The Purge Creator James DeMonaco Made A Movie About The Glory Of Rocky III [Interview]

Rocky Balboa is a God in writer/director James DeMonaco's new film "This is the Night." The coming-of-age story focuses on a landmark event in (movie) history: the opening day of "Rocky III." The kids, the parents, and everyone on Staten Island was ready for it. People leave the film inspired and ready to take on the world, which kicks off a night of ups and downs in DeMonaco's film.

For DeMonaco, though, "Rocky III" is also a stand-in for any great film that leaves someone walking out of a theater on a high. DeMonaco, who's known best for creating the "Purge" series of horror films, wants to celebrate not just Rocky Balboa, but the experience of seeing a great movie in a theater with family, friends, and strangers. 

We say down with DeMonaco to talk about the making of "This is the Night," and the filmmaker told us about some of the unforgettable experiences he's had in the theater. Yes, that includes "Rocky III."

This is a very different movie from what people would expect from you. 

Exactly. Very different, very different. It's been a weird journey with this one. It's different, man. It's very autobiographical in many different ways, mostly because I think it encapsulates that childhood love of film and how much it meant to me. So, hopefully that came across in the movie.

Have you found yourself explaining to a lot of people that it's different and what to expect?

Yeah. That's it, when you make so many Purge movies. The first one I directed, "Staten Island, New York," I don't know if you ever heard of it, it's got Vincent D'Onofrio and Seymour Cassel. It's very weird, and it's more like this. It's very absurd though, so it has a different tone to it. So in a weird way, the first thing I did is more like this.

Then "The Purge" took me down this path of, I don't even want to say it's horror. I don't even say that the Purge are truly horror films, I think they're more like dystopian films. But people definitely are like, "Oh, this is a weird turn for you." For me, it's more, "Oh my God, this is what I was doing before the Purge." So I'm almost returning to that now, but for other people it's like, "Oh, this is a weird move for the Purge guy."

Those Purge movies gave you the goodwill to make this movie, right? 

Absolutely, dude. It's been a while, it's been a decade of purging and before that I was writing it for years. So it's been encapsulating my life, and I even just finished writing six. So it's still going on. Sometimes I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm overwhelmed with Purge." But then I think there would be no "This is the Night," no matter what happens with it. I got to make this very personal film, I'm very aware how rare that is in this business sometimes. It's a business so, it's rare that we get to make something so personal. I thank "The Purge" for this.

Not a small personal movie, either.

And dude, it was hard. We shot it like a Purge. We don't have that much money. So it was under the same Blumhouse edict like, "Dude, you're not going to have that much money, but you gotta try to make it look good." So we were still in that low twenties range of how many days we had to shoot. Money was tight, every extra I was begging people from Staten Island, "Please come down and fill up the theater," trying to get family members down. Luckily, we shot on Staten so I was able to, probably shouldn't be saying this but, I was getting people to come down there. Which is, I guess, illegal, but I'll say it anyway.

So it was tough man, but no, it's not a $1 million, crazy shoot in 15 days. We had a little more time than that, but not much more. It's hard. I always say that to Jason, he gets them made, he gets the movies green lit, but they are very hard on the crew. We're pushing and shooting so many pages a day. But listen, I'm not complaining. We got it made and I'm happy that it looked like it had some production value. Because that's the goal always, right? Not to sacrifice.

"It's a Weird Place."

Something this movie captures well is that, whenever you're on Staten Island, you get to meet a lot of characters.

Indeed, dude. It's a weird place.

For you, what are the little things that make Staten Island authentic?

Well, this year things have changed considerably on the island but I won't get into the politics of the island, that's completely blown me off the map. But let's go pre pre-political days. I think what I still see here, we're so close to Manhattan, so we're next to what some people would say is the center of the world. Yet, there is still an odd small town feel.

It was almost a combination of "Stand By Me" and "Goodfellas," which is the weirdest way to grow up. So we had this huge forest that we play in everyday and do our "Stand By Me"-like adventures. Not that we were discovering dead bodies, but we had this idea like Stephen King's Stand By Me's forest growing up and beautiful neighborhoods. Yet on my block and right around the block were two, I'm not going to say their names, very big mob bosses.

You'd see sometimes the violence would creep into the neighborhood a little bit or we'd hear about it. It was a little but not much, it protected the neighborhoods for the most part. It's weird. It was very idyllic yet there was this mob element. We also had a lot of cops and firefighters in the same neighborhood. So it's got the small town feel, yet it's got the trappings of a crime drama, always about to unfold. At any moment we'd hear a story about, "You hear what's going around the corner with so-and-so?"

And again, I'm not going to say the names, you would know who the people are. But so it's been quite a unique way to grow up. But I also don't want to perpetuate the cliche that it's a, I tried to break that a little, but I probably did perpetuate it because I had Bobby playing a mobster. I also wanted to show that it's actually a very nice looking place. It's got great parks and forests, and that's not often depicted, I think in film, on Staten Island. I think the mob angle is always really exploited, but it was a very nice place to grow up, I say. I hope I answered the question, dude. I started to babble.

[Laughs] Not at all. I always enjoy hearing about Staten Island and enjoy my time there. The best sense of humor over there.

It's true, though. I say that about people from Brooklyn, but I think it's true for people from Staten Island. It's why I think Brooklyn back in the day, bred, from Mel Brooks to Larry David. I think it carries over to Staten Island a little bit. I don't know what it is, there's something about New York, probably all the five boroughs have it. But there's an anger combined with curiosity that leads to great humor in some weird way.

"Rocky III" plays such a pivotal role in this movie.

Absolutely, yes.

It's treated like the moon landing in the movie.

Dude, it was. That's exactly how to put it. So, I wanted the movie to represent any movie that inspired anybody. I think the Italian-Americans, especially on the south shore of the island, which is predominantly Italian-American, took Stallone under our wing. It wasn't just the Rocky character, it was the Rambo character too. More Rocky, but Rambo was big, the Rambo openings were huge here.

And dude, they were big, all the stuff in the movie, waiting three and a half hours in line, that's true. I saw the movie twice in one day. At school that week, everybody was carrying Rocky posters. I still remember this, literally walking down the hallway holding your Rocky poster.

He was an Italian-American blue collar guy. He represented what Staten Island was blue collar, Italian-American. There was this hero worship, but it was this great anticipation. I think it really culminated in part three, even four was big, but one and two beloved.

Three, is where it really rose up because we had all those years to worship him and dude, it was crazy; three and a half hours on the line, fights on the line, people screaming in the movie theater. It was great.

Was it the same experience shown in the movie, going with your parents and friends on opening day?

Oh, everybody was there, dude. I remember I cut it out from the movie, but I remember yelling out my window that day to all my neighbors in Staten, wondering who got the newspaper first to check showtimes. I remember that morning, we all woke up like, who was getting the paper first, calling each other, yelling out the window. I got tickets for my family, but I sat with my friends, all that's very true.

There was something about Stallone that he got these people going. I'm telling you, when I met him, he must've heard that before because he knew, he goes, "Yeah, you Staten Islanders really love me over there." He knew it.

Made me think of "Cinema Paradiso." It's a very romantic portrayal of going to the movies.

That's my favorite scene, too, in the movie. And it was important to me, you probably noticed, dude, I don't show Rocky in that scene. I just show the projector and the audience. I think I shot down the barrel of the projector, just a flipper verse of a couple of shots from the movie. But it was important to me to say, "Look, it's not about 'Rocky III.' It's really about these people and their reaction to the film." And again, I want it to almost be at that moment, it could have been "Jaws," it could have been "Close Encounters," it could have been a Fellini film, anything that gets people in a communal setting, what makes going to the theater magical. I mean, I hate that it might be going away in our lives. That's what sucks the most.

It's just not as satisfying watching a movie from home or on your computer.

Absolutely. Listen, beyond the pandemic, obviously they had to shut stuff down. But we were hearing the potential demise of cinema before COVID hit, right? People were already speaking about studios aren't making money and theaters aren't turning a profit. I hope COVID is not accelerating what was already happening, I hope people return. I don't think we can replicate that communal experience, that whatever it is we share inside the theater, you can't do it at home. You just can't do it. Listen, I've seen great movies at home, but they're not nearly like what it's like sitting in a theater.

"The Anticipation on Staten Island Was Insane."

What other movies just left a big mark on Staten Island?

Oh, I'll tell you the other big movie, and it's funny because I worked with the director. It's when "Godfather III” opened, the one that didn't work as well as the other two. I remember the anticipation on Staten Island was insane. I remember in the theater, opening day, the first show sold out. People were actually standing in the theater. They were just standing in the back like it was a sports stadium. When the theme song started, the place just erupted on its feet. Staten Island was just ready for the next Godfather experience. Many were disappointed at the end of it all, but that was big, dude. Now, what was recently quite big here and it's because of Rocky, is "Creed."

"Creed" was the first time in years that I saw people on their feet and clapping. I was like, "This is great, man. People still do this." So the cinema still has that power, it's still got it. "The Karate Kid" was big here, when I was young.

Dude, know what else was big? "The Warriors." That was all over all the five boroughs. I remember actually there were fights outside every theater and we were afraid of all the gangs rioting. I think Walter Hill talks about this a lot, and I remember even here on the island, it was a lot of people saying, "Don't go outside, all the gangs are rioting because of 'The Warriors'."


Not that they really were, I think guys were just getting together, feeling strong and tough as they do after a Stallone movie. But "The Warriors" had a big impact. If you look up articles in the daily news and the post from '79, '80? The city was almost on lockdown. It was almost like a Purge movie. People were terrified after "The Warriors" screened, which is fun.

Were gang members really beating each other up after "Rocky III," just to look more like Balboa?

Yes. We knew some tough kids who actually wanted to look like Rocky. It was two crazy kids in my school who punched each other in the face, just to get black eyes to look like Rocky. My friends and I considered doing it, but we were too wimpy. It was literally, "You want to do that?" "No. No, we're good. We're good." We'll eat raw eggs like Rocky, that was a big thing too. Everybody eats a raw egg to be like Rocky, after Rocky one.

Isn't that how you get Salmonella?

Yeah, you get Salmonella. My dad let me do it, I'll never forget that. I remember saying to my dad, that even when I saw Rocky one, I was probably, my God, that was '76 so I was like seven. I remember my dad let me eat the raw eggs and I'd say, "It didn't go to my head, dad." I was a seven year old. I'm like, this doesn't seem like a healthy thing to do, but I had to be like Rocky, so I did it.

Was a mobster getting out of a limo to do pushups following "Rocky III" based on a true story, too?

That was made up, but we were all doing it. I think that happened in school, you'd see guys just randomly dropping and doing pushups. It's so funny because my buddy Todd, he is a writer in Hollywood. Without even seeing my movie or knowing what I put in it, his son had watched "Rocky" recently. And the next day he sent me a picture and he goes, "I showed [my nine-year-old son] Nick, 'Rocky' last night. Look what he's doing in his room." He was just doing pushups. Random, the kid never did a pushup before in his life. There's something about the "Rocky" movies that makes men and maybe women want to do pushups. It's still happening to younger generations. It's very funny, man.

"This is the Night" is now playing in limited release and will be available on VOD on September 21, 2021.