Blue Caprice (opening this week in New York) is not a biopic. It's based on the events leading up to the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, and takes its title from the car the real-life killers used, but—director Alexandre Moors warned me when I talked to him and star Isaiah Washington earlier this week—it's really an interpretation, and not a faithful recreation.
"Usually when people do real life events [on film], they fully engage; they fully embrace it," he explained. "Here it was such a toxic matter. For me, it's important to keep a distance. We did the research. All the facts are real. But it's an interpretation... I really boiled it down and tried to retain only the part that was interesting for what I had to say. I was trying to turn the film into something minimal and an analogy that would be more timeless."
If Moors had merely recreated the events that played out in the Washington, D.C., area for three weeks in October 2002, Blue Caprice could've easily been a horror film. The secretive, stalking rampage of John Allen Muhammad and his protégé, minor Lee Boyd Malvo, which left 10 dead and three injured, felt enough like a slasher flick as it was. You wouldn't need to change much to make a terrifying movie.
Morris chose to go in a different direction. "We all knew how it ended, but I thought it was more interesting to explore how it started," Morris told me, comparing Blue Caprice to Michael Haneke's 2009 film The White Ribbon. "You watch [Ribbon], and it's a horrible depiction of humanity. It's really gripping. At the end of the film, you realize we're in 1933 and you realize all those people are future Nazis. All of a sudden World War II makes sense."
Blue Caprice is a drama, a thoughtful and blue-collar beautiful meditation on what makes a man a murderer. We watch the Washington's John, forcibly estranged from his wife and children, spiral out of control and develop a Manson-esque philosophy on using terrorism to wake up the world. He mentors Lee, teaching the teen how to shoot, fight, and kill. Moors' guiding hand is gentle and the performances—in particular Isaiah Washington (as John), Tequan Richmond (as Lee), and, weirdly enough, Joey Lauren Adams (as John's friend's wife)—are uniformly excellent. It may not make perfect sense of the murders of ten random and innocent people, but it certainly pushes us closer to an understanding of the killing spree.
"John is somebody who lives day to day in a mental hell and endless pain," Moors told me, carefully distinguishing the character from the real man who was executed in 2009. "My heart was bleeding for him during the shoot. That's the question that this movie asks: What if empathy was a necessary chemical element that we're missing in America? Can we dare to have empathy for a murderer? It's not excusing them, but are we able to feel their pain? I had a Catholic upbringing, but it really struck me [during a Blue Caprice screening] in D.C., with all of those victims that were moved. They were forced to feel for their murders. It felt like a religious experience. It felt like a reconciliation. It's a movie about love and that's the terrifying thing—you have to try to understand and feel for these people, even though they eventually become monsters."
Reconciliation is a familiar concept for the movie's star. Washington has worked very little since being fired from Grey's Anatomy in 2007, after news hit that he called his then-closeted co-star T.R. Knight a "faggot" on set. Washington denied the allegation (and still does), most notably when he said, "I never called T.R. a faggot" on camera backstage at the Golden Globes, a statement reignited the controversy—and led to his dismissal.
Talking to Washington, I got the feeling that he will never, ever again say the word "faggot." He referenced the incident three times, opting for "that word" instead, as the media has since trained him to do. He also referred to T.R. as his "brother."
He was boisterous during our conversation (he high-fived Moors for the White Ribbon reference). He didn't seem resentful, or scared to discuss the episode that might've cost him his career. I wondered out loud if he was ever resentful about what he says was a misreported distortion of what actually happened behind the scenes.
"Yeah, dude, I talk about it in my book," he told me. "You go from making $2 million a year to $250,000 a year. It takes years to downsize. Yeah, I was upset. It didn't just hit me. It hit my wife. It hit my three kids. So now I'm upset because I feel like you're hurting my family. Why? I'm asking why and I'm forgiving. As opposed to being upset I'm saying forgiveness: they know not what they do. It wasn't about fighting. What am I defending? This is not the truth."
It was a tricky moment. The context with which he was initially accused of using the word "faggot," was terrible and homophobic. But the firestorm resulting from him merely using the word as a word to explain what he says he didn't do seemed oversensistive at best.
Either way, it seems clear that regardless of what happened, the entire episode was a good thing for gay-rights discourse. People were talking about how to handle one celebrity calling another celebrity a "faggot." It was an important moment in pop culture at a time that seems, in retrospect, infinitely less enlightened (at the time, same-sex marriage was legal in only one state, for example).
I asked Washington if he had enough perspective to appreciate the incident for its usefulness, even at his expense. He told me he did, in the tangent-heavy, somewhat circuitous explanation that I'm printing below with just minor edits:
"I had the same discussion with my [gay] friend," started Washington. "Unfortunately he's ill. His partner passed away. I used to tell people, 'Stop saying same-sex marriage,' for people who are freaked out by it or don't get it or don't live in New York. Say 'civil liberties.' Not civil rights, civil liberties. Everyone should be able to take care of the remains of their loved ones, and have the right to love, and be humane. That's where I've always been, that's where I am now. That's a conversation that's part of my next film, that's when we're really gonna have this conversation in [the gay-themed] Blackbird, because I'm working with [the openly gay] Patrik-Ian Polk [creator of Logo's Noah's Arc]. I'm purposely producing that film so that we can take a step forward and really take a look at people have been enlarged and grown. Let's be real, on the record, off the record: You're gonna always need a brother to ride if you need a villain. I look at [the T.R. Knight incident] as a contribution to a dialogue that needed to be had, and for everybody to check themselves. Gay, straight or otherwise: that's not a cool word, period. If that's what it took, I've said to myself, to my universe, that yet again I was in service. I want to continue to be of service. [Blue Caprice's examination of] fire arms in America—that's not topical? Youth going berserk—that's not topical? I want to contribute to these dialogues even when they're uncomfortable."