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An oral history of 'The Purge' franchise: From micro-horror breakout to Trump-era cautionary tale

An oral history of 'The Purge' franchise: From micro-horror breakout to Trump-era cautionary tale
"The First Purge," the latest in the dystopian franchise, tells the origin story of the first experimental purge. (Universal/Blumhouse)

When filmmaker James DeMonaco and his longtime production partner Sébastien 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 theater in New York," said DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first three movies in the ongoing "Purge" franchise.

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"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 legalized 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 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 spinoff television show in a franchise that has earned more than $320 million worldwide even before the release of the fourth film, “The First Purge,” on July 4.

"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 U.S. 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 2, 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."

Ahead of the release of "The First Purge," The Times spoke to key members of the "Purge" creative team about how the series came together and took on a surprising resonance with each new entry. Together they chart the evolution of one of the most politically prescient horror franchises of the modern film era.

Rhys Wakefield as the leader of the celebrants in "The Purge."
Rhys Wakefield as the leader of the celebrants in "The Purge." (Universal Pictures)
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%. 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.

James DeMonaco [director and writer]: My wife said something in a road rage incident that stayed with me. This guy almost killed us — and she's a nice person, I hope this doesn't reflect poorly on her, but she said something like, "I wish I had one a year," meaning one legal murder. It was a moment of anger, but the idea of one legal murder a year stayed with me.

Jason Blum [producer]: We were kind of challenging the public's response to such an outlandish idea. The conceit of a United States where the Purge exists is unbelievably fertile ground for storytelling in so many different ways: What do foreign countries do? What do politicians do? How did it happen? How did it start? How does it keep going? What happens to the economy? What happens to unemployment? There's so many angles you can explore from this idea.

DeMonaco: It was such a big concept. I've always been terrified of guns, so it was [intended as] an exploration of America's relationship with guns and gun control laws. There was part of me that was very angry with the scope of the first film. It's a night of legal crime in America, and I think a lot of people were kind of thrown that I stayed inside one house. Sébastien and I knew that that would be an issue, but we had no budget.

Blum: On the first movie, Ethan [Hawke] slept on my sofa for the three and a half weeks that we shot. He had back-end of course, so he did quite well from his ownership of the film. [Hawke reportedly ultimately earned in the mid-seven figures.] But for the upfront, I think he made about $10,000.

DeMonaco: The first one was always this morality play. We wanted to focus on that 1%. But I always wanted to do a whole movie on the Edwin Hodge character who played the Stranger. He's the one who rises on the streets to become the head of the resistance by the third film.

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Sébastien Lemercier [producer]: We realized that the audience identified a lot with the [Stranger] ... They identified with his character, being locked inside that house and being chased.

DeMonaco: To me, [the Purge is] one of the most grotesque concepts of all time. So anyone who takes it as some kind of sick wish or glorification of violence… it's the opposite intention from the filmmakers.

Lemercier: I would say James is probably a pessimist, but he's by all means not a nihilist. I think that his dark ideas and his dark storytelling come from this place of outrage, not of complacency. He's a man with a lot of empathy.

Blum: We wanted to make sure it would be understood as a cautionary tale, and for the most part it is, but we didn't know how people would respond. "The Purge" is about gun control, and it's my opinion that we're going in the wrong direction with gun control, not the right direction. If your answer to school shootings is putting guards in schools with guns, then what's left? If we keep listening to the NRA, [the Purge is] where we're going to end up.

Frank Grillo in "The Purge: Anarchy."
Frank Grillo in "The Purge: Anarchy." (Universal Pictures)
The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

A year after the events of the first film, “Anarchy” follows a working class waitress (Carmen Ejogo), her daughter (Zoë 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.

DeMonaco: I knew that if I was an audience member [I would be] very angry with 'Purge 1' because of how claustrophobic it was.

Blum: One of the things we always heard after we'd finished the first movie was, "We want to know what happened outside. What's going on in the world on the streets during the Purge?"

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DeMonaco: In the second one, I wanted to go into the [perspectives of] the disenfranchised, the impoverished and focus on the Carmen Ejogo character and how the system is unhealthy. It was a metaphor for the predatory economics that we've seen over the years where we're feeding the rich and taking from the poor.

Frank Grillo [actor]: "Anarchy" was really [James'] idea for the first movie, but he didn't have the funds. It was equal parts horror and thriller and action movie, so for me it was right in my wheelhouse.

Lemercier: I remember we shot "Anarchy" in December, and then we broke for Christmas, [resumed shooting] in January and the movie was released end of June. So the process there was very fast.

DeMonaco: To be quite honest, if the movie has a good opening, I get the call the next week that says, "Hey, do you have an idea for the next one?" It takes four or five months to get the script ready [before] we start pre-production, so it happens very quickly. We're not really in a perfect sync with what's happening in America. We're kind of always a little ahead, but things have linked up in an odd way that I can't explain. Many people see parallels between the new administration and the NFFA.

Blum: It's a throwback to our Founding Fathers, but the New Founding Fathers would be...I don't know how to describe it, the new alt-right?

Lemercier: The NFFA, the Founding Fathers, all that right-wing madness, that was there before. Trump didn't invent it. That sort of an ultraconservative nostalgia of a time that was supposedly the greatest time that has ever existed — that's not a new concept.

DeMonaco: My fear with the film has always been that I never wanted any audience member to think that I was promoting the Purge. And believe me, I've seen several people out there who interpret the film that way. The scary thing about making films is how people interpret it. The movies [always] become about saving lives and not taking lives; we always offer a glimpse of hope. In "Purge 1," it was Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey's decision to save the Stranger. And then [in “Anarchy”], Frank Grillo decided not to kill the drunk driver who killed his boy. Everything always ended with some hope, some humanity.

Lemercier: Our movies are very dark and disturbing, but reality is always worse. The hardest movies cannot explore the violence that exists in the world and the brutality. You cannot depict it. And yet when people say that such a dark concept as the Purge resonates with their experience, there's obviously a truth to it. I guess that if we screened the movie in Switzerland, we would have less of that.

DeMonaco: Part of the reason Sébastien and I have always said, “Let's stay with the franchise,” is we have been scared that you can take this idea and turn it into a very exploitative conceit where it's just killing. There are many versions of this where it could be about revenge. We don't think that's the Purge — the Purge is a metaphor for something grotesque, but hopefully humanity emerges amidst all the violence.

A purger in the movie "The Purge: Election Year."
A purger in the movie "The Purge: Election Year." (Michele K. Short / Universal Pictures)
The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Grillo’s Leo Barnes returns as a secret service agent tasked with protecting a U.S. 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).

DeMonaco: I think “Purge 3” was the trickiest [film]. “Purge 2,” I talk to people and it seems to be their favorite one, but “Purge 3,” I looked at as a political conspiracy thriller, and I did not know if that would go over well with the audience. There's always the fear that we're preaching too much. I thought 3 actually pushed it too far into the political realm — but that's the most successful one [commercially], so I was luckily wrong.

Lemercier: We were editing "Election Year" when Trump was nominated — meaning that when James wrote "Election Year," he didn't know that [it would be] Hillary Clinton versus Trump. It was impossible to predict at that point.

DeMonaco: He'd just gotten nominated, and we started to see a future of America that was oddly parallel to the NFFA that we were creating in the movie. We saw a parallel between the New Founding Fathers and the Trump administration and, specifically, the use of fear tactics to motivate.

Watch the trailer for "The Purge: Election Year."

Lemercier: I think there's a mirror effect that's occurring that is actually frightening, because we tell this outlandish story, and for us it's clear that it's inspired by certain right-wing lobbyist groups, and now those right-wing lobbyist groups are in the White House. But that wasn't a prediction; that's just a nightmare. When reality gets closer to the Purge world, that's just bad news.

DeMonaco: Sometimes it's serendipitous. Sébastien always says somehow we see the future because we are always writing [the scripts] before things happen. People think, "Oh, you wrote the senator because of Hillary." I really didn’t. It's almost very sad to say that the mirrors to "The Purge" are becoming true.

Blum: It's sad. I wish we hadn't predicted the future. I'd be much happier if the movie didn't do [that] as well and we didn't have the president that we have.

DeMonaco: Even the color of the dress we picked in one of the debate scenes mirrored the one that Hillary was wearing in her first debate with Trump. Everything was suddenly coming true, and I say that with no joy. When we start seeing these parallels, we were shocked.

Y'lan Noel in "The First Purge" movie, the latest in the dystopian franchise.
Y'lan Noel in "The First Purge" movie, the latest in the dystopian franchise. (Annette Brown / Universal)
The First Purge (2018)

After a psychologist (Marisa Tomei) conceives of an “experiment” to push the crime rate below 1%, upstart political party the New Founding Fathers of America test 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 realizing the NFFA have enlisted mercenaries to instigate violence targeting the poor and people of color.

DeMonaco: Working on the Purge films for such a long period of time, people would constantly ask me how it all began. There's part of me that says, “This is an incredibly ridiculous B movie conceit.” And then there's part of me that says, “If you look at history, Purge-like events have happened many times.” So it was always that part of me that was like, "Well, how do we create one? Let's try to see how our country can get to a place where this can actually happen." Sadly now, especially with immigration, we're starting to see even more parallels.

Blum: The Purge clearly is a horrible idea, and [when we started] I never would've said that I actually think the people in government would think it's a good idea. I could not say the same today.

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DeMonaco: I met Gerard [McMurray, who directed “The First Purge”], and we had a bottle of wine together and just spoke about his upbringing and what he thought the Purge films are and the comment they're making on society. I always felt I would do three, so I always knew that I wouldn't direct four; I'd write it. He made me feel very comfortable with handing it over. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.

Blum: We didn't say we were only going to look at African American directors, but we definitely were more inclined to look at a black director because the movie is about issues of race. And I think a white man or woman doing it might make it feel less authentic. [McMurray] made a racially charged movie about black fraternities ["Burning Sands"], and I really loved and admired the movie and his work. That's why we chose him.

Gerard McMurray [director]: I was really honored that they let me play in the world of the Purge. It has something to say about the world we're living in today, and I wanted to [create] my own version.

Blum: Over the course of the franchise, we moved from more of a class war to a race war.

Grillo: I think ultimately anything like the Purge is racially motivated. Even if it's political and it's financial, at its genesis it's racial.

Blum: I really feel like with the last two movies, James kind of saw the future. The movies have sadly gotten more and more relevant. In the third movie we explored class, and in [“The First Purge”] we explore race and how the NFFA uses the Purge to oppress the oppressed.

Lemercier: [The film takes place on Staten Island.] It's like an inverted "Escape From New York." We always liked the idea that it's just outside of Manhattan, and on one side you have the very wealthy Manhattan, with the super rich looking at the island and staring at the violence occurring there. That's just the reality of the world that we're in now with the discrepancy of wealth.

DeMonaco: The people who respond the most to the Purge films are the African American audience and the Latino audience. They were the people who saw the films for what I'd always meant them to be. For the fourth film, it seemed natural to go to the audience that was understanding of the film the most.

Lemercier: When people tell you that your work is meaningful to them, you feel more inclined to work for them and write for them rather than people who don't really care.

DeMonaco: [At screen tests] we always have these cards and the audience members comment on the film. And when I see the comments from the black and Latino audiences, they see what I intended the film to be, which is this statement about the government's treatment of the poor, about gun laws in America. There are other audiences that don't see it.

McMurray: I wanted people to experience what it was like for a black man to experience Purge night. I really wanted to show what it's like for people from the community that I come from, and people that look like me. What's scary to people of color. That was extremely important.

I think the series has evolved a lot through dialogue with the audience ... the test screenings have definitely had an effect on the movies.


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Lemercier: I think the series has evolved a lot through dialogue with the audience. The reactions we had when we did the first film, the exchanges we have at the test screenings have definitely had an effect on the movies because it went beyond "That's an outlandish concept for a genre movie." Suddenly we realized that it resonated with people's lives. And that that has been a revelation that has continued to the last movie.

McMurray: This is a movie, so it's definitely fantasy, but for me as a filmmaker, I’m trying to ground it in reality. I really think that the genre of horror lets us wrestle with the evils of our real world. I think that's important. Horror films take [bad things] that occur in real life and turn it into a boogie man or something that we can conquer.

Grillo: It's always seemed like we're a heartbeat away from having, if not the Purge, not a holiday, but something like that, some kind of genocide. In different parts of the world, it always seems realistic.

DeMonaco: Everyone always asks me why didn't I direct [the fourth film] or the TV show. I've grown increasingly disturbed by this idea — there was an abstraction to the idea, and now that the abstraction is gone. Many people are saying that the Purge can become real in America — to hear that makes me very sad for our country, that we're even in a place that that can be said aloud. Do I think the Purge will happen? I don't think that we will go that far, but now when I see what's happening where we're putting little kids in jails and with the immigration crisis right now, it becomes even sadder and sadder each day.

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.

DeMonaco: The show is 10 hours on one particular Purge night — 70% Purge night and 30% flashbacks into the lives of the people who we're following.

Lemercier: The TV show will explore the more psychological repercussions of the Purge on the individuals. It will explore why people partake in the Purge and how it affects their lives outside of the Purge, something we can't do in the movies where we have a strict time frame.

Blum: What the TV show does is expand on real human behavior, and how having a Purge once a year really changes our relationship to everything that we do.

DeMonaco: There was always a consideration in the movies to go into the true perspective of a Purger. To go into someone who bought into the ruse that the government has sold — release your hunger and you'll be a better person. You know, this kind of psychological conceit of societal catharsis that the NFFA has put forth — which is a ruse because they really just want to kill poor people.

Blum: It's very unique to have a franchise at its peak popularity and elect to put a television series on the air at the same time. To do them concurrently, I think, speaks to the notion that the line between film and TV is getting blurrier. We'll see if the experiment works.

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DeMonaco: The movie has these kinds of visceral, impactful punches in the face. We slowed the roll in the TV show because we had so much time and we analyze character more. Time, I think, is the real estate.

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