I did for a living and I told them I was a filmmaker, and they said, “Oh, we’re interested in getting into the business of filmmaking.” So I started showing them cameras, and I just wanted to help them, it was something I knew about. And we became friends. And that continued for quite a few months, and eventually they asked me to come over to their house. And we hung out; they were getting ready for their Halloween celebrations and they were creating these crazy props and all this really cool stuff. And I was very intrigued by the whole thing.
And when I first came to this story, I had no idea what the backstory was. So it took me a while, like a year and a half, to really get details of what was happening with the seclusion. But yeah, it started as a friendship.
How long ago was that?
I met them about five years ago, and I filmed for about four and a half years.
What were they like when you approached them on the street? Were they open to talking to you?
They were definitely shy. You could tell they didn’t really want to talk to me, or were scared to talk to me. But the minute they found out I was a filmmaker, everything dropped and they started being very open immediately. That was their passion, they wanted to meet people who were filmmakers.
After seeing the documentary, you can imagine how that one fact can completely flip the switch for them. There’s a scene where they go see their first movie in a movie theatre, and they’re just owning the streets all dressed in black coats, white shirts, and black sunglasses—very Reservoir Dogs. You can tell that the bravery they have to go out into the city is what they find in these movies they love. As a filmmaker, could you relate to that?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Relating to film is a way that we can connect with each other. They had told me when I first met them, “We never know what to say when we’re out and meeting new people, we never know what to talk about or say.” And I told them, “Why don’t you just ask them what their favourite movie is. Just start talking about that.” That was always their way of breaking the ice with people. That was something that bound us all together. And I can personally relate as well, because that’s what I’m interested in as well.
In some reviews we’ve read, some people wish that the father’s reasoning for keeping the family so isolated was a bigger presence in the movie. Is there a reason why Susanne and the kids are placed front and centre here? And what do you think drives his choices?
The story that we told is the story that we told. I feel like the amount we put the father in was the amount that he needed to be in … I think that, for the father, it’s a lot of fear, which comes through in the film. And it’s wanting to control the family. And I think we touch upon both of those points in the film.
Do you keep in touch with the wolfpack?
Yes, I keep in touch with them every day. And they’re having a great experience. They were at Tribeca [Film Festival], and they’re still making films and starting a production company called Wolfpack Pictures that we’re helping them with. And, you know, moving forward. There’s more to look forward to with the wolfpack.
Oh yeah? What kind of things are they working on?
They’re mainly focused on short form projects right now. But people are wanting to work with them, they’re getting funded—it’s going to be awesome.
The Wolfpack is a very complicated, very personal story of this family. What do you want audiences to take away from the movie?
With this question, I feel like everyone’s going to take away something different because there are so many things to relate to, whether it be something that relates to your own family or if it’s only something to get you inspired. Because these kids really … they’re resilient. And they use the power of imagination to get through a really tough time. And so I think it can be inspiring for people—if you have a creative side, you have to tap into that. It can be therapeutic, it can inspire people to make things, so as far as the audience taking away something, it’s different for everybody. I don’t have this one thing I want them to learn.
Was there anything in Angulo family or anywhere in the Angulo family residence that was off-limits?
Everything was very open in the process. I think that in the film itself there’s enough for an audience to see their situation and come to their own conclusions. And everyone feels good about what came together. So we’re happy.
The Angulos are happy with the film?
Everyone has seen it except for Govinda and Narayana, who are the twins, because they don’t feel comfortable with watching themselves on camera. But everyone else feels like it was a very honest portrayal, they were happy with it. Even the father felt like it was educational to see his kids’ point of view.
You said you’re in close contact with the kids, but are you still with the parents?
I talk to the mother quite often, but the father, I’ve never spoken to him on the phone. But I see him at their house.