By Erik Myers:
Universal and Blumhouse’s horror flick The Purge hits theaters on June 7. The film is an interesting twist on the home invasion trope. It takes place in a future America where one night a year, all crime is legal, and one well-to-do family led by Ethan Hawke become the unwitting targets of a merry band of masked murderers.
Such a concept can’t be rolled out without plenty of thought, but writer and director James DeMonaco is not in short supply of either. A self-described fanatic of crime lore and horror movies, this is the first major studio film DeMonaco has directed, but his long list of screenwriting credits includes the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 and Skinwalkers. The morning after the film’s premiere at the Stanley Film Festival, he sat down with Bloody Disgusting to discuss the film, America’s peculiar relationship with violence and the frightening performance of lead antagonist Rhys Wakefield.
‘The Purge’ is based on a rather original concept. What inspired it?
It’s so hard to say the one thing. When I was on my last movie, I was living in France for six months. I started noticing that the news was so very different than watching the news in America, it was just strange. And I lived in Canada right before that and it was completely different as well. Their news was just about us because they had nothing to report. Not much crime there. I was seeing this pattern – outside of our country, they just don’t have the relationship with violence that we have.
Sometimes when you write, the writing becomes a mirror of what we’re seeing. So when we watch the news here, I joke to my wife ‘It’s like The Purge every night.’ I don’t know what the fuck is going on out there, but it’s like the goddamn Purge! (laughs)
In the film and the viral website of the mysterious New Founders Of America, I was amused by the ways in which this gruesome evening manifests itself in American media and culture. On the onset, at least, it’s not so much a necessary evil as it is a commemoration. There’s oblique references to, like, awareness ribbons and Super Bowl parties.
Totally. To me, that was the biggest thing. That’s the fun stuff. Any holiday we create, there’s a ceremony to it, we like to create ceremonies around our events to really sell it. There’s an aspect to always monetizing a holiday. That’s my favorite part of the movie, all the little things people would do on this night. We had a lot more of that that we cut. Hopefully we get the chance to do more. To do more on this subject would be great to explore that.
The film mostly centers on a single house, but there’s a plenty of hints as to what’s taking place across the nation and how such a night could even be plausibly implemented. Did you and the development team find yourselves compelled to fill in the background?
It took three years to put the script together because early drafts were so long. I was putting so much in there. There’s so much stuff that I could talk about America and how we got here. For budgetary reasons, we couldn’t show much, but I wanted to allude to it. I had other forms of Purging in early scripts – the rich would buy people who were dying, people selling themselves to get money because they’re on death row, where the government officials went on this evening, all this kind of crazy stuff. The hardest thing was answering: How much do we explain about how we got here as a country? We suddenly realized people could fill in the blanks. I hope so, anyway.
The past 12 years alone could provide the perfect set-up – a succession of terrorism, war, recession and random acts of horrific violence. There’s currently somewhat of a shared sense that America is in decline, and few would disagree that this country isn’t open to quick solutions.
That’s what I realized – there’s something already in the air in our country. Maybe this absurd, but is it really that absurd? I layered in these New Founding Fathers, this regime that we voted into power at some point, some kind of NRA-thing that took over the country. But I kind of left that to the audience. I think sometimes in my writing I try to spoon feed too much, it’s better to let the audience make their own decisions on things.
It’s clear that the film’s family is rich. The masked assailants look pretty well off too. I felt there was a more ambiguous nature to the stranger who is being hunted, though he’s certainly looking a little rough when he first appears. Did you intend to explore issues of class in The Purge?
I was. We tried to keep everything at a level where you could take what you want from it. He might not be a good guy coming into this house. We don’t know him. By letting him in, is this boy doing something very wrong? But I did want to say something on class. I think that was always the intent, to play at this apathy of the rich. It’s a morality tale.
At one point, I really spoon fed it. We shot a sequence where he was coming out of a subway getting chased, we showed that his origins were more stereotypically homeless, underground. But again, we were like ‘Do we need that?’
At the beginning, Ethan Hawke’s character is kind of a despicable guy if you analyze his take on society. He sells security systems to the rich, he knows poor people get killed, but (his family doesn’t) because they can afford their own protection. To me, the most telling line of his character is “It doesn’t happen in our neighborhood.” I was hoping a lot of it would act upon class, but if it doesn’t, what I was hoping was that it would work as a thriller too.
You wrote the remake of the classic home invasion flick Assault on Precinct 13, but did any other films or filmmakers influence you here?
So many of my movies take place in one arena, so I always say Dog Day Afternoon. I saw Dog Day when I was very young and it left a deep impression. And Straw Dogs, I’m a Peckinpah fanatic. I love when people are in a pressure cooker where they’re going to explode. But the speculative part of it comes from John Carpenter. I love his films. I like what John was doing earlier in his career. With Escape from New York, he was trying to say something about society in these grand, crazy concepts.
This is your second film with Ethan Hawke. What about him as an actor appeals to you?
Ethan’s an intellectual in real life, very smart guy. But I think what’s great about him is that he can erase it on screen. In my first film, Staten Island, he plays a real dopey guy. I was really impressed. He erased all of those smarts. In this one, it was kind of odd. It was like, can he play a despicable jackass? In earlier cuts, he was much more openly this rich dude who didn’t really care about the poor and he said even more. It was gilding the lily though, it was too much. But it was interesting to see him play the golden boy in this, with his hair slicked back. He’s a great collaborator too, especially on set.
Rhys Wakefield was amazing as well as Polite Stranger, the film’s primary antagonist. How did he come into the role?
We couldn’t find anybody for the role. These thing get green lit and we only had our two leads, Ethan and Lena. It’s almost harder to find the villain. We couldn’t find him and we were getting closer to shooting. Everybody was going too big, trying to blow it out of the water. It was just not what I had in mind. But he came in and he read it just like he did in the movie, this weird smile in between words. It was even against what I wrote. He took away the theatrics, read it straight, but he just kept smiling like he had some kind of inside joke with his buddies, like that this was all a game… Halloween gone mad, where we put on a little mask and kill people. Very low-key, played it politely. He’s also Australian – he covered his accent beautifully. He was like the great relief for the film – scaring everyone on set. Even Ethan was terrified of him. (laughs)