It's been nearly 11 years since John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo – a teenage boy Muhammad had taken in like a son – cruised around the D.C. metropolitan area in a Chevrolet Caprice, indiscriminately shooting a total of 13 victims (10 of them lethally) with a Bushmaster rifle. But, according to the filmmaker behind "Blue Caprice," a new movie about the shootings, what he calls the "culture of violence" that created the so called Beltway sniper is still alive and well.
"Just pick up the newspapers. On page one they're discussing bombing – I think – the ninth Middle East country and on page two it says how we have to cut food stamps for the rising number of people who cannot feed their families here," director Alexandre Moors says. "It's easier for people to accept the use of violence, but the idea of giving food for the table is repulsive."
Moors was born in Paris but now lives in Brooklyn. "Blue Caprice" is his first feature film, with his previous credits including a slew of high profile music videos (think Kanye West and Jennifer Lopez), a few short films and some commercials.
"As a foreigner living in this country, I think the problem of violence is something that you have to deal with it, that you have to confront. It's a pretty major cultural difference coming from where I come from," he says, later adding, "If you want to be heard in America, the outlet is violence."
To play Muhammed, Moors reached out to Isaiah Washington (best known as Dr. Burke on "Grey's Anatomy"), impressed by Washington's performance in "Clockers." Washington, however, had some reservations about the role.
"I didn't want to do a film about a member of the African-American community – my community – who did all these horrific things. It's hard enough being black in America to put that on me," Washington says. "So I had to get past my own issues." He was convinced by both the film's restraint and its efforts to humanize the shooter.
"Whatever people say about the real person, you're still dealing with a real human being. He was a father – probably not a great one. A husband – obviously not a great one," Washington says. "But if you're dealing with the humanity of him in this film, then hopefully you will be at odds and uncomfortable with what you think you know about him."
"Blue Caprice" doesn't play up the national hysteria that the D.C. sniper spurred – the spree is introduced through a montage of grainy news footage and only one start-to-finish Beltway shooting is depicted in the film. Rather, Moors went with a minimalist approach, focusing instead on how John turns Lee into a killing machine. The dialogue is sparse, many minutes stretch by without a single word being uttered. Much of the film takes place in Antigua, where John and Lee meet, and in the woods of Washington state, where John trains Lee to be a murderer, with only the final climax depicting the titular vehicle haunting the D.C. highways. (An early draft, anticipating a smaller budget, had the film taking place entirely in the forest.)
"One thing that interested me was to shoot this film as something that happened in your neighbor's backyard – something you can eavesdrop in," Moors says. "There's conversation where there's gaps and we don't understand all the facts."
Critics have praised this aspect of the film, citing it as one of the reasons "Blue Caprice" was considered a breakout at this January's Sundance Film Festival.
"It was almost like an old lady at her window watching this thing unfold across the street," Moors says. "It's very familiar and at the same time it's very remote."
Moors said his research depended on the court documents and other well known details of the shooters' pasts.
"There was obviously missing clues, missing pieces to that puzzle." he says. "We will never be able to completely comprehend how something so unnatural may happen, so it was very interesting challenge for the screen writer [R.F.I. Porto] to try to draw the tissue between the known facts."
Washington meanwhile did minimal research, breaking from his usual extended preparation for a role (for "Grey's Anatomy" he spent time in a hospital to prepare for his role as surgeon).
"I'm not saying when method comes in I actually go out a kill someone to make a great killer," Washington says, "But I didn't want to go in that head space. I was resisting that impetus and then saying that I have to completely trust [Moors'] direction and his judgements from take to take."
Moors also diverged from the techniques he uses for music videos, which he usually meticulously storyboards, instead allowing for improvisation. "[I was] making this film from a impressionistic perspective – making decision on location with the actors depending on which way the wind would blew that day," Moors says.
"When you work on a music video, as creative as it can be, it's still business," he says. "What really struck me from the first day of this film – especially an independent film that is low budget – everybody is there for the art."