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‘The Purge’ movies: An oral history

How an independent film got turned into a four-film-franchise and a TV series deal

  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Image Credit: Supplied
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When filmmaker James DeMonaco and his longtime production partner Sebastien Lemercier started working on “an X-rated treatise on violence,” they had no idea they would eventually conceive of The Purge.

“We thought it was going to be an independent Michael Haneke-type of film that would play in one theatre in New York,” said DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first three movies in the ongoing Purge franchise.

“People were telling us it was way too anti-American,” DeMonaco said of the concept set in a near-future dystopia in which a dominant ultraconservative party, dubbed the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), has legalised all crime for one night each year. “So our original search for financing was completely independent. We had no thoughts [of] wide distribution or anything.”

That all changed after the script landed on the desk of producer Jason Blum, founder and CEO of Blumhouse Productions. Blum had recently signed a three-year deal with Universal Pictures and was tasked with delivering genre movies that cost $4 million (Dh14.69 million) or less to make. He gave DeMonaco and Lemercier $3 million to make their film.

“It’s really hard to make low-budget movies resonate, so I always told the filmmakers, ‘We’ll worry about a sequel if it’s a hit,’” said Blum. “Once we’re doing sequels, we have a piece of IP that has been proven, so we’re willing to invest more. But on the first movie, we don’t think about what’s going to be our next.”

What would come next would be three sequels and a spin-off television show in a franchise that earned more than $320 million worldwide even before the release of the fourth film, The First Purge.

“I never thought of a franchise while I was writing or even shooting the first movie,” DeMonaco said. “Until we had the crazy opening.”

The Purge debuted in June 2013 with opening-weekend projections of $18 million to $25 million. It ended up topping the box office, grossing $36.4 million in the US and Canada. And DeMonaco seized the opportunity to flesh out the concept beyond the scope of a limited budget.

“I always knew if there were a part two, I would love to do something like The Warriors, and show what’s happening on the streets of America,” DeMonaco said. “That was in my head, but I knew that the likelihood of having a hit film was so small — I wasn’t getting ahead of myself.”

Here’s the evolution of one of the most politically prescient horror franchises of the modern film era.

THE PURGE (2013)

Set in 2022, the first film takes place in a world where all crime, except for the murder of politicians, is legal for one night each year. Ethan Hawke stars as a family man and a member of the upper class who benefits from the “holiday” by selling security equipment to fellow members of the 1 per cent. When a stranger (Edwin Hodge) being chased by a pack of Purgers seeks refuge inside their house, Hawke and his wife (Lena Headey) have to decide whether to be altruistic or fend for themselves.

THE PURGE: ANARCHY (2014)

A year after the events of the first film, Anarchy follows a working-class waitress (Carmen Ejogo), her daughter (Zoe Soul) and a married couple (Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez) who are brought together after being stranded on the city streets during a Purge night. They’re protected by Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), a vigilante with plans to seek vengeance on the man who killed his son in a drunk-driving incident.

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR (2016)

Grillo’s Leo Barnes returns as a Secret Service agent tasked with protecting a US senator during a contentious election year. Elizabeth Mitchell stars as Sen. Charlie Roan, a populist candidate whose plan to end the annual purge nights makes her a target of the NFFA. As Barnes and Roan are forced to seek refuge on the streets, they’re assisted by a ragtag group including a cantankerous shop owner (Mykelti Williamson) and a compassionate EMT (Betty Gabriel).

THE FIRST PURGE (2018)

After a psychologist (Marisa Tomei) conceives of an “experiment” to push the crime rate below 1 per cent, upstart political party the New Founding Fathers of America tests out the theory of one night of unmitigated violence on Staten Island. Y’lan Noel (Insecure) stars as a local drug dealer who chooses to fight back after realising the NFFA has enlisted mercenaries to instigate violence targeting the poor and people of colour.

THE PURGE TV SERIES (2018)

Later this year, USA and Syfy will unveil a 10-part event series that further explores events of the annual Purge, with a cast led by Gabriel Chavarria and Jessica Garza.

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Don’t miss it

The First Purge is currently showing in the UAE.

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