Jason Blum, producer of the ultra-violent Purge franchise, explains why what began as a small-scale anti-NRA satire has turned into a full-frontal assault on rightwing values

The 2014 film The Purge: Anarchy, the second in a growing franchise, ended with footage of pistols being loaded, small children shooting on rifle ranges and scenes of armed street violence, juxtaposed with images of American pastorals, Mount Rushmore, dollar bills and the US flag, its red stripes replaced with guns and knives. All patriotically soundtracked to America the Beautiful.

The Purge, released the year before, was a low-budget, high-concept home invasion horror, but since then with a fourth film opening today and a television series on the way the franchise has become increasingly political and provocative, with box-office takings growing in kind. What began as a genre exercise has morphed into a war cry, the metaphors making way for primal screams.

The underlying conceit is solid: for a 12-hour period, one day a year, the US government sanctions all crimes, up to and including murder. Emergency services are unavailable for the duration of the purge, while those who wish to do so can take personal grudges to grisly conclusions without criminal consequence. As a result, crime overall is at an all-time low, fewer people live below the poverty line and unemployment is at 1%. But as the series has developed, the emerging theme has been that those behind the purge are doing it for their financial betterment: to have the poor killed off, thus diminishing the need for welfare, healthcare and housing.

Teaser
Teaser poster for The First Purge. Photograph: Universal Studios

Ethan Hawkes character in the first film was the face of American apathy, a homeowner selling security systems to the rich while those who cant afford such protection are slaughtered. The film was a comment on class, but still very much in it for the thrills and spills. Subsequent outings were too, but as the films have explored different American demographics, the critical viewpoints of the film-makers writer-director James DeMonaco and producer Jason Blum have become more prominent.

The first three films were all made under Barack Obama, but from the start were a reaction to gun culture, and to those enabling it. The films are about the insane relationship that we have in our country to guns, and about the fact that there are more guns than people in the United States, says Blum, who also produced Jordan Peeles Get Out and Spike Lees forthcoming BlackkKlansman. Congress blocked gun control that Obama put up. James DeMonaco and I are pretty outspoken in our political views, and those views are very much in the movies. Theyre about the power of the NRA and the absurdity of our gun laws here. Its a cautionary tale about how dangerous and nonsensical those laws are.

The ultra-religious, democratically elected governing party that introduced the purge is called the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), and each instalment of the franchise concentrates more keenly on opposing voices. There have been loose attempts to give both sides a voice, and not always hysterically. The second film featured a middle-class dinner-table conversation, in which family members squabbled in a thinly veiled version of the gun-control debate, The old patriarch proudly calls it an anti-purge household; his middle-aged daughter disagrees. Just dont piss me off, bitch, she explains when questioned, and personal quarrels are soon resolved in a hail of bullets. Settling arguments with guns, it seems, is not such a good idea.

producer
You cant make a movie about gun control and assault weapons and have it be about birds producer Jason Blum. Photograph: Buckner/Variety/Rex/Shutterstock

The third film, Election Year, was conceived in 2014, and the NFFAs far-right presidential candidate Minister Edwidge Owens was inspired, DeMonaco has said, by Ted Cruz, who was gearing up to run for the top job at the time. Rewrites preceding the films 2016 release, though, doubled-down on the NFFAs white supremacy, as equivalent voices in the real world grew more confident and more brazenly public. DeMonaco made the NFFAs attitude, he has said, more Trump-like. By this film, the metaphor almost falls away completely, with the anti-purge, Hillary Clinton-inspired presidential candidate Senator Roan namechecking not the NFFA but its real-world inspiration: Money generated from the purge lines the pockets of the NRA and insurance companies, she says.

Art and life bleed into one here. Election Year was shot in September 2015, before the Trump-Clinton campaign got ugly, and seemed eerily prescient when it was released in July 2016. Meanwhile the films tagline, the purge-happy Keep America Great, was announced by Trump, earlier this year, as his 2020 campaign slogan. It is unlikely to be an homage.

As the franchise has grown, its gotten less parable and more political, but thats because the situations gotten more dire, says Blum. The series has stopped wearing its mask. It has, in fact, swapped it for some iconic headgear: the teaser poster for new prequel The First Purge, the first in the franchise to be written and filmed under Trump, simply featured the presidents red Make America Great Again cap, with the slogan swapped for the films title.

In the past, Blum, who makes his own views clear on his Twitter feed, had said the politics in his films should be secondary to the entertainment, but clearly that has changed. As an American, I feel completely trapped, he says. So does over 50% of the country. And one of the ways to get out of that trap is to make movies about it. So certainly the messages have come more to the surface. Every time theres a shooting in the Unites States, theres a loud voice that says the way to avoid a shooting is to pile more guns into the world. The president thinks teachers should carry guns in schools, which is just preposterous. The notion of The Purge, when we started, was this fantastical idea. But because we have a wacko for a President, it seems a lot less outlandish now.

There is no arguing that, for all the politics, the primary purpose of The Purge films is to entertain and to appeal to audiences revenge fantasies, however misplaced they might be. There is, obviously, bloodlust at play. While the films pretend to show us how awful all the carnage is, they also end with cathartic assaults on the evildoers. We are meant to cheer the bloodshed. Even DeMonaco, writer-director of the first three films and the writer of the latest, has said he fears the films could tip into exploitation, and he wants to stay involved with the franchise to safeguard them. He has already had to cut out scenes that tipped the wrong way, including a mass rape set-up that both his wife and the films distributor, Universal, objected to.

Staunchly anti-guns, the films nevertheless wallow in gun violence. The point may well be that this isnt so healthy, that the oft-cited solution to the gun problem being more guns is wrongheaded. But the films violence is satisfying, the message getting, momentarily at least, lost in the mix. Blum says he is troubled by a small percentage of the audience in the US who seem to think the purge is a good idea, judging by reactions he has gauged at screenings.

I think about it all the time, what youre saying, says Blum. But I stand behind the movies, Im proud of them and Im making more of them. I have come to the place, ultimately, that the good outweighs the bad. I dont think the movies are perfect. But you cant make a movie about gun control and guns, and assault weapons in particular, in the US, and have it be about birds.

Its a delicate dance. We love guns. We love violence. And then we hate it when it happens, said Ethan Hawke while promoting the first film. We have a weird dance with violence, as a country. And I think the movie puts its finger right on that. Which is a fair assessment: these films speak to legitimate fears, both macro and micro, while also giving us an opportunity to enjoy escapist violence from a safe distance.

Hawkes as a country addendum is also pertinent. From the start, the series has announced itself as a response to a specifically American syndrome. The purge is an outlet, we are told in the first instalment, for American rage. These films are presented as a cautionary tale for other countries, and in France, the franchise is called American Nightmare.

And with profits growing each time, the message is getting stronger. This is a major film franchise taking shots at government, and pulling no punches as it states its case. It may be blunt, but its a weapon nonetheless.

The First Purge is released on 4 July.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jul/04/how-the-purge-trolls-trumps-america-jason-blum-first-purge

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