About the Film
Few criminal acts have captivated -- and frightened -- Americans more than the D.C. Sniper killings which took place a year later, in October 2002. 13 innocent civilians were indiscriminately killed or injured doing everyday activities like pumping gas, mowing a lawn or returning to their car after a shopping trip in various locations around the Washington, D.C. metro area.
The perpetrators of these shootings were a pair of unknown criminals -- John Allen Muhammad, a former Army soldier, and Lee Boyd Malvo, a 17-year-old boy, both of whom were captured less than a month after beginning their spree. Muhammad was convicted of murder and executed in 2009; Malvo was convicted as a teen and is currently serving a lifetime prison sentence in Virginia.
French filmmaker ALEXANDRE MOORS had been living in the States since 1998, but at the time of the shootings, was in France. "I was really kind of oblivious to the media frenzy about it and the effect it had had on so many people's lives," he recalls.
Years later, Moors had made several short films (including "Cruel Summer" with Kanye West which later screened at Cannes in 2012) and was anxious to begin work on a feature film -- something which could be produced quickly and on a low budget, without having to navigate the usual cumbersome steps of film development. "I was in the mood to do something quick and for little money. I was tired of all the dead ends of the usual way one has to go about getting a film project started."
To shorten the process, the director decided to focus on a true story -- "Because the script of a true story is already half-written," he notes. At the time, a gunman had recently gone berserk on the streets of New York, shooting several people outside his office building in Manhattan. "It was such a crazy story, a crazy event." The only problem was, the subject himself wasn't particularly interesting. "I discovered pretty quickly that one doesn't just pick a true story out of a hat," he laughs.
While doing research on that shooting, Moors came upon a mention of the D.C. Sniper shootings. "It was just a blurb, but it mentioned the pair as being, like, father and son -- but they were not really father and son, that they had adopted each other, and that this guy had trained this kid to be an assassin. I saw those five lines, and I thought, 'My God -- that's a film.'" His relative unawareness of the events also would allow him to focus more what drew him to the story in the first place -- the relationship between Muhammad and Malvo. "Had I really lived through that experience the way so many American did, I'm sure that would have made the task at hand for too large. What fascinated me was their relationship."
To develop a script, Moors turned to screenwriter, R.F.I. PORTO (who would also go on to collaborate with Moors on "Cruel Summer"). "I was doing a project five years ago, and was desperate to find a screenwriter, and our paths crossed," the director recalls. "Ronald had just written a script about Arsene Lupin, who is the French equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, and who was my hero when I was a boy. I was intrigued by this American guy writing a script about this obscure French detective."
Their approach was one which focused on the unusual relationship between Muhammad and Malvo, rather than make a shocker depicting shooting after shooting. "I wanted to make a film about how this father trained this kid to be a killer -- almost like a series of drills -- to prepare for a mission," Moors recalls. "But I wanted it to be something pure and abstract."
While the killings are represented by a fairly short montage towards the end of the film Moors notes, "For a long time, I didn't even want to touch that part of the story, to have the movie end before they even get to Maryland." As the script evolved, Moors planned on interspersing the development of the relationship in between segments depicting shootings. But during editing, he and Grinberg decided to take a different route. "It's a movie about their relationship. We don't need to see a disturbing bloodbath -- we already know that part of the story. The part we don't know is the part about John and Lee. That's what I wanted to explore."
Porto and Moors studied files related to the cases against Muhammad and Malvo, along with psychological profiles and other materials, as well as approached the pair's legal team members. The two also retraced the steps, as best as possible, that Muhammad and Malvo took during their trek of destruction, just prior to beginning filming.
In the end, though, Porto and Moors opted to not specifically recreate detail after detail of Muhammad's and Malvo's stories, but instead to adapt the facts to a story which would focus more on the relationship than on specific events. "It's really the same approach you have to take when adapting a book into a play," the director describes. "You have to make a reduction into something that will work within the scope of the film you're making. It's condensed -- and it was a challenge to figure out how to tell a story like this in three brush strokes, instead of 300."
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