EXCLUSIVE: ‘Purge’ Conjurer James DeMonaco Talks Life Imitating Art and More

Director James DeMonaco with the cast on the set of THIS IS THE NIGHT. CR: KC Bailey.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—You know you’ve tapped into the social consciousness when a political ad is a takeoff on your idea. This week, opponents of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis began running a TV spot that was inspired by “The Purge” films. Social media blew up with comments both supporting and denouncing the PAC-funded ad that denounced the Sunshine State governor for his refusal to mandate masks during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Set in a crowded passenger plane filled with masked travelers about to land in Florida, the ad shows a flight attendant announcing over the intercom the numbers of COVID cases and deaths attributing it to the governor’s policies, with moody lighting, distorted angles and graphics associated with horror movies. Serendipitously, the ad’s debut coincided with the 4K, Blu-ray and DVD release of “The Forever Purge,” the fifth in the series of horror films. The film was released in theaters in March and on Digital a couple of weeks ago.

James DeMonaco, who wrote all five of the “Purge” films and has directed three of them, was surprised by “The Florever Purge” negative ad but was understandably hesitant to talk in detail about its implications.  “The Purge” films have collectively grossed more than $500 million in box office receipts and inspired a cable TV series on Syfy and USA Network that lasted for two seasons.

“I probably shouldn’t be talking about it, but it’s a very interesting way of applying the (COVID-19) virus to the ‘Purge,’” he said by phone while promoting the latest chapter’s home entertainment release through Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

DeMonaco’s dystopian action horror films that began with “The Purge” in 2013, each have mirrored, to an extent, what is happening in society and have been somewhat prophetic.

“My producer calls me Nostradamus,” DeMonaco, an Italian American from Staten Island explains with a chuckle.

The writer/director/author insists he doesn’t have any extrasensory powers but he is tuned in with what is happening in the world around him. The original “The Purge” was about a society that allows an annual ritual of lawlessness for one night, as a way to address crime. He wrote it as a response to what he perceives as lax gun control laws and racism. Subsequent installments delved deeper into the fractures in society.

“The Forever Purge,” released earlier this year just weeks after the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, centers on a group of armed and deadly anarchists who decide that one night of mayhem and murder is not enough, breaking the Purge’s 12-hour rule. A masked gang of killers attack a wealthy Texas ranching family and their workers while a group of new arrivals from South of the Border hole up in what they hope will be a safe zone from sanctioned killings.

The survivors must band together to fight back as the country spirals into chaos and the U.S. begins to disintegrate around them. The film, directed by Mexican filmmaker Everardo Gout, stars Ana de la Reguera (“Cowboys & Aliens”), Tenoch Huerta (“Days of Grace”), Cassidy Freeman (“The Righteous Gemstones”), Leven Rambin (“The Hunger Games”), with Josh Lucas (“Ford v Ferrari”) and Will Patton (“Halloween.”) At the center of this action-packed horror Western, is a young Mexican couple who have recently crossed the border into the U.S. to make a new life for themselves, only to come face-to-face with the reality of The Purge, where they will have to fight for their survival. Like the previous “Purge” films, the dystopian horror movie is produced by Blumhouse, which also brought audiences “Halloween” (2018) and “The Invisible Man.”

Bonus features on the 4K, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital include an alternate storyboard opening, a deleted scene, the featurettes “Collapsing the System: Behind ‘The Forever Purge,'” and “Creeptastic Wardrobe” and the theatrical trailer.

The amiable DeMonaco spoke about the implications of “The Purge” series, which is likely to have at least one more installment, as well as a couple of other non- “Purge” film projects coming up.

Front Row Features: Your “Purge” films have been spookily prophetic about where we are right now.

James DeMonaco: My producer calls me Nostradamus. I almost say, unfortunately, because I wish we were the most harmonious nation on the planet. I wasn’t fueled, motivated or inspired by the socio-political atmosphere to write any more “Purges,” but, unfortunately, it’s very true.

At the first screening, we had of “The Forever Purge,” which was last March, people thought we’d shot the movie after Jan. 6. Of course, it had been shot a year earlier and the release had been delayed because of COVID. So, it was sadly too reminiscent of the then political climate, and that’s just scary.

FRF: It’s been reported that with “The Forever Purge,” you set out to write a love story. Why was that aspect central to this film?

DeMonaco: I always wanted to write a love story about my grandparents who came over from Italy, and exploring The American Dream. I was like, “How do I update that to now?” not thinking I’d apply it to “The Purge” conceit. At the time I was writing it, we were dealing with the (previous) border crisis. I wanted to write about a couple coming up from Mexico and seeing if The American Dream existed for them. Was it alive? And if it was, could they take part in what everyone who comes here wants? Can they rise above and achieve what they want as they’ve seen in the movies or read in books?

So, that’s the concept I had; the studio didn’t see this at all at my first pitch. They were like, “What are you talking about? How is this a ‘Purge’ movie?” Then, when I came up with the idea of people not wanting to stop Purging, this “Forever Purge” and the cycle of violence not being able to be contained, they liked it. It’s like once a vampire tastes blood, it’s not like he’s going to stop. As always, it’s always a metaphor for gun control, which is really where the Purge is bourn from and the lack of gun control laws.

FRF: When you write these films, do you do a lot of drafts or do you basically write all the way through?

DeMonaco: I do a lot of rewriting. Luckily, I have the greatest producer in the world, Sebastien Lemercier. I give all my scripts to him first. They’re usually too long and have a lot of ideas—really too many ideas—so we’re always cutting down and streamlining the story.

When I’m directing, I’m re-writing the day of or the night before. I’m constantly coming up with new ideas on how to make it better. When someone else is directing, like with “Purge” 4 and 5, we try and lock a solid script in and not change it as much, but there’s always something new. For me, they worked well because the directors brought something to the process that I couldn’t bring. They brought a new perspective. Gerard (McMurray, who directed “The First Purge”) is African American. He made things way more real than I could have as an Italian American from New York. Everardo (Gout) brought a Mexican perspective (to “The Forever Purge”). He would tell me, “That’s not how Mexican people speak,” and he’d change it. So, having them come into the process continues the writing in a great way. I think a screenplay is only a blueprint that should never be set in stone; it’s ever-changing, and actors bring in ideas. There are some great writers who can write a script that’s set in stone but I’m not one of those.

FRF: You’ve got a script for the next film but it’s not greenlighted yet, right?

DeMonaco: Yes. We’ve got the first draft which could change. The studio is still evaluating how this fifth one is doing in the current COVID marketplace and how they’re navigating in the streaming world. As they figure that out, we’ll wait.

I thought I was done with #5 (“The Forever Purge”).  But I woke up one day and as I always say, the socio-political climate always informs the new “Purge.” Right after Jan. 6, my mind was just on fire. So, the studio has it now and we’re just waiting to get the go-ahead.

FRF: Will the COVID-19 pandemic enter into the equation?

DeMonaco: The only reason I haven’t done that where COVID is part of the new DNA of our landscape is I haven’t thought of a Purge for that. But I wrote a book about seven or eight years ago about a virus that affects men in society and how it makes them into these rabid, lethal beasts. So, I hadn’t thought about in “The Purge” environment, but now you’re giving me ideas.

Working with Jason (Blum, “The Purge” series’ producer) has these rules for his movies. Right now, he’s so anti anything that has to do with a virus. He says no one wants to see a movie that has to do with COVID and we need to get away from viruses. So, he’s put it—at least in my mind—to walk away from the virus. But we are starting to learn that this thing will likely be with us for quite some time, and we’re all going to have to figure out how something like this will affect “The Purge” and society.

On a side note, there was an ad going around today called “The Florever Purge.” I probably shouldn’t be talking about it, but it’s a very interesting way of applying the virus to “The Purge.”

I remember the first time we locked down here in New York and people were playing “The Purge” sirens. I thought it was very creepy and we’re entering into a strange time in all of our lives. Something new is happening. Something disturbingly dark.

FRF: On a positive note, you’ve got Frank Grillo coming back for “The Purge 6,” right?

DeMonaco: Yeah. He let it out of the bag about three months ago, announcing it on Twitter. So, Part 6 is the return of his character (Leo Barnes). I love working with Frank and the audience loves him as this character. It takes place 10 years after The Forever Purge. America has been remapped, very tribalized. We’re entering into a new America. Frank has been living off the grid but gets caught up in some horrific circumstances that bring him back to “The Purge.”

FRF: Is there a title yet?

DeMonaco: I called it “Purge Divisions” in my script. But every time I come up with a title they change it. Universal is better at coming up with a title than me.

FRF: You’ve got another newly released film, “This Is the Night,” set in your hometown of Staten Island. What was the inspiration for that?

DeMonaco: I would say it’s the anti- “Purge.” “The Purge,” sadly, inspires people to do terrible things on Purge night. This movie’s about my love of movies and how they can inspire people to do wonderful things and become a better version of themselves (and) to fight their fears and become courageous. It’s based on this autobiographical time in my life when “Rocky III” opened on Staten Island. It was a big event here.  We waited for three hours to get in and saw it twice in two days. People were on their seats cheering. So, it’s really a love letter to cinema. I wanted to pay back to movies what they’ve given me and my love of cinema. It’s really a coming-of-age story. We get to see a whole family with Frank playing the dad and Naomi Watts playing the mom and their two boys. And on this night, because of seeing this movie, they kind of rise up and fight their fears—things they would have never done without the inspiration they get from seeing this film.

FRF: Do any of the stars from “Rocky III” turn up?

DeMonaco: No, I wish there were. We show some scenes from “Rocky III,” a bit of footage, a lot of images of Sly (Stallone). We showed the movie to him and he loved it, which is fantastic.

FRF: You’re working on another horror project, this one with Pete Davidson, right?

DeMonaco: Yes.

FRF: Is it going to be strictly horror or a horror comedy?

DeMonaco: It has zero comedy in it. Pete was a big Purge fan. We met through a local restaurateur here on (Staten Island). We hit it off. We were actually working on a Purge script together; that’s a whole other thing. Then we started writing a comedy together. Before doing that, he had shot the (Hulu) movie “Big Time Adolescence” and then he did (Universal’s) “The King of Staten Island.” I’d seen both films and I had this horror script I’d written that was strictly horror and Pete just physically looked perfect for the role. After I saw him in those two roles, I thought, “Oh, Pete can do more than comedy. He’s a good dramatic actor.” So, he read the script and loved it and now we’re trying to get the money for it.