Over five years, writer-director James DeMonaco blew out the scale of the home invasion thriller from the confines of one setting to capture its fictionalized American landscape writ large: A loony tune dystopian hellscape where everyday folk, from friends and neighbors to complete strangers, dress up and massacre one another as a form of extreme stress relief for a 12 hour period, as mandated by the United States government.
In 2013’s The Purge, Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey protected their family from sadistic 20-something elites. The sequels, The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election Year took to the streets, Frank Grillo doling out violent justice at the business end of a machine gun. This year’s prequel film, The First Purge, revved the engines just before the franchise’s first TV venture: USA’s The Purge, which wraps up its first season on November 6th.
After spending the season watching The Purge’s seemingly unrelated characters rounded up into the same space, we finally get to see why.
[Ed. note: spoilers for the finale of The Purge.]
Each of them, from wealthy married couple Jenna (Hannah Anderson) and Rick (Colin Woodell), to ex-Purge cult member Penelope (Jessica Garza), to high powered financier Jane (Amanda Warren), has in some way offended Joe (Lee Tergesen), an enigmatic man in an iron mask, self-tasked with rescuing people from Purging simply so he can Purge them himself.
With another Purge movie the way for summer of 2019, a second season of the TV show officially greenlit (just hours before the season finale) and an American political future eerily primed for the franchise’s commentary, Polygon spoke to DeMonaco about how the saga began and where the it may yet go.
Polygon: Did you imagine the franchise coming this far when you first set out to make The Purge?
James DeMonaco: It’s just crazy what it’s grown into. I mean, sometimes I sit back with Jason [Blum] and I and Sébastien [K. Lemercier], the producers, and go, “Wow, we never imagined this.” Especially Sébastien and I, because we thought were making a small Michael Haneke film when I was first writing the script. We thought it was going to be this thing we could shoot cheaply, and it was a little art-horror film. We didn’t think it would have had any real value beyond, maybe it will play the Angelica in New York and we’d make this little kind of art-house horror film.
The Purge movies started out in an intimate place and they grew in scope as the franchise progressed. The TV series goes in the opposite direction. Were you planning that as a twist on the direction of the franchise?
DeMonaco: Even when we were writing it, it was, in a weird way. You’re always trying to think of fan expectations. What happened on the first one, when Universal decided, “Hey, this is something we would like to release on 3000 screens,” even when they came on board, I was kind of shocked. Sébastien and I always had the knowledge that the concept was a big concept, and we knew that there were going to be some fans, and we learned this at the early test screenings, that I think, if I was going to see the first Purge movie not knowing much more than the concept and maybe seeing the trailer, I would think I would see much more than one person’s house. So there was a part of the audience we quickly realized was angry that we were so contained.
So we always knew, even when shooting The Purge, that if we were lucky enough to ever get to Purge 2, which was such a far out thought back then, we were like, “Oh we have to go out,” and I was always like,”I want to do The Warriors. I just want to have people crossing the city,” because The Warriors was one of my favorite movies growing up.
So when we did the TV show, to jump ahead, I was always like,”Let’s do the opposite. Let’s start big. Let’s start out and about, show the streets, and let’s end up like we did in Purge 1.” That was very planned: Let’s start big and let’s end small. And originally it was actually a house! Joe’s house was written in the first scripts. We ended inside Joe’s house, not inside Joe’s old school, so we actually were going to go right back to going into someone’s house, but then just size wise we wanted the school for the final set piece. So yeah, we started big and funneled down this time.
What did you want to say by making Joe into the show’s Big Bad?
DeMonaco: I always say the difference between movies and TV show is, a Purge movie, which is a July 4th release, a summer release, it’s almost like a punch in the face, like an adrenaline shot to the arm for the audience. Whereas with TV, what I found interesting is that we can kind of slow the roll and get a little more intimate in character. The movies aren’t character studies in any way but then we had the big bad villain. The government turned into the perpetrator as the creators of the Purge and ultimately the grand conspiracy behind the Purge, which is the elimination of the poor.
Now it was like, “We’ve done that in the movies, now let’s really show people who have bought into the rules that the government has set, that this makes you a better person.” That was the idea, to create a relatable character who bought into the ruse, someone who’s lost his job. He’s kind of seeing the country pass him by.
Joe was definitely got us away from the government, but he was a victim of the government’s manipulation. So it was an extension of their harm, what they’ve done to America, which is infected with this virus and telling people, “the Purge is going to help you.” So the government is always still the umbrella of evil. And then you have the individuals who have bought into what they’re selling.
It breaks my heart because I rooted for him until he turned into the bad guy. But ultimately it is the government that’s really the responsible party here. Were you ever concerned that that might get lost in the shuffle for the audience?
DeMonaco: This is the stuff we wrestle with in the writer’s room: Will people always see that the real evil here is the government of manipulation of the entire American citizenry? What they’re putting out there as this incredibly huge ruse that we’ve bought into, that some characters have bought into, so we definitely would speak about whether we’re losing that. The series gets away from what we do in the movies. We get away from the big NFFA manipulation. We did a little bit with the Stantons, you know, the threesome storyline . . . we were focusing on the people who fed the government’s funding. But to be quite honest, I think we did lose it a little bit if I have to analyze it, if I had to critique my own work. I wish we could have tied it in more that Joe is a victim of something.
I think that might be lost a little. I hope people pick up on it. I think we could have actually done a little better job to say that he’s a victim of something bigger than himself. He’s a victim, and he is quite likable. That was always the thing, let’s figure out how to make him complex enough to understand where he’s coming from. Especially on the first day. You think he is the savior and then everything turns in [episodes] nine and 10.
Are you guys trying to look forward instead of just looking at headlines when you come up with the storylines?
DeMonaco: Sébastien says, “You always predict the future with The Purge.” I don’t think I’m Nostradamus, but I think that The Purge allows itself, oddly, to be this grand metaphor for what’s happening right now. I don’t know why it’s always happened. It’s really strange. Even the groping party in episode six or seven, you know? When I first pitched that, which was two years ago at this point, they all wanted me to cut it, and it was pre-Harvey. I pitched it pre-#MeToo, pre-Harvey, pre-the movement, that amazing thing that’s happened to our country. It was all before that, and they really wanted me to cut it. They’re like, “You can’t have a groping party, you can’t have this thing where these men are tying women up and then groping them and not killing them.”
But I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s the other side of The Purge.” It’s not just killing. I wanted to show something like sex crimes. Long story short, Harvey happens, and I get calls from the head of USA and they were like, “That’s the best storyline. Make sure that becomes, you know, the middle episodes,” and, “You predicted the future, you predicted this grotesque male behavior.”
So in a weird way I think it’s just the umbrella of the idea that allows us to kind of look at the country. In Purge 5, we actually ... without giving much away, people are going to think I’m just ripping off the headlines right now. I came up with Purge 5 a couple of months ago and it is exactly what’s happening down in the border right now. So it’s like holy shit. I shouldn’t say that much; we might have to change it, because right now it’s really reflecting what’s going on even more than the show or anything. So that’s even stranger.
The finale moves over to France with Jenna, where she’s watching TV, and there’s a sudden remark about the French president may be entertaining the idea of a Purge over in France. Do you mean to expand on the murder tourism idea from Election Year?
DeMonaco: When our culture ,or any culture, or the worst parts of our culture, are spread throughout the world, we’re trying to make a comment upon that — whenever the bad part of any country has spread to another country through social media or something like that. But it’s so easily spread now in the modern world because of the interconnectivity of everything. It was definitely an extension, because murder tourism was one of the cool concepts we came up with years ago. Between you and I, at Purge 4 at some point, we had come up with an idea to do The French Purge. We were going to just do one overseas.
Then we were like, “But it’s such an American thing. We’re making such a grand comment on America!” And then I came up with the prequel idea at that point, simultaneously, so The French Purge was kind of pushed aside. But I was bringing it back, that at some point, if The Purge, this outlandish concept, was real, I do believe there’d be other countries that would sadly partake if the results were what the government was saying they were, or were the statistics fake about the results of The Purge. This is what we can’t really know in the NFFA world. But anyway, that was the idea, if our culture spread or our political culture spread to other cities, the real tragedy of all that.
So do you ever see the Purge franchise going global in a movie or the second season?
DeMonaco: The second season I pitched still keeps us here in America. Now that doesn’t mean there can’t be a thread that’s overseas. You know, Jason, Sébastien, and myself, we always said that five Purge movies would always be the end, if we were lucky enough to even get near that number. I always thought it would be three, and then Jason convinced me we should do five, and then obviously financially four did better than three, so they were like, “No, we’re doing five!” [laughs] So it’s always financial obviously, too, but we’re so lucky even having these conversations, but Jason truly believes that the fifth one should be the end, and the fifth one right now, as it stands, the current pitch that everybody seems to be liking, keeps us in country, for the most part. There’s one or two scenes outside of the country, but for the most part we’re here.
I will say this, there’s someone, I can’t say the name, someone very powerful at Universal who really yearns to do an overseas Purge. They really loved the idea of the French Purge or a European Purge. So I would say, even though we’re saying there’s only five, I can imagine there is a chance, you never know, that financially if five is successful, someone might call for a six. You never know. So I would never say no.
And the truth is with the TV show, anything is possible, if there is a second or third season.
Would season two stick with the same cast of characters or pick up with a whole new cast? By the end, Pete the Cop, and Miguel, and Penelope feel so familiar that it’d almost be a shame to lose them.
DeMonaco: You actually sound like you’re in the writer’s room with us. We feel the same exact way. We love all the characters, but . . . you know, we’ll have a lot of new characters. I think the beauty of is that with each new Purge, we could have new faces that emerge. So unlike a lot of shows, which have to have people coming back, we’re not bound to that, but we truly did love those three. So yeah, there is talk about bringing, I’ll say some people back.
Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.