‘The Purge’ Turns 10: How Creator James DeMonaco Turned a $2 Million Anti-Gun Movie Into a $450 Million Franchise
Over five low-budget box office hits and a two-season TV series, “The Purge” saga — which portrays a not-too-distant-future America where all crimes, including murder, are legal for one night a year in order to satiate a bloodthirsty public — swelled into a $450 million franchise. But the first chapter was almost never made.
While the film became the defining hit of writer and director James DeMonaco’s career, he says the script was passed over “40-50 times” for being seen as “too anti-American.”
“I had this little, strange, dark indictment of American gun culture,” he said. “I hate guns. To me, the scariest thing in the world would be a night where everyone was armed and it was legal to use these firearms. To me, there was nothing scarier than that notion.”
Ultimately, the film got the attention of super-producer Jason Blum, who “saw something bigger in the conceit,” said DeMonaco. Soon, the script impressed Universal’s Donna Langley, and Blum and DeMonaco’s previous collaborator Ethan Hawke signed onto the fresh project. “The Purge” hit theaters on June 7, 2013, and DeMonaco saw his once-unfilmable project clobbering box office competition like the third weekend of “Fast & Furious 6” and the opening run of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s “The Internship.” In its opening weekend, “The Purge” earned $34 million on a budget of $2 million.
“Opening weekend, I think we just thought it would be this tiny little thing,” DeMonaco said. “It was complete shock, it’s still a shock to this day.”
DeMonaco went on to write all five of the films in the franchise, create the TV show, and direct the first three films. Although the first chapter largely contained Ethan Hawke and his family to their house during a Purge, DeMonaco used inspiration from films like “Escape From New York” and “The Warriors” in order to open up the world further in subsequent chapters.
“I wanted to be out and about,” he said. “I knew in that we needed to get out of the house. We needed to open it up, so if we got a chance to make a sequel, I always wanted people to cross the city. It could be kind of like The Warriors going back to Coney Island, which was such an influence on me as a kid.”
When reflecting on why the premise keeps bringing audiences back for more, DeMonaco’s answers are part animal instinct and part political, evoking Martin Scorsese’s notion of “the director as a smuggler,” filling genre filmmaking with deeper political thought.
“I think people question what they would do in that situation,” he said. “But I was hoping to put a mirror up to our own society and our relationship with violence and guns. Also the political climate I saw rising over a decade ago, when I wrote the piece, has gotten even more pronounced in the eight years since Trump. This discord that’s rising in the body politic… that’s gotten worse and worse, and we just kept reflecting that.”
Up next for DeMonaco is another slice of horror with “The Home,” in which Pete Davidson discovers dark secrets in the retirement home he works at. Davidson and DeMonaco had known each other as proud Long Island natives, and the DeMonaco thought the “Saturday Night Live” alum would be great playing against type in the thriller.
“He’s not funny in it, to be quite honest,” DeMonaco says. “This is a very, very dramatic, straightforward role. He’s the straight man while chaos is happening all around him and he’s reacting to it. But he just came in knowing what he had to do and he stepped up completely.”
As for the “Purge” series? DeMonaco said that he finished the script for “Purge 6” about eight months ago and it will further elevate the world, as well as bring back Frank Grillo’s Leo, who starred in the second and third chapters.
“It’s not completely different than previous movies, but it’s a new America that we’re entering into,” he said. “In ‘The Forever Purge,’ America kind of collapsed, and it’s really kind of mapped itself according to different ideologies. The states are based on sexuality, religion and ideology. So we’ve broken apart and the state of discord is at its worst. We enter The Purge in that world.”
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