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After directing three Purge films and writing all five, franchise creator James DeMonaco knew he needed a radical change. So he revisited an older script of his that celebrated his first loves: cinema and Staten Island. And thanks to The Purge franchise’s worldwide gross of $535 million on a $53 million budget overall, DeMonaco had earned “one for him” in the eyes of his partners at Blumhouse and Universal Pictures.
“Without saying it, I think Jason [Blum] was saying that by just saying yes to the project,” DeMonaco tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think he liked the script, I can say that. I’ve given Jason other scripts where he’s like, ‘No.’ So I think he knew I was ready for it, and he was, I think, ready for it, too. I even remember people at Blumhouse telling me, ‘He was so happy to work on something that was not so dark and bloody.’ So I think everybody, including Blumhouse, was purging because we’ve all been lurking in the darkness for so many years. It was good to come out of it with some light.”
Led by Frank Grillo and Naomi Watts, This Is the Night — formerly known as The Night Rocky III Opened and Once Upon a Time in Staten Island — is about Rocky III‘s much-anticipated opening day on Staten Island in 1982 and how it would forever change the lives of the Dadea family. And as it turned out, there were two very good reasons why DeMonaco ditched his two original titles.
“The original title was The Night Rocky III Opened, which even Sly [Stallone] told me was a terrible title. He was like, ‘James, this is terrible,'” DeMonaco shares. “And he wasn’t wrong. And then it became Once Upon a Time in Staten Island. And God’s honest truth, man, once I saw Quentin’s [Tarantino] movie [Once Upon a Time in Hollywood], I was like, ‘I can’t even go near this title.’ I think he made a masterpiece, so it seemed like a weird time to come out with another Once Upon a Time.”
DeMonaco is also sharing details on the sixth installment of The Purge franchise, which marks the return of Grillo’s character, Leo Barnes.
“I’ve written [Purge 6],” DeMonaco says. “I thought I was definitely finished with The Purge franchise. And then the events of January 6th happened and the incredible amount of discord in this country came up. So I woke up with this idea, and I pitched it to Jason and Sébastien [K. Lemercier], my producers. Eventually, I pitched it to Peter Cramer at the studio [Universal], and they all loved it. So I just finished it about a month ago, and it also marks the return of the Frank Grillo character…”
But he also stresses that the sixth film is not green-lit yet as Universal is still evaluating the performance of The Forever Purge‘s Covid-era release. While profitable, Forever Purge‘s worldwide gross of $76 million is a franchise low given the state of pandemic moviegoing.
“Everything takes place about ten to fifteen years after Forever Purge, and when we enter into the movie, America has been completely remapped,” DeMonaco reveals. “The country has broken down. We’ve taken the divisiveness into remapping the country, and we’ve broken down into very strong tribal lines in this new map of America. So I think it’s an interesting place. I would say it’s like chapter two. We’re restarting in this new world.”
In a recent conversation with THR, DeMonaco also discusses the autobiographical details of This Is the Night, as well as Stallone’s support for the film.
After dealing with lawlessness and mayhem for such a long time via The Purge franchise, did you need this creative left turn more than you expected?
(Laughs.) Oh, indeed, my friend. I conceived This Is the Night before The Purge movies; the idea was there. But I remember giving the script to [Jason] Blum and saying, “It’s kind of like a feel-good Purge.” (Laughs.) The Purge inspires people to explore their worst parts, and with This Is the Night, I’m saying that cinema and movies and Rocky III, in this specific instance, inspire people to become their better selves. So I always said I was doing my anti-Purge. It was my way to purge The Purge by doing this movie, which is about inspiration, courage and going out and becoming your better self.
You and Blumhouse have had a very fruitful relationship for almost a decade. Was this one of those cases where Jason said, “Hey, why don’t you make one for you?”
Well, that’s a great question. Without saying it, I think Jason was saying that by just saying yes to the project. I think he liked the script, I can say that. I’ve given Jason other scripts where he’s like, “No.” (Laughs.) So yes, he liked the script a lot. On one of the first calls, I remember he was very moved by it. The Purge films are not easy films to make, either. They’re intense to make. We don’t have a lot of time or money, but we’re expected to deliver these summer tentpole films on a very strict budget, on very strict days. So I think he knew I was ready for it, and he was, I think, ready for it, too. I even remember people at Blumhouse telling me, “He was so happy to work on something that was not so dark and bloody.” (Laughs.) So I think everybody, including Blumhouse, was purging because we’ve all been lurking in the darkness for so many years. It was good to come out of it with some light.
So just how autobiographical is this film?
On the macro, it was completely autobiographical, meaning my love of films, the influence they’ve had on me, and giving me complete direction in life. It’s an obsession that is still completely burning right now and probably will be until the day I die. (Laughs.) So the love of cinema is all autobiographical. But with the specificity of Rocky III, I hope that what comes from it is that this could be any movie playing in a way that inspires people or gives people any kind of feelings. I don’t even show much of Rocky III, and that was a specific choice, which was a point of contention with many people in the process. They said, “You need to show more Rocky III.” And I was like, “No, I specifically don’t want to. This is about the audience reaction. It could be any movie up there.” So the autobiographical elements, on the big scale, are my love of film, my homage to cinema and what I feel is the sanctity of the theatrical communal experience that I fear is going away.
On the smaller level, yeah, Rocky III was huge, man. I think Rocky I and II built up this mythology, especially in the Italian-American culture here. It built to this fever pitch by the time III came out, and I really did wait three-and-a-half hours in line to get those tickets. And I really did see it twice in two days. I actually saw Rocky II twice in one day with my family. There were fights in the theater over seats between the tough kids and the other tough kids. I remember those fights and people running out of the theater. So all of those smaller elements were definitely autobiographical. It did inspire me to try to get to a sweet 16 party, but not on that evening, though, to be completely honest. It was a week later, but I never got into the sweet 16 party, unlike the character in the film. So my story is not nearly as uplifting as Anthony’s [Lucius Hoyos] story. But I felt inspired by the film, as I did seeing every Rocky film back then. I think I began working out, as people start doing pushups after every Rocky film.
The hypermasculine nature of the men in the family is also very autobiographical to the world I grew up in. My dad was a very open, liberal-minded man, but in terms of the other fathers and older brothers I would see in the community, this was a tough culture. You wanted to be tough here. You wanted to be one of the bigger guys who could defend himself and take care of himself. This Italian-American culture here on Staten Island is a hypermasculine world, and I think that is very autobiographical. I was trying to represent that accurately.
Christian’s (Jonah Hauer-King) story was interesting since he could’ve taken the wrong lesson from Rocky Balboa and pushed himself to be as masculine as Rocky is.
Yes, that played a lot into Christian’s storyline, the older brother. He was dealing with his sexual identity issue at a time when it was an incredibly hypermasculine world. It wasn’t what it is now in the world. There was no place for it, especially here in Staten Island. He was up against what he saw as impossible odds of ever coming to terms with this and with his family or friends. That’s based on someone I knew, who came to me with this identity issue at a very early age, and that confused the hell out of me, to be completely honest. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and I told him I wanted to include his storyline here. So he was very open to it because art, films, books were very inspirational to him over the years. They helped him come to terms with it because he had no one to turn to at that time. So movies became a place of solace, learning and seeking comfort in other people’s identities and sexual identities. So that’s just from knowledge of someone who came to me early, and it’s always stayed with me. We’ve stayed friends over the years.
Rocky was a hero to men and women in this community, but unlike Christian, some of the characters definitely had the wrong takeaway. They thought Rocky was a hero because of toughness and push-up skills, but others, such as Anthony and Christian, recognized that it’s his heart, courage and honesty. In fact, the entire family at the center of this story applies Rocky’s traits to their respective obstacles.
Yeah, exactly. With every film we see, we all take something. How we interpret a film or art or anything is up to the individual, and it was the same thing here. You’re absolutely right, man. Even going back autobiographically, there were guys in the neighborhood who thought Rocky equated with kicking ass. There’s an Eddie Murphy skit that I’ve never actually heard, but people have told me about recently. Apparently, Eddie Murphy does a skit about how you don’t want to be in an Italian-American neighborhood in Staten Island or Brooklyn when a Rocky movie opens up because, yes, it does inspire guys to get hyped up and want to fight. (Laughs.) So there are different takeaways. But the family, the boys and the good citizens of Staten Island in the film look at it more as fighting fear, being courageous and rising up against incredible odds. That’s what Rocky always represented. That’s why he struck a chord, even beyond the Italian-American community. He was a great example of the American dream. Anyone, if given the chance, like Apollo [Carl Weathers] says in [Rocky], “This is the land of opportunity, right? So Apollo Creed on January 1st gives a local underdog fighter an opportunity… Because I’m sentimental, like a lot of other people in this country. There’s nothing they’d like better than to see Apollo Creed give a local Philadelphia boy a shot at the world title on this country’s biggest birthday.” And that’s what he gives to Rocky, and I think people responded to that and thought anyone can rise up and fight their fears against impossible odds. But again, like you said, everybody interprets that differently.
So we have this mobster in the film, played by Bobby Cannavale, and to him, it means, “Oh, it just means to be tough, powerful and to conquer.” That’s one interpretation. But we see how the mother, Marie (Naomi Watts), and the older son, Christian, are both starting to say, “Okay, let’s not hide behind the things we’ve been hiding behind for years.” And the mother has been taking a backseat to this hypermasculine dad [Frank Grillo] and letting him rule the roost. So she finally decides that’s not the way it’s going to be anymore. She says, “I’m going to stand up. I’m going to help my son fight his own fears, and then I’m going to deal with my husband, who thinks he’s this hypermasculine male in this society who rules the roost. No more. There’s no more of that.” So she looks at it and just ceases the idea. And that’s what the family does, as a whole. They all say, “It’s time to fight fears and rise up,” whereas there’s others in the film who say, “It’s time to kick ass. Let’s beat people down and be tough.” That’s more of a bully mentality, which has always been here on Staten Island, but there’s more good people than bad, I always say.
At the time of Rocky III‘s release, was there a lot of speculation about a main character dying?
I always wanted to play with the idea that spoilers back then were so different than they are now. So this is more of that. I think it was always there with sequels. Even at that age, I was like, “Well, they’re going to kill someone at some point.” So that was always a concern of mine. “I know someone’s going to get killed in Rocky. I know that’s coming.” But when I was younger, spoilers were so different. They were moreso rumors. Maybe you heard something, but there was no way to seek this information out. We had no means. They remained much more mysterious than they do now in current culture. So I think that was me making a comment on how different a spoiler can be now than it was back then. It was mere speculation back then without any way to go down the rabbit hole of, “Is this true or not?” But I do remember, at the time, there was concern. I think Mickey was getting older, and Mickey was my favorite character. So I was very concerned, and I ended up being right as they got rid of Mickey, my most beloved character. So I think I was building that off of my own fear of losing my favorite guy.
Now that the franchise has eight total films, where does Rocky III rank in your book?
Oddly, I put Rocky II, second. I have to still say that Rocky I is the best film. Rocky III, I always say, is the most fun. But I still think Rocky I is actually an amazing piece of cinema beyond just a great Hollywood popcorn film, which it is. I wouldn’t even call it popcorn. I just think it’s a great, great film. What Stallone wrote, what [John G.] Avildsen directed and the acting across the board, you can see why it spawned about seven more, right? (Laughs.) And even this movie. So I prefer the first one, and sometimes, people forget that. I always tell people, “You’ve got to go back and watch Rocky I. It’s that good.” There’s a reason why it struck such a chord.
Did you have to clear the few Rocky III elements you did use with United Artists/MGM?
I think we cleared everything. There was a fear, at some point, that we weren’t going to get the rights. They try to keep that stuff from me because I get so paranoid and neurotic about these things, but from what I heard, they were very on board with showing anything at any point. Posters and so on. But at some point, there was a concern about how much we could show, but we got clearance very quickly. They said that they read the script, enjoyed it and were happy to just give us what we needed. And that was great. It was a good partnership between studios. And once Stallone saw the film and really liked it, that helped any process we needed to get footage or anything like that.
Out of curiosity, what prompted the title change?
The original title was The Night Rocky III Opened, which even Sly told me was a terrible title. He was like, “James, this is terrible.” (Laughs.) And he wasn’t wrong. But I was just like, “That’s what came to my head one day, The Night Rocky III Opened.” And then it became Once Upon a Time in Staten Island. And God’s honest truth, man, once I saw Quentin’s movie [Once Upon a Time in Hollywood], I was like, “I can’t even go near this title.” I think he made a masterpiece, so it seemed like a weird time to come out with another Once Upon a Time. I think it’s a really good title, Once Upon a Time in Staten Island, but it just felt like we were coming too close on the heels of Quentin.
Did you ever work out the history between Frank (Bobby Cannavale) and Vincent (Frank Grillo)? They referenced it twice, but never specified beyond them both being in love with Naomi Watts’ character.
Yeah, it’s very mysterious. It’s weird you bring that up because I had friends watch the movie last night and they asked me about that. At some point, he calls him “cugine,” and we used to call each other cugine growing up, which translates to cousin. So people were like, “Are they related?” I’m like, “No, that was a kind of term of endearment between guys back in the day. They’d call each other cugine.” But yeah, they grew up together. This is based on me and a very close friend from back then. We did date the same woman, and that’s really it. They were best friends who ended up falling in love with the same girl in high school and she pretty much picked one over the other. But I think it was a deep friendship before that, and they just went different ways, which I’ve seen with friends growing up here. You grow up with guys who do make that choice to pursue a career in the dark arts; the dark arts of Staten Island is the mob. (Laughs.) I have had many friends who have gone that path, and I’ve always wanted to represent that. It is part of the fabric of this society and some people make that choice. I don’t think it happens as much now, but when I grew up, it was a prevalent choice that people could make. It was either cops, firemen or mobsters. That was the way a lot of people went. So that’s the backstory of my friend. So Vincent and Frank were high school buddies, maybe childhood buddies, who fell in love with the same woman, and that drove a stake between them. Then one took a different career path than the other.
“I got stars, I got shells, I’m a happy boy!”
(Laughs.) That’s my favorite part. You’ve just made me so happy that you picked that up
When Frank’s goons were having their episode, that must’ve been an eventful day on set, right?
It was completely insane. It was five in the morning, and it rained so we had no time to shoot it. This is no lie, but I was in the worst mood of my life. I was like, “How am I going to shoot this hallucinatory, psychedelic sequence?” Thank God I had this amazing DP [Anastas N. Michos], who was like, “We got it. We planned it all. We’ve got these great actors.” And that actor, Edward Carnevale, is wonderful. We had little stuff in the script, and then he and I would go, “Okay, you’re going to take your shirt off. You’re going to be playing with these shells.” But a lot of that is ad libbed, so I can’t take credit. He was wonderful and he just went for it. I set the scene for everyone and gave everybody their vignette. I do think the shells were scripted, but he added to it. So I’m happy you brought that up because the people who’ve seen it here in New York at various Angelika screenings have called me afterwards to say that that’s their favorite line in the movie.
Since you started out as a screenwriter, was directing always the destination?
Yes, but I had no means to get to it. I made some short films on VHS here. People ask me now, “What are the means to directing?” and I don’t know what to tell young people other than, “Make a short film or write your way to doing it.” And that’s the path I chose. I never had the money to make a really great short film. I always felt that’s the reason I quit NYU. I saw kids making their senior thesis films with $50 to $100 grand, while I was working at a deli and bartending at the time. I probably couldn’t scrounge together more than a grand, so I quit. I knew that I couldn’t compete with these senior thesis films, and I thought, “Okay, writing will be my path to directing.” And, luckily, it was. It took some time, I can’t lie. It must’ve been until I met the French financiers of Assault on Precinct 13. So it took some time.
Lastly, are there any Purge updates you can offer?
I think I can offer some without getting in trouble, although I’ve been in trouble so many times with Universal by saying things. But I’ve written [Purge 6]. I didn’t think I was going to write six, but then I woke up about six months ago with an idea. I thought I was definitely finished with The Purge franchise. (Laughs.) And then the events of January 6th happened and the incredible amount of discord in this country came up. So I woke up with this idea, and I pitched it to Jason and Sébastien [K. Lemercier], my producers. Eventually, I pitched it to Peter Cramer at the studio, and they all loved it. They said, “Go write it.” So I just finished it about a month ago, and it also marks the return of the Frank Grillo character, which I think is fun for the audience and for me. I love Frank. It’s the return of the Leo Barnes character. Everything takes place about ten to fifteen years after Forever Purge, and when we enter into the movie, America has been completely remapped. The country has broken down. We’ve taken the divisiveness into remapping the country, and we’ve broken down into very strong tribal lines in this new map of America. So I think it’s an interesting place. I would say it’s like chapter two. We’re restarting in this new world. And I should also say the movie’s not green-lit. I think they’re still evaluating what happened with Forever Purge and how they feel about what it did during the Covid release. So I know people have seemed to be happy with the idea of the script, but I don’t know yet. We haven’t been given the green light to move ahead.
Between Copshop and This Is the Night, I spent a lot of time with Frank Grillo this past weekend.
(Laughs.) Yes, there’s a lot of Frank Grillo in our lives. I have to see Copshop, too. I haven’t seen it yet, but Frank is great. He’s got a raw power that is hard to find, and that’s why he’s so fun to watch. There’s a lot of Grillo.
This Is the Night is now available on VOD and Digital from Universal Pictures. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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