Forbidden from leaving their New York apartment, the Angulo brothers learnt about life only from movies. The Wolfpack explores what happened to them when they broke free
The first time the six brothers – collectively known as the Wolfpack – stepped out un-accompanied into Manhattan (then aged between 11 and 18), it was not as they had imagined. They knew about grocery stores and taxis and buses from the movies they had watched –crouched around the TV in their cramped living room, faces aglow as the bus in the film Speed did its jump across the freeway. Waiting for a subway was different. And the actual sensation of speed was different. “OK,” thought Mukunda, the third youngest, then 15, who knew more than any of them what the outside was like, having escaped for the first time not long before. “Speed is much more violent. This feels nothing like that movie. This is way tougher.”
Narayana, now 23, the second eldest (along with his twin, Govinda) found the sight of people hugging when they said hello or goodbye strange, and the way people said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry” when they bumped into him. This wasn’t what their father had told them would happen. People on the outside are dangerous, he had drilled into them. Don’t even look them in the eye. “We were raised to believe that everyone’s out to get you,” Mukunda, now 20, says. “There’s always crime and everyone’s got a gun. Someone’s going to knife you just because you have a wallet. But everyone kept coming to us and saying, ‘You guys look so great. Where are you from? Can I get a selfie with you?’”
The filmmaker Crystal Moselle remembers the first time she saw the Angulo brothers, walking down First Avenue in April 2010, wearing shades and identical suits, à la Reservoir Dogs, their long black hair down to their waists. “It felt like coming across a lost tribe from the Amazon”, she says. The resulting documentary that she made about them, The Wolfpack, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, falls somewhere between François Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage (1970) and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo – the 1980 documentary about the Georgia twins whose childhood was so secluded that they invented their own language to communicate with one another.
The exact details of the Angulo brothers’ upbringing emerged slowly over the course of several years of filming. “Early on I knew they were home-schooled [by their mother], and I found out they didn’t have any friends,” Moselle, 35, says. “I was like, ‘OK, they are a big group family. They’re just their own little tribe.’ Then they would slowly reveal things to me like, ‘You’re our first friend ever to come over to our house.’ One evening we were out filming and went to a pizza spot, and Mukunda let me know about his experience [of] breaking out [of the apartment]. I was like, ‘OK, maybe it’s a little darker than I realised.’"
Finally she pieced it all together. For 15 years all six brothers, plus their mentally impaired sister, had been largely confined to a 1,000sq ft apartment on the 16th floor of a housing project in the Lower East Side. Their father, Oscar, a Peruvian immigrant and Hare Krishna devotee, met their mother, an Indiana-born hippie named Susanne, on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in 1989. The couple moved around America before settling in New York, where Oscar proceeded to elaborate his baroque, paranoid worldview – anti-work, anti-materialism, anti-government – to his six sons, each given a Sanskrit name for a god: Bhagavan, Narayana, Govinda, Mukunda, Jagadisa and Krsna. In his more delusional moments he spoke of himself as a god.
“I always thought of him as a failed cult leader,” Moselle says. “I think he had this idea in his head that he was going to start his own race.”
The rules of the apartment were simple: never go out, except when supervised by Oscar, and that was only a handful of times a year, and some years never at all. Never talk to strangers. And never go into the rooms that shared adjacent walls with neighbours – the living room and the one the boys called the ‘attic’ – without permission. ‘He always had the fear that our neighbours were listening or they were trying to listen,’ says Bhagavan, 24, the eldest of the brothers, who now wears his hair a lot shorter than the waist-length his father insisted on for all of the boys. The one thing Oscar allowed them access to was his 2,000 DVDs, bought at discount or borrowed from the library, soon bumped up to 5,000 by the brothers’ burgeoning cinephilia.
‘Movies were our window to the outside,’ Narayana says. Like all his brothers he is exceedingly polite, with a placid, thoughtful demeanour that bespeaks a childhood spent largely in his own head, but with a wilder performative side that first manifested itself in lavish at-home re-enactments of all their favourite movies – Reservoir Dogs, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight – complete with astonishingly detailed homemade costumes and props fashioned from cereal boxes and yoga mats. ‘Sometimes I think of a lot of our childhood as The Shawshank Redemption, where he [Andy Dufresne, Tim Robbins’s character] says there is that one place they can’t build walls around, one place that has no cages or cells, one part in you they could never touch. That’s hope. In our head, we could go wherever we wanted.’
This is how they all speak, I realise, when I meet them for breakfast one morning outside a cafe in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, not far from the family apartment: in high-concept thought chunks. Describing their inner lives they can often sound as if they are pitching a movie. They are lovely on all number of counts, not least the seemingly decisive answer they give to the oft-asked question, "What happens to the soul of man on an uninterrupted diet of Quentin Tarantino movies, heavy metal and pizza?" The answer is rather more hopeful than you might think. By turns fascinating and fascinated, shy, smart, garrulous, charming and thoughtful, the Angulo brothers give feral a good name.
"Two things really helped us get through our childhood: our mother and movies," Mukunda, who is not the eldest but seems it, says.
"And music," says Krsna, the youngest, aged 17, who has renamed himself Eddie and sports a bleach-blond shock of hair. "I wouldn’t see as many movies as my other brothers. I would sit back and listen to a bunch of Black Sabbath CDs."
"We were basically like the Von Trapp kids and our mother taught us to sing," Narayana says.
"It’s still movie characters, though," Mukunda adds, nodding at Eddie’s hair. "The Lost Boys."
"Ah, Kiefer Sutherland," I say.
"That’s it," Mukunda says. Eddie looks a little sheepish.
What have they found about life outside that the movies didn’t brief them for, I ask?
"I would say bar fights aren’t usually as funny as they are in the movies," Eddie replies.
"You’ve been in a bar fight?" I ask him.
"He actually stopped one," Mukunda says.
"It was outside a bar," Eddie says. "There were these two people who were fighting. I walked up to them and asked them for a cigarette. They gave me one and that stopped. Yeah. Then they calmed down. They were like, 'I’m sorry about that.'"
What do they argue about? "Oh, everything," Narayana says. "We’re like a 70s rock band."
"Four Leos in the same room, that’s a lot to deal with," Mukunda says. "But we’re like, 'No, let’s not leave the room and wait five years to talk to each other again. Let’s get through this.'"
It’s not hard to see what they keyed into in the work of Tarantino, with his simmering themes of loyalty and brotherhood ("Pulp Fiction is one of the most moral movies ever made," Narayana says). The violence of the movies they watched seems to have acted, as it does for so many teenagers, as a safety valve for inexpressible emotion – in particular their inchoate, submerged rage at being confined. They witnessed little violence at home, though in the documentary Govinda remembers seeing his mother getting slapped. Their father’s weapon of choice was the long, angry tirade. Like a lot of tyrants, he bored them into submission.
"We’d always be like, 'Dammit. Now we’re going to have to sit for three hours just listening.' Not talking, just listening," Narayana says. "And if you didn’t listen," Bhagavan adds, "then you’re almost committing a crime."
What changed the dynamic in the house was the same thing that tips the balance in every household: adolescence. It started with Halloween, the first holiday the boys made their own, staging in-apartment rites designed to exclude their father, and continued with The Dark Knight, a film Mukunda watched over and over again, fascinated by its realistic texture. It seemed to crystallise his growing sense of a world beyond the walls of their apartment. "It hit me: that could happen. It doesn’t have to be a fantasy world. You could actually get something done. You could do it."
One day in 2010 he donned a Michael Myers mask, from the movie Halloween, and snuck outside for the first time unaccompanied by his father. He visited a bank, a grocery store, a pharmacy, before being picked up by police. They asked for his ID – he had none. They were stumped. They couldn’t arrest him – he hadn’t done anything, just wandered into a bank wearing a mask – so they sent him to the nearest psychiatric ward, where he spent a week hanging out with the inpatients, many of them suicidal. He loved it. There would be a breakfast, lunch, dinner time, a movie night. Most importantly, there was interaction with other people. "It was like, I have so many questions just for one person. It was exciting for me. 'Oh, I’ll have room-mates,' so to speak. I did have a room-mate. He was 12 years old. I don’t remember his name though."
"Desmond," Eddie volunteers.
"Thank you," Mukunda says, turning to his brother in amazement. "Wow, I can’t believe it. I must have told you this so many times."
"No, it’s because you said he dressed up like Jason [from Friday the 13th] for Hallowe’en. I always think of him."
Was Mukunda frightened, I ask? "I knew I would definitely get in trouble for wearing a mask outside," he says.
When he was returned home, the blow-up with his father was everything he thought it would be, but this time he held his ground, telling him that they were no longer father and son. "You hit a certain point where you think, not any more. It takes a lot, because you’re standing up to the most fearful thing you’ve ever seen or had in your life. He was this godlike figure, this huge thing, this unstoppable thing. Then, when that challenge hits and we all start going out, he just feels like a normal person. 'Oh, I can’t believe we were afraid of that. I can’t believe it. It’s nothing now. We’re not afraid of it any more.' To stand up to that, take the courage to do that, it’s pretty empowering. It takes you up a notch.’
It is this now-impotent figure who lopes through the background of Moselle’s film, a stooped recluse confined to his bedroom, drinking too much, mumbling about outside ‘contamination’. A strange, post-revolutionary twilight currently hangs over the apartment. The boys still share it with him, but most are looking to move out and barely talk to him any more. "Oscar is not dangerous," Moselle says. "It’s not like they have to be scared of him any more. I think maybe it’s more like something about your parents that annoys you, that you can’t deal with. Those kids don’t want to deal with it any more.
"They have better things going on. Even the other day I was over at their house, and their father was saying, 'It’s pretty beautiful what I’ve created.' He’s still taking credit for what’s happening."
In the weeks following Mukunda’s escape, all the boys made their first unaccompanied forays into the outside world – a marvellous, bewildering experience captured by Moselle’s camera: their first cinema (they couldn’t believe a portion of their money would reach an actual movie star), their first park (it reminds them of the forest in Lord of the Rings), their first trip to Coney Island (it makes them think of Lawrence of Arabia). And on the other side of that 3D, multisensory dazzle, the slow job of catching up with adulthood. "It’s bumpy," Mukunda says. "There’s a lot of hits and misses along the ride. Getting stuck in the subway for a long period of time. Getting on an airplane, so super-tired. You wanted a specific job, but the job’s not available and you have to find a lower job and start from the bottom, and then make your way up. There’s a lot of bumps along the ride in life. Without a doubt, there’s going to be a million, million more, and way worse. The older you get, the more responsibilities you get, but we’re able to pull through it."
You spend a lot of time scanning the boys for lingering or long-term after-effects of their upbringing – abuse, strictly considered. Some of them are dragging their feet a little when it comes to romantic relationships, but that may say as much about the absence of high-school conditioning as anything else. "It’s like these rules you have to follow whenever you date, which I find is very – what’s the word I’m looking for… It’s not really… It doesn’t really work," says Bhagavan, who now teaches yoga and dance at the Hip Hop Dance Conservatory. He has been on dates, but like many of his brothers he seems a little impatient of superficial relationships. The Wolfpack’s MO appears to be: watch, wait, listen, make up your mind about someone and then, if you like them, bond deeply.
"We’re actually good at communicating with people," says Mukunda, who has started work as a production assistant and wants to be a film director. "I thought we would be terrible at it. I was so worried that we would mess up, or no one would like us – 'You’re a weirdo – but it all came together, to our surprise." As if to prove the point, our interview is interrupted at this point by the film director Spike Jonze, walking down the street with a woman friend and a small chihuahua-like dog.
"Hey," Jonze says, stopping. "How are you?"
"Hey! How you doing?" Mukunda replies. "We’re just doing an interview for the opening in London."
"That’s awesome. David said he had a great time with you guys the other day."
It turns out that a few days before, the brothers had met with the Silver Linings Playbook director David O Russell, who, it transpires, is also a fan of the Angulos and invited them to his editing suite while working on his new movie with Jennifer Lawrence, Joy.
"Oh, yeah. He was so, so cool," Mukunda says. "He liked our mom as well: 'You’re like a science fiction mom. All these seven kids popped out of you. That’s science fiction. That’s amazing.' He was so fun."
"Have you seen his dog?" Jonze’s companion says, pointing to it.
"He’s cute," Eddie responds.
"Her name’s Wolfpack," Jonze says. The boys react incredulously. "I got her the day after you guys came over. I was inspired by you. I also watched Inglourious Basterds again, inspired by you talking about it."
"I’ve got to see that again," Mukunda says. "We still have to re-enact that film."
They talk some more about Tarantino, before Jonze glances at me and says, "I should let you get back to it. Good to see you guys. Really good."
"Great to see you. Be well," Mukunda says, and when Jonze is out of earshot, "Spike was one of the first psychos that I was obsessed with: 'I want to be that guy'. He’s got the eyepatch at the end of Three Kings. It’s so funny.Watching their movies, everyone’s like a god on the screen. Then when we’re meeting them in person, they’re just… people-ish."
The thought of the boys’ rather pendulous swing from the extreme seclusion of their childhood to the opposite – the toast of young Hollywood, on first-name terms with A-list directors such as Russell and Jonze – unsettles me a little. Fame is not the best-known means of recovering from an abusive childhood. Creativity, on the other hand, is. "I see this as a first step of a bigger vision for them," Moselle says. Together with her producer, she is staying with the boys to help them set up Wolfpack Pictures, which has already put out one original short, scripted and directed by Mukunda and shot by Govinda. "It’s not like we’re throwing them out into the world of fame," Moselle says. "It’s not like they’re going to celebrity parties and doing everything they want. They’re still struggling. They still have their jobs. They still have their drive. It’s pretty exciting, it’s scary, it’s so many things at once. This is their new life."
The Wolfpack opens on August 21