James DeMonaco interview: The Purge: Anarchy, genre filmmaking and more

We talk to The Purge: Anarchy's director James DeMonaco about making the sequel, a terrifying, inspiring road rage incident, and more...

If a good sequel’s remit is to expand the scope of its predecessor, then The Purge: Anarchy does so unusually well. Where last year’s The Purge was set in a single location, this year’s sequel The Purge: Anarchy takes place across downtown Los Angeles, thus allowing its chilling concept to take centre stage. In the near future, all laws are suspended for 12 hours in an annual event called the Purge, allowing American citizens to indulge their darker fantasies without fear of conviction.

What’s most impressive about The Purge: Anarchy is that its writer and director James DeMonaco managed to get the film written and made within a single year; when The Purge became an surprise hit in 2013, a single call from Universal meant that he had to get straight to work on a sequel. The result is a tough, lean and dirty throwback to such 70s and 80s genre highlights as The Warriors, Escape From New York, and The Terminator, as a terse protagonist (played by Frank Grillo) leads a group of survivors through the chaos of a city in the grip of hysteria.

As The Purge: Anarchy heads to the UK, we met writer-director James DeMonaco to talk about the film’s intense 26-day night shoot, how The Purge’s inspiration came from a horrible-sounding road rage incident, and his earlier work as a screenwriter, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack to The Negotiator.

I got the sense that you really enjoyed making this. There’s a kind of gleeful, black streak through it.

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I think there was. It was a very hard film to make. The first one we shot in 19 days, and this one was 30. It’s ambitious, as you saw – we’re out shooting in the streets. My director of photography and I were talking about material and, I think there was a gleeful passion in there – guerrilla filmmaking. Run-and-gun. Let’s just hit the streets – the actors were up for it.

I wouldn’t say we were improvising – we had a good game plan – but we didn’t want to lock into anything, so we were thinking on our feet. So hopefully that infuses something into its DNA, that the viewer feels, so they have fun too. We were rats on the streets, runnin’ around in downtown LA. Not that I want to bad mouth LA, but LA at night is not the nicest place!

But that informed the piece, and I think we were trying to make a movie that made us felt like we were 15-year-old kids again. Like The Road Warrior or Escape From New York or The Warriors – all the stuff that I loved as a boy that inspired me – we were tapping into that little boy or girl in all of us, and I hope the audience feels the same way.

I was going to ask you about the Escape From New York influence. And not just because of the action, but also because of the atmosphere – it’s very cynical about humanity.

It is, it is. It’s very cynical. I think I’m schizophrenic like that. It’s very cynical about where we are, especially in America. But I wanted to end it with some hope. It’s a cynical movie, but maybe at the end there’s a little hope. It’s a movie about death, really, and murder, but we have to have the hope that one character can emerge from the darkness. But it is an incredibly cynical view.

The movie was born, really, from me watching American news, and horror-thriller action always comes from our fears. To be honest, my fear right now is of guns, and this film comes from that. This week, more than ever, speaks to what’s going on in this country, and I think my cynicism comes from watching the news: I’m terrified for my daughter, I’m terrified for me, and I’m terrified for my country. So I think that cynicism seeps into the film. America itself becomes the canvas – instead of the haunted house, the canvas is America. We don’t need ghosts or vampires anymore when we’re just killing each other, you know?

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There are two things at work, I thought. One is that it’s about the divide between the rich and poor widening, and how a form of fascism can creep into the gap…

Exactly, yeah. There’s two things. On one hand it’s an entertaining thrill ride like The Warriors and Escape From New York. Underneath that, if the audience wants to get into the political thread, that’s there if they want to look at it. It’s about race, it’s about the class divide, and it’s about guns. I always felt it could work on two levels.

I read this thing by Scorsese when I was young, where he said he grew up on all the westerns and army films of the 1950s, and that was what the studios wanted back then. They wanted westerns and they wanted army films, but the directors didn’t really want to make them. So what they did was they tried to sneak in their own ideas, and they called it smuggler’s cinema. You smuggle ideas into genre movies.

That was always the inent: let’s do a genre movie. We can smuggle some stuff in there. And I think we have, without beating people over the head. It seems like the audience is picking up on it, when we’ve tested the film – they’re getting it. The focus group are talking about class and race afterwards, and about how the poor are treated in America. Especially after the Katrina flood and there was no aid. That was where some of the ideas came from in the first script. So I’m happy you saw that stuff in there. But it’s not exactly subtle!

That’s what I liked. As a British person, I thought it was absolutely delicious, the bit where the rich people dress up to go purging, and their clothing’s exactly what rich people in the UK wear when they go shooting down pheasants.

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Yeah! I got that idea from a Greenaway film, actually. There’s a great hunting garden that we saw and we said, “Let’s build it like the Greenaway film”. So there is a British element we wanted to bring into it. I’m happy you liked it. There’s an absurdity to it, I think. I’ve always been a Fellini fan, so I wanted to bring a sense of absurdity to it. The big lady on the roof with the sniper rifle… there’s macabre humour. 

It’s often difficult to get original science fiction and horror films made, so do you think the answer is to make things at this level rather then the Edge Of Tomorrow level, where something has to make a lot of money to break even?

Exactly. I heard it’s actually a great film. And that terrifies me. People have been saying “Oh, poor Tom Cruise,” and everything. But it’s actually terrible for the industry, because it’s an interesting idea, it’s an original – it’s not a franchise thing, it’s not a remake or something like that – so for it not do well is scary for all of us.

For [producer] Jason Blum at Blumhouse to do [The Purge], it cost $2.8m, which, by studio standards, is literally the price of the premiere for Edge Of Tomorrow. This one, by studio standards, we had more – I’m not allowed to say how much, but it’s still tiny. A 30 day shoot, but it allowed me… I received a couple of studio notes. They really leave you alone. Their investment is so much lower, and so you can do more interesting things. Jason’s doing more than horror – he’s done Paranormal Activity and Insidious, and he’s doing science fiction and action…

He’s doing a western as well, isn’t he?

Yes, he’s doing a western right now with Ti West directing, which is kind of cool. So he’s expanding that $3m template into other genres. Hopefully, there’ll be original fare that you just can’t do for $100m to $150m. And Edge Of Tomorrow’s scary, because it didn’t do well. So the budget definitely gives us freedom to explore other ideas – we hope! [Chuckles]

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Do you think Blumhouse is doing stuff that Hollywood used to do but isn’t anymore?

Yeah, I think so. Jason’s the Roger Corman of today – in a great way. I really mean that, too. Roger made Scorsese and Copolla back in the day with Boxcar Bertha and Dementia 13, so Jason’s going back to that. Elevating the B-movie, in a way, which is what happened in the late 60s and 70s.

I think he’s taking the old Corman template  – and I’m not mocking what Corman did – and trying to do better films than that, but on the cheap. It is very hard on the filmmaker and on the actors, because you’re kind of working for no money. I shouldn’t say you’re working for nothing, because you’re working for the creative passion of the project. And the time is hard because you’re so crunched in. But in the end I think it’s worth it, because you have so much freedom. You have the freedom that they had back in the day, like you said.

The system right now is so bound to these gigantic ideas, and hitting all the quadrants, and it’s so nice to be in a place where no one’s really watching you. Or hitting you over the head, saying, “Do this! Make sure this person lives and this person dies.” So I think he’s done something really great and really innovative for the industry right now. I hope it continues. I hope his films keep making money.

Because even the ones that go straight to video – because he makes a lot, with some films going into theatres and others going to video – even the straight-to-video ones will turn a profit because it’s still only a $3m budget. So it’s a win-win situation. Hopefully other people will start doing it too.

We seem to have hit a good patch lately for horror. Especially for horror with a bit of depth. We’ve had Ti West’s The Sacrament, and also Cheap Thrills, which also had interesting…

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Which one’s Cheap Thrills?

Cheap Thrills is a really dark horror comedy. EL Katz directed it.

Oh yeah. I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it yet.

It explores similar themes to The Purge.

Really? I’ll have to check it out. The Sacrament – I like Ti. I’ve heard The Sacrament’s really worth seeing. It’s a terrible time for drama. I think, for audiences in tough economic times, people don’t want to be hammered with heavy drama. But genre lets people escape – and I understand that, because I love genre movies, too. That’s why good filmmakers are going to genre, and giving it something new that we haven’t seen before.

There’s a British director who’s doing great things with genre. He’s the best guy out there right now. Uh…

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Ben Wheatley?

Ben Wheatley. He’s been doing some great stuff.

Oh yeah, he’s brilliant.

Yeah, yeah. He’s been doing really cool work within the genre. Because back in the day, we had Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining and The Exorcist and then Halloween came along, but there wasn’t many. Now there seems to be many more within the genre. 

And as you say, they’re doing interesting things rather than just slasher films or something like that. Is it true that when you wrote The Purge, you were inspired by a road rage incident?

It did, it did. It was a perfect storm of things that resulted in it. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been terrified of guns. And I think within that terror lies an intrigue, so I was always attracted to movies with guns in them, because for me there’s nothing scarier than getting shot. So then there’s all the stuff that’s been going on with America with all the shootings, which fascinated me in the worst of ways.

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Then my wife said something after a road rage incident – this is where it comes from. We were in Brooklyn, driving along together… She’s a doctor, so she’s a good person, because what she says is not a nice thing. Some drunk guy cut us off, and I almost got into a fist fight with him. We were literally wrestling on the ground. The cops turned up, and he was just drunk. He literally almost killed us.

So my wife gets back in the car, and this guy had been so idiotic about the whole thing. He was being real jerk. And she was raging. We were both raging – we were on fire. And then she turns to me and says, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have one free one a year?”

I knew exactly what she meant. And I said, “Wow, honey. That’s a bold statement!” But it stayed with me.

Then I was living in France working on my first movie, and then I was doing something else in Cannes, and I just noticed something different about the news there. I also noticed that nobody owned guns. I know so many people who own guns here, and there are also shows about families who make guns.

Her one statement stayed in my head, and seeing the difference in cultures in France, Canada and America, and what was happening in our society with all the shootings, her statement just popped. I thought, maybe not one free one every year, but maybe one night… I thought it was a metaphor for America’s obsession with guns and violence.

The film you directed before The PurgeStatten Island New York – did that come from a frustration at having other people direct your movies, maybe?

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[Laughs] Yes, definitely. Writing was always a means to direct – it just took me a long time to get there. Directors come from so many different angles. You’ve got your video directors, and so on, but for me it was always going to be writing. I just thought I’d keep writing and then I’d maybe get to direct.

I was making little shorts on a camera I had growing up, but writing was my way in. It just didn’t happen as quick as I thought. I got close in 2000 – I met Jason Blum 15 years ago, and we got very close on a serial killer film I wrote. That was going to be with Ethan Hawke, but that fell apart because we lost the financing.

But there was a frustration. I guess because I wanted to direct. Some people did a great job – probably better than I would have done. But the quality didn’t really matter – it was just the interpretation. Even if it’s better than what I would have done, it’s still different, so there’s an inherent frustration in that. So the frustration helped, yes! 

Of course, Francis Ford Coppola directed one of your screenplays. That was your first one, wasn’t it?

It was probably my thirtieth script, but it was the first one I sold, yeah. I had a friend I met at film school before I quit. I was writing a lot of dark material, quite violent. But he was more like Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis. We befriended each other, and he asked me to write a short film. To cut a long story short, he won an Academy Award for it, but it wasn’t in the vein of what I’d normally write. So Jack stemmed from a very strange place, because it was a very sweet movie. A children’s movie, whereas normally I write things like The Purge, which is the polar opposite.

So first film: Jack, and my buddy – I don’t want to say he was kicked off, but Robin Williams wanted to do it, but he didn’t want a first-time director. Then Robin and Francis decided to team up. I got to live with Francis Ford Coppola. I was 24, and it was a truly strange time. Because I have to be honest, I don’t think it’s a great film at all, but the process of making it and being with Francis was just incredible. I got to live with him up on his vineyard, I was a young kid, I didn’t have anything. That was inspiring. The movie was the movie, whatever that is. Kids liked it, I guess. But it’s not for me, I should say. It was an interesting way into the business – very interesting! [Chuckles]

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And you wrote Assault On Precinct 13 and The Negotiator as well. Which are both a bit like The Purge. They have that claustrophobic element  to them. Why do you think that is?

My dad took me to see Dog Day Afternoon when I was very young, and I adored that movie. It was one of the great influences on me, with Pacino’s performance and him being locked in the bank. I think, the stuff we see when we’re kids, we can’t escape – no matter how much we try. Like, those early movies really make an imprint on the brain. I sometimes say it as a joke, but I don’t even know if it is a joke: everything I write stems from Dog Day Afternoon. I became obsessed with it as a kind of model play in an enclosed situation.

I’ve even said, the city in The Purge: Anarchy, I view the city as this enclosed place from which they have to escape. So I don’t know what it is, but I feel like it’s a pressure cooker. You put your characters in this thing, and it’s going to put them to the test and you see their real natures emerge. But I think the inception was frickin’ Dog Day Afternoon!

Well it’s a classic film to be influenced by. And a classic era for cinema.

I wrote something else as well, before I met Frank [Grillo], I wrote a nine-hour mini-series for Spike TV [The Kill Point] about five Iraqi war vets who get stuck in a bank during a robbery. So these enclosed things – I can’t get them out of my own way. [Laughs] I think we all write the same movie over and over again. I love the bottle situation.

What was Ethan Hawke like to work with on the first one, because he was great in it.

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Ethan and I have a great shorthand. And he’s very political, so I think he responded to the subversiveness of the script – I think he got all that. We made Staten Island, my first movie, together, and then Assault On Precinct 13, which I produced and wrote. So The Purge was our third film together. He’s the best. There’s no one better than he is at blocking scenes – whatever it is he learned from the stage, he brings to blocking scenes. We became friends – we both live in Chelsea in New York, and I love working with him.

It was a character he wanted to play – this kind of slick jerk. So he really embraced it, the idea of playing this jerk. And he did it really well. We keep trying to figure out what to do next. 

It’s great to see an actor who’s so smart, who’s capable of doing Shakespeare and is also keen to do genre films.

That’s what’s great about Ethan. We can talk about Fellini or Bergman – we can go down that path – or at the same time we can be talking about John Carpenter or Walter Hill. We love genre, we love our films. Ethan’s great that way. You can talk to him about making a great action film, like Training Day, or there’s the movies he made with Linklater. He’s not afraid.

Although I can’t speak for other actors, I think there’s a hesitancy to go for genre sometimes. But I think the genre can be elevated, and Ethan sees that  – you can do something cool with it. He’s willing to go, literally, from Hamlet to The Purge.

I liked Rhys Wakefield in the first one as well.

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Isn’t he great?

A brilliant performance.

We really struggled with casting that character. We cast him the day before shooting.

Really?

We were having all-night casting sessions, and I couldn’t find him. Everybody was going to big [with their performances]. Then Rhys came in, an Australian, but he hid his accent. I literally went, “Oh, thank God.” Everyone else was overacting and going so big, and Rhys came in with this odd smile, as though he was just kind of having fun. Which is what it is – it’s almost like going out for Halloween for the character, and Rhys got that. He was also, oddly [like Charles Manson], because I’m obsessed with Charles Manson, and a lot of what I write is informed by Manson. I was really freaked out as a child by those murders.

And without my telling Rhys, he based his whole group and his character on the Manson family. It’s kind of strange without even speaking about it, he arrived at the same thing. It was that weird, collective unconscious that goes on between people. He was amazing, and I hope he gets cast in more stuff. I hated killing him, because I’d love to bring him back, but I can’t now. Unless I do a prequel or something, where he’s on one of the previous purges!

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So was it difficult to get The Purge: Anarchy done in a year?

It was the hardest thing. I wrote this to Frank [Grillo] last night, texting, because we were officially done yesterday, with the last VFX shot being put in place. He said, “How do you feel?” And I said, the thing I’m most proud of, and no one will care really – and nor should the audience care – is that we made the movie literally from the moment I started thinking about it. I got the call from Universal, “Start thinking about part two” after that opening weekend.

So it’s been one year from thought to outlining to script writing to pre-production to post-production. One year. And I said, “I don’t feel like it’s been a rush at all.” I don’t. When I look at the movie, I don’t feel like we compromised or that it’s a rush job. But one year was tough, though. I need a break! I need time off now.

It adds to the gritty air, too, that guerrilla approach to filmmaking.

That’s what we said. Jock, my director of photography, we just said, “Let’s go. We’ve just got to shoot.” We’ll just get out there. We were shooting at night so everyone’s in a bit of a weird state. Once you start shooting nights, after a couple of weeks, things start getting a little bit hallucinatory. But I think it fed the film – it gives that craziness to it. But it’s nuts, though. Everyone asks if I want to do another one. I do, but I need to sleep a little.

You’re not likely to do The Purge 3 for next year, then?

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They want it, my friend. If the opening weekend’s good, I’ll get the call on that Monday, and I keep telling Jason Blum, the producer, “Please, just give me a little time – I need a little time to think”.

Because last time, I had no time. It was just, go. Hopefully I’ll come up with a good idea. Maybe I won’t come up with a good idea. It’s a tough, dark world to exist in, The Purge. To stay within it mentally is… wow. I need to take a little break from it. It’s going to be an interesting summer. I hope people dig it.

Same here. It’s really entertaining. And Frank Grillo’s great in it. His performance reminded me of a cross between Snake Plissken and Kyle Reese out of The Terminator.

He’s going to be so happy [you said that]. The first time we sat down – because I knew him a little bit from Kill Point, the mini series I did years ago – he was the only actor I wanted. I kept pushing for him. He’s not a big name yet, you know? But we sat down and said, “We gotta make this like Escape From New York”, so when you tell him, he’ll love the Snake Plissken reference. That and The Outlaw Josey Wales were what we were going for.

I thought there was a touch of Moses to him as well…

[Loud, unapologetic laughter]

…you know, leading his people to safety?

He is Moses! Oh my God. I should have done a scene where he’s parting a sea of people or something! That’s very good.

On that bombshell we shall end it! James DeMonaco, thank you very much.

The Purge: Anarchy is out in UK cinemas on the 25th July.