James DeMonaco is back in the director’s chair this week with the release of The Purge: Anarchy - which comes just a year after the success of The Purge.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film, returning to the franchise so quickly, and if a third film could be on the horizon.
- The Purge: Anarchy is set to hit the big screen next week, so what can fans expect this time around?
Bigger, better (laughs), I think we deliver on the promise of what the first film set out to do: which is what is happening in America on this lawless night. We had a proper budget this time around, and so we were able to properly show what is happening on the streets of this crazy nation that we live in.
- The movie sees you return to the director's chair and it is released just 12 months after the success of The Purge, so what made you want to return to this so quickly.
I think it was… you see things on line and you hear people speaking and I knew that there was some disappointment surrounding the first film: some people liked the first film. There was some disappointment in the DNA and the concept of the first film.
The concept of the first film is that it is a nationwide conceit and this night of lawlessness, but my focus was on this one house in a rich neighbourhood. I think that there was some disappointment amongst the fans as they were expecting something that is bigger.
I said that if we ever got the chance to go back, I would like to… as a fan of this concept myself, I always thought that there was another story here to tell, and that was focusing on the poor and what was happening on the streets of America. I always felt that The Purge was a movie that could use a sequel to fill in some gaps that the first film was not able to do.
- You had less than a year to get this film off the ground, so how challenging was that?
It was impossible (laughs). I think we finished a year after I got the phone call from Universal saying ‘start work on it’. It was insane it was crazy. The only way we were able to do it was because I already had the template of the movie: I knew that I wanted it to be outside and I knew that I wanted it to be about the warriors where this band of people was traversing a city to find safety.
I also had the mother/daughter storyline and the Frank Grille lone wolf storyline. Therefore, I had a lot of that in my head already. I think if I hadn’t of had anything and I was starting from scratch, I don’t think we could have done it.
I had so much to go with when I actually got that phone call, it wasn’t like I was starting from a blank piece of paper; I had a lot of play with. Because of that, I think we were able to pull it off, and I hope that the audience doesn’t think it feels rushed.
- You have penned the screenplay for the film - clearly, you had quite a lot of it mapped out in your mind before you started working on it. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process: do you start with a premise and then develop the characters? Or is it the other way around?
I think each project is different. With this one, I think I started with the characters. It is very hard to say. I knew that the premise was people surviving when being stuck outside on the purge: I really just had this basic premise and nothing more than that.
Then it was about character and whom I wanted to focus on. It was then about creating this mother/daughter where the relationship is flipped: the mother is acting more like a daughter and the daughter has more adult qualities and is more mature than the mother. Then I had this lone wolf character - this guy who was out to avenge his son’s death.
It is hard to say which comes first as one really does feed into the other. On this one, I was more interested in who the five people who were going to populate this journey were going to be. It is a straightforward story: it is an odyssey across the city.
Then it was about filling out these characters.
Through editing, you do lose a lot: especially the married couple, a lot of that was lost in the editing for pacing reasons. The process is schizophrenic because you are simultaneously working on concept and plot - you are figuring out what is driving them forward and what they are running into - at the same time, you are working out how you are going to fill in these characters and make them real and empathetic.
Unlike the first film, there was a goal in the beginning… the first film was written as a morality tale. I thought the first film was going to be an independent film, I did not think that it would be a studio-released movie.
Personally, I find the all the people in the first film very despicable, I don’t find them to be the very likable: it was a morality play where this rich family was getting their comeuppance and learning a moral tale on this nigh. Ethan’s character is making money off the purge and he finally realises that he has been living in this immoral way. They are not the most likable people.
I think I did set out on this journey wanting to have people that we actually care for and have more empathy towards out characters than we did in the first film.
- Can you talk a bit about the casting process and what you were looking for in your actors - particularly Frank Grillo in the central role?
It is interesting that you ask that because that was the biggest concern that I had. I didn’t want… I don’t want any actors to feel bad… it is really hard to find truly tough actors. It is odd because in American cinema right now, but all of our heroes are either British or Australian: there is something going on in American cinema where we are not growing tough young actors. There are the likes of Christian Bale, the Hemsworth brothers, Tom Hardy: we keep going elsewhere to find our tough guys.
I was heading out saying I just wanted to cast someone who was truly tough; I didn’t care if they were British, American or Australian. I just wanted someone who was tough and can act - which really is a tough combination.
I knew Frank, as we had done a mini-series together about six years ago. Frank is a real tough guy as he is a training fighter, as well as being a great actor. I saw him in movies such as The Grey and Warrior recently, and I knew that I wanted him. I thought that I would get resistance from the studio, but the head of studio loved Frank. We got very lucky because Frank read the script and wanted to do it. Therefore, it was a very lucky casting process.
- How did you find working with Frank for a second time? And how collaborative was it between the pair of you as you built this reluctant hero character?
We are both very collaborative people. We come from the same world in New York: we have New York/Italian families, and so there was a bond there that we had quite quickly. We both approach material in a similar way, where we are not bound to anything on the page.
We look at the script as a blueprint, and then we have to bring it to life. I have heard of writer/directors who are so bound to the written word, but I am not: I am like ‘let’s make it real. The script is the architecture and the direction that the scene needs to go in. We need to get from A to B to C, but how we get there can change.’
Frank felt the thing, where we could open it up and explore. It was very collaborative with the whole cast and we were all in sync and really wanted to make this thing work.
- This film is shot on the streets in the middle of the night, so did you shoot on location or did you build the set?
No, no we were out on the streets. I was all nights in downtown L.A. In some of those allies we were being chased by rats - it was nasty (laughs). It was nasty but I think that it made everything feel like it was real and gave everyone that sense of danger.
It puts something on the film that otherwise wouldn’t be there and you could manufacture on a studio. Yes, it was very difficult: 4am in an alley that didn’t smell too good and was full of rats, it definitely created some tension. However, I think it helps.
- Frank Grillo has said in a recent interview, that The Purge: Anarchy is not a sequel but a bigger and better version of the first - how much would you agree with that?
I agree. It is a sequel in only the philosophy of it or the political nature of it. There is one only character who comes back - for a very brief moment - from the first film. We are not bound to any character or plot arcs from the first film.
We were setting out to do a film that could stand-alone: I think that was something that was appealing to Frank, who didn’t want to go off and do a sequel to a small horror film. Even if you haven’t seen The Purge, I think this movie works by itself: it’s rare where you can watch a sequel without seeing the first film.
In the philosophy or the political philosophy of the film, I think that we continue playing with the idea of America’s relationship with guns and also the class war that is occurring in America. Therefore, I do think that the DNA of the piece does continue on from the first film, but character wise and plot wise, it is a standalone film.
- How are you finding the response to the film this time around? You felt that there was perhaps a little disappointment from the fans first time around?
They test films during the editing process with audiences over and over again. We tested this film about four times and - not to give too much away - but our test scores were very high compared to the first film.
We felt like - and I hope that this continues through to audiences that see it in theatres - the audience is satisfied with the film, and that the expectations have been met. They seemed very happy, they were applauding, and they were also seeing the political under themes that we were trying to play with. So far, I think that the reactions have been pretty good. Critically, I don’t know, I think that they will be pretty mixed.
- Is there a Purge 3 film potentially on the horizon? What about reuniting with Frank?
I have some thoughts. If we are lucky enough after this opening weekend to really start talking about a third film, I have many thoughts about what that could be. I would love to reunite with Frank; I would love to see if we could bring that character back, or even the Carmelo character played by Michael K. Williams.
I think that there are a couple of threads that I put into the film, which means that we would be able to continue the journey of these people on this night. The audience will tell us if they want it or not on Monday morning.
- The Purge: Anarchy is only your third feature film as a director, who how have you found the transition into the director's chair from writing?
I always wrote to direct; the goal was always to direct. Directing it so much more all encompassing, I will say that. There is a frustration with just being a screenwriter. Gary Gray might have done a hundred times better job than I would have done on The Negotiator, but in the mere simple fact that he is interpreting what I wrote in a way that I wouldn’t is frustrating. His interpretation could be better, so it is not a judgement; it’s just that there is this inherent frustration of being a screenwriter.
I know some writers who don’t want to direct, but for those who do, you can’t help but be very frustrated: that is good, because it fuels you to get behind the camera yourself. When you get behind the camera - and this is a great lesson to every screenwriter - it is more difficult than you think.
As a director, you are battling time in a way that as a writer you are not: you do have more time as a writer. It is more of a social job because you are dealing with personalities, where as a writer you really don’t have to. It is an interesting transition, and I think it is a completely different set of skills that you have to start pulling from and using. Writer is a more solitary job, where as being a director is more social.
It was a transition that I thought I was ready for - there were elements of my first film that I was happy with and some that I was not so happy with. You grow each time and I think that you do learn lessons from each film that you do. It is a tough transition though.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the second half of this year?
I am going to try and recover from the previous year (laughs). I think I am going to hang out with my daughter and my wife and just recover. I have a script that I wanted to do last year before The Purge opened, and I want to return to that. There are also a couple of other things that I do want to write.
On Monday, if all goes well and I receive the call for The Purge 3, I will give that some serious thought. I am not committed to it, I have to make sure that I can do something with it and do something well before I commit to it. I am back in New York and I will just start letting the creative juices flow again and get back into the reality of life. Making a film in a year was tough.
The Purge: Anarchy is released 25th July