'First Purge' Director on Its Big Donald Trump Moment

Gerard McMurray looks at his film's take on the infamous 'Access Hollywood' tape: "It's about women fighting back."
Lex Scott Davis in 'The First Purge' (inset: Director Gerard McMurray)   |   Annette Brown; Leon Bennett/Getty
Gerard McMurray looks at his film's take on the infamous 'Access Hollywood' tape: "It's about women fighting back."

[This story contains minor spoilers for The First Purge]

The First Purge caused a stir in January when it debuted a campaign-style teaser that borrowed from Donald Trump's Make America Great slogan. Seven months later, the film is out — and it delivers on that campaign promise by skewering Trump in one of its most memorable moments.

The scene calls back to Trump's infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape, in which he bragged about grabbing women "by the pussy." Protagonist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is attacked by a masked man who grabs her crotch, and when she successfully fights him off, she calls him a "pussy-grabbing motherfucker." It's a moment of triumph.

"It was making fun of what's in the news. It was real — and Nya, played by Lex, is a very strong character,"  says filmmaker Gerard McMurray, who directed First Purge from a script by series creator James DeMonaco. "It's about women fighting back."

McMurray is the first director to step in for DeMonaco, who kicked off the franchise with 2013's The Purge, a sleeper hit starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey that takes place in a near future in which the United States has legalized all crime for one night a year. DeMonaco directed two follow-ups — Purge: Anarchy (2014) and Purge: Election Year (2016), with the franchise grossing more than $319 million for Universal, Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes so far, in addition to spawning an upcoming TV show.

While The Purge series has always been political, McMurray's film takes its social relevancy to new heights, with the prequel showing what happens when a third political party called The New Founding Fathers takes power and institutes a social experiment on Staten Island — paying people $5,000 to spend the night on the island during the very first Purge. The supposed goal is to see what happens when people are allowed to unleash their aggression, but the government's motives are even more sinister than they sound.

The world of this Purge movie feels very much like our own, with protesters asking why the government is targeting the poor for this experiment, while other citizens support it as necessary to help a stagnating nation.

"Political satire can be very powerful and it can make fun of the realities of our world. As a filmmaker I want to push boundaries," says McMurray, who sees the film as a Revolutionary War film of sorts.

The early moments of The First Purge include disturbing news coverage of violent demonstrations that don't feel far removed from images that came out of last year's deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Part of what also grounds the film in reality is commentator and author Van Jones playing a reporter, trying to make sense of The Purge. 

"Van Jones seems like someone who would fight The Purge if it really existed, if it really happened. I wanted to play with those things," says McMurray, who had Jones read from the script but also asked him to create what he would want to say if he were reporting on that situation. "Van Jones was the voice of the people, so he had to have his own voice, too."

McMurray previously directed the Sundance film Burning Sands about fraternity hazing culture, and was a USC film school classmate of Black Panther director Ryan Coogler. He worked on Coogler's debut feature Fruitvale Station as an associate producer, and though The First Purge takes place in a heightened reality, it also takes inspiration from real-world injustices, such as the Tuskegee experiment and police brutality.

Despite the serious subject matter of the film, the director stresses he also wanted it to be a fun experience for the audience. One of the film's scariest characters is a Freddy Krueger-inspired man called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who is one of the few Statin Island residents who actively wants to Purge and who proves to be a nemesis for our heroes.

"He represents the scariness of the streets in the hood," says McMurray, whose father would take him to scary movies as a kid. "I wanted to make Skeletor funny and scary, a regular guy from the neighborhood."

The past 18 months have shown socially relevant horror is more bankable than ever, with the success of films like Get Out. McMurray has ambitions to keep making movies that also have a message, beyond First Purge.

"I want to do something big and socially relevant," McMurray says. "A big tentpole movie. Something for the people, all people. That they can think about a little bit. You can reach the whole world through art."

The First Purge is in theaters now.