When The Purge opened last summer, it stunned pundits and audiences alike when it grossed a staggering $34 million on its opening weekend. Even more stunning is that the film was made on a $3 million budget. It went on to take in nearly $90 million worldwide and promised more purging to come. Then again, that might have been par for the course in a movie that looked to drive right to the center of a culture obsessed with (gun) violence and with economic differences ever growing.
It is in that tenuous location that James DeMonaco has squarely set his far more ambitious and satisfying sequel, The Purge: Anarchy. If the last film depicted the wealthy choosing to turn a blind eye to systematic suffering, DeMonaco decided that the follow-up should point the camera’s gaze right at the heart of that societal disparity (and the violent culture that celebrates it) in his timely dystopian action movie. But the fine line that comes between characters celebrating it and the movie reveling in it for suspense and entertainment is a fine one, which we discussed when we sat down with the director last month.
We also were able to graciously speak to Frank Grillo, who stars in the movie as a seemingly good man who purges for an unknown reason. In our conversation, the underpinnings of both The Purge’s politics, as well as following up a successful survival horror movie with a bigger and better installment that genuinely thrills.
Given what’s going on in America right now, do you have any worries that this movie might be considered hard to watch? Do you feel a sense of responsibility at all about the [violence] in this movie?
James DeMonaco: I think it’s a valid question about what’s going on. I mean, the movie was born for me out of my fear of violence of what I saw in the news in America. So, it’s all my fears that went into the film. I think that’s where horror and thrillers come from. That actual fear. I have a fear of guns and violence, so it was born from that, completely.
I don’t think, personally, movies lead to people killing anyone. I think what leads to someone killing someone is so complex—and the rest of the world sees exactly the same movies we see, and we don’t see what’s happening in the rest of the world as what’s happening here. So, I don’t feel that responsibility. I remember hearing Quentin [Tarantino] last year about Django after the [Sandy Hook] shootings. I thought he had a very [good answer]. It’s almost giving movies too much credit. There’s so much that goes into whatever that moment is with someone picking up a gun.
Having said that, I think that if the movie can make people speak about gun violence, then I think that’s a great byproduct of the film, because it needs to be spoken about. That’s a given, we need to speak about something here. Especially after what’s happened this week [interview held several days after Las Vegas Casino shooting].
After saying all that, and there are political ramifications on the film, I think that the film hopefully exists on just an intense thriller level, first and foremost. And if people then leave the theater saying, “We need to talk about violence in America.” If that’s a byproduct, and class relations, class warfare—I think it’s great for a movie to exist on two levels.
Frank Grillo: And at the end of the day, it’s a movie. It’s entertainment, and we as freethinking people decide what we want to see and don’t see. I’m a father of three; I’m not a violent person, and I don’t condone violence. It’s our responsibility as people, as parents, to control what’s going to affect us. And it’s a tough call where you’re going to draw a line.
Are there things you won’t let your children see?
FG: Oh yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of things I won’t let them see. Xbox in my house is a good friend, and they play a lot of games, and I have three sons. One is seventeen, and one is six. So, there are games in the house for him—sometimes the six-year-old is, all of a sudden I hear, “bang-bang-bang.” And I’m like, “NO!” Does that mean he wants to go out and kill people? He understands it’s a game.
Mental health is the issue, not necessarily the violent aspect. We have to consider what mental health is in the country. And my kids aren’t mentally stable, so I have to take those games away from them! [Laughs] But it opens up a can of worms, as far as violence and the political questions, and there is no getting around it.
JM: And listen, unlike other movies that are very violent, if this movie makes people raise the questions, then I think that is a good thing.
Getting away from the responsibility, [The Purge: Anarchy] deals with violence as it satirizes American culture’s obsession with violence. How as a storyteller do you thread that needle between being a satirist and glorifying it?
JM: It is a very fine line, and it was very hard to find a balance on the first one. It took me two years to write that script. I was pushing it into almost like a Verhoeven satire, like a RoboCop or Total Recall. And here, we said, “Let’s play it more realistic” in Purge 1 and Purge 2. So, I always try to maintain a realistic line.
It’s very hard: when you’re trying to make a commentary on violence, you’re portraying violence. So, the question is where is that line, going all the way back to A Clockwork Orange to American Psycho. You’re making a commentary on violence that means you’re portraying violence. I guess the other thing to say is if I wanted to make a true movie on gun violence in America and America’s obsession with guns, which I do think there is an obsession with guns in America—you’ve seen the movie, there’s various people in the movie that talk about their guns almost as if it’s a fetish. It’s become a sexual fetish, in a way. If people pick up on that, that’s great. Again, I think it’s a byproduct of a movie that should act as a survival action-horror pic.
But if they’re starting to get there’s a subtle—I don’t think it’s even that subtle—there’s an underpinning of someone saying something about America’s relationship with violence. Again, if it causes any discussion, like we’re discussing right now, I think that’s a good thing. I think if someone takes what I find horrific, and they take it as a glorification of something, I don’t know how to thread that line. Meaning when I see it, I’m terrified. When I watch Taxi Driver, I’m terrified of Travis’ violence, but someone else watched Taxi Driver and killed someone. When I watched Batman, the Joker is terrifying to me. But that guy saw the Joker, and he loved the Joker.
I can’t judge that mentally defective mind and say, “What the hell is going to cause him to snap?”
FG: No one can. Our government can’t—
FG: –because obviously all this stuff happens on a daily basis. Believe me, as a father of three, I’m always worried about these random acts of violence.
JM: Oh, it’s terrifying! But that’s what this movie is about.
FG: And it’s in this country.
JM: It’s in this country. The rest of the world sees the exact same movies we see, and it’s not happening as much as it’s happening here. So, to me, there’s a source somewhere here. And it’s not movies, it’s not books, and I don’t think it’s video games. I don’t know—if I knew what it was, I’d be sitting somewhere else. [Laughs]
This movie appears more focused on ethnic [class warfare].
JM: The ideology is based on money, as everything in the world, I think, is based on money. The propaganda of it is that “we get to cleanse our souls.” That we’re inherently violent people, so we get this one night a year where we get to purge ourselves. It’s almost a communal, societal baptism. But what really is going on is, from the political standpoint, is that it allows for the systematic elimination of a class, which then in turn would help the economy, because there’d be less government spending on welfare, on government housing, on public housing. In a not very subtle way it’s about class warfare.
Which we see now with things like Occupy Wall Street.
FG: Which I live there. I lived on Wall Street during Occupy Wall Street. My apartment was right there. So, I watched the whole thing and the type of people who occupied Occupy Wall Street. It was a very interesting thing.
JM: It is.
FG: And it was anarchy in a sense, and it did get in the way of everyone’s lives. And it didn’t accomplish very much.
JM: Well that’s what’s scary. That it didn’t accomplish anything.
FG: No, there’s still like four people there! [Laughs]
JM: It will clear up again, because nothing’s changing.
FG: It’s getting worse! Then again, I was in South Africa. Went to Cape Town and shot a movie. What’s amazing is to drive just from the airport into Cape Town. I know that apartheid is gone, but guess what? Look what’s around you. They don’t know what to do with these people, as if they’re animals. So, they’ll cage them up, and put the police cars up around the fences, so they can’t come out, but “there’s no apartheid.” These are things that just as human beings we should be dealing with. And if the movie makes us think about it, more power to the film. That’s not what the film is for. Again, it’s a popcorn movie, really. It’s for you to go and have fun, and be afraid.
I also think this movie has a revolutionary stance with [Michael K. Williams’] character saying change happens “when they bleed.”
JM: When their blood spills.
Do you see that as the direction for possibly another Purge?
JM: It could be. I definitely planted the seed, specifically through Michael’s character. So, if the audience comes—and we have no idea if anybody comes and watches the film—
FG: It could all be moot, if nobody shows up.
Could you talk about the different approach of this movie as compared to the first one?
JM: I think the biggest lesson was being outside. It’s a nationwide conceit, so I guess the audience was kind of pissed off we were locked inside this house. And I get it! If I was an audience, I’d probably be the same way. So, I went there with greater expectations of seeing the streets of America and what’s happening out there.
And then, what Frank and I both like about it, if the first one was focused on a rich family, we knew the second one would have to be about the poor who can’t protect themselves. And beyond that, the rest of the lessons were just technical and about time, and how do you best utilize time. Because even though we had 10 more days to shoot the second one, we had about 10 times more things to shoot. So, it was about how we utilize that time. We only had 30 days. So, it was a lot of technical lessons on lighting and what not. But the first one informed all that.
The budget on this one was also bigger.
JM: A little bigger. But, again, by Hollywood standards [it’s] tiny.
FG: It was a lot bigger than the first one. But for instance, to go and make a movie today for $40 million—studios aren’t interested. They don’t care. Like what are they going to make? $80 million? So, you go and make Captain America for $170 million, and the movie makes $750 million, and that’s just in theater [gross]. You’re talking a billion dollars in profit! That’s the mindset of the [studios]. So, whether it’s a $12 or $15 million movie, or a $40 million, by Hollywood standards those are tiny movies. Which is kind of bizarre! It really is, because when you see this film—Universal screened it the other day for me, and I was amazed at how big it looked. How expensive the film looked, and how little money we had.
And it’s a scary thing, because people come back, and studios say, “You did it! You did it for $12 million; you can do it for $11 million, next time.”
JM: But people aren’t used to making movies this way. None of us had trailers. And that’s not a complaint, but most Hollywood movies, you have trailers. There’s a lot of down time. We had none of that.
How important is it for you to keep a low budget in these movies? Is it part of the concept or would you want to make a Purge movie for $20 million?
JM: I don’t know. Jason Blum is one of the producers, and he has a very specific way of making films. So, the first one we had to make it at that, and the second one, we got a little more. So, I don’t know if they’ll give us more if this one is successful. I don’t know how they defined what the budget should be on [The Purge: Anarchy]. They just say, “DeMonaco, here’s your budget. Go make the film.”
So maybe, they’ll get Michael Bay to do it next time.
JM: It could be. Maybe Michael Bay does Purge 4 for $200 million! [Laughs]
FG: No story, and all gory.
What’s your motivation for doing another one? You made the first one and it did well, and you made this one—
JM: Yeah, it’s happening now. I was with the head of Universal the other day, and she said, “Okay, get ready for [Purge 3]!”
FG: She mention me at all? [Laughs]
JM: Of course. [Laughs] She actually did, yes. But I said to her, or my agents or whoever asked, “If I come up with a good story that I feel I can tell well, I’ll do it. If I can’t, I won’t. I won’t just do it to do it.” I think with this one, I had the actual stories before the first movie even opened. I wanted to tell [Frank’s] story, and I wanted to tell [Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul’s] story; I had those already.
Could you talk about what the five characters represent in this movie?
JM: I think Carmen and Zoe, and Papa, the father, were specifically the working class. That’s how I grew up; I didn’t have a lot of money. I know Frank can say the same thing. So, then the couple, there’s actually a storyline that is cut where the husband of the couple just lost his job. So, he also was supposed to representing that part of American society, the people struggling in the economy. Everybody was supposed to be on that side of the table, the kind of people who couldn’t protect themselves. There was a lot more you learn: they were traveling to her sister’s house, because she could afford protection, and they can’t. And then Frank was just representing someone who wanted to purge. There was no economic—
FG: Someone who could use the purge. Not necessarily a person who was looking forward to just killing, but someone who could use the ideology to satisfy this demon.
JM: …The Outlaw Josey Wales we referenced a lot.
Frank, have you talked to Marvel Studios or Disney about appearing in Captain America 3?
FG: Well, I’m signed on for six movies. So, somewhere down the road, yeah.
So we haven’t seen the last of Crossbones?
FG: Nah. Definitely not. I don’t think we’ve seen the beginnings of Crossbones!