The Purge Creator James DeMonaco Reflects on the Latest Sequel and the Franchise's Cultural Impact

Filmmaker James DeMonaco unleashed The Purge in theaters back in 2013, which was his unassuming attempt at offering genre fans what he had originally envisioned as a contained "art film." That experience, depicting a future in which America allowed violent crimes to be legal annually for a 12-hour period, would go on to leave not only an impact on the genre world, but also make a mark on culture at large. Almost a decade later, that debut film would inspire four follow-ups, a TV series, and be linked to the entire concept of civil unrest and lawlessness. The latest installment, The Forever Purge, is available on Digital HD now and will be on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD on September 28th.

In The Forever Purge, Adela (Ana de la Reguera, Cowboys & Aliens) and her husband Juan (Tenoch Huerta, Days of Grace) live in Texas, where Juan is working as a ranch hand for the wealthy Tucker family. Juan impresses the Tucker patriarch, Caleb (Will Patton, Halloween), but that fuels the jealous anger of Caleb's son, Dylan (Josh Lucas, Ford v Ferrari). On the morning after The Purge, a masked gang of killers attacks the Tucker family — including Dylan's wife (Cassidy Freeman, HBO's The Righteous Gemstones), and his sister (Leven Rambin, The Hunger Games), forcing both families to band together and fight back as the country spirals into chaos and the United States begins to disintegrate around them. caught up with DeMonaco to talk the impact of the franchise on audiences, its possible future, and his new film This Is the Night.

(Photo: Universal Pictures) This is a real nerdy, nitpicky thing that I've wondered about The Purge for going on eight years now. I know that John Carpenter, when he talks about the Halloween theme, he always says, "I knew five-four time and messed around with it and made the theme." This becomes this iconic piece of music. The Purge, when it comes to the sound of the warning alarm for "The Purge," was that something that you precisely tried to hone in on or was it, "Oh, that was a public-domain siren sound that we just tossed in there,"?

James DeMonaco: Honestly, great question, man. I'll tell you how it happened, it's the weirdest thing. So in [the first] The Purge ... I'm not going to remember the timeline here, but it's something like this: Purge 1, in the movie, we used the real sound that they would use in an emergency. What do you call that? Emergency broadcast sound. We didn't even have a siren. We just had [that sound]. That thing that comes on TV. 

We had that playing over the speakers, just like this weird, crackly sound. And then legal came back saying, "You can't play that. You're not allowed to play that in the movie, legally." I remember opening up either one or two ... Because we had locked sound at that point saying, "Okay, what are we going to do?" I sat there with my sound guy, I think it was on [The Purge: Anarchy] and Julian Slater and Todd Miller, my editor, who are amazing at what they do, and, dude, we just started playing with sounds of sirens. We're like, "Okay, we can't use the real one," which I thought was what I wanted to do to mirror what would happen in a real society. So we came and we just sat there, literally, for a couple of hours, I'm not going to lie, it wasn't like this inspirational thing. It was just three guys sitting in the sound studio, playing with sounds, and that's what we landed on. Something that hit us all like, "Oh wait, that's the one."

So, that was it, man. It was because we legally couldn't use whatever the real noise was.

I remember going to Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights however many years ago when they had a The Purge attraction, and when you hear that sound, when you hear that siren, you know that it's not the typical siren you might hear somewhere else. You know precisely this is The Purge and it immediately sends chills down your spine.

Oh, dude, it's the weirdest thing now because I heard it ... I'm a big baseball fan. I was watching, I think the baseball playoffs, was it last year? And one of the teams started using it every time there was a strikeout by that pitcher. And it was the weirdest thing. I'm like, "This is haunting." Then I get calls from [people] here in New York saying it's used at the beginning of, I think, it's the [West Indian Day Parade] here in New York. They use it at the beginning of the parade and all the cops get very nervous. Like, "Oh, sh-t." It's a haunting sound, right? But people use it. 

Then at the beginning of the COVID lockdowns, I was getting a million videos sent to me of people, the viral videos where people were standing on their balconies in Manhattan and Brooklyn holding up and playing, they were playing it themselves, the sound as the lockdown started. So it's become a thing. This haunting ... But it was found just out of the legality of we just couldn't use [the real alarm], which is very funny how it was born.

Looking at the franchise as a whole, "The Purge," just that phrase is a shorthand for any sort of societal chaos. 

Of people, right, exactly.

And people don't even have to have seen these movies. They know what "The Purge" means. What kind of impact does that have on you as a filmmaker of knowing you tapped into something, gave something a name that might as well be in the dictionary now?

Right? Someone said that, it might be put in the dictionary one day as some kind of societal evil.

It's weird, man. I'd say, it's truly, to this day. I'm still shocked at ... I mean this wholeheartedly, the first movie was, Sébastien K. Lemercier, my producing partner and I, when I had written and directed another movie called "Staten Island" with Sébastian, we did the festival circuit with Ethan Hawke and it wasn't the greatest, but we're very proud of the movie, and it wasn't a lead to some windfall of success. So we knew, "Let's make another low-budget film." I had this idea and we thought it would be a movie we'd shoot for a million (dollars). We thought it was an art film, more in the art-film world. I should say we thought it was more like a Michael Haneke, very dark, disturbing tale, like Funny Games.

It had a very anti-American sentiment and it was just us feeling that everybody we gave it to, all the financers, a lot of them were saying, "This is just too anti-American, you're never going to get this made." Then Jason (Blum) is the one who saw that there was something bigger within the conceit. So to this day, even in Manhattan and Staten Island where I primarily spend my time, when I see kids on Halloween dressed up as characters from the movies, I'm still like, "This is very surreal. This doesn't make sense to me. This was going to be a small, tiny film." Like you said, I sent it into the zeitgeist in a way that's very bizarre, very bizarre.

Now that we're eight years into this franchise, when you're writing a new film, obviously subconsciously, you can't turn off your brain, what's going on in society or what's going on in culture at the time will influence your writing. It's going to at least be in the DNA of what you're writing. But when you are writing, whether it's The Forever Purge or The First Purge or whatever, do you have to actively avoid being too on the nose with reflections of contemporary society?

Absolutely. Listen, this would be a great conversation to have with Peter Kramer. Peter, he's the executive, he's the president of production at -- I think that's his title, I should say. But he's one of the presidents over there at Universal. He's a partner in crime on the whole thing. We love working together. But Peter, he's my checker. He checks me on my politics, he thinks I'm an anarchist. He's like, "You're always starting fires, DeMonaco. Stop it, stoking the flames of discord in the country." He calls me out because sometimes I am -- you nailed it, dude -- sometimes I'm way too on the nose and I'm too political. That's where I think Jason, Sébastian, and Peter, specifically, are like, "No, no, no. You can't say that. That's too much." 

Because I think they're right. At first, I always bark and say, "No, we've got to be political and we've got to put the mirror up to society the way good science-fiction horror should do." But they're like, "Listen, audiences also don't want to be preached to. There's a fine line. Yes, we can have socio-political content. It's unavoidable on The Purge. But if we preach too much and you start nailing things, if it's not metaphorical and it gets a little too unsubtle, I think then audiences could get angry with us." 

So they're my checkers. They checked me and all because it's hard, like you said, you're sitting there, especially with The Forever Purge, I was writing during the whole border crisis and the chaos at the border. It's hard not to get too caught up and emotional about it. Especially when you're writing about this loving couple, I adored these two characters I was writing. It's hard, man. It's hard. So I got these great checkers who keep me in line and make sure I don't get too preachy.

With The Forever Purge, this is the second entry that you have not directed yourself, but you've written all of them. What do you feel Everardo Gout brought to The Purge that, not that it was missing, but what do you think his perspective brought that took it to another level?

I think he brought it to a whole other level. He's a Mexican man, I'm an Italian-American man from New York. So I'm writing about these Mexican immigrants, this couple coming to America. The conceit of it is, I oddly wanted to do a love story, which scared everybody. First, they're like, "What do you mean?" I wanted to do a love story. That was my original pitch. I'm like, "No, no, it's a love story about this couple that is seeking the American dream, but is it still alive?" And we follow their plight. Until I came up -- they weren't really excited -- with the conceit of "people don't stop Purging." This virus that started, they can't contain it, so then they got excited.

I think what Everardo brought to the table, I know what he brought. I could tell you. I know what he brought was this air of authenticity that, no matter how much research I could do, he would just call me on my sh-t, which I love. We had a great relationship, we still do, where he'd be like, "DeMonaco, this is not how we speak. We would never say these words in this way. This is not how Mexican people talk." And I would yell and he would yell back at me and we're both very passionate, our hands are waving in the air. It was a great discourse where, it's like he yelled, I yelled, but we get to a place, I think, where we were both happy. I think he brought this authenticity that ... He also, oddly, on the flip side of just having the Mexican experience, being a Mexican man, he also lived on a ranch, which was the strangest thing.

He also had somebody in his family who had a ranch in Texas, so he had great knowledge of ranch life, which was just like, wow. That was the part of the equation that we were worried, I was worried about, too, because I never lived on a ranch. I'm a city kid. He just brought this great authenticity, both sides of the coin in the movie. He also tweaked and corrected ... Just Mexican culture and Mexican politics, what Mexicans think of America, even when they're coming here. He made nothing seem to like, "Oh, America, the Promised Land." It's not that that's what I wrote, but he made sure that we had it in the right pocket. Those thoughts about Mexican people coming to America, why they come, how they feel when they're here, and that was all from, I say, that's all from Everardo. If it feels real, it's because of him.

You've let other directors come in, but looking forward, given your passion for the concept and the narrative, could you see yourself ever letting another writer come in and you take a backseat to the franchise completely? Or do you love it too much to ever hand over control entirely?

I think with the writing, dude, I'm so afraid of what it could ... Listen, it's an incredibly nihilistic conceit that could easily be, I think, exploited. Some people probably think I'm exploiting it in ways that are grotesque, but I would be afraid that it can turn into "torture porn" in some way that I'd be very afraid of what it would become or some weird, wish-fulfillment that The Purge is good ... But we always try to make sure that the role morality plays and the good people in the movies never Purge. So I would never want that twisted in any way. But I think, listen, there's great writers out there, I've met them when we did The Purge TV show. I did work with all the writers, some great, great writers.

Here's the truth of it: I probably won't have that choice one day. I did write [The Purge 6]. I just finished it, about a couple of months ago. I think I can honestly say, although I've said this before so I'm going to make myself out to be a liar, I think that'll be my last one that I would write, too ... But, what if the studio wants another one after 6? Even if 6 happens, I don't even know if that's going to happen. I doubt that I'll make that choice. If I say no, they'll be like, "Well, we're going to hire someone." I'd like to be part of that. Like I said, I've met great writers on the TV show who I know can probably handle it, and as elegant as a Purge could be, I think they would deal with the nuance well.

You talk about the end of The Purge franchise, how Forever Purge was almost going to be the end, even though it set up some big things. Then you had this idea for The Purge 6, and then you wrote that. I don't want to spoil anything, but it almost feels like it's setting up more of an Escape from New York dystopia instead of continuing this world of The Purge.

I can't say much, but you're definitely ... You have the right reference that you're going to. It's definitely ... I'll say this, the America that we enter into in Purge 6 is not the America we now live in. It's been remapped, I should say, in a unique way. We're entering into this very changed surface of America. The other thing I can say, because I think it's already out there, is that, if it happens, it is the return of Frank Grillo's Leo character, so that's fun. But it's definitely, a new America has been formed, it's about 10 to 15 years after The Forever Purge.

That makes sense, because the first five films feel like different chapters in the same book, but the way things end in Forever Purge, it feels like you can't just do another chapter, you have to open an all-new book.

That's what we said. We can't just ... Even with 5, we were like, "It needs to flip itself on its head." We didn't really commit to even moving forward until I woke up with the idea that, "Oh, people don't stop." That's not like a natural, "Oh." We were like, "Oh, okay." Now, we thought, "Okay, let's stop talking about this because..." Otherwise, doing another Purge Night that ended in 12 hours felt like, "Ah, we're just repeating ourselves. We don't want to do that again." So, again, this one also, like you just said, it's like, "Okay, let's close that book and open a new book if we're going to continue." So, I hope it works. People seem to be happy with the script, so let's hope we get to do it.

Obviously, you've earned fans in the horror world from The Purge movies, but your upcoming film This Is the Night isn't a horror movie. What can you tell your horror fans about what makes This Is the Night so exciting? What might this film have in common with the filmmaking we've seen in The Purge series?

Well, I guess Grillo, if they're fans, Grillo gives an amazing performance, I'll say that. But I think the correlation between the two is, it's another night of almost heightened emotion and ... It's a singular night, like The Purge movies are, for the most part, and this is also a single night. The inspiration here is, I always say it's almost the flip of The Purge, it's that people are inspired by a movie they see, it's really about my love of cinema and growing up loving movies and the sanctity of the communal, moviegoing experience inside the theater.

It's how people are inspired by a movie, they say. Which, in this case, is Rocky III, to go out and fight their fears and live this very big night of their lives. And so, the night itself, I think resembles, in an odd way, the flip side of a Purge Night. It's people doing great things and helping each other and fighting fears and rising up. So, I think for horror fans, I think ... Listen, I think that horror fans are people who love movies and I think anyone who loves movies and loves going ... I think what's great about horror fans, is why I love horror fans, they still go to movie theaters. This is why they're so great. They're keeping movie theaters alive. It's still the one genre, other than Marvel, that is keeping our theaters alive. If you love theaters, I think the movie is all about, This Is the Night, it's all about the communal theater experience and how precious that is. And, hopefully, it doesn't go away.

That's totally true, that you could show a straight-to-video, third sequel in a franchise at a midnight showing, and horror fans will fill the whole theater.

Exactly. Because, I think there's something about the horror experience in a theater. It's wonderful, right? It's something we want to share, want to share that fear, that roller-coaster ride. I think that anyone who loves the theater experience, I think my movie hopefully captures the fun of that, the beauty of it, the communal experience of it all. It's also fun, there's a lot of fun in it, too. I think right now we need a lot of fun because the world is so chaotic. I think right now ... It's a good-feeling movie. I think that you'll leave there feeling good. So, hopefully, they'll like it, man. It's definitely a departure, in a way, but I think they get a little bit of Grillo, too, and that's always fun.


The Forever Purge is available on Digital HD now and will be on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD on September 28th. This Is the Night starts screening in New York City on September 17th and lands on streaming platforms on September 21st.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.