James DeMonaco has been working in the entertainment industry for decades, although it wasn’t until 2013 that he struck gold with an inspired but simple premise: What if there were an annual holiday where for one day, all crime (including and perhaps especially murder) was considered legal? DeMonaco’s The Purge mixed a dystopian premise with a classic home invasion thriller setup, kicking off a franchise that now includes five feature-length films and two seasons of a television series.
It’s not hard to see why the Purge franchise continues to click with audiences. DeMonaco, who has written every installment and directed the first three films, both critiques and satirizes the culture of the United States and often does so in ways that aren’t especially subtle. The Purge is intriguing because it feels morbidly plausible for a country whose adoration and fetishization of guns and violence still overrides the lives and safety of its people to this day. Larger ideas such as the implications of what roles race and class play in something like the Purge are also addressed throughout the series, proof that DeMonaco has plenty of serious stuff on his mind in addition to the carnage.
The filmmaker’s latest project, This Is The Night, marks yet another collaboration with producer Jason Blum, and once again has Frank Grillo in a leading role. However, the film is a significant departure for DeMonaco. Seemingly happy to have a momentary break from the cynicality and violence of his flagship franchise, This Is The Night is a straightforward and uplifting coming-of-age story, one that evokes the works of Steven Spielberg and films of the 80s. There’s no murder (a few punches do get thrown though) and no dystopian setting (unless you think Staten Island fits the criteria), instead it’s a surprisingly sincere and blatantly heartfelt statement about the power of movies.
The film follows a teenage boy named Tony (Lucius Hoyos) as he and his family (Frank Grillo, Naomi Watts & Jonah Hauer-King), along with the rest of Staten Island, are inspired by the cinematic masterpiece that is Rocky III on a magical summer day in 1982. People take on their biggest fears and discover more about themselves along the way. Cheesy? Absolutely, but in the best way. Characters stand up to bullies, mean boyfriends are dumped, the loser gets the girl, you know how it goes. It’s a comforting dose of nostalgia about how our fears can hold us back from our true selves and must be overcome.
We sat down with DeMonaco to discuss the journey of making This Is The Night, how the film’s pivotal scene was put together, the experience of releasing the fifth Purge movie in the ongoing pandemic, and the future of the franchise and his career.
How’s the past year and a half been for you?
James DeMonaco: Incredibly weird, man. We were about to finish this film, we had a little more work to do but the edit was done. We locked the picture and then, suddenly, we were in lockdown. So the beginning of it was very strange because I had set up all kinds of equipment in my office. I’m not tech-savvy at all. I decided to try to finish the movie here at my house. The DI lab was sending me all kinds of weird high-tech iPad-like devices to match the color with them as they were watching and I was watching it with a stranger so that was incredibly strange.
But, you know, that distracted me from the craziness that was happening in the world. I guess that was not a bad thing, to be working, not focused on how the world felt like it was kind of falling apart with all the discord and political upheaval. It’s been a hell of a year, man. I was telling my wife, it still feels far from normal. No matter how much we pretend. I think we have these moments of like, “Oh, that kind of felt normal last night.” It’s not normal.
So was lockdown a productive time for you or did it kind of swing in the opposite direction once everything was finished?
James DeMonaco: At first it was like “Oh, this is interesting, I could do this stuff from home.” Then you start realizing everything that might have taken a day in either the editing room, or the DI lab, or in the sound studio would take three days at home. Everything was times three. We’re trying to communicate but it’s just not the same. You’re second-guessing everything. It was long, especially because simultaneously, we were editing Purge 5. Everardo [Gout], the director, was in Mexico, I was here in New York, our editor was in LA, and technology was a little behind us and in keeping us all watching the same thing. At first, it was kind of cool to be home, and that quickly became annoying, but I got it.
This Is The Night is obviously a very different film than what audiences are probably accustomed to from you. How did this come about? Has it been something that’s been a long time in the making with it being such a personal film?
James DeMonaco: Oh definitely, dude. I wrote it seven years before we shot it so yeah, it’s been a very personal pride for a while. It was always my ode to my love of cinema. Cinema was always my religion as a kid growing up, I say jokingly, but I kind of mean it. It was my go-to, my escape. It was always something in my heart.
It’s weird because the first film that I made and directed, Staten Island, is more in line with this emotionally. Audiences definitely don’t expect this kind of, I guess this nostalgia or emotion coming from the guy who made The Purge, which is one of the more nihilistic concepts I think to come out of Hollywood in some time. The Purge inspires people to do very bad things in the films. I would say that This Is The Night is the complete opposite, it’s people through cinema being inspired to just be better people. With This Is The Night, I purge The Purge (laughs). I’ve moved on to something a little more hopeful about humanity.
How did you go about pitching this film and getting it made?
James DeMonaco: I realized at some point, I had to write it. I had the idea in my head but even in talking with my producing partner, Sébastien Lemercier, who produces everything I write and direct, he’s like, “You’ve got to write this one.” With Purge 1, people found the script actually very anti-American, but Jason Blum saw something that many other people passed on. I knew I had to write it. It’s my love of movies, what Rocky III did here on Staten Island. It’s all based on reality. It’s a little heightened. The anticipation of the film, the love of the Rocky character, the three and a half hours waiting, seeing it twice a day – that’s real.
I was working with Sébastien first creatively and then we went right to Jason. We did, at that point, three Purge movies and I was writing my novel, Feral. He read it and just really responded. What’s great about Jason is he started at Miramax when they were making dramas. He was head of acquisition, buying a lot of foreign dramas and whatnot. So I know people look at him as a horror guy, but his past is actually drama. More, you know, non-genre fair. So I think he saw something from back in the day. He responded to the love of movies and luckily through Jason we got the financing rather quickly.
Was it originally supposed to be another movie or was Rocky in fact the movie for you?
James DeMonaco: It was always Rocky. At some point someone had read the script and said, “Can you do it with another movie? Could it be The Karate Kid? Or The Godfather?” Well, The Godfather doesn’t inspire people to rise up, so it was funny but it always had to be Rocky. There was fear that we couldn’t get Rocky imagery because of copyrights. I remember thinking about it for five minutes. I was like, “No, I can’t. There’s an authenticity there that I feel in my soul.” There was something so truthful about my experience with Rocky growing up. So we stayed on that course.
The sequence of everyone in the theater actually watching the film and experiencing it together is one of my favorite movie scenes of the year.
James DeMonaco: Honestly, that means the world to me. It’s my favorite scene I’ve ever had anything to do within my 25-year career now. It really meant a lot to me. I always wanted to play it like an opera. The hardest part, technically, I wanted to get a techno crane in the room. I knew I wanted those sweeping movements above the crowd. It was very hard to get a techno crane in a movie theater, really hard. So it became a very difficult sequence technically, to get the equipment we use in there.
The other funny thing is we had trouble finding a theater that resembled the theaters from 1982. Because everything is stadium seating now. Back then there was no stadium seating. So that was actually difficult. We wanted to create this kind of sweeping feeling, this poetic lyricism that captured, for me, the majesty of the cinematic experience, almost a religious aspect of it for me. I’m so happy it worked for you. We didn’t have many days to shoot the film, as we never really do in a Blumhouse film. But I remember telling everybody, “I need three or four days inside that theater.” That’s like, a fourth or a fifth of our time, but if that sequence doesn’t work right, you have no film, so we’ve got to be there. Luckily, we figured it out.
Do you remember the last movie you experienced in the theater that was like that?
James DeMonaco: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I have had that experience, I remember having it at Mad Max: Fury Road, to give an example. I was just blown away. I was elated and I was adrenalized after the movie. George Miller did something to me that was like… it’s almost a feeling I’d say you always wanted to have. Some kind of weird euphoric drug. You just want to run around and talk about the movie. So that movie did it and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood really knocked me on my ass. There was something about a tribute to movies in that movie similar to what I was doing. The music and the beauty of the cinematic experience, I thought [Tarantino] captured there.
So yeah, I still get that elated feeling. Not the way Rocky did it, which was inspiring – I wanted to do push-ups and go fight all of my fears – but I still get that elation. Phantom Thread blew me away a couple years ago sitting in the theater. They just leave you with this sense of wonder and you’re watching something quite special. One that ties into Rocky, that I was very touched by because the audience was touched and I was like, “People still feel this!” was when I saw Creed II. We’re on Staten Island with about ten friends, because it still means something here, Rocky, so let’s go see Creed II on the island. People were often cheering, it was so great to see that Rocky still gets them on their feet. Now he’s transferred it to Adonis Creed and it’s wonderful. To see that was really beautiful.
Sometimes the more cynical part of me thinks that with streaming, we’ve lost that kind of experience at the movies.
James DeMonaco: That’s my biggest fear. My cynical side is like, “Is it gone?” My daughter loves movies. Luckily, I passed it on to her – I think I forced her to – but I see some of her friends and they just don’t care. I don’t blame them. I guess they’re torn in so many different directions.
I guess the current ones doing it would be the Marvel films.
James DeMonaco: Yes, Marvel’s the one thing that gets everyone still out and into the seats. I just wish that would spread to other kinds of movies.
There’s always the Fast and the Furious.
James DeMonaco: They came up with something in the new one [F9], something with magnets. I don’t know who’s thinking this stuff up but that’s funny stuff. It’s good.
Maybe at this point it’s like well, we’ve got the budget and people want another one so here we go!
James DeMonaco: I’m always arguing “Universal, just give me one day catering on The Fast and the Furious.” That’s all I want.
Can you talk about your working relationship with Frank Grillo? I know he’s in a ton of stuff but I still think that guy is so underrated.
James DeMonaco: Man, I think Frank should be a superstar. You know why I love Frank? I wrote a miniseries for Spike TV a long time ago, it’s got to be thirteen years ago, maybe more, called The Kill Point. It was with John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg, Michael K. Williams was in there, who I worked on Purge 2 with. He was the most wonderful man. We had this really good cast and Grillo was in there and he was great on it. Grillo gives us this authenticity of being a real tough guy because – I don’t think he’d be mad at me saying this – he really is a tough guy in real life.
You don’t want to mess with Frank Grillo. He’s not acting and that’s a very rare thing. I don’t think we get that. We used to get it a long time ago with Bronson and Marvin, those guys were tough. Lee Marvin fought in a war, we don’t have many actors who fought in wars. So that authentic toughness is hard to find, and Frank has it. On top of being truly authentically masculine, he’s also a really good actor and the relationship has grown. It was fun working with him on this one because it was nice to see him play vulnerable and I had to push him a little. I think he’d be the first to say he was a little reluctant to show that. But he got there. In that final scene, he really went all-in with Naomi. It was a great evolution of our relationship together to go from the kind of tough guy stuff we were doing into something a lot more emotional.
With the home video release of The Forever Purge coming out this month, I wanted to ask what it’s like to release films in the middle of a pandemic.
James DeMonaco: We didn’t know. Even Universal had no idea. It was the strangest feeling, usually I go to them and they kind of know. Although on Purge 1 no one knew that it was going to become a hit, after that they were always tracking numbers on all the sequels. They have that tracking system where about a week before the movie opens they kind of know what’s going to happen. They truly said that they don’t know what’s going to happen. Or at least they were telling me that (Laughs).
A lot of people went to A Quiet Place Part II so everybody thought cinemas are back. But that was the first one right out of the gate and it trickled down. It was weird. No one knew what to expect. We were just like, “Let’s focus on what we can do, which is just talking about the movie, explain what our intentions were, and see where it lands.” A lot less people did go see this one but I don’t know. I don’t know what Universal feels about it, to be quite honest. Like, where it’s ended up. It’s a strange time to release anything. I’ll never know what they truly feel. Then they released it on regular PVOD while it was still in the theaters, so everything’s kind of crazy. I think it’s a learning curve for everyone.
Even the HBO stuff, when I look back at the numbers, Mortal Kombat opened at $22 million. Whereas then James Gunn’s film The Suicide Squad only to $26 million. If someone told me that months ago, I would say there’s no way, those numbers don’t make sense. But that’s what happened. So it’s just odd, man. It’s really hard to guess what’s going to pop out. It’s hard to figure out who’s going to the theaters. From the people I know, here in Manhattan and Staten Island, I don’t know many people who have returned on a regular basis. That’s what I’m afraid of, is if people got used to watching stuff at home, you wonder, once this is all over – knock on wood – at some point where we all feel free to go about, not worried about getting a virus, will people just be so used to staying at home that theaters will not be their destination of choice on a weekend? That’s my fear. It’s so strange to release a movie that’s about the love of the theater experience as we’re all wondering is it even a real thing anymore? But there’s hope, I guess the Marvel films still give hope that people still love to go to theaters. So let’s hope that spreads.
Finally, where are you hoping to take your career next?
James DeMonaco: I’ve written a couple things. I’m working with Pete Davidson right now, he’s attached to star. Pete’s a fellow Staten Islander. That’s in the horror kind of world; horror thriller, psychological, paranoid thriller. I have another one that’s more in line with this emotion. I love genre stuff but I also love this kind of stuff too, more emotionally tethered stuff.
It’s a weird time. We were supposed to start shooting something in about a month and a half and that just got bumped, so it looks like the next thing will be in the genre world and maybe I can go back and forth between the two kinds of worlds. That’s the hope. The cinema gods will dictate where I go next. If I’m allowed to make another movie, if people want me to then – knock on wood – I’ll find something.