'The First Purge' Director Gerard McMurray On How Modern Events Shaped The Movie

As America celebrates its best history over July 4th, the Purge movies propose its worst future. In the first three movies, The Purge is already an annual tradition, the one night a year where all crime is legal. This year's The First Purge shows how it all began.

The First Purge took place on Staten Island as an experiment to see if this would satiate the public for the rest of the year. Caught up in the experiment are neighborhood drug dealer Dmitri (Y'Lan Noel), protestor Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) and the psychotic Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), some participants wearing camera lenses so the New Founding Fathers can record the purging.

The Purge creator James DeMonaco still scripted The First Purge but Gerard McMurray directed. The First Purge is his followup to the Sundance entry Burning Sands, about college hazing. McMurray spoke with /Film by phone this week. The First Purge is now in theaters.The first three Purge movies came out when we were experiencing relatively peaceful times. Even when you were working on The First Purge did it feel different addressing this kind of social commentary horror the way things were going in the real world?

No, it didn't feel different. I always want to ground my films in reality. The idea of me making The Purge was like cool, I want to really explore what happens in the real world, make it feel real and use real world stuff as horror. That was important for me.

Does the idea of a drug dealer like Dmitri being a neighborhood hero go back to Superfly and Dolemite?

It could be but for me personally, since I grew up in the '90s, I would say maybe more New Jack City and Shaft more than those two films.

Shaft was a detective though.

Yeah, but he was a badass who kicked ass like Dmitri. He fought for his people in the end. That's what Shaft did.

Is there also the idea that Dmitri's crimes are far lesser than the government's?

Totally, because the government's the boogyman. That's the horror. There was a bigger thing at stake. It wasn't about glorifying drug dealers or glorifying anybody. It's just part of who he was and one side of him and to show complexity. I wanted to show complexity of a black man. There are all different things and nuances to Dmitri so I think the bigger thing was the government is the boogyman. That's scary.

Do you think after this night, Dmitri changes his ways?

I think so. I think he learned a lot. I think at the beginning of the film, he says it isn't his fight. Then when you the sun comes up, it's going to be all right. So I think that he does. He learns something through this. He learns more about what it was really about, his people and fighting for the people, fight for what's right. Dmitri made a choice to protect his [friends]. He could've left. He could've left Staten Island. He made a choice to stay there and fight. He grew up in that building. In staying, he's definitely a hero. Despite if he made some different choices in life, we all do that. It's part of what makes us all human.

This is still James DeMonaco's world and he wrote the script, so what were you able to add to the world of The Purge?

I added a lot. More of the characters became people of color. The perspective of what I think is scary for a black man, the KKK. Everything you see happen in this film, the masks, every part of it, I came in and really told James how I wanted to make my vision and told it from a black perspective, make it young, contemporary and fresh. It can still feel fun and talk about what's now from my perspective, from the black and brown community. That's what I brought to it.

Did the script not specify what masks people were wearing?

Nope, nope. It didn't specify masks at all.

Jason Blum has talked about doing a prequel about the first night of The Purge for a while. Did he have some specific ideas he wanted to see?

Jason Blum added a lot. He was the one that brought me in to do the film. Definitely he wanted political stuff. He's like me, he likes to push boundaries. You see the KKK stuff. Anything that came up, like Charlottesville happened while we were making the film. So that came up and I'd say, "Jason, can we do that thing?" He said yes. So a lot of stuff. Jason's like a patriot. He loves ideas of resistance so anything you might bring him, I would just push it forward. He had a voice in it too. He let me push it more.

Did events like Charlottesville inform the script?

Totally, totally. When that happened, I said, "We've got to do that." That's scary to anyone. It's scary in real life but it's definitely scary to a black man or any person of color. So we had to do that.

Were there ever early drafts where we could see Ethan Hawke's character from the first movie?

No, it didn't work for the timeline. We don't even call it a Purge. It's called the experiment. I wanted to have a fresh prequel and do everything from scratch, so it didn't really work like that.

Does The First Purge also question our assumptions that human nature will gravitate towards violence?

Not necessarily violence. We show originally we don't know what's going to happen on purge night. We show the naivety of that. Some people are having a party. So the conception is that people are going to be violent, but not necessarily. Some people may, some may not. It's not a jungle. For me, I thought some people would do some stuff but also you can humanize the people, make sure it's not all about people going to kill each other. Some people are just having fun because the purge is not necessarily about murder. It's about you can do whatever you want to do for 12 hours. You can party, drink, do whatever. You can kill someone if that's your M.O. during purge night. For me, that was the point, to show all aspects. You can break into ATMs, do whatever you want. Whatever you want to do.

Did you do the lenses in post to make the eyes glow?

Yeah, we did. We had a great visual effects team that helped us really get that to look really good. Also, I wanted the different colors. So with Skeletor, I wanted to put in purple eyes because that's the color of my fraternity. I wanted to make it cool, play with the colors.

Which baseball stadium did you film in for that quick shot?

The one on Staten Island. Yankee Stadium where the practice team practices, over on the other side, the minor league on Staten Island. The minor league stadium right across from that.

Did you shoot the whole movie on Staten Island?

No, we only shot pickups in Staten Island.

Every screening of a Purge movie has been louder than other movies. Do you mix them at a higher level?

Well, I'm a big sound person so I was there every day with my sound team making sure the sound was good. Sound makes it scary and also sound to me is music, good jump scares. I wanted to have that and also I had a lot of music in this film. So the sound and the music had to sound really good. So I tried to definitely work with the sound team.

There's a teaser for the Purge TV series in the credits. Will the series have references to things that happen in The First Purge?

Well, I'm not involved with the TV series so I'm not sure. I was just filming the film so I'm not quite sure what they're going to do.

Were you cool with having the preview in the end credits?

Oh yeah, it was good. It's good for the world of The Purge. We have the film, it's going to be part of the whole package so everybody can experience the world.

How did you go from your Sundance debut to hooking up with Jason Blum and doing The First Purge?

Jason liked Burning Sands. Hell Night was like Purge night. They had those two things in common so it was a good next step in terms of ensemble film, black leads. I think it was good. All those things, young people, fresh, cool music all carried over from Burning Sands to The Purge.

What kind of films do you want to do next?

I want to do something fun, something cool, something that says something, but fun, bottom line. I want to do that, some social relevance but fun.

Were you always a big horror fan?

I was. I grew up, my dad always took me to films. When we'd go to the movies, we'd see a lot of the Nightmare on Elm Street, Jason. In my film, Skeletor is like my Freddy Krueger. I always liked horror.

Even with the four needles on his hand, he's like Freddy.

Totally. Freddy Krueger was the inspiration. One of things I was able to do with this was make Skeletor like a slasher. This film feels like it's the first black slasher, in my head.

Him and Candyman.

Totally, Candyman, totally. Candyman is a legend. Skeletor is a dude from the neighborhood. That makes them different.

What were in his needles, drugs or some kind of poison?

Everything. Drugs, the worst things you can think about in the world, that's what he had.