We’re now at the summer movie season’s midway point, so you know what means: It’s time for a big studio release that features rich people buying a poor guy so they can hack him to death with machetes. Wait, what?
That’s right, there aren’t any superheroes, Andy Serkis motion-captures, or transforming alien robots in The Purge: Anarchy (in theaters tomorrow), the crazy sequel to 2012’s unlikely box office smash The Purge. Once again, it’s all about government-sanctioned homicide. Furthering his literally multi-million-dollar idea, writer-director James DeMonaco gives fans of the first movie’s brilliant concept everything they’d hoped for two years ago. Set during the annual Purge night, March 21, when all crime is legal between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., The Purge: Anarchy follows a ragtag group—led by the mysterious badass Leo (Frank Grillo) and otherwise comprised of a financial strapped mother/daughter team (Carmen Ejogo, Zoe Soul) and a bickering twentysomething couple (Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez)—trying to survive the night outside while citizens, ranging from wealthy scumbags to masked lower-class renegades, kill at will.
Unlike its predecessor, which settled into a strong but familiar home invasion set-up, The Purge: Anarchy isn’t claustrophobic—it’s wide-open urban insanity. A lifelong fan of filmmakers like John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York) and Walter Hill (The Warriors), the Brooklyn-born and Staten Island-raised DeMonaco tapped into those ‘70s and ‘80s influences to make a fast-paced, often brutal action-thriller that delivers on its promises. Along the way, too, he subtly prods the viewer’s brain with questions about morality and classism, giving his Purge franchise a deeper resonance beyond its blood-drenched debauchery.
Not that DeMonaco’s a cinematic preacher. On the contrary, he’s a rarity among Hollywood directors, one who’s completely open about his work and not afraid to acknowledge past mistakes. In this unguarded interview, DeMonaco discusses everything from The Purge’s flaws to righting past wrongs with The Purge: Anarchy and how test screenings factor into his final cuts.
Whereas the first Purge focused on the rich person’s experience, The Purge: Anarchy switches it to the poor community. What made you want to start from the wealthier perspective?
Dude, it was very strange. My first film, Staten Island [released as Little New York], played the film festival circuit but we never broke out of that at all. I guess you can call it this little indie art film. My producer and I knew we weren’t going to be given a big budget to go and do something after that—Staten Island wasn’t this huge successful thing that was going to give us any clout. We had some decent responses in Europe, so at one point we thought we’d be able to get some foreign investors, but, long story short, we knew we needed something contained.
I don’t want to say that everything was premeditated, but we’d always had this idea for The Purge and this morality tale about this rich family on the night of The Purge. At first it was written as this politically subversive art film that we thought would just play at the Angelika in New York City or the Laemmle in Los Angeles. I don’t know why, when I first came up with the idea, it was always inside this house. I think it really came down to because I knew I couldn’t get a big budget.
Where did the concept come from initially? Was it as simple as you trying to think of something that could work as a self-contained, one-location set-up?
It was a perfect storm of things, really. I always give my wife credit. I know this is going to sound very disturbing and dark that she said this—she’s a doctor, works with children, and is a sweet woman. But we were driving on the BQE and a drunk driver cut us off and almost killed us; I got into a fistfight with this guy, and he was a maniac. He had no remorse for literally almost killing us. The cops had to come, there was a big scene. My wife was so worked up over this guy’s attitude; she got back into the car, turned to me, and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we all had one free one a year?” I’m like, “That’s so fucked-up, honey,” but it stayed with me, this idea that everyone could get one free murder per year.
And then I was living in France, working on post-production for my first film, and I noticed that no one had guns there. When I was growing up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, I’d say nine out of 10 people I knew had a gun. I noticed a different relationship to guns in France. Then, I was in Canada and had the same exact kind of feeling. That was followed by the mass shootings here in America, and I saw these reality shows about families who make guns. All of that combined into this idea of a holiday where Americans could legally murder people.
As I was watching the first Purge, and it became a familiar home invasion movie, there was a little disappointment, to be honest.
Yeah, and I totally agree with you. That’s what was always so weird. Again, I think when I first wrote it, I told myself it was a tiny little film. I never thought it was a commercial thing. I thought maybe Lionsgate would release it, but not Universal [Pictures]. That’s what freaked me out—when Universal said they were interested and wanted to put it on 3,000 screens, I freaked out a little bit. It’s so tiny and it has an anti-American feeling to it, which I always thought was why it would never get a big commercial release. And I also knew who the target audience was, because I’m the audience for these movies; I grew up loving movies of this kind, so once we finished the first movie and it came out, I knew there was a promise in the concept that we didn’t deliver upon. I had this great fear that came true. [Laughs.] I was afraid that a lot of these great movie writers online would jump on the fact that I didn’t go outside, and that happened.
Because you’re right, the concept is this great promise to go out on the street—it’s this nationwide concept about what’s happening on the streets and we’re not showing that. And then I added this credits sequence to the first movie which made it worse. Then first cut of the film was so contained and claustrophobic that I came up with this idea where I’d use surveillance camera footage to show what’s happening on the streets of America. The movie opens with surveillance cam footage from previous purges, with people getting axed and shot, which made things worse, to be honest. [Laughs.] I kicked myself in the groin; I showed people, “Look, this is what’s happening outside of the house, but now I’m going to keep you all in here.”
I’ve always wanted to do part two, although I didn’t see the success of the first film coming from a mile away. But, all along, I knew that I had to get outside. That was actually the biggest appeal to me. I knew everybody was kind of pissed at me for not going outside in the first film, and I understood that. I was not one of these people who was defending the film. I kind of got the anger at the first one; I was very aware, even in the early test screenings, that we’re promising something we’re not delivering. So I hope with part two, people say, “Oh, finally, we’re seeing what’s happening on the streets of America!”
So you were anticipating that backlash, then?
I’m not saying I’m a smart person, but the writing was so clear on the fucking wall. [Laughs.] Even friends of mine were like, “Man, this is so contained—why did you keep it so damn contained?” And I was like, “Well, we only had 19 days to shoot it and $2.7 million to work with.” Which the audience doesn’t need to know; they don’t need to know how much money we had or how many days we had. I’m doing this calculated move to get my second movie made, but I was fully aware of the backlash the whole time. I always knew that if we got to do part two, we’d do Escape From New York crossed with The Warriors. That was the template in our heads, those movies that we were obsessed with as kids.
You mentioned that the original script was more of an art-house film. Did that version focus more on discussions about the situation, as opposed to action?
We were going to make the movie with Luc Besson originally. He financed my first film, Staten Island, but the script he read, it spoke more to the political aspect of the concept. It was about the rich killing the poor. The politics of it were really out in the front of where America is now and our relationship with violence and guns.
But there were two specific things in that script I took out for Universal. The first one was, in the first movie, the daughter tries to kill her own father, which they wouldn’t let me do, and, to be honest, I don’t think I ever fixed that successfully; I put this boyfriend character in who wanted to killer her father, and that didn’t totally work. But having the daughter try to kill the dad made the whole thing very dark, and Universal was like, “We can’t have a movie where a daughter wants to kill her father,” even though I thought it spoke to the night and how anybody would purge. Having them do so to their closest family members, though, made it too dark for Universal. And also, in the first script, the Ethan Hawke character killed a black guy in his basement in the beginning, not unlike the scene with the grandfather in The Purge: Anarchy, except it was Ethan. About 20 pages into the script, he bought some cancer-ridden black guy and axed him to death in his basement. That was also something Universal said I couldn’t do, but I always knew I would put some form in that scene in the second movie.
I was trying to speak to race in America, even if it was a little more overt, not the first Purge is a subtle film. But the racial politics were a little bit more spelled out in the first draft, at least through that scene. And then it was also about how the Purge affected families, with the daughter wanting to kill her father. It was a darker piece, a little more political; we took a little of that out and suddenly it was a movie Universal wanted to put on 3,000 screens. It’s a strange process, man.
It’s interesting to hear how the boyfriend character was put in as a replacement for the daughter’s original arc. That boyfriend character does feel a bit tacked-on.
Completely, yeah. I’ll be the first to admit that he’s the worst part of the first film. I think in the rushing of rewriting that script… I remember Luc Besson reading it and saying, “Dude, when the daughter trying to blast her dad in the face with a handgun, that is really dark. Having that happen 20 pages after the Purge starts is a tough pill to swallow.” But, yeah, you’re right, the boyfriend became the proxy. I still wanted to hold the storyline that someone tried to kill Ethan’s character, and I don’t think I ever got that right. It’s the weakest and clunkiest part of the first film.
I’d imagine that what’s so cool about the second movie, for you, is that it allowed you to correct whatever mistakes you think you made with the first film.
Exactly. I’m not usually a huge sequel guy; they typically seem unnecessary. But this one felt necessary, not just for me but for the audience. I think the audience wants to see a different part of the Purge, from a different perspective, and then I get a chance to say, “OK, I have a bigger budget and more time here, so now I can right the wrongs from the first film.” There were a lot of plusses to do a sequel, when normally I’d say, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.”
When you started writing the second one, and realized that now, being outside, the sky’s the limit as far as characters, was it difficult to figure out who you’d see the Purge through this time?
That’s a great question, and it’s so weird. I think back to last summer, because it took one full year from the thought of this movie to finishing it. We did it very quickly. But last summer, I was sitting around with my wife and daughter when the studio called and said, “We want you to start thinking about the sequel.” I don’t know where the storylines came from exactly, but I know I’ve always had this mother/daughter dynamic in my head, from a low-income background where they’re struggling, but I’m not sure where that originated from exactly.
The one character I did know all along, though, was Frank Grillo’s character. I always wanted to do this lone-wolf guy, this Outlaw Josey Wales character who was going out and avenging someone in his family who was killed in a drunk driving accident or something like that. That was always in my head, even as I was doing part one. I knew that if I got to do a second one and go outside, that character would be a big part of it and it’d be this old western archetype of a gunslinger who’s walking around the city, picks up this band of innocent victims, and starts traveling across the city with them. The only reason I was able to write the script so fast was because that character was already in my head. And that stems from my love of films like Death Wish, The Road Warrior, and ‘70s films like that. That’s what I grew up on, things like Soylent Green and Logan’s Run and great sci-fi films like that, as well as the great Clint Eastwood westerns of the ‘70s.
It’s interesting looking back at your resume prior to The Purge—I didn’t even realize that you wrote the Assault on Precinct 13 remake, which shows just how deep your love for John Carpenter movies runs.
Yeah, that’s where I met my producer, Sebastian [Lemercier]. This French company had seen a movie I’d written called The Negotiator; they’re these French dudes who make these great French art-house films, but they also love American genre movies and they love John Carpenter. They met with Carpenter, got the remake rights, saw my movie, liked it, and called me to ask if I’d want to write a new Precinct 13. It was interesting, I loved Assault when I was a kid—it has that great scene where the little girl gets shot in the head, and I loved that shit. [Laughs.] So I actually met with Carpenter. They flew me out to meet with him, which was a dream come true, and John was really excited about doing a remake. He loved my idea that the cops were the villains. He was like, “That’s very subversive,” and he hates cops. So his blessing put us all forward. I don’t know if it came out the way we wanted, but we went into it with good intentions. Once you start something, you never know how it’s going to come out. I’m proud of some of it, but I don’t know if it ends well.
In that sense, then, The Purge: Anarchy wasn’t only your chance to right the first Purge’s wrong, but also the wrongs of Assault on Precinct 13, since Anarchy has that old Carpenter spirit.
Dude, it’s so weird you said that, and it’s a great observation. I stayed with my same producer from Assault after that, Sebastian, the French guy, because we became very close. I was on the set as the writer because the director was French and barely spoke English. The Purge: Anarchy is Sebastian and my fourth film together, and even in the first Purge, we said, “Let’s try to fix what we did wrong with Assault here,” and then, of course, we made more mistakes on the first Purge. [Laughs.] But hopefully with the second Purge, we’ve come even closer to making John Carpenter proud. I hope he gets to see it. That would be cool.
The Purge: Anarchy definitely feels like one of those old movies, but what I appreciate about it is that its throwback vibe isn’t heavy-handed. It’s there, but you’ve channeled it into a modern-looking movie and universe, whereas so many other homage films try too hard to pay tribute to ‘70s and ‘80s classics, and it feels forced.
That’s actually the best thing I’ve heard so far, man. You nailed it. It’s like, OK, you’re going to pay homage to the shit you loved as a kid, the shit I used to watch on my VCR all the time. I remember when I was 12 and my dad brought home a VHS copy of Escape From New York, and then I watched it every single day after school. But you don’t want to write something where the homage is too blatant, because then what is that? It’s a ripoff, then. So there’s always that fine line. How much should we pay homage? Or can we make it nothing more than this deep inspiration, where, hopefully, we’re creating something fresh? So thank you for saying that.
A lot of that has to do with Frank Grillo, too. He captures that vintage Snake Plissken demeanor but still looks and feels like an modern everyman.
Exactly, and I hope people give Frank more shots now, after they see this movie. I did a miniseries with Frank about six years ago, called The Kill Point, for Spike TV. It was him and John Leguizamo playing bank robbers together. I always said, “This guy’s got something,” and since then I’ve wanted to put him in a lead role. I thought Universal would give me shit about making him the lead here, because, even though he did Warrior and The Grey and the Captain America sequel, he’s not a huge name. But they didn’t fight me on it. I agree with you, there’s something everyman about him but he’s also a badass. He’s a trained MMA fighter and can really knock people out. That all worked well for the character.
You talked about a couple of too-dark moments in the first film that Universal made you cut. In writing this sequel, where everything’s set outside and the potential for heightened brutality is much larger than the first one’s contained location, did you run into any similar resistance from Universal?
Yeah, there were a few things, but I’ll give you one. I had something called “The Rape Corner.”
[Laughs.] Exactly, dude. I showed my wife that scene and she was like, “What the fuck?” I had a scene where the mother, daughter, and the young wife characters get taken and brought to this street corner where they’re chained to poles on each intersection. There are guys lining up in the alley, and it’s happening all over the city that night, where girls are being kidnapped and put on corners. I had Frank Grillo and Zach Gilford come and blast these lined-up rapists. It was very demented. They didn’t let that one through. I said, “If I do a third Purge, I’m going to work that into it somehow,” and the head of Universal said, “Yeah, I don’t think we’re gonna let you do that one.”
It’s funny talking to you right now and getting a sense of your dark, fucked-up sensibilities and then remembering that you’ve made a summer movie opening on 3,000 screens.
[Laughs.] We get away with a lot, but, yeah, it’s pretty crazy. That scene got pared down into the moment in Anarchy where Carmen Ejogo’s neighbor comes in and licks her face. Everything in these movies starts with this grand insanity and then gets pared down into something that, I guess, is palatable to the bigger audience. And I’ve got to remember that. You’re right, it’s a 3,000-screen release. You can’t do these things I’d see in crazy movies we watch at night when I’m making something like this.
Both of the Purge movies feature these really elaborate sequence of violence and tension, but underneath it all there are these thought-provoking societal themes. For example, in The Purge: Anarchy, there’s something called a “hunting party,” where rich people abduct poor people and hunt them down with guns in locked-up warehouses. On the surface, it makes for some very tense genre thrills, but ultimately, it says a lot about class warfare. Is that balance always in your mind while writing these movies?
Sebastian and I read this article years ago from the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. It was an interview with Martin Scorsese, and he was talking about something he called “smuggler cinema,” where the directors of the ‘40s and ‘50s worked at a time when studios only wanted to make war films and cowboy films, but directors like John Ford didn’t want to, though they were forced to do so because they were under contract. So they smuggled their own ideas into the genre, whatever political ideas they had or anything like that. I love the genre, but I thought if we could smuggle some political ideas into these films, it’ll be that much better.
In the test audiences, people have talked about how the films have made them think about how poor people are treated in America, or how guns are handled in America. For people to talk about those things after they finish watching what’s really a big action thriller, that’s kind of cool, but then some people don’t see those things, and that’s cool, too. Maybe if we can sneak a couple of ideas in, especially about America’s obsession with guns, we can get people to talk about these things.
Frank Grillo’s character, near the end of the film, presents the question of whether some purging can be justifiable, which doesn’t really come up in the first Purge. Is that a wrinkle in the concept you’ve had in mind from the beginning?
Yeah. Listen, it is such a grotesque, macabre concept, this idea of legalized murder, so I always said, “If we’re going to do it, I’d like for them all to be a morality play.” It always has to be about someone fighting a moral dilemma on this annual Purge day. We cut a lot of dialogue about murder and the justification of it—when is it okay and when is it not? We actually had a lot of dialogue about that, especially between Cali, the young girl, and Grillo’s character.
It’s a very hard moral question to answer. The test screening audiences, though, thought it was a little preachy, so we cut that. It’s still there, I think it’s still in the DNA of the film. Hopefully Leo’s final decision hopefully makes people question when murder is justified and when it’s not. I know in the test audiences about 10% of the audience was really pissed at me for Leo’s final decision. We get 300 people to see the film, they write their thoughts on these cards, and I sit there and read every single thing.
The test screening process seems like a big deal for you. Why is that?
I come from the mentality of, “We’ve got to fight for what we’ve created,” but we’re all making these movies for an audience. If I’ve learned anything editing and working on my last three movies, it’s that pacing is more important than anything else. Sadly, you can feel the air just going out of the room in these test screenings. You can feel the audience losing interest when the characters are talking too much, especially in the first 20 minutes, when you’re trying to get to that first Purge moment, with the sirens going off. In Anarchy, I’d written all of these scenes early into the film with the young married couple, where we’d see their financial situation, background, and their marital bickering, but sadly we had to lose most of it because the movie was stopping cold. It was almost like were making Magnolia suddenly instead of a Purge movie, and we’re not arty film like Magnolia—we’re gonna play to a much different crowd.
Listen, I fight a lot; in editing, I’ve become a real prick fighting the powers that be. But, ultimately, you do what’s right for the movie.
When the test screening audience comes in, do you look at certain people and think, “They’d never see this kind of movie if they had to pay for it”?
Yeah, that’s always my biggest question: “Who are you recruiting?” They actually have these big companies where you spend $25,000 on a test screening, but I give them credit. The company they used in Los Angeles actually recruited an audience based on taste, so it is the audience you want. They’ve seen the first Purge, and they’re at least aware of movies like The Warriors. They’re not getting the people who want to see August: Osage County. [Laughs.] Because that would suck and those people would leave.
Since they’re getting the right audience, it is a good tool. I heard Seth Rogen talking about how they tested Neighbors over and over because he wants to see what the audience really likes. It’s a terrible process—you’re sweating bullets, you don’t know if the audience likes it or if they’re going to leave. I decided to really embrace it and utilize it this time, because I fought tooth-and-nail on the first one.
We tested very well on the second one, but the first one tested very mid-level. People fucking hated Ethan and his family. But then I said, “I designed it to be a morality play, where ultimately Ethan realizes that he’s making money off of the Purge,” and the audience felt that. But what happened was, there were five lines of dialogue in the first one where Ethan spoke about how “we’re going to be okay because we’re rich and we can afford protection and the poor people die tonight.” He said that out loud, but then we cut those lines out and then, suddenly, Ethan’s character test went from, like, a 30, which is sub-par, to a 65, which is a little above average. It’s amazing how you can listen to the audience and help them to like your characters better.
With the first film’s test screenings, nobody knew what the hell it was, which I’m sure made it tougher for some of them to get behind it, but with The Purge: Anarchy, they’d seen the first film and were now able to embrace it much easier. That must’ve factored into why the second film’s tests scores were higher.
Yes, it was definitely less brutal this time. But there was still a fear that people would be pissed at me again. [Laughs.] I was drinking tequila before the screening and it was this awful kind of nervous anticipation, but people liked it. Now I just hope others feel the same way.
Interview by Complex senior staff writer Matt Barone, who, sadly, probably wouldn't last very long during a real-life Purge night. He tweets here.