Having penned the Robin Williams-starring Jack, the Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey-headlined The Negotiator, the Assault on Precinct 13 remake, and then popped his feature-film directorial cherry with Little New York, James DeMonaco shot to prominence with 2013’s The Purge. With a fantastic, intriguing, thought-provoking concept – for one night a year all crime is legal – the movie proved to be a hit, in turn spawning two sequels. With the latest sequel, The Purge: Election Year, now available for digital download and soon to be released on Blu-ray and DVD, we caught up with the fascinating writer/director to discuss the franchise, the social commentary involved in the series, the worrying modern trends involving violence and guns in the United States, how some people have taken the films in the wrong way, and a whole host more.
STARBURST: The actual concept of The Purge is one of the most unique to come along in years, but where exactly did you get the initial idea for the franchise from?
James DeMonaco: I think the idea came about two-pronged. I was kind of obsessed. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, you’re around violence a lot. I was always obsessed with America’s nature, the relationship with violence. I became especially obsessed with it when I was living in Paris for a while, and I saw that Parisians had a very different relationship with guns and violence than I saw with my American compatriots. Part of it is the everyday life, the way they speak of it, the fear of it, the way that no one had guns that I knew in Paris - everyone I knew in America had a gun. So everything was different, and I became a little obsessed with that. I came back from that project - I was posting a film there - and my wife said something in a road rage incident. My wife’s a very nice person, she’s a good person, she helps people, but she said something very nasty after this terrible road rage incident where we were almost killed by a drunk driver. She said, “I wish we all had one free one a year,” meaning one free murder, one legal murder. And it stayed with me for years, the concept of legalized murder. I coupled that with my obsession with America’s relationship with guns and violence, and I developed this new holiday that I thought could be some interesting metaphor for America’s relationship to guns, violence, etc.
We can only comment from a British point of view, but the general consensus is that when you see the films you think that things are very messed up. Not to get too political or too heavy, but with guns being so commonplace in the United States, what’s the reaction to the series been like over there? Have there been some quarters championing the idea and maybe losing the point a little bit?
Oh my God, yeah man. Totally. It’s always been my little worry – the misconception or misinterpreting what the films means – and you do have that. There are people who watch the film and you hear them saying, “I wish I could purge!” And that’s not the point of the film at all. But then you have people getting it completely and what’s behind it. The hardest part of the process is how it can be misinterpreted, but it happens, man, it definitely happens. I guess I have to distance myself at some point - I can’t predict how people interpret the film - but it definitely happens. Listen, we preview the films with an audience - it’s a studio film, so there’s a lot of previews – and within that we actually toned some stuff down to hopefully direct, as best we can, a moralistic point of view within the film. But sometimes you do hear things that are very, very disconcerting.
As the franchise progresses, especially in the third film, Purge Night can be used for revenge and vengeance, but you’ve also spun it so that it can be used to try and make things right, or you show that not everybody’s out to get their free hits. For you, how important was it to show the other side of it in Election Year? You have people driving round with medical vans, trying to help people…
Yes, that was a huge part of doing the third film. They’re all morality tales; the first one, Ethan Hawke’s character makes money off The Purge, but ultimately he gets his comeuppance and learns his lesson; the second one, the lead character is out there to purge but he doesn’t purge, he learns his lesson from these two women on the journey; and the third one, I wanted to make it even more clear – like you said, creating a safe zone, an anti-Purge, saving lives. Even the Senator at the end, Elizabeth Mitchell’s character, wants to save the bad guy’s life, saying that we can’t win the election through murder and assassination. So the idea was always to end all three films with saving lives, not taking lives. Again, some people don’t see that, and I get upset, obviously. We put it in there and hope people get it, and a lot of people do. With the preview audiences, it was very nice that you get a lot of people getting it, so I guess it’s split 50/50.
You mentioned how the second film was about Frank Grillo’s character being out for revenge, hunting down the guy who had wrong him. At the end, he doesn’t and the film goes the other way. How important was it to bring Frank back for the third film, and was it always the plan to bring him back and tell the story that you told with Election Year, or did you consider other routes and options for the third movie?
It's very interesting, dude. I’ll be completely honest, and I don’t think Frank will be upset. I became very friendly with Frank, the working relationship was wonderful, the reception to his character was so huge, not only in test audiences but even when the movie finally came out – people just loved him, he got great reviews, the audience loved him, the studio loved him, I loved him. I was fashioning Election Year, and we all said… I remember speaking to the head of the studio and she said, “We just have to bring Frank back.” I always said I wanted to tell independent stories, I don’t wanna be bound like many sequels are where you have to bring people back and tell that story. And the truth is, if you analyze Part Three, you can tell that story, and again I don’t think Frank would be upset, you could tell that story without Frank’s character being there; you could have another bodyguard for the Senator. But he was game to say, “It doesn’t just have to be about me, it can be about something else, I’m along for the ride.” So it was kinda interesting, and it wasn’t a direct continuation, but I think it worked.
As you move along through the three films, by the third film the death that you see everywhere is just everyday and the norm; there’s no big deal made about it, just carnage everywhere, bodies on fire. Was that a point you wanted to purposely drive home, that this has just become commonplace now?
Yeah, that’s from my own sad realisation. It’s amazing in America now, I’ll wake up every day, I look at New York, I check out the news. I think there was a shooting yesterday , and I say “think” because there’s so many. It literally becomes commonplace. There was another shooting, I think this one was in… I can’t even say, which is the sad truth, but I think it was in South Carolina, a high school, and three people were shot. And you actually start to become numb to it. You pray that your little bubble won’t get affected. I hate to say it, but there’s a great deal of apathy that sets in. That was kind of the metaphor for that, that we wake up every day and it’s amazing how one shooting will replace the last one. You know, Orlando happens, and then two weeks later there’s another shooting, then another one, then you forget the previous one, and then there’s more bodies in the street. It’s scary! So that was the metaphor, and I’m happy you picked up on that because many people don’t, they just think it’s a part of the night, but it’s more that the night is becoming commonplace in the news now. It’s amazing how we move on past these things so quickly, especially the Sandy Hook one. I think that was the one that I was always amazed at how quickly we got past the Sandy Hook one with all the kindergarten class. And we do. I guess it’s human nature to survive and move on, but without making any kind of changes - which I think is the most shocking part of it, how we take it and we don’t force change, but I don’t wanna get in to my politics…
When you first put the very nugget of the idea together for the concept of The Purge, the very first film, did you imagine that it would have enough legs for one sequel, let alone two, and did you conceive it becoming a franchise?
No, man, not really, dude. The first one was so crazy the way it happened. I guess in the middle of the first one I did know. I knew we were so confined by that story, but I had this feeling that the audience… if I was in the audience, I would really want to know what was happening on the streets of America. So I knew the second one would kind of be this Warriors-like tale where people had to cross the city like the Warriors have to cross Manhattan to get back to Coney Island. So I always knew Two would be this journey across the city, but Three? Three I didn’t know until the end of Two. I think I was editing Two when it hit me that if we ever get the chance to do Three, if we had success with the second one, I thought it would be interesting to get to the heart of the matter and meet the people who created The Purge, and start playing a little more of a political angle with the whole thing, do more of a political conspiracy like the ‘70s. So everything came at the end, I never saw the whole package early, but I think within each one I started seeing the next one.
In hindsight, now that all three are in the books, is there a particular one that stands out to you as personal favourite?
I think Part Two. I think a month ago I would’ve said Election Year, but I think there’s something in the character arc of Frank Grillo’s character in Part Two, how he discovers humanity throughout the film. Again, not to be a pretentious writer and director, but he’s gone numb to the world because of the loss of his son, and it’s his kind of awakening through this mother and daughter that brings out life again in him, and he saves a life at the end and doesn’t kill. I like that, I think that comes out nicely. So I think out of all the three, that’s the best whole story and the best whole character arc. But I love Joey’s journey in Part Three, the Mykelti Williamson character, the owner of the deli, I like his journey in Part Three, but I’d have to go with Part Two.
By the time the third movie comes to a close, the whole endgame of it is that Purge Night is done, the Senator who is now President has taken that all away, The Purge is gone, but then you see the hint and tease of uprising at that decision. For you, is the franchise done or would you like to explore it a little further?
In all honesty, truth be told, they want to do Part 4, they wanna do a TV show. They’ve asked me to come and be involved, obviously. I don’t think I’m gonna direct. To me, the best place to go with Part 4, and if they allow me, what I’d like to explore even without directing, just potentially writing or just producing, would be going back and seeing how it all started. I’ve written a lot about that in the early stages, I’ve wrote about how it all started. I think it would be great, instead of continuing forward, it would be nice to go back and see the inception, to see the first Purge. I think it would be cool to go there. That’s where I would like to go. They haven’t said okay to that, but that will be my pitch to them.
Maybe exploring how The Purge came about, what caused people to make the decision to introduce the concept, to see the early days of it, that could be something great told out over a six-part mini-series or a full season of TV…
No, you’re right. You’re totally right. I think what TV would allow, it would allow us to explore. I would do a flashback structure potentially to see why people commit crimes on these evenings. If you go into the personal tales of vengeance, it might be something interesting to do if you’re exploring that in a very in-depth way that you can’t do in a two-hour film. But you can do that in a ten-part TV show, you can go back in time a little and see the seeds of hatred or anger between a husband and a wife who are maybe going to turn against each other on Purge Night. It’s the actual details of a relationship that we could never really do in a film as a film is more the events of the evening. I think that would allow for us to explore, to explore the seeds of all that.
A narrative season with flashbacks would be great, but do you think that you could maybe make it work as an anthology sort of series where each episode focusses on a certain person’s experience with The Purge? And how comfortable would you be with somebody else having control of your baby?
I’ll be very uncomfortable, if I’m completely honest. But I like your idea. Your idea is actually not dissimilar to what I was saying about TV to the studio. I might interweave them instead of doing separate episodes, but I would follow six or seven people, flashing back and showing how they got to this point of wanting to purge or being purged upon. It’s a tough thing. I have a lot of other stories that I want to tell, so I think I have to force myself to be comfortable and to allow someone else the freedom that they allowed me to go and do this. I wouldn’t want to be one of those producers. If I do write it then I’d want to just hand it over and let them take it over from there. Hopefully I can find someone we trust, but I imagine I’ll be very ill-at-ease at the first handing over of the reigns. But I guess it’s inevitable – I have to move on at some point.
The Purge: Election Year is available on digital download from 12th December 2016, and is coming to Blu-ray and DVD on 26th December 2016, from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.SHARE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW OR ON TWITTER @STARBURST_MAG
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