There’s no denying that the modern horror movie landscape changed forever when James DeMonaco’s The Purge hit theatres back in 2013. Even the sound of The Purge siren is so recognizable that it makes heads turn when they hear it at sports events or on tv at the bar. The premise caught on like wildfire and in less than ten years the franchise has blown up to 5 films and 2 stand-alone seasons of television. And if that isn’t enough Purge content for you, he already has a 6th movie written set in a far-future America that would see the return of Frank Grillo’s Leo “Seargent” Barnes character!
James DeMonaco wrote and directed the first three films himself but he’s also stayed on as producer and writer for The First Purge (2018) and The Forever Purge which hit theatres this last summer and is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and OnDemand. And on top of all that, he’s somehow managed to find time for other projects including his most recent directorial effort This Is The Night which is currently playing in select theatres.
We were recently fortunate enough to sit down with DeMonaco to discuss the impact the Purge films have had on America and the world at large, but also how much of a challenge it has been to keep steering such a topical story, and how scary it can be when test audiences misinterpret the metaphor of the movie.
“Some people see it in very strange ways, like I’ll go kill my neighbor whose dog pooped on my lawn!”
NOFS: Movies have made me see Staten Island as a rough and tumble borough so I always assumed there was a connection between that place and your inspiration for The Purge but I’m sure it’s not as simple as that.
JD: Staten Island is a weird place. I’ve always said that my childhood was like Stand By Me meets Goodfellas but it was a really beautiful place to grow up as kid. It’s changing a little, it’s much more crowded now. But no, it’s odd, it had nothing to do with my inspiration for The Purge. What inspired The Purge; I was living in Paris [in post-production for] my first film for about 8 or 9 months and I just realized that the relationship with guns was so different in Europe than it was in America. I knew so many people with guns, growing up. I hate guns, personally, and I was blown away that I didn’t meet a European that owned a gun. Not one person. And even the way they spoke about violence was different than how we speak about it here.
I started thinking about that, and the lack of gun laws in America. I was always terrified of that. And my wife said something in a road rage incident and that’s what brought it all together. This idea of legal crime as a metaphor for the lack of gun control in America, and America’s strange relationship with guns. So it wasn’t Staten Island, it was more all of America [laughs]. Also, the mass shootings and all that. If you don’t have the perfect gun control laws, you know, what are we saying to people? We’re almost telling them to use their guns and I guess the Purge Holiday was built from that.
NOFS: Have you had a chance to watch any of the Purge movies with an international audience at film festivals or during its theatrical run?
JD: France, yes. In France, it was very well received. I think 1 and 2 were very well-liked in France. My producer Sébastien K. Lemercier, who produces all of my movies, he came up with the title for the European market which was “American Nightmare“, which I think [the European audiences] found perfect. But the French audiences ate up The Purge (2013) and they saw the metaphor very quickly which some American audiences don’t see to this day. That’s been the weirdest for me in making the purge series; Seeing the various interpretations of what people think it means. For me, it’s not hard to see, I think it’s very plain and clear. I don’t think my message is incredibly subtle [laughs] but to see it misinterpreted is quite scary sometimes.
[…] We tested the film quite a lot and the audiences who get the original intent of what I wanted to get across to the audience are the minority audiences. [They] see it for what it is. It’s about gun control laws and whatnot but it’s also about the disenfranchised in American whether white, black, Puerto Rican, or whatever. They see the metaphor as clear as day. It’s the government’s treatment of those they don’t want to take care of for financial reasons.
“My fear has always been that in the wrong hands it can become very grotesque and exploitative…”
So they see that, and we see that reflected in the test screening cards. There are roughly 300 people in the audience and we test each movie three times, so you’re looking at 900 cards where people are writing what they think the movie means, what they like about it, what they don’t, and sometimes it’s a clear breakdown in who truly gets it. Some people see it in very strange ways, like ‘I’ll go kill my neighbor who’s dog pooped on my lawn’.
But the minority audiences picked up on it very quickly. Even when I met Gerard McMurray- who directed The First Purge– he actually had a class in college where part of the lecture was about The Purge and what it really means about the disenfranchised and about being black in America. So that interpretation is- well that’s the better interpretation of the film, I should say [laughs]
NOFS: I really think The Purge is one of the best modern franchises we have because it really taps into what it feels like to live in America. We may go a few years without a new movie but just like Friday The 13th, I don’t think it’s going anywhere.
JD: Dude, I just wrote a new one. I finished the script about three weeks ago. I thought after The Forever Purge I was done. I always say that “I’m done. That’s it,” and then I woke up one day [about] a year ago and I had a new idea. And even my producer Sébastien was like ‘ahh I’m gonna kill you. It’s good. I like it,’ and I’m like, oh here we go again.
So I pitched it to the studio and they liked it. It’s the return of the Frank Grillo character which is kind of fun. It takes place way into the future which is kind of fun too. It’s a different America. But yeah, I’m with you, I’d like to continue making them. My fear has always been that in the wrong hands it can become very grotesque and exploitative so we’d like to keep it in the right pocket- what we feel is the right pocket. Other people might not feel it’s in the right pocket but it’s what we feel is right.
” I just wrote a new one […] I pitched it to the studio and they liked it. It’s the return of the Frank Grillo character…”
[…] So, yeah, it was always about keeping it in this socio-political pocket, and that’s why I thought Everardo did a great job on The Forever Purge becuase he was very aligned with that sentiment, to the point where we almost had to firce him to, you know, ‘we need masks, my friend’ [laughs]. He was very tuned in to the socio-political, which is great but we also have to tell the entertaining part of The Purge as well.
He’s a Mexican man from Mexico City and he wanted the plight of this immigrant couple and what it was like for them to come seek The American Dream and to see that it’s been shattered in this fictional landscape. He wanted to make that very real, [and make] the culture real, so it was a little like, ‘come on everyone, don’t forget that this is a genre movie. we gotta do the genre thing,’ but he’s great, I love him.
NOFS: It’s almost unheard of for a person to write or direct all the installments of a franchise. Was that ever a struggle or was that something you had to fight for?
JD: Yeah, dude, it’s been weird. It’s hard a little. You know, when I finish a script I always love it- or, hopefully, I love them. Sometimes I don’t [laughs], but these I’ve been happy with. I only thought we were doing one movie. When we did The Purge (2013) we really thought it was more like a Michael Haneke film because all we kept hearing in the script stage when Sébastien and I were shopping it was “it’s too dark”, “it’s too anti-American”, but we were like ‘well, we just want to make it for $1 Million, it’ll play at a couple of theatres in New York and LA. We just wanted to make a little movie about gun laws or lack of gun laws in America and Jason Blum saw something bigger in the conceit. We never thought there would be more than one.
So, to get back to your question, yeah it’s hard. It’s definitely hard but I think it would be harder if we didn’t find the right people for The First Purge and The Forever Purge. I think Gerard and Everardo were really good partners. They understood what I wanted from it, and what they wanted to bring, I let them do that. And I do believe this; As a producer whose also a director/writer, I don’t go to set. Sébastien, my partner, he goes to set but I always felt like, if there’s another director standing behind these guys, I’m just playing in someone else’s kitchen. I felt that would have been kind of rude.
“I only thought we were doing one movie […but] Jason Blum saw something bigger in the conceit.”
NOFS: You’ve also got a new movie out in select theatres right now that you’ve written and directed called This Is The Night which sounds a lot like Saturday Night Fever but in Staten Island. I’d love to hear a little about that.
JD: I can see how it looks like that. My wife if obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, it’s one of her favorite movies so we watch it quite a lot, and what’s amazing about Saturday Night Fever is [that] it’s quite depressing. It’s a darker coming-of-age story, very realistic- I don’t think people give it it’s due. Oddly, I think my film, This Is The Night, it’s really my homage and ode to my love of movies. I tried to tell an inspirational story. It’s about people who are very moved by the opening of Rocky III, of all films- It was a very big movie in my youth- and how it kind of inspires this community, specifically this family, to rise up and confront some fears.
I hope it’s an inspiring film. Hopefully, it’s timely in that people need to feel good right now, I think it’s something that could be a little uplifting as the Rocky movies were for me growing up. I wanted to capture that feeling of being inspired, but it’s really [about] the inspiration of cinema and what that meant to me growing up. Yes, it is specifically about Rocky III in the movie but it really is about any movie that touched anyone in their lives.
Yeah, it was great- I got to work with Frank Grillo again who I worked with on the Purge movies, but it’s a much different movie. That’s what I’d say to people. It’s a feel-good inspirational film. I would say The Purge inspires people to do very bad things for the most part, except for the heroes that fight the system. This Is The Night is a movie where people are inspired to do very good things and fight their fears.
[…] I think people will see Frank Grillo in a different way too, in a more vulnerable role. I think people who love movies will like it. And it’s also- In a time where I’m worried- and I’m sure you probably are too- that theatres might be going away in our futures, as we keep hearing, it’s about the sanctity of the moviegoing experience and how it’s a sort of religious thing for some of us [laughs], and how you can’t replicate that anywhere else. Hopefully, people will see that and say ‘wow, we gotta keep that. That can’t become an artifact of a forgotten time. Let’s keep that alive’.
“The Purge inspires people to do very bad things for the most part […] This Is The Night is a movie where people are inspired to do very good things and fight their fears.”
From Universal Pictures, The Forever Purge is available in all formats now, and This Is The Night is currently playing in select theatres. Let us know what you thought of the film and what your favorite Purge movie is over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.