After making three Purge films, series creator James DeMonaco decided that it was time to go back to the beginning and explore how the Purge concept was born. In The First Purge, the fourth film in the Purge series, viewers will find out how the United States decided that the Purge was a solution to its problems.
In this interview, which was conducted via email in April, DeMonaco explains the origins of the Purge concept and details his vision for the future of the Purge series. The First Purge opens in theaters on July 4.
DG: James, what inspired you to make a prequel film?
JD: How a country could get to a point where something like the Purge was a viable solution to its problems seemed very interesting to me – especially in these tumultuous times. Fear would seem to be the motivating factor – as it has in history – for any citizenry to accept such a nefarious solution. And the selling of fear was so integral to the Trump campaign that it seemed to coincide with the NFFA (the governing party in the Purge films) and how they use fear to sell the Purge to America. So, ultimately, I liked the parallels to what was happening today in our country.
DG: James, for those people who have seen the first three films, who are intimately familiar with the Purge mythology, what questions did you want to answer in this film?
JD: How it began. Where it began. The First purge is depicted in the film – but it is not a country–wide Purge. It’s an “experimental” purge – to see if it works – on the borough of Staten Island in Nyc. The NFFA is hoping for a lot of “participation” in the evening so that they could sell this ‘solution’ on a country-wide scale in future years. Hopefully, people we see why it all started, the government’s reasoning behind it all – and its manipulation. And ultimately how the NFFA and its politics mirror our current regime.
DG: How would you describe the process by which America embraces the Purge concept, and how would you describe the human dynamic that exists in this film amongst the main characters?
JD: Without giving too much away, what we learn in the First Purge is that America (specifically Staten Islanders who are representing America in this film – as they are part of this initial “experiment”), don’t actually embrace the Purge. There is monetary incentive to participate in this scientific experiment as it’s called – hence we see that there’s a financial manipulation of lower income Staten Islanders to be a part of the Purge. Again, we explore government manipulation, especially of America’s most underprivileged.
As for the human dynamic, our main two characters are ex-lovers – both grew up in the lower-income part of Staten Island, and both very different. Nya is a social activist who’s a leading voice in her neighborhood against the upcoming Purge and her ex is Dmitri, the local drug lord – a man with violence in his heart who, in the beginning of the film, is only looking out for himself. Things change for him when he sees what the Purge really is and its impact on their world.
DG: After directing the first three films, why did you select Gerard McMurray to direct this film, and what did Gerard bring to this film that’s unique from other directors you might have chosen for this film, including yourself?
JD: I always wanted to write about the initial, experimental Purge, but after writing and directing three purge film in 5 years I was ready to hand over the directing duties. Someone sent me Gerard’s film Burning Sands, which I loved. Gerard was also a big fan of the Purge films and right after our first conversation I knew he was the right person for the job. He saw the Purge as a metaphor for the plight of minorities in America. Gerard also lived through Hurricane Katrina – the government’s mishandling of that situation, and its treatment of lower income citizens of New Orleans was something that informed my writing of the original Purge. Ultimately, Gerard saw the Purge films as I see them – as genre films, action/sci-fi/horror – but also as socio-political commentaries about race, and class and gun control in our country.
DG: James, aside from the prequel storyline, what do you think sets this film apart from the previous Purge films?
JD: Character and tone. I think this film explores characters and their relationships with each other and with their neighborhood and government and their civic duty in a way that we didn’t see in the first three films. Also, tone as Gerard brings a very different tone here – he’s created an authentic world and neighborhood that is shattered by the Purge but ultimately fights back and won’t let the government win.
DG: What was the biggest challenge you faced in making this film ?
JD: As with any Purge film, budget constraints – we want the film to feel big but, in comparison with other summer releases, we are, again, a small budget. And, of course the balance between social commentary and genre fun. We never want to be preachy, so we have to find that right balance.
DG: James, how would you describe Marisa Tomei’s role in this film?
JD: Marisa plays the behavioral-psychologist who has conceived of this notion – she is, in fact, the creator of the Purge. But, we quickly learn, she doesn’t work for the NFFA. She doesn’t know, up front, how they will use this conceit and for what purpose. She slowly learns, over the course of the movie, that this idea she had for a societal catharsis through a night of violence is being used for all the wrong reasons – in her opinion.
DG: What do you think audiences will find most compelling and frightening about this film?
JD: I think and hope (and have seen with preview audiences) that they see the parallels with our current regime in the NFFA and its treatment of the poor and its fear-mongering – and they find it very, very scary. They also love the MASKS in the film – and like the previous purge films – are terrified of them – which is great.
DG: James, what did the Buffalo/New York/Staten Island setting bring to this film that was unique from other locations you might have chosen, and how would you describe the landscape, the universe, that exists in this film?
JD: I think it all gave us a sense of a real neighborhood – with real people existing in it. Here, for the first time in the Purge films, we are focused on a single neighborhood – which is fun as we explore its characters and how they co-exist – from the nice people – to the nasty people – and Gerard made that tapestry of characters feel very real.
DG: What is your favorite scene or sequence in this film?
JD: Two scenes stand out for me – a scene in the beginning where our lead female, Nya, confronts our lead male, Dmitri, about his lifestyle and how, like the Purge, he is destroying their community with his drug-dealing and violence. It’s heartfelt and very real. And finally, the action/horror set-piece in our finale – inside a tenement building – it feels like an insane nightmare version of Die Hard – and it’s something we haven’t seen in a Purge film yet.
DG: James, looking ahead, do you feel that the Purge series has perhaps run its course in terms of present day storylines, and is it your intention to have future Purge films follow the prequel timeline that you’re establishing with this film?
JD: I’m not exactly sure where to go next in the film series – we have some ideas but nothing solid and until the audience tells us they want more, I feel like it’s not cool to be assuming they do. But we are exploring the Purge in a TV series, which will be coming out later this year – we start shooting in a month – for USA/Sy Fy. And what’s great about that is that the real estate of TV – ten hours of screen time – allows us to explore – in a much more complex way – why someone would ever use violence to solve a problem. Using a flashback structure we explore the lives of people experiencing the purge and we see how they got to where they are on this particular purge night. It’s a great format to explore the Purge conceit.
DG: James, after making four Purge films, how would you describe the journey you’ve taken with this series, from the beginning to the present?
JD: Insane, terrifying and something that has opened my eyes and made me very aware of the government’s treatment of certain parts of our citizenry.