Screenwriter and director James DeMonaco began his filmmaking career with incredibly dark material. “The first film I made was called The Tragedy of Chico Gonzalez. It was a brutal comedy about the life and times of a drug dealer,” DeMonaco recalls. “I made another one called Sweet Revenge.”
He was 11 at the time.
DeMonaco’s new horror film, The Purge: Election Year, opens July 1. The third installment in one of the most successful horror franchises of the past decade, following 2013’s The Purge and 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, the movie takes place in a world where once a year all laws are suspended for a 12-hour period at night. As Universal’s synopsis writes, “All criminal activity – including murder –becomes legal. The police can’t be called. Hospitals suspend help. It’s one night when the citizenry regulates itself without thought of punishment.”
The newest chapter focuses on female presidential candidate Charlene Roan, played by Elizabeth Mitchell, who is running on a campaign to end The Purge once and for all. This causes violent backlash, to put it mildly – and a rough night for her head of security Leo Barnes, played by Frank Grillo, the lead character from the second film Anarchy.
A blonde female U.S. senator as the presidential frontrunner in a presidential election year featuring more violent outbursts than any other in recent memory? The real-life parallels are hardly a stretch. Laughs DeMonaco, “Some people see the trailer and say it looks like a documentary!” Boxoffice interviewed DeMonaco for his thoughts on politics, filmmaking, and what makes 2016 different from all other years. A lightly edited transcript follows.
You made your first short film at age 11. What was it? What do you remember about making it?
The first film I made – and everything I made around then we were shooting, obviously, on VHS – was called The Tragedy of Chico Gonzalez. It was a brutal comedy about the life and times of a drug dealer. I made another one called Sweet Revenge, about a [guy] getting attacked. We used stop motion animation. Oh, these crazy little short films we did back then. Everything I usually do is dark, that’s why people are stunned that I wrote the movie Jack 20 years ago. It’s been a strange progression from my short films to Jack and now to this world. Usually it’s very dark material. Yes, I’m back to my short film stuff, the darker material.
When you were 11, you were making a film about a drug dealer. What in-depth research did you do at age 11?
It was crazy. [Laughs.] Listen, I had a pretty middle-class upbringing. No time in jail or anything like that. But I guess I was always surrounded – you grow up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, I guess I was always a voyeur. You watch. I grew up on a street where there were notorious drug dealer mobsters two doors away. They were wonderful to me, so that was a strange relationship because they treated everyone wonderfully. But you are privy to seeing things, hearing things. I think it gets into your psyche about the world around you. People you know around you grow up to become mobsters or cops. I was a student, I was never in that world, but it’s right next to you. You’re always on the fringe of it. Seeing Irish, Italian, a world of people. It’s very blue collar, a lot of mobsters and cops. So a lot of stuff I always wrote touched upon those worlds.
How has that affected your new film The Purge: Election Year specifically?
The Purge: Election Year was born more out of – I fell in love with genre very early in filmmaking. The darkness you start to explore in your youth, because you’re around these darker characters, was quite engaging. I think it just starts to inform what you watch. I grew up watching Walter Hill and John Carpenter films, George Romero. I think that’s more of what’s informed the Purge world. But it’s so hard to say, you know? It’s so hard to say what influenced you as a filmmaker, as a writer. I was obsessed with sci-fi novels when I was young: Logan’s Run,Soylent Green, Fahrenheit 451 the book. You’re bombarded in your youth but all these different things. But at your core, I think you’re attracted to something. I think I was attracted to darker material because of the world I grew up in. Then you expand it from there into genre, you tell stories.
Was that solely a nascent influence from your youth, or do you still live near a seedy neighborhood now?
No, and that’s what’s weird. It wasn’t even seedy where I grew up. I can honestly say it was very middle class, but in a middle class neighborhood, we had mobsters. There’s no way around it. Right now I actually built a house, I’m in Manhattan part time, I’m in Staten Island. I always say I can’t get out of the old neighborhood. My wife and I built a house in my old neighborhood, down the street from where I grew up. It’s a pretty level cute neighborhood, but I can drive around and point out where the mobsters live. But it’s a nice community, I always say that!
All my early stuff was about that. You had these normal neighborhoods and these seedy characters within them. It was very charming, which was weird. The movies of Scorsese were a very early influence on me. Mean Streets was very realistic, Goodfellas was an incredibly realistic portrayal of these men. The guys in Goodfellas, they lived in nice houses, nice neighborhoods. A lot of the Goodfellas, the secondhands, lived in Staten Island not far from my house. It was this suburban, tree lined street world. There’s a seedy element, you have these guys, but the landscape is actually kind of picturesque in a way. It’s definitely an incongruous thing that’s happening.
You wrote The Purge: Election Year in 2014. Hillary Clinton was the Democratic frontrunner at that time, but current presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump was nowhere in the realm of the realistic. Did Trump’s rise affect your screenwriting or filmmaking process for this movie in any way?
That’s a great question. The truthful answer is I don’t know. I think, as writers, you’re hearing stuff, it works its way into your head, into your pen, into the typewriter. I think Trump worked his way in. I think of the landscape back then [in 2014], with Rubio and Cruz.
2014, they were saying it was going to be a Jeb Bush versus Scott Walker race.
That’s very true, you’re right. Ted coming into it later on informed my rewrites. I think when people see the movie, they’ll see the character The Minister has a definite Ted-like quality. And I think the New Founding Fathers of America [the group in the film series which creates the titular Purge, an annual tradition where all laws are abandoned for 12 hours] in the rewrites was definitely influenced later on by the Trump emergence, their entire attitude. They created The Purge, they have a Trump-like attitude. Bits and pieces of all the players that we saw over the last year, I infused them. When we were making the film, just taking and saying, ‘Well, let’s do this, this will feel like something we just read about that Trump did.’ I think it slowly just bled into the process.
The first draft, Hillary was definitely in my head. But I can’t say that the others were. Maybe Jeb Bush was? I’m not sure. I know I had an overall picture of the NFFA and their candidates, what I wanted that to represent, which was this far right kind of mentality. Listen, both sides have gone wrong, but in different ways. As a writer, influences from the real world bleed into everything you do.
Your film has a television and internet ad campaign which features zero horror components, instead parodying bright and optimistic political campaign ads. Were you involved in those commercials? Many people seem to think they’re brilliant, but do you worry anybody might go to the film not realizing it’s a horror movie?
I do! But Universal’s marketing team is one of the best. They had the greatest year ever last year, with Straight Outta Compton, Jurassic World, they did Furious 7 too. They’re an amazing team, very smart. I think they broke every box office record last year. We talked. They called me saying, ‘This is our idea.’ They were very excited about the election angle that was in the script. Then they just took it and ran. They pitched me all this stuff. I had written for Purge 1 all this online content that never got produced, it was too expensive. It had kind of similar campaign kind of things. We were always talking about going this campaign way at some point. It’s always been a back-and-forth: I don’t question them, they let me make the movie, I let them do the marketing. We do our different crafts.
If that happens here [people attending not realizing it’s a film], I think there’s enough in the movie [to satisfy everyone]. I was on the fence about making the third one. I wanted to complete the trilogy in my own way, and if Universal didn’t see that, then let bygones be bygones. But they let me tell this political story. I think there’s enough in there that even if you’re not a horror fan there’s a lot of fun stuff that would hold your attention, with the battling of the candidates and the political component. If you’re going in for some politics, for some horror, for some action, hopefully it will appeal to many different audiences.
Several election themed films this decade, especially released in presidential election years, have a history of not doing well at the box office: The Campaign in 2012,Swing Vote in 2008, Welcome to Mooseport in 2004. Are you worried that a similar fate could meet your film? Or do you think the unprecedented level of interest in this election could create the opposite effect?
That’s the big question we all wrestled with early on. Will there be any campaign burnout? I think it’s a valid concern. I had it. At one point in the movie, my original title for the film was The Purge: Assassins. Someone at Universal called me and said they’d like to change it to The Purge: Election Year. At first I was hesitant. Then I saw the ad campaign they were attaching to that, so I got excited. They also had the concern. They’re trying to figure out is it going to be too much at some point? Will people be sick of all this? Because sometimes I get sick of it, hearing some of the stuff I hear. It’s a completely valid concern. I’ve read some people see the trailer and say it looks like a documentary! [Laughs.] Which is scary. It was a little bit of a risk. Hopefully the risk is going to pay off.
Your movie is about a world where for 12 hours all laws, including bans against murder, are suspended. What would you personally do in a world where there were 12 hours with no laws?
Move to Canada! [Laughs.] I’d just get the hell out of here. Otherwise, I’d probably literally lock myself up. I’d be a scaredy-cat. That’s why I hired [The Purge: Election Year star] Frank Grillo, because Frank’s like my cool alter ego. He’s truly tough and would probably go out and fight for justice on that night, as he does in this movie. But I’d hide, man. I’d hide in the greatest steel bunker that I could find. Alone, too. That’s what I’ve learned from writing the Purge films: there’s no one to trust. You have to be alone on Purge night, because it can go wrong by even your best friend or your wife.
What do you think Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – or the runner-up candidates Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz – would do if there were 12 hours with no laws?
That’s a really good question. I’m going to put my foot in my mouth here! I think Hillary would do what the candidate in my film would do, which is lock down. She would not engage in the evening. Trump, from some of the things he said, might have an alternate agenda. I think that, with the bullying mentality that he has, he would use the night for his own purposes – as a certain character in the movie does, The Minister. So I think they would have completely opposing agendas, based on what I’ve read about them and heard them say. It seems like Donald has a different way of looking at the world, who he wants in this country and who he wants out. He might use the night to move his agenda along. Since it’s lawless, he can do whatever the hell he wants.
Bernie I think would be very similar to Hillary. Probably he would oppose the night. He might be more vocal in his opposition. Maybe he’d actually be outside fighting against certain people. Create a safe space for people who are underprivileged, which also happens in this movie. I think Bernie would actually do something a little more like that, be a little more proactive in helping people who are victims of the night. Ted? That’s a tough one. Ted’s religion might hold him back a little from engaging. I don’t know enough about Ted’s personality. I kind of avoided listening to him myself, since there was something I found very repulsive.
You were recently filming the movie in Washington, D.C. in April. What did you shoot in D.C.?
We shot Providence for Washington. It was supposed to take place in D.C. But then we came down to Washington for a week, to just make it look like we actually shot the whole movie there, do some exterior shots. We shot all the iconic D.C. landmarks, and then we did some stuff in post [production] to make it look like Purge Night. We shot the Lincoln Memorial for the shot with all the dead bodies on the Lincoln Memorial. People are going to think it’s very sacrilegious, what I’ve done, but there’s a point behind it all. We have a triage man in the movie driving around the city, so it looked like we were inhabiting that. And I think it was great for the crew just to be there, to feel the city. I wish we shot the whole movie there.
Although I will say this: Washington, D.C. doesn’t need film crews in it. They don’t want them interfering. Completely understandably, they have such security measures. Different agencies, literally one agency will preside over the sidewalk, one over the street, one over the grass. So to get a permit, it’s very hard for the location scouts. I felt very bad for them.
So we were there shooting all the landmarks, exterior stuff, driving around the city. It’s a beautiful city. I say this completely understandably, but in The Purge, obviously you have a lot of guns. Fake guns, obviously, but we had cops on our sets making sure they were fake. I completely get it, but it didn’t make for the easiest conditions to make an action film.
Can you give the example of the most ridiculous bureaucratic red tape that you had to jump through?
They [the crew] keep it from me. They try to keep the red tape from me. I have a great line producer who will try to keep me – I was aware just from people murmuring on the set of how hard it was just to get a permit. To be quite honest, I can’t remember the particulars. I did see my armorer, the guy who handles all the guns, on set with literally an army of cops checking. You don’t see this in any other city, they don’t even come to set, the cops. They were checking every fake weapon he had to make sure it was fake. Again, I think it’s actually very cool that they’re doing that to protect government officials. It was something to see. It was actually pretty interesting. Any other place, you can take out fake guns. No one’s there, no one cares. Which is a little scary and concerning, when I say that out loud. Washington, they cared. Checking the chamber of gun, looking in the barrel of every gun, making sure it was actually fake. These guns actually do look very real.
It was a pretty interesting thing. I’d say that was the weirdest thing I saw. They’d [the crew] usually protect me. You’re just dealing with different agencies. In any other city, you have to get the NYPD permit for using the street, the sidewalk, the building. Here you were dealing with like five different agencies. That’s all I kept hearing about, that kind of red tape.
You know what? This is what made me think they don’t need filming. Other countries and states want filming. God forbid, if we were over five minutes – literally – on a location, which actually happens on a movie, they would say, ‘Listen, we’re going to take away your permit if you guys take five minutes here.’ So the rushing we had to do to get the shots done! Literally, ‘One minute over, we’re taking the permits. You guys will have to leave.’ Just rushing like crazy to get it done. They just would not put up with the typical Hollywood movie antics. So we were rushing crazily.
But I loved being there, that’s what I will say. I thought it was one of the most gorgeous cities. I hadn’t been there since I was a 10-year-old boy. It was a gorgeous city to see all the history, the architecture. It’s a great place to live.
Do you have a favorite movie theater? What is your fondest movie-going memory?
I was a movie-obsessed kid. There was a multiplex that opened on Staten Island, it was the first multiplex I had ever seen in my life. It was very shocking to see a theater that had 12 screens – small compared to what they have now, which is like 18 or 20. As a promotion for the theater, they had a day of free movie watching. On every screen was either Platoon or Aliens. They did it for two days. I think I spent almost 48 hours in there. I slept only four hours, literally running between Platoon and Alien for 48 hours straight. Just in awe that this was occurring in my life that I could watch these films on the big screen over and over again. It was a great two days.
Before that, it was probably seeing Jaws in Brooklyn at the Rialto. I saw it six days in a row with my mom, I forced her to take me six days in a row. Dude, I didn’t go in the fucking pool. [Laughs.] Jaws freaked me out so much, but I loved it, I loved everything about it. I must have been six or seven at the time. I would literally came home, we had a pool in Staten Island when we moved from Brooklyn, I would sit at my kitchen window which was on the second floor of our home and I would stare at the pool searching for sharks. That’s how freaked out I was by Jaws.
My dad took me to see Dog Day Afternoon at the theater when I was seven. He took me to Raging Bull when I was 10. I went to Apocalypse Now, that was the life-changing experience of my life. I had never seen the emotions at the age of nine that I felt during Apocalypse Now. I felt like I was watching someone’s dream. That was the film that made me want to become a filmmaker.
Apocalypse Now might be a better title for your movie.
It would be! That would be the perfect Purge title, because The Purge is such a grotesque holiday that calling it The Apocalypse, if humanity ever accepted such a holiday, it would be the end of us. But I hope the third one [The Purge: Election Year] is infused with a little more hope and morality. You don’t get that from the trailer at all. I think this one has a soul and a humanity at stake here. There was a tiny bit of that in Part 2 [The Purge: Anarchy], but this one has a greater good that people are fighting for. I think there’s a soul to it and a morality that I’m hoping is on a bigger plane and speaks to a bigger theme.
What is your go-to snack at the concession stand?
Butterfingers, I go right to Butterfingers anywhere I go. Otherwise it’s Sno Caps in the popcorn, that would be second. Try this. Get a box of Sno Cops and get some buttered porcorn, hot, dump the Sno Caps in and they kind of melt into the popcorn. My sister came up with it when we were kids, we’d go to the movies all the time and I got it from her. They taste really nice.