“I Have to Pay Some Form of Homage to the Art Form That Saved Me From Myself”: Writer/Director James DeMonaco on His Staten Island-Set Drama, This Is The Night
A veteran screenwriter and, more recently, an accomplished director, James DeMonaco has had a prolific career most commonly associated with The Purge franchise. Spanning five films and a television series, The Purge marked DeMonaco’s sophomore directorial outing and, aided by the upstart production company, Blumhouse, saw the filmmaker’s first box-office hit. DeMonaco, who also directed the second and third entries in the series, continues with the franchise, as a screenwriter, to this day (a rumored sixth installment is currently in the works). However, ties to his hometown of Staten Island remain at the forefront of DeMonaco’s creative endeavours, and his new film, This is the Night, reaffirms his commitment to the borough. Set over Memorial Day weekend in 1982, the film features a large ensemble with interests, loves and secrets to hide. Despite their differences, the event that brings the town together is the theatrical opening of one particular blockbuster, Rocky III, another number-one hit directed by a successful Italian.
As This is the Night is now in theaters and on On Demand, I spoke with DeMonaco about the origins of the film (as well as his personal ties to Staten Island), lens choices, filming at familiar locations, and much more.
Filmmaker: Knowing your background and history with Staten Island, I’m sure This is the Night was a real passion project for you. Several of your previous films took place on Staten Island as well. What type of personal connection do you still have to the borough? We don’t see much Staten Island representation on-screen these days…
DeMonaco: I was born in Brooklyn but then moved to Staten Island in the late 1970s when I was seven or eight years old. Back then, there was a mass exit of Italian-Americans out of Brooklyn and into Staten Island due to, I believe, all the beautiful trees there that gave off a “country feel” to the borough. Someone asked me once what it was like growing up on Staten Island and I responded, “It was almost like Stand by Me meets Goodfellas.” It was a strange combination of an idyllic setting where kids played in the forest every day while very big-time mobsters lived right up the block. We were very aware of criminal empires all around us, these mobsters who protected the neighborhood and were never terrible to us, and there were hints of violence around the neighborhood, of course, but it was also quite idyllic for a child like me who was always playing outside.
Growing up, I felt there was a sense of insignificance that permeated throughout the island, probably due to the way it has typically been represented in media. We used to joke that even the New York City weather forecasters would skip over Staten Island. They would provide weather for four of the five boroughs and then leave us out! We felt like we were the forgotten borough, and that’s what my first movie, Staten Island, was about — residents fighting this sense of insignificance.
Filmmaker: Early in your career, the most successful representations of the borough were films like Mike Nichols’s Working Girl, where a Staten Island native has to get cleaned up in order to “go pro.” That cliched representation has changed course a bit since then, with films like Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island…
DeMonaco: Starring my good friend, Pete [Davidson]!
Filmmaker: Exactly. But when you were beginning your career, was it frustrating to see Staten Island portrayed in a less than flattering light? Did those portrayals motivate you to want to change them?
DeMonaco: I totally wanted to change them. Listen, any place has a good and bad to it, but I always felt that the bad parts of Staten Island were constantly being exploited and blown out of proportion. People spoke with a very specific accent in those movies, an accent that was very cliched and “goombah-like” (as an Italian, I think I can say that without getting into trouble). Do some people talk like that on Staten Island? Sure. Do some people take steroids? Yes. Are some people mobsters? Sure (and I admittedly included mobster characters in two of my movies). But I’ve always wanted to represent the positive side of the island. There are great people here and it’s quite beautiful in certain areas. But I’ve never seen that portrayed on screen! They always show the same ugly streets that feature the worst kind of housing and everything looks the same. There was even that reality-television series, Mob Wives, that took place on Staten Island and it was just the same cliched representation of the area. With This is the Night, I wanted to show both sides of the island, the main family representing one side and Bobby Cannavale’s character, Frank, representing the other side. I hopefully represented all of it realistically.
Filmmaker: The film is a period piece, taking place over Memorial Day weekend in 1982, and it is centered around the opening of a specific movie that everyone can’t wait to see: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky III. What was it about that concept that interested you? When it comes to films about a local movie theater being the center of public interest, Joe Dante’s Matinee and, in a more somber tone, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show come to mind…
DeMonaco: Well, I became a movie fanatic at a very young age and, in a lot of ways, movies were my religion. They dictated my whole childhood, were my escape, and taught me everything I know. As a result, there’s always been something in me that was like, “Okay, I have to pay some form of homage to the art form that saved me from myself,” and This is the Night is it.
Of course, the specificity of including Rocky III in the movie is very important, as that franchise was a huge thing on the island in those days (I waited three-and-a-half hours to see it when it opened and we saw it two days in a row). Someone once told me about a standup routine Eddie Murphy did warning people about never being out on the streets of Brooklyn or Staten Island the night a new Stallone movie opens. There is something to that, this idea of Italian-Americans in Brooklyn and Staten Island taking Stallone under their wing, whether it was for a new Rambo movie or a new Rocky movie…you couldn’t get into those films on opening weekend. Due to the Italian-American culture on the South Shore, they adopted Stallone as their own and that was especially true of the character of Rocky Balboa. I remember people rising to their feet during screenings of the Rocky films. Even when I saw Ryan Coogler’s film, Creed, on the island, people were jumping to their feet again. Stallone can still do that to people.
However, I made a very specific choice in the sequence where the family visits the theater to see Rocky III on opening weekend, and that was to not show scenes from Rocky III itself. I wanted that film to take on a more metaphorical quality, and that universal quality pertains to the idea that this could also be any movie that a community of people loved. The screening could be representative of something else, of any movie that brings people together. It’s not just about the movie itself, but about one’s love for moviegoing, which scarily seems to be going away in the present day, although I hope that’s ultimately not the case.
Filmmaker: I loved the obnoxious theater owner in your film who aggressively forms the line for the next screening, as it captures the demand and buzz around a single event. What were some of the other ways you brainstormed portraying moviegoing culture without being overly sentimental or too nostalgic?
DeMonaco: There’s also (and I hate using this term, but…) a hint of “magical realism” in there too. The events of the film unfold over the course of one evening, but in the real world they would probably take years to unfold, right? The older son who comes out to his family would probably take longer to transpire in reality. Using a hint of magical realism then presented me with the dilemma you mentioned: How do I avoid making it all sappy? But if the fear was making the film too nostalgic, trying to accurately represent the time period had to be our main focus. As we’re moving further and further away from the moviegoing experience in the 21st century, I wanted to be a bit more poetic and operatic in our movie theater sequence, especially. We used a crane within the theater to capture a few specific shots and it was very hard to even find a theater with the proper seating that reflected 1982 (everything is “stadium” style now, which we didn’t have when I was growing up).
Filmmaker: You filmed in a still-operating theater for that sequence?
DeMonaco: We did and, funny enough, it was the only scene we didn’t shoot on Staten Island. There’s an old theater in Brooklyn that still retains the same seating since 1975 and we were able to shoot in there. It was perfect. They don’t have those new seats that lean back with a big incline, etc.
Filmmaker: When you’re in production on Staten Island, repurposing locations with your crew, do you find that familiarity to be a connection or a hindrance? Does having a built-in knowledge of these spaces prove useful and trim the need to extensively scout?
DeMonaco: I think it help because it ties me to something in my past. For This is the Night, that was extremely important, to bring myself back to a specific time in my life, and the choice affected how we even lensed the film. It had to feel unique, to resist the ordinary. That’s especially true from the movie theater sequence onward, where we used longer lenses. We also included “film flickering” in certain frames, serving as a nod to the physicality involved in a film moving through a projector.
Having knowledge of the island itself was important too. The bar the boys go to in the film, Legends Pub, was one of the first bars I ever went to with my illegal ID back in the day. When we were shooting the scene, I thought back to when I used to sneak into the same place with a fake ID that I used chalk on and pencil on to change my birthdate! That allowed me to chat with the actors about my personal experiences, and on a movie like this that’s so personal, that was important. Even some of the streets my actors were walking down were the same ones I walked down as a boy. We were shooting right by my parents’ house where I grew up and it was wonderful to reflect on those memories. I hopefully infused the actors with some emotional fuel to use in their scenes.
Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned specific lens choices and that made me want to ask about the collaboration between your cinematographer, Anastas Michos, and yourself. Did you meet on The Purge franchise?
DeMonaco: We actually met on the third film in the franchise, The Purge: Election Year, which I also directed. The film shot in Providence, Rhode Island, but it takes place in Washington, D.C., and we budgeted for an additional two weeks to go down there and get a number of exteriors of D.C. architecture and other recognizable locations. But when I needed a few additional shooting days, our DP for the main bulk of the film, Jacques Jouffret, had a prior commitment to another production and was no longer available to us. That’s ultimately how I met Anastas. I was a big fan of his work on Miloš Forman’s film, Man on the Moon, and we hit it off and he came aboard for those additional D.C. filming days. He then shot another thing I made for Universal that no one has ever seen, a trailer for a script I wrote. And then he shot The Purge prequel, The First Purge, for director Gerard McMurray.
Filmmaker: What kind of visual planning goes into making a film that takes place over the course of a single day? Do you have to shoot a lot of day-for-night? Were there different lenses used for that purpose? The film begins in the morning/afternoon and those scenes are, accordingly, very warm and bright. But as the day unfolds, the film gets colder and darker..
DeMonaco: Oh God, yeah. We originally wanted to shoot the entire movie on film but, financially speaking, that wasn’t a realistic dream. It was a bit heartbreaking, but that’s just the reality of the world, especially on a budget as tight as ours. My favorite part of the process of working with a DP is not the lighting but coming to an agreement on lens choices. At the beginning of the film, we’re using shorter lenses, primarily 25mm, to achieve a more naturalistic feel. The film begins with a lot of warm yellow colors, as I grew up in a very warm, yellow/orange house and that’s what we were attempting to replicate. And then, once the magic realism kicks into the narrative after Rocky III is screened for the family and they’re inspired to go out and fight their fears, we switch to much longer lenses, at 180mm. We even switch out to a 340mm lease at one point The flicker in the background of many of the images becomes prevalent [in the second half of the film] due to our switching over to a longer lens. Everything in the background gradually becomes more obscured as well. Hopefully, that also adds to the magical realism of the film’s second half.
Filmmaker: This is the Night is being released through Blumhouse and Universal and, knowing your strong long lasting relationship with Blumhouse, I wanted to ask how you’ve seen that relationship develop and grow over almost the past ten years.
DeMonaco: The first Purge film was released in 2013, and I actually knew Jason [Blum] before then, when he had just come out of Miramax around 2000. He had left Miramax and had optioned two scripts I had written back in the day. I was quite young then (this was 20 years ago) and Jason was, at the time, a bit of a struggling producer. I had just written the screenplay for The Negotiator, which did well, but I wanted to get into directing, and so I was writing things for me to potentially direct. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t secure meetings back then, even though we tried and tried. When Jason contacted me a few years later and told me about this new model he was creating where he would produce films on the cheap and have everyone receive a piece of the backend, etc., it all sounded great, and it was. Jason is wonderful to work with because he trusts the filmmakers to the point where you have full creative control. Jason doesn’t get involved in the creative process at all. He’s more about obtaining the necessary money and financially protecting you on that front. We began trusting in each other and all successful partnerships stem from that. I handed him this personal script I had written [This is the Night] and he didn’t hesitate. He was like, “let’s make it. I can find you the money.” I hope it continues that way in the future.
I also still love writing genre-related films and so I’ll always continue writing those kinds of movies. I’m actually working on something with Pete [Davidson] now that’s within that domain and that Pete would potentially star in. I like having that balance of writing genre films and alternating that with more personal work. I want to continue making movies like This is the Night and my earlier film, Staten Island, here in New York. Pete and I actually have another Staten Island-based script that we’re writing together, so (if it gets made) that would mark the end of my “Staten Island trilogy” [laughs].
Filmmaker: Knowing that you have been directing your own screenplays for a number of years, what has it been like to continue writing new entries in The Purge franchise while handing off the directorial reins to someone else? Are you still on set and observing from afar? Do you find that you’re a better writer now when you have someone else seated in the directing chair?
DeMonaco: With The Purge films, it was interesting as I had directed the first three films and was ready to move on. But when the series continued, I kept writing the films and choosing not to direct them. I felt like I had directed “my three” and that was that and it was time to move on, even if I had ideas for further entries in my head.
For the fourth and fifth Purge films, I think the studio wanted me to be on set everyday, but I didn’t want to do that to the filmmaker who’s set it was. That’s why I now tell everyone upfront, “Listen, I’ll start by developing the script but then a director will come aboard the project and we’ll refine the script together.” I want the director to feel like they can get their hooks into the story as well. It’s the director’s set and he or she should run it as they see fit. There shouldn’t be another director on set with them. I never want a director to feel like my eyes are either on them or on their monitor. Having been a director myself, I want other directors to have the same freedom I was given.
I would say that being a director has informed how I produce. You get to a point where you have to step away and allow the filmmaker to be the lone filmmaker on the project. My early years as a screenwriter informed how I work as a director, as seeing the ways my scripts could be interpreted by a filmmaker were eye-opening for me. Scenes were never the same as I had written and envisioned them on the page. It could be embedded in what I wrote, sure, but, as the screenwriter, those directorial choices are not mine to make. Even in the recent Purge films, I had to be smart and relinquish control. What’s that saying, “Cut the apron strings?” I don’t want to be a “helicopter parent,” hanging around set and bothering the director.
That being said, it can be tough and things can hurt. Sometimes you watch a scene that you wrote, being directed by someone else, and wonder, “Hmmm, why did they make that choice? Why did they do that?” But I have to remind myself that, if given the chance, I might have directed the scene even worse! I have to recognize that too.