When all hell breaks loose

Night terrors: The Purge.

Writer-director James DeMonaco has a hit on his hands. The Purge, a low-budget action-thriller he made for US$3 million (S$3.8 million) has raked in more than US$83 million internationally.

This has come as a surprise to many, including DeMonaco himself.

The script has a "fragile, very tricky subject matter", where all hell is allowed to break loose for one night a year for the greater good of society, he tells Life! on the telephone from Los Angeles.

The 43-year-old says: "I found it to be an absurd and not very realistic concept. It also has a very anti-American sentiment, done on purpose. I hoped to start a discourse on American relationship with violence.

"To be quite honest, there were many people who told us along the way that the movie was way too anti-American, it depicted an America that was too ugly."

DeMonaco and producer and frequent collaborator Sebastien Lemercier, who is French, held their faith in the script for The Purge because they felt that it would work as an independent movie, opening in a smaller number of cinemas.

The director says: "The film is an allegory, it's science-fiction that puts up a mirror to society. But there are people who think that American could come to this, which is actually very scary.

"They think that it is a realistic look at the future. It's crazy if you think about it."

In the film, a home owner named James Sandin, played by Ethan Hawke, possesses an arsenal in his home.

"I think Americans live in fear. I worked in Paris for a while and I didn't know anyone who had a gun. But here, I could name three out of five people I know who own them. I started looking into this," DeMonaco says.

That soon developed into a story concept.

"If you give everyone guns, what are you saying we should do with the guns? From that was born this idea that everyone is allowed to use them one night of the year. If you allow people to have them, then you have to let them use their guns."

The Purge is the second feature he has directed, following the little-seen crime thriller Little New York (2009), which also starred Hawke.

To his surprise, the major studio Universal liked it enough to push for a big opening in more than 3,000 screens across the United States.

But this was not before the studio asked him to add a big action setpiece. He was cleared to spend another US$200,000. The result of the extra funds is a scene in which Sandin faces down and kills a group of home invaders with various weapons.

That climactic moment aside, the film breaks with formula by offering a criticism of American values. It also lacks the standard heroic male lead.

In the film, the Purge night and other right-wing beliefs have solidified into a semi-religion, with followers chanting its violent slogans as a form of prayer.

"They saw it as a major summer release, in a movie that really doesn't have a hero," he says.

Even Sandin, whose family is under assault on Purge night, is a "despicable guy" who makes money in a corrupt system by selling security technology to the rich to protect themselves from the poor, he says.

While DeMonaco himself thinks that the idea of a night when everyone is allowed to go berserk seems implausible, he says that it is an idea that has captured the imaginations of audiences.

"Some people personalise it. They think, 'What would I do if there were no laws holding me back? Would I hurt or kill my enemies?'" says the film- maker, who is married.

The film's central device of people trapped in a fortress who have to outsmart the barbarians at the gate is one that he has been obsessed with for some time, such that he has become a specialist in siege movies.

He wrote the screenplay for the 2005 remake of the John Carpenter cult classic Assault On Precinct 12, also starring Hawke. In the movie, men in a police station are ringed by corrupt policemen out to wipe out evidence of their misdeed.

DeMonaco was also a co-writer on The Negotiator (1998), starring Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, in which one hostage negotiator has a tense standoff with another in, yes, another siege situation.

"I'm obsessed with movies set in one location, over a finite period of time. As a child, I was obsessed with Dog Day Afternoon. It's a fantastic movie," he says. The 1975 film stars Al Pacino as a criminal who, following a botched bank heist, holds the customers and staff hostage.

"There's great drama when people are in a pressure cooker and they are about to explode. They reveal who they truly are."

johnlui@sph.com.sg


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