The greatest horror films of all time have tackled some of life’s most pertinent contemporary issues with sharp criticism whilst creating a compelling and petrifying piece of art at the very same time. Simply consider Night of the Living Dead’s attitudes towards consumerism, Get Out’s analysis of racial injustice or the stance of feminism in Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby.
Whilst it may certainly feature an overt commentary of modern-day American issues as opposed to a subtle reference, The Purge series has grasped the attention of cinema-goers ever since the release of the original low-budget flick in 2013. Detailing a horrific night of fictionalised American tradition in which, on one night and one night only all crime (including murder) is legal, The Purge proved to be the first film in a truly enjoyable series that has since spawned four sequels.
Shortly following the release of The Forever Purge on digital platforms, we spoke to director James DeMonaco about everything from modern horror to the current state of the film industry in light of his new nostalgic coming of age film, This is the Night. Starring Naomi Watts, Frank Grillo and Bobby Cannavale, the film details the wild summer evening of a teenager and his family upon the release of Rocky III in 1982.
Take our look into our sprawling conversation with James DeMonaco below:
Far Out: So, where did the original concept of The Purge actually come from?
DeMonaco: “Actually, it was like two things that happened at the same time. I was living in Paris making my first film and I just noticed that the French specifically, and I would say all Europeans, had a very different relationship with guns and weaponry than my American friends that I grew up with.
“I couldn’t find anyone in France who had a gun that I knew of, so I found that kind of fascinating. I’ve always been terrified of guns myself, and the lack of gun control laws in America. So all those feelings kind of coalesced one day when I was driving in Brooklyn with my wife. We got into a crazy road rage incident when a drunk driver almost killed us, I literally got into a fistfight with the guy, he was a maniac. I got back in the car after the cops left and my wife said in anger, ‘I wish we all had one free one a year,’ and I know what she meant like one free murder. That’s how much she was angry at this human being. The idea of a legal murder stayed in my mind, I think her saying that, my thoughts on guns and what I just noticed in the different culture’s relationship with guns and violence made me think. I woke up one day with this crazy idea for this future holiday in America that I thought was a great metaphor for the lack of gun control laws in America and The Purge was born.”
I’ve always got some John Carpenter vibes from The Purge
“You nailed it. For me, Carpenter was a huge influence growing up especially Escape from New York I’d say. I even wrote the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, and I was like, ‘we need to have John’s blessing on this’. He’s always been a hero of mine, so I’m happy you saw that in the film.”
So how did your approach to the series change as the Purge films went on? The first one is like a low budget independent film and then the second one explodes.
“Budgetarily we were so confined to that house [In the original Purge] so I knew some audience members would be angry because it’s such a big scope to the conceit. I was also wondering ‘what’s happening on the streets of America on purge night?’. The other movie that was a great influence was always The Warriors, so I always wanted to do this ‘crossing the city’ kind of thing like The Warriors getting home to Coney Island.
“So I knew the second one we’d expand just to show what’s happening on the streets of America, and then socio-political events in America started shaping the series. As the political landscape in America became so tumultuous, I think I couldn’t help but start infusing that into the series, especially with Hillary and Donald when they were battling, that worked its way into part three [Election Year]. You know America’s feelings on immigration obviously with the border crisis were in five [The Forever Purge]. The treatment of the impoverished was all that four [The First Purge] was about. So as the political landscape became so discordant here in America it just weaved its way into the social fabric of the films.”
It is quite effortless how it weaves itself in there.
“I would say, I wish we lived in this beautiful utopian society where the purge was truly fantastical and the dissonance didn’t feed the purge franchise. I was like, ‘Oh, I wish I had no ideas’, you know, but unfortunately, we live in such a time of turmoil that I can’t help keep coming up with a new Purge idea. I just finished writing six based on events of this year, or inspired by I should say, so we’ll see if that happens, I don’t know if that’ll happen. But it’s written, so.”
Any tease on what it’s about and where it might take the series?
“It sees the return of the Grillo character from two and three, he’ll be coming back. It’s about 10 years after the events of The Forever Purge and the America we enter into is completely, I would say, remapped.
“It’s no longer the America that we know, we’ve tribalised in a way. I don’t want to give away how we tribalise, though we’ve really broken down society into very strange racial lines to the extent that America has been remapped, and we are a very dystopian version of this country. A very sad version, I should say. So we enter into that new America so I think it’s a good flip of the series, a new way to restart it almost, so we’ll see if we get to do it.”
Sounds like it’s getting a little more John Carpenter.
“Yes it is, it’s getting more dystopian, ‘Mad Max-y’, Carpenter, all the movies I grew up on loving so yeah, fingers crossed to me you get to do it.”
I was quite surprised, actually, when I found out that the director of The Purge has a new coming-of-age film coming out!
“Exactly, very different from The Purge. Yeah, I got to my sensitive, nostalgic side on this one.”
What was it like going from working with Jason Blum on all The Purge films, then going to do a coming of age drama?
“It was great, Jason was great. You know, everybody knows him as ‘the horror guy’, but I met Jason over 20 years ago when he was working at Miramax, and he was the head of I think foreign acquisitions. So he wasn’t doing horror at all. He was coming from a different place. He was a fan of horror, but he was more into buying dramas, you know, international dramas. So I think when he read This is the Night it almost reminded him of what he was doing back in the Miramax days.
“Ultimately, the movie is about the love of cinema and the theatrical experience, the cinema experience, inside of the theatre and not at home, so I think he really worries, like I do, about the future of cinema. So we thought, in a way, this was paying tribute to what we think is almost the sanctity of that experience. We hope it doesn’t go away. So he responded, and luckily he was able to get the money and we were shooting and he was great.”
That’s definitely one thing that came across in the film, the love of cinema. I really loved the part where they were watching Rocky III in the theatre, and you just turn the camera around to the audience in the cinema as they’re enjoying it, there was that real sense of community that you don’t really get in modern cinema.
“That’s what’s so scary about the future of cinema to me. Even before Covid, people were lamenting the idea that cinema is changing and people aren’t going to the theatres as much. We hear all these statistics from the studios that I think when I was a young man, I think people went to the cinema 10 times a year. Now I think it’s down to two times a year the average person goes. I don’t blame the average person, they’ve got huge TVs at home, they’ve got YouTube, they’ve got the internet, they’ve got video games, entertainment is pulling them in so many directions.
“We’d line up for two, three hours to get tickets for the movies, it was almost like a rock concert. That was my whole childhood, I guess we see it with the Marvel films, creating a sense of ‘eventfulness’ around them still. I don’t really have anything against Marvel films, but they’re not my cup of tea ultimately, some of them are, I shouldn’t say that. I love Thor: Ragnarok and stuff like that and Guardians of the Galaxy, but I wish it would spread to other parts of cinema where we could still create that event.
“There’s something about sharing the movie with other people, whether it’s a horror movie or an inspiring movie like Rocky, there’s something about looking at your compatriots in the theatre and walking out and looking at each other. Even if you don’t say anything, there’s a look. The shared experience.
“Not to get deeply into this, but we all have our own individualised Netflix pages, so we’re not even watching the same stuff at home anymore. That’s very scary. We don’t share the same language like, it used to be with TV that we all watch the same stuff on a Sunday night. We all watched The Sopranos those days, that’s kind of gone. So yeah, I do worry about the communal aspect and that’s what I was trying to capture here. I’m so happy you brought that scene up, that’s my favourite scene, and I specifically said, let’s turn the camera on the audience.”
Yeah after I saw your film, I was saying ‘I need to watch Rocky III’ as quickly as possible!
“You know what, it’s the most fun one. I know these movies like the back of my hand. One is the best, two is good, three is a blast. Like it’s slicker than the others, it’s a really fun movie. It’s very inspiring too.”
Is there anything about the Rocky character that kind of captures that sense of spectacle? Is there any character in modern film that can carry a similar thing?
“I think about that all the time, like why did Rocky capture that. I think it goes beyond that, in the movie I say it’s the Italian American experience, but it’s not true. The only thing I think it speaks to is that he’s a guy, he represents the kind of regular American blue-collar worker who lives the American dream. As Apollo says, in Rocky one, you know, ‘let’s give someone the American Dream on the Fourth of July’, and they pick this regular guy who’s never gotten a shot and he rises up from nothing and he succeeds. So I think there’s that dream, it speaks to that American dream, any dream, it’s not just American, I should say. Do we have it now? I guess that’s the big question I always ask.
“If I have a problem with Marvel films, which I really don’t, it’s that they’re not regular people. I guess that’s why I always say what’s great about Rocky, and a lot of the old heroes that I grew up watching, is they were kind of regular people who didn’t have superpowers, so I could watch it and say, ‘Oh, I could do that, I could be Rocky, I’m gonna do push-ups, I’ll be Rocky’. Now, when I watch Tony Stark, I’m not as smart as Tony, I can’t build a rocket. So there’s always that disconnect.”
That is interesting, the biggest films now, the ones that capture public interest are always fantasy films these days. There’s never that everyday hero or the Rocky stories, The Karate Kid stories.
“Exactly. I loved Fury Road a couple of years ago. At least I would say Mad Max is a regular guy like I could be Mad Max maybe so that really appeals to me. But it’s true, we never get back to showing the ordinary guy rising up or the ordinary woman. I’d like to see a return to that in cinema in a way where we’re not focusing on the fanciful people who can shoot lasers from their eyes. There’s a place for that, I think people are seeking escapism, especially now I get that. But I think there’s a way to do escapism where we ground it a tad more, that would be great to see.”
In the film itself, there were some parts that were quite outlandish, quite extraordinary. There’s a bit where a chap’s on the roof singing opera, those kinds of moments and the story itself felt quite specific. Was it autobiographical at all, or is it drawing from past experiences?
“Yeah, I think a lot of it’s autobiographical, I think in a macro sense. You know, I’m the Anthony character with my love of cinema. So the macro feeling in it is very autobiographical. The inspiration of the film, waiting in line, seeing it [Rocky III] twice in a day, these happened. Fights in the cinema where I’m sitting, that all happened. So I’d say again, in the macro, it’s quite autobiographical. I guess in terms of the man on the roof, I did see growing up there was a guy singing Sinatra once on a roof nearby during a block party and the image stayed with me. Now, did that happen because of Rocky? No, obviously, I’m kind of fabricating a little bit.
“I’ve always been a crazy fan of Fellini and this idea of absurd human behaviour. So I think I was trying to weave that into the fabric of this film, that on this night people are really going out there and trying to do things they would never dare do on a normal evening.”
Yeah, that kind of magical realism fueled by cinema.
“Exactly, fueling the people and the night takes on a magical realistic feel, and the way we lens the film, the lighting of it, we tried to give it a little flair of the ethereal, the otherworldly kind of unfolding on this evening.”
You’ve got quite a talented cast as well with Naomi Watts and Frank Grillo, how did they combine with, I say he’s a newcomer but actually he’s not really, Lucius Hoyos.
“With Blum and my other producer Sébastien K. Lemercier, we made a deal, we said we’re not going to make the movie unless we find the three right kids. So we were waiting to find the boys, and we found Lucius. I didn’t know any of his previous work; he just came in and read a bunch of times for me. He’s a wonderful boy, I think he did a great job. So we found the boys first and then we just said, I always wanted Frank Grillo as the dad. At first, I wrote the mob role for Frank, but I’m like, ‘oh, Frank, he could do that standing on his head, let’s do something different with Frank’. He’s so hyper-masculine, that tough-guy persona, I wanted to flip it and show a vulnerable side here. Then Naomi, there are always these lists of actresses who are available, I just looked at the list and said Naomi is one of my favourites, if not my favourite actress in the last 15 years, she could do anything.
“It was one of those things that I never thought would happen, I was like let’s give it a shot and send Naomi the script, and she just loved it. It was one of those things like, ‘let’s throw a crazy one and a million lottery chance’ and Naomi responded. She’s a great lady, the greatest person I’ve ever worked with, truly amazing to work with.”
What were your films when you were younger that were your influences?
“Oh God, so it goes without saying Rocky, but then it goes back to Steve McQueen, I was a fanatic, so everything Steve McQueen did. There was something on American TV called the 4:30 movie. So every day at 4:30 they’d show a movie and they’d have themed weeks, and from the age of six on I was so obsessed with movies my mom would call no matter what I was doing in the neighbourhood, I’d hear her yell ‘it’s 4:25’, and the guys knew I had to go watch the 4:30 movie. So it was when I discovered that, they had Steve McQueen week, they had Paul Newman week. So everything from the Great Escape to Nevada Smith to Cool Hand Luke, and then they had monster week, and then they had John Carpenter stuff early on. Carpenter became an incredible influence, as did Walter Hill.
“Then as you get older, obviously I discovered Scorsese at some point, because he depicted New York in a way that was the most realistic I’d ever seen. I was blown away by Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull, they were the people I grew up with, so to see that realism depicted on screen was huge. Then I discovered Fellini, I became the biggest Fellini fanatic of all time. So, yeah, then horror became a huge thing, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist to really obscure horror like Bad Ronald and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. I started really diving into the horror genre.”
Maybe that 4:30 movie kind of thing, it’s the same sort of thing as event cinema, isn’t it? Everyone watching the same thing at the same time.
“Exactly and they had a big impact, I just found there’s a podcast where some guys pay tribute to the 4:30 movie and like, ‘Oh, it’s not forgotten, It’s still a thing’. I wish they would bring it back, but it was an event and everybody knew, like 4:30 after the soap operas ended on ABC, it was something that people knew about.”
It’s difficult to know how to recapture that spectacle. I know what you mean with Marvel, Avengers: Endgame was the closest that I felt to that kind of spectacle.
“Communal right? Everybody saw it.”
Yeah, there was so little revealed there. There was a massive sense of secrecy about it, and I got that in your film, specifically in Rocky III. No one knew what was gonna happen, there were loads of questions.
“Now, in the age of the internet and all the spoiler alerts, we do know way too much right and the trailers are too long. So yeah, how do we ‘event-ise’ the movie experience again? They try to do it with the food and the seating and stuff like that, but in an odd way, I think that almost takes away from it. We should just be sitting still in a movie and watching the film and not eating. I don’t like the theatres where there’s food going by. But somehow Marvel’s done it and now I just wish that audiences, the Marvel audience, would spread to other parts of cinema.
“Even drama, dramas are going away, right? Back when I was a kid, like when Terms of Endearment came out, everybody went to go see it. A strange drama like that, you wouldn’t even think the guys from the neighbourhood would go but ‘it’s got Jack Nicholson, we’ll go’, so everything had this feeling, even dramas outside the standard genre fare. Like Platoon when I was young was a huge event.”
It could be to do with quantity over quality almost, another thing I picked up on your film was when Rocky III was playing you either saw the audience, or you saw the celluloid film going around the monitor, the intricacies of the projector. I wonder if maybe the death of film has brought up a kind of an ease to create films which is too easy.
“Absolutely. It’s too easy. I say that all the time. I guess you can make one argument that since now more people have access to make films, that’s a wonderful thing because it becomes more democratic. There are more people out there just doing it, so that’s wonderful because you get the kid who could never afford to pick up a film camera can now shoot a film on his iPhone. But at the same time, it’s making it less special. There’s also so much content, I guess that’s what’s also quite scary. I’ll look on Netflix sometimes or on Amazon and I remember it happening about a year ago, deep on a page there was an Andrew Niccol film that I had never heard of that had just debuted on Netflix, I’m like, ‘oh this is a sad moment in my film history’. If there’s an Andrew Niccol film out we should all know about it.
“We’re in a strange time when people of that status could go unnoticed because there’s such a glut of content. Nothing becomes special right? Everything becomes homogenised and commercial. We’re making content or we’re promoting the streamer, the streamer is not promoting us, it’s scary, a scary time.”
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