Over the last eight years, writer-director James DeMonaco has built a name for himself with the lawless anarchy of The Purge franchise (on screens both big and small). But for his latest project — This is the Night — the filmmaker decided to tap into a different kind of anarchy: the carefree debauchery of growing up.
Inspired by DeMonaco’s own upbringing on Staten Island, the coming-of-age movie unfolds over a single evening in May of 1982 following the highly-anticipated release of Rocky III. Drawing confidence from Sylvester Stallone’s Philly-based prizefighter, a high schooler named Anthony (Heroes Reborn’s Lucius Hoyos) sets out on an odyssey across the borough with two best friends in an effort to confess his true feelings to the girl he loves. Their journey becomes quite perilous after Anthony is wrongfully accused of slandering Rocky’s good name.
“In some odd way, the feelings of the movie were completely inspired by not only Rocky,” DeMonaco tells Forbes Entertainment during a Zoom interview. “I guess Rocky III is representative of all the films I saw in my childhood. I was one of these movie-obsessed kids from a very young age and I think Rocky was just one of many. But … the specificity of Staten Island [among] Italian-Americans, the Rocky franchise made this kind of event. This standout amongst all the great movie screenings I had as a kid.”
Keep an eye out during the early part of This is the Night, and you’ll notice little nods to other touchstones from the early ‘80s like John Carpenter’s The Thing and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (both of which are among DeMonaco’s favorite movies).
“We did the research of, ‘Well, what was playing that week?’ And if you look at what was playing, it was a great week of movies,” the writer-director says. “You had Fast Times, you had The Thing. I think Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was opening around that same week. So, we had some fun stuff. We did our research and we picked my favorites to pop in there.”
In addition to serving as a love letter to the films that shaped DeMonaco’s creative identity, the project also offered up a chance to paint his native borough in a light audiences may not have seen before onscreen.
“There’s a cliche of Staten Island as kind of the forgotten borough here in New York,” he explains. “And it’s often presented quite ugly in cinema, so the idea was to present something [different]. There are some beautiful parts of the island. It’s got a lot of trees, it’s got a lot of nature here, we’ve got a lot of parks — so I wanted to present this idyllic version of the island.”
As the night wears on, things become more and more surreal: a man sings opera from his rooftop, a priest hops aboard a skateboard, and a group of hardened mobsters get high on psychoactive mushrooms. This absurdity (partly inspired by the work of Italian filmmaker Frederico Fellini) was always part of DeMonaco’s desire to craft a sort of urban fairly tale with a romanticized aesthetic.
“There’s that ugly version of the ‘80s that we’ve seen many times,” he adds. “The movie’s kind of this magical night, so I said, ‘We really need to find this idyllic notion of the ‘80s.’ We know there could be some hideous fashion, some hideous hairstyles. Yes, I’ve grown to love them over time and loved them back then, but we also can see how dated they are [today]. So, we made this conscious effort not to focus on the ugly part. We were trying to create this slow magic that unfolds.”
That also meant scaling back the heavy New York accents so often associated with the residents of Staten Island. The task of finding the right actors fell to casting director and regular Blumhouse collaborator, Terri Taylor.
“We were trying to be a little more neutral,” DeMonaco reveals. “I saw a lot of great New York actors who were just a little too much [of what] you’d see in Sopranos or Goodfellas … So, it was creating that line.”
The biggest influence on This is the Night was American Graffiti. Released in the summer of 1973, George Lucas’s incredibly personal, iconic (and not to mention pre-Star Wars) portrait of American youth in the waning days of the idyllic 1950s era remains the ultimate paradigm of coming-of-age cinema to this day.
“I think no one has captured time and place better than what Lucas did there,” DeMonaco continues. “It was an enormous influence. Even the way it looked; there was a magic realism to the night as it unfolded with the cinematography.”
And similar to how producer Francis Ford Coppola took on a chance on a young Lucas, Jason Blum saw nothing wrong with DeMonaco wanting to briefly take off The Purge mask and do something different. In recent years, Blumhouse has started to diversify its portfolio by moving beyond the horror genre.
“At first, I think everybody was like, ‘Oh, you’re not writing another horror film?’ But I knew Jason [from] 20 years ago … He had read other scripts I wrote back then, so he knew I was hopefully more than just a Purge [guy],” DeMonaco says. “But I’ll say this: I gave him the script and he was like, ‘We’re making it.’ There was no hesitation on Jason’s part. We faced challenges after Jason [signed off], but Jason being Jason was able to fight through them.”
Blum also liked the fact that the entire story is predicated on the idea of watching a highly-anticipated movie with an audience inside a theater. It’s a magical experience that can’t be beat (just look up that now-famous video of a crowd losing its collective mind during the final battle of Avengers: Endgame), but we’re currently seeing theaters fighting for their very lives in the age of the novel coronavirus.
“[Jason] loves seeing something that we all can hark back to. Those special nights that hopefully aren’t going away, but we’re being told they might,” DeMonaco says.
With the invaluable experience of smaller budgets and tight shooting schedules on The Purge movies under his belt, DeMonaco was able to wrap production on This is the Night in just 24 days. Despite suggestions from his financial backers that filming take place in Montreal, Canada, the writer-director was insistent that filming take place on location in Staten Island.
“I think you have to make certain films in the place where they happen,” he says. “There’s something about the essence of Staten Island I wanted to seep into the film and the extras and whatnot that you can’t capture somewhere else. I literally shot on the street I grew up on.”
One the thing The Purge series didn’t prepare him for was humor and an inability to use flamboyant dystopian imagery.
“We all have tricks in our bag that we can rely on, saying, ‘Ok, this is getting a little boring’ or ‘we’re going south here, let’s throw some masks on some people and make this scary.’ There’s ways you can always color up the Purging in those films in a way that I obviously did not have to lean on here,” he explains. “[And] there’s not much humor in The Purge films. The night has an absurd quality as people start doing these things they haven’t done in their lives before. That was a big tackle. I did not have The Purge to lean on for any comic timing.”
Like many contemporary film and TV projects, This is the Night represents another entry in our current fascination with ‘80s-based nostalgia. According to DeMonaco, this rose-colored craving for the past is a universal hunger in a time when it feels like the world is more messed up than ever before.
“I wonder because of COVID now, do people wanna go back to what they perceive as a happier time?” he concludes. “I think we all have this notion of making the past this idyllic time and place and it probably wasn’t, but because of music and movies, we build it up. So, I think there’s a retreat to that right now. And listen, I’ve done it. I watched Cobra Kai over the break and it was wonderful. I was like, ‘This is the modern day Happy Days. I need this happy burst of energy after a long day during COVID.’ I’m an ‘80s guy, so watching Stranger Things and Cobra Kai is [great].”
This is the Night is currently playing at the Village East by Angelika theater in New York City for a one-week limited engagement that ends this coming Friday (Sep. 24). If you’re not in the Manhattan area, don’t worry — the film will also become available on a wide variety of digital platforms starting tomorrow (Tuesday, Sep. 21).
Naomi Watts (King Kong), Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Jonah Hauer-King (Little Women), River Alexander (The Way Way Back), Chase Vacnin (The Little Rascals Save the Day), Madelyn Cline (Outer Banks), Method Man (Concrete Cowboy), Max Casella (Vinyl), Daniel Sauli (The Deuce), Bobby Cannavale (Vinyl), and Steve Lipman (Hard Sell) co-star.
Naomi Watts and Kate Driver serve as executive producers. Jason Blum and Sebastien K. Lemercier are producers.