Exclusive Interview: James DeMonaco Talks This Is The Night, The Purge And More

This is the Night

Most fans will recognize James DeMonaco as the creator of The Purge, the five-film franchise that’s earned over half a billion dollars at the box office. However, his latest movie This is the Night marks a startling change of pace.

A coming-of-age dramatic comedy with romance and a just a hint of fantasy, the plot follows a close-knit Staten Island community over the course of one day and night, with the opening of Rocky III in the summer of 1982 serving as the catalyst for a series of life-changing events that affect several families.

The ensemble cast features Frank Grillo, Naomi Watts, Bobby Cannavale, Madelyn Cline, Lucius Hoyos, Jonah Hauer-King, Method Man, Raquel Castro, Lenny Venito, Max Casella, River Alexander and Chase Vacnin, all of whom factor into the narrative in wildly different yet equally important ways.

This is the Night comes to VOD tomorrow, and ahead of the release We Got This Covered had an exclusive chat with the writer and director about the film. In our deep dive interview with DeMonaco, we cover everything from his latest feature to the future of The Purge, and even touch base on Sylvester Stallone, Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams, Pete Davidson and more, which you can check out below.

This is the Night

You must be excited to have This is the Night ready for release, because it’s been a long time since you first called action [production started in May 2018]?

James DeMonaco: Absolutely, dude. Yes, yes. COVID slowed us down, I took some time editing. It’s a very precious, personal film so I took my time editing, but suddenly we ran into COVID and everything. It was… what COVID did… I finished post-production, mostly sound and coloring during COVID. So everything that would normally take one day took four days, just the remote thing. I know some people like it, but I’d rather be sitting in my editing room or my sound facility with my sound designer, or my editor or my colorist, because… I don’t know how you feel about it, but there’s something that gets lost, even though it’s convenient, you know?

It’s very convenient to go into my office and hang with my daughters upstairs, so it’s nice, but it adds a lot of time. So, everything that should have taken one month took four months, five months. So yeah, it’s been a while man, but it feels good. Proud, happy with the movie. I could keep editing any movie, I’m never… Somebody told me, I don’t remember who said this, but they said: ‘A director is never done, someone just takes the film away from them at some point’. So I never feel finished or complete, always unsatisfied! But, I guess as they say in The Godfather, “This is the business we’ve chosen”.

So I gotta deal with that sh*t! But yeah, feeling good. I want people to see it, I think the actors did great work. I want people to be able to see what Frank and Naomi and the boys are doing. Yeah, so I’m excited. It’s such a weird world right now that we’re getting a tiny release in theaters and then PVOD. So yeah, it’s a weird time.

Do you think the wait might have been beneficial in a way? Since you shot the movie, The Forever Purge released this summer, Madelyn has Outer Banks on Netflix, Jonah was cast in The Little Mermaid, Frank’s made about 20 [it’s only actually fourteen] movies, and Bobby’s in the biggest show on Hulu [Nine Perfect Strangers], so there could be a much bigger audience willing to check out the film based on where the cast find themselves now.

James DeMonaco: That’s true, especially with Madelyn. I’ve never watched Outer Banks, but I’ve heard it’s a huge hit and like you said, Jonah with The Little Mermaid. So hopefully, maybe fans of Madelyn will check it. She’s wonderful in the film, she’s so sweet in the film. She brings something special to a very small character, that’s all her. And Bobby like you said, and Frank as we know is doing his thing! So yeah, that would be fantastic if more people found it because of the cast getting a little more popular, then that would be a great thing. I also think, you know what’s weird that makes it a little timely too? The movie, for me, is ultimately an homage to what I think is the beauty of the theatrical movie-going experience, the communal kind of beauty of that, which was so important to me growing up.

And as you and I know more than anyone, even before COVID there was talk of the theater experience kind of evaporating in front of us, potentially going away one day with the advent of the streamers and the popularity of the streamers. So I’m hoping, my idealistic hope is that people see the film, even if they see it at home, maybe it’ll be like ‘Oh man, it’s better watching films in theaters, we gotta get back there when we feel safe’. And hopefully, the cinema gods, hopefully something changes in the future and theaters are flourishing once again.

It’s definitely something that’s on the way back, especially over the last couple of months, but it’ll probably be next year before things get close to what they used to be.

James DeMonaco: Absolutely, dude. Yeah, we’ve got a while to go. And I hope that… You know, they were saying this stuff even before we hit COVID. Studios are struggling with what’s, I’m hearing this phrase a lot at Universal, what’s ‘theater-worthy’. And they don’t mean quality, they mean what’s going to put asses in the seats. So, somebody told me this statistic that when I was a kid… I’m much older than you, dude… When I was a kid people went to theaters, I think the statistic was ten times a year. I think it’s down to two.

Yeah, some crazy statistic when you hear it you’re like, ‘Wow! Okay, that’s scary. How are we gonna keep this, how are we gonna keep our industry alive?’. So I hope you’re right, I hope that when COVID is over people wanna get out of their houses, and they’ll flock to movie theaters. So we’ll see, we’ll see.

It would be an understatement to say that This is the Night isn’t your typical James DeMonaco/Blumhouse collaboration. That long-standing partnership with a well-known production company must be a bonus when you’re looking to move outside of your creative comfort zone.

James DeMonaco: Absolutely, dude, great question. I don’t think I’d get… without the success of The Purge and my relationship with Jason, which is a very good relationship, I don’t get this personal movie made, you know? Even though it’s independently, it’s more of an independent thing, especially on the studio. The way the studio looks at it, it’s not a movie they make anymore. They even told me that upfront. But, I think Jason’s influence, my relationship with him which is really good, I think he’d say the same thing, and the success of The Purge; you’re right. Without that, I don’t know where I go to make this very personal film about this little place called Staten Island and my love of movies. So I look at it as a great privilege, even getting it made. And I hope some people get to see it and enjoy it. But yeah, that relationship led to the financing.

This is the Night

The working title was Once Upon a Time in Staten Island, and it’s definitely got a dreamlike quality, even though it tackles some serious themes. Was that contradiction always key to how you wanted to present the film?

James DeMonaco: Yeah, I like combining… I don’t want to say genres, but combining different emotional landscapes, I guess. I get yelled at from some of my producers saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do absurdity, you can’t do humor all within a drama, all within one movie’. But I’m like, ‘That’s real life’. I like that, and I did that in the first film I directed that not many people have seen called Staten Island with Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio, that mixes stuff up in a bag and twirls it around from absurdity to melodrama. It’s a love story, so I wanted to do the same thing here and mix it up, but the magic realism is heightened. There’s a heightened aspect to the film obviously, and there’s an absurdity to the reaction of Rocky III that I think is quite fun.

It’s based on, I’d say, a lot of truth. There was a great groundswell of love for Stallone even beyond Rocky, like the Rambo series was quite big here too on Staten Island. It’s a very Italian-American community and we really took, as the characters say in the movie, we made Stallone and Rocky our god and savior. I think he represented something to the Italian-Americans here on Staten Island; it was the American Dream. He was a blue collar guy who rose up and became champion of the world. And Apollo Creed says I think in part one, “This is the American Dream”. Let’s give someone, let’s offer someone the American Dream. So there was something about it, especially here I think, I can say it was accentuated on Staten Island because of the Italian-American aspect of the culture here, that’s predominantly Italian-American.

But yeah, I like mixing it up. There’s definitely a hint of magic realism stuff happening in this evening that would probably take quite a long time to happen in real life happening in one night, especially the older son’s character, what he goes through. He’s coming out to various people, I don’t want to give anything away, but that’s something that would take years… Even the person I based that on, it took years for him to come to terms with his own father and his own sexuality in his life, but I combined it all into this one crazy, hopefully magical night sparked by the screening of this movie. Again, that’s my homage to my love of movies, what movies meant to me, kind of blown up into this hyperbole of the inspiration and beauty of theater and cinema.

The obvious question is why Rocky III in particular? Is that a movie you’ve got a strong connection to personally?

James DeMonaco: It was a huge thing here. So, Rocky 1 was huge, I was really young with Rocky 1. I think I was six, I don’t want to date myself but I was probably six when Rocky 1 came out. But my dad used to inappropriately take me to movies I probably shouldn’t go to, which I thank him for now, but I saw Apocalypse Now at a very young age, which was really a life-changing experience, Dog Day Afternoon. Not that Rocky was inappropriate, though, but that movie blew me away. And I think, again the Italian-American thing here on Staten Island, it blew everyone away. Rocky II was a bowl of fun, great. By the time Rocky III came I think I’d grown a little older, I was entering into the teen years, and it just became this thing. I remember kids holding posters at school of Stallone and wearing headbands, I think the Rambo characters had come out the year before, I might be mixing that up.

But Rocky and Rambo was so big because of Sly’s influence here. Yeah, It meant a lot, I think it means a lot. Also, building off Rocky 1 and II, when we got to III I waited three or four hours to see that movie the first day. The whole community did. Everybody was there, all of that stuff is very autobiographical. I mean, waking up that morning we were just yelling out of the window to each other. Like, who had the newspaper to find out what time we’re going? Who’s going? Who’s buying tickets for who? There were fights at the seats, all that stuff that’s in the movie is very real. The movie’s a bowl of fun, I love it as a popcorn film, but when I talk about my true influences of cinema, it’s more like Apocalypse Now. But Rocky was more about the inspirational aspect of it. People were standing on their feet and cheering! I’d never seen it, it was like a sporting event. You don’t see that at movies like Apocalypse Now. But it had that.

Also, the strange thing, what Stallone’s done is pretty amazing and when I met him I told him. I saw Creed on Staten Island, people were up and cheering. I’m like, ‘He can still do it!’. He’s still got some hold over Staten Islanders here, people were standing up in Creed. I’m like, ‘Holy sh*t!’. He can still get people on their feet, Stallone, so he had a hold over us. So, that day I do remember there was unbelievable anticipation to see Rocky III. The only other movie I saw that big was Godfather 3 on the island, I’ll never forget that. No-one was disappointed in Rocky III, Godfather 3 led to a certain level of disappointment for its fans I think, but the anticipation at Godfather 3 was almost bigger than Rocky III.

As a Staten Island native , there’s going to be some autobiographical elements in This is the Night. How much of the story is based on your own experiences?

James DeMonaco: Good question, dude. So I’d say on the macro in the big picture of it, it’s completely autobiographical. My love of movies, I always wanted to pay back what movies gave me. I would say my religion was cinema, so this was my way of saying ‘this is my payback to what gave me a path in life’. This obsessive love I have for film, and I still have it, so it’s given me just some reason to be alive! It’s really this obsession. So this was my payback. So, on the macro the way I shoot the theater sequence, I purposely tried to make it this opera, this over the top kind of elegy to the sanctity of the movie theater, like how important that is. So, that’s all every autobiographical, and Anthony’s me. There’s a lot of stuff I took out about Anthony being obsessed with movies, but we scaled that down and kind of specifically put it on Rocky III.

And going to a Sweet Sixteen, I did about a week later, a couple of weeks later. There was the Sweet Sixteen of a girl I was deeply in love with. I didn’t get in, that’s the difference! I didn’t succeed as Anthony does in the film. But other stuff, I think the hyper-masculine culture that I kind of portray with the dads. My dad was a great man, a sensitive man, an open-minded man, but it was a culture based on the other dads I knew, and my uncles, of hyper-masculinity. You had to be tough in this world, so I was trying to capture that. That’s very autobiographical I guess, the worlds, the dads, the fighting dads at the end. I saw all that. My sister’s Sweet Sixteen broke out into a massive riot between the fathers and the kids and the older boys, and I’m like, ‘This is madness’. But it was very hyper-masculine. At any point there could be a fight. So that’s all autobiographical.

The Christian storyline; that’s very personal because I knew someone that came to me very early on, so that has aspects of someone I knew dealing with sexual identity in a time… and what made it so hard I think, and it’s always hard, it’s still hard today dealing with that, but back then in ’82, especially around here, Staten Island… You’re not going to find, I don’t want to say like-minded people, people like you. It’s very hard, it’s very hard in the hyper-masculine culture to be dealing with that sexual identity issue in 1982. So that’s something I always wanted to portray in a movie. And I spoke to that person recently, before I wrote the script and said, ‘I’d like to frame what you went through within this night, this magical night’. And why he was very excited that I was doing that is because, he did not use Rocky III specifically, but movies and books and art were, not an escape, but guidepost for him and how he was dealing with his life, and what he was dealing with because he knew no-one. So he sought refuge in the arts. So the idea that the movie has some impact on how he was dealing with his sexual identity, he was happy with that. So that came from someone I knew.

And then the mom character being the heart of the household, that’s based a little bit on my mom and also the moms I knew in ’82. You know, the moms were kinda moms at that time, they weren’t working moms, they were household moms. But she’s the heart of the piece, and really running the house, and I like her and the way she blooms and really takes charge at the end. So, everything’s kind of autobiographical with the liberties of the evening. And there was a guy in my neighborhood who did sing opera on the top of his house when he got really drunk! But he was doing it more inspired by alcohol, and he’d actually sing Sinatra, he’d be inspired by alcohol and not a movie. So I always wanted to put that in something.

This is the Night

Calling This is the Night a coming-of-age story drama with romantic elements and a little bit of fantasy would be doing it a disservice and selling it very short. How would you best describe the movie in your own words?

James DeMonaco: Oh my god, due, that’s a hard one. You’ve put me on the spot. It’s coming-of age-with… Oh my god, I’m very bad at this. Coming-of-age with dramedy…. You did a pretty good job, though, you stumped me! I’ve been doing a lot of these and you’ve stumped me. We should put this down! I think you did better than me, I don’t think I’ll do better. I always get it so funny. It’s so funny that this is coming up because the studio writes to me with any movie I write or direct like, ‘Could you write a synopsis of the movie?’. And I’m like, ‘No! I can’t!’.

I’d rather direct a whole movie that’ll take me two years than write a one-paragraph synopsis of what I just did, because I oddly can’t encapsulate it. I’ll just keep babbling to you even if I attempt it. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’s this, it’s this, it’s this, it’s this’, so I think you did a better job. I think it’s a coming-of-age dramedy, is the best way to put it. Really, I’d say it’s a coming-of-age for an entire family, which I guess is kind of an oxymoron. It’s not a coming-of-age for a young man, they’re all coming of age, so an entire family is coming to age inside a community. That’s my first shot.

It’s your first non-Purge project in a decade, so was This is the Night a desire or mission to get as creative as possible, because there’s a of moving parts all the way through the story?

James DeMonaco: Absolutely. I thought, ‘I’ve got a shot to do a non-Purge movie, let me get everything in, throw the kitchen sink’. Absolutely, man. It’s also, I don’t wanna say I have Purge fatigue, but this was a way… I’d actually written it before I had the idea… I should say I wrote it after Purge 1 but I had the idea before even The Purge. It was living in me, this idea of Rocky III on this night, this kind of almost absurd obsession with this very specific movie. But it was about, you’ll probably notice in the movie I never really cut to Rocky III on the screen, and that was on purpose because I wanted it t ultimately be about any movies people are watching.

So again, I think I said this before, it’s my homage to movies. So I knew when I got the shot, absolutely you’re right, it was time to dive in. We didn’t have a lot of time to make it, which is just the way we make films at Blumhouse, but I was kind of used to that because of the Purge movies. So it set me up well to have a very minimal amount of days, and time to do it. But the idea was, ‘Okay, we gotta maximize this’. So it’s hard, it’s always hard on the crew, I’ll say that because you become quite demanding. Like you said, this is; ‘I’ve got the shot now, I’m making a non-Purge movie, I’ve gotta get it all in there’. And yeah, there are many threads, as you know there are many storylines worth exploring in one movie, so it was ambitious on the schedule, and it was hard. Though it was hard on all of us. At the end we were all in bad shape!

Has Sylvester Stallone seen the movie, or is that something you’ve been working on?

James DeMonaco: Great question. He saw it, it was great the way it went down. I wanted to show it to him very early. I’m like, ‘I gotta get Sly’. In my head I’m like, ‘If he hates it, i don’t know how I move forward. This is gonna be terrible’. But we had to do it, so we showed it to Sly. It’s gotta be a year ago. First thing I got back was apparently somebody, his assistant or someone, called my editing room or someone in my editing room saying, ‘Oh, during the screening he got up and he was shadowboxing’. And I was like, ‘That’s a good sign, maybe he liked it’.

And then we got a call that he wanted me, Blum and Sebastien Lemercier my producer, he wanted the three of us to come to his house and talk about it because he really enjoyed it. So I was like, ‘Oh, this is great!’. I remember that morning we rushed over to his house, an incredibly beautiful home, he invited us in and we spent like three hours with him just discussing the film. He said the words, ‘I love your film, James’. I was just ecstatic. I don’t think I heard anything after that, I was just a happy person. But he actually showed us scenes he had, he was compiling a documentary at the time about Rocky, behind the scenes Rocky footage, and he was showing us that is love of the character was just fantastic.

He, I think obviously of all the characters he’s created and franchises, the guy’s created like three or four franchises, that one is still the one that’s dearest to him. And he said that to us, and you could see that just being with him, the love of it. And we exchanged some emails over time, so yeah, it was great. It was a dream come true being an obsessive Stallone fan as a child with posters of Rambo and Rocky on my wall. It was pretty fun.

Jack

You mentioned lines around the block for Godfather III earlier on. A lot of people might not know that your first screenplay credit was Jack. Do you have any memories that stand out, fond or otherwise, from that point in your career working with Francis Ford Coppola?

James DeMonaco: We wrote the script for my buddy from film school. I met a guy there, I wrote his short film that he directed and we won some awards. Long story short; I had written… I was a crime/action kind of writer on my own, but the short film he asked me to write for him was very sweet-natured. But when we won all the awards with it, we got an agent. And the agent’s like, ‘Well, you gotta write something that Gary [Nabeau] can direct’. We wrote Jack in about three weeks for him to direct, and sold it to Disney.

And then, quickly we heard that Robin Williams wanted to do it. Gary was a first-time director, and Robin didn’t want to work with a first-time director, and then it was the most shocking moment of my life when I heard Francis Ford Coppola was directing Jack. I’m like, ‘This doesn’t make an ounce of sense’. A month after that, Francis is on board and I’m still living at home. I was quite young, living with my mom and dad. I didn’t have any money, I was bartending, I was working at a deli or bartending at that time, or both. And Francise would be calling my house and talking to my mom as I was playing roller hockey in front of the house with the guys from the neighborhood. My mom would be yelling out saying, ‘Francis is on the line!’. And I’m like, ‘This is insane!’. My old Italian mom talking to Francis Ford Coppola! We’ve kept a cassette, this is very nerdy of me, he called one and left a message saying, ‘Oh hi Mr. and Mrs. DeMonaco, this is Francis Ford Coppola, I’m looking for your son’ on their answering machine. It was the old cassettes, so we still have it. It’s very cute.

And we got to live with Francis for a month on his winery. Gary and I were kids, 24 or 25 at the time, and I remember one time he had… Apocalypse Now is probably top three favorite films of mine… He had the boat in the middle of the winery, sitting in a field. So at night, Gary and I would just go and hang out and sit on the boat at night. And I’m like, ‘Okay, how is this even happening in my life right now?’. You know, this kid from Staten Island sitting on the Apocalypse Now boat at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery! He was the most gracious man. That’s the only thing I could say. Yes, the movie didn’t end up being what any of us wanted, and Francis is very open about that. We feel the same way. It just didn’t coalesce correctly. Robin’s wonderful in it, but there’s something off. But, the experience of working with Francis was unforgettable. I’ll take all the bad reviews, all the hits I took on the bad reviews, for the experience of hanging with Francis.

I spoke to Frank Grillo last week, and on top of asking me to send you a big kiss from him, he told me that The Purge 6 is written and set to shoot second or third quarter next year. Would you care to elaborate? Or has he said too much?

James DeMonaco: Frank always says too much, he knows that! He’s the one who let it out of the bag that I wrote the movie for him! The return of Leo, the return of his character. I told him secretly, and he just wrote it on the internet the next day! But I love him for it, that’s why he’s the best to work with. He’s the greatest, he’s like my brother. So we’ve done four things together; three movies and a TV miniseries.

He said it all. Yeah, it’s written. I finished it about two months ago. I didn’t think I’d be doing six, but I woke up with this crazy idea, and it was all about his character and the new America that we enter into. People seem to really love it, so I don’t know what the studio’s plans are. It’s up to them obviously, they’ve got the gash, so I don’t know what they wanna do yet with the franchise, meaning if they wanna continue. I think the COVID numbers confuse everybody about what happens next. But I do know some people at the studio really want to move forward on the franchise. I’ve finished the script. I haven’t shown the studio, I’ve shown Jason, I’ve shown Sebastian, they’re very happy. I think it’s a weird word to use with The Purge; it’s a lot of fun, you know? The return of Leo’s a blast, having Frank back in it. If I’m going to direct it, it has to be with Frank. If it’s not Frank, I’m not doing it, but it’s written for him.

So yeah, I would love to do it next year with him. I have something before that, he obviously has a million things probably. I’m doing this thing with Pete Davidson, hopefully at the beginning of the year, but it would be fun to be back on set with Frank, and I love working with him. He’s the best. So yeah, he’s telling the truth. I guess it’d be either the end of next year we’d shoot, timing-wise. Summer, maybe. Whenever they need it. If the cinema gods want it, we’re ready, I think.

Frank said he was about to head to Rome to shoot a movie, then he’s got another four or five lined up after that, so he probably won’t be available until next summer anyway!

James DeMonaco: That’ll take him all the way. We gotta wait for Frank! He does stay busy, Mr. Grillo. I’ll say that.

The Purge: Anarchy

What do you see yourself moving onto next? Are there any more genres or types of film that you’ve always wanted to explore?

James DeMonaco: I’m writing one now that’s, I’d say an even different genre to anything I’ve ever done. I don’t even know how to… I guess it’s got some romance to it, but it’s also absurd, weird, hard to pinpoint. Something very different than I’ve ever done. I don’t know if anybody’s gonna want to see me do it, but I am writing it right now. But it’s got some sci-fi, a sci-fi romance I guess, set in a very realistic world, though.

But what’s up next, I hope, is we were gonna be shooting it next month, this thing called The Home with Pete Davidson, my friend Pete who lives up the street from me here on Staten Island. But it looks like it’s moving to January. And that’s a paranoid psychological horror thriller, and I think Pete will be great in it. It’s a little different for him, it’s a very serious role, and he’s wonderful. And Pete and I are actually writing a comedy together, which I have never… I mean, there are comedic elements in This is the Night, but we’re writing a straight-up Staten Island comedy, which he’s entrusting me to direct and write with him, but he’s handling the humor in it. But it’s got some genre elements.

So yeah, that would be a big challenge, because that would be our first foray into straight kind of action comedy in a way, which I’ve never done obviously. So that would be a blast to do with Pete here on the island. So I think, directly ahead would be this paranoid psychological horror thriller with Pete, and hopefully we can get it on speed. We almost had it fully on speed but we lost a little bit of financing, so hopefully that’ll be back up in January/February.

That concludes our interview with James DeMonaco. This is the Night is available on VOD from tomorrow, September 21st. The Forever Purge is also available on VOD and home video.