First-time feature director Crystal Moselle, 34, has one of the most buzzed-about documentaries playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival… and also one of the most baffling. As Sundance director John Cooper told Indiewire back when the competition lineup was first announced, “No matter how much you read about it, it’s going to sound odd.”
Moselle’s debut, which premieres today in the U.S. Documentary competition, centers on six teen brothers whose father forced them to spend their entire childhood locked away from the outside world in a cramped apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. During their years of solitude, the boys turned to movies to teach them about life. Moselle meets them when the boys begin to break out of their insular world.
Ahead of the film’s world premiere today, Indiewire spoke with Moselle about the five-year experience of making “The Wolfpack.”
How did you come across the boys?
I was walking down 1st Avenue in New York City in the East Village and this kid with long hair ran past me, and then another one and another one. There were six, and I was totally enticed by them. My intuition kicked in and I ran after them and met up with them at a sidewalk. They were like, “Hi,” and I was like, “Hi, where are you from?” They told me Delancey Street, but I had never seen them before and I had lived in the East Village for many years. It just felt like I was coming upon a lost tribe from the Amazon. I can’t explain how it felt, but it felt very different.
They said they weren’t supposed to talk to strangers, but one chimed in and asked what I did for a living, so I told them I was a filmmaker and they got super excited. They were like, “We’re interested in getting into the business of filmmaking!” That’s how it all started. I then met up with them at Washington Square Park and showed them cameras and we’d hang out and talk about movies and cinema.
God, you got lucky.
I did get lucky, but I also believe that it was so serendipitous that maybe it was supposed to happen. This is so obscure that you can’t make this shit up! You can’t! The process felt very natural.
How did you gain their trust? You obviously shared a common love for film, but watching “The Wolfpack” I was shocked that the father agreed to participate, given now negatively he comes across.
It was a slow process. I didn’t push things too hard. What I do as a director is exactly what they want to do in their life. I was their first friend, and they were so ready and hungry to have human interaction. To be honest, it was slower with some of them and faster with a few of them. The older boys were more open because I think they just wanted to be out in the world so much. The younger ones were a bit more shy about it and not as trusting. They were raised on a lot of fear, so it wasn’t a straight road. It was more akin to a roller-coaster, and they had all these questions about what it was going to be. At some points people weren’t sure they wanted to be a part of it, but we kept going.
I’ve never been so passionate about something in my entire life. The kind of passion I had for this film was like… I would do anything for it. There was also a lot of love and compassion behind it from me because I really care about these kids. It’s more than a documentary to me. I think these kids are some of the most brilliant, kind, interesting kids I’ve ever met in life. Not even kids… just human beings.
To be more straightforward, they invited me to their home and I met their parents and they were open to it. I think at the time I came into the household the kids had sort of started a rebellion and they were calling the shots a little bit more than the parents, or at least the dad. The kids really wanted it, so the parents were just happy to comply with it because of what their kids wanted.
I was surprised at how open the dad was. Eventually, everything was laid out on the table and we talked about it. I think that somewhere inside there they wanted their story to be out there. Sometimes it blows my mind, though. Like how did this happen? [Laughs.]
If you spend five years with anybody, you’re bound to forge an emotional connection. As a filmmaker you had to remain objective to a certain degree. How did you manage that?
It wasn’t easy, to be honest. I think that this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Because it started as a friendship, I almost felt like their life was in my hands. It was very sensitive. And I think that’s why the film did take so long, because I wanted to handle it as delicately as possible. I wanted to tell the right story and I wanted to tell everybody’s point of view and not be too subjective by saying what I think. That’s why it probably took over two years just to edit the film.
What did the father make of the film when you showed him the completed project?
He is pretty zen about it. He thought it was a very beautiful film and found it interesting to see his kids’ point of view and learn about how they feel. I think it affected him in a positive way. He also watched himself and laughed at himself when he was being ridiculous. There was an uncomfortable laugh, but he kind of accepts himself. I’ve seen it before in other situations where I’d ask him about nights he was drunk, and he would acceptably laugh it off.