A few months back, this writer had the opportunity to head down to New Orleans for a set visit being held for the upcoming television event series centered on the world of The Purge, bringing the franchise’s relevant and thought-provoking socio-political themes to the small screen for a ten-episode run that begins on Tuesday, September 4th on the USA Network.
During our time there, we had the chance to tour several of the show’s sets (including one that we have to keep under wraps for a bit longer, but it is incredible) and spoke with The Purge executive producer and showrunner Thomas Kelly, production designer Sharon Lomofsky, costume and mask designer Lauren Bott, as well as numerous cast members including Colin Woodell, Amanda Johnson, Lee Tergesen, Lili Simmons and Hannah Emily Anderson.
Thomas Kelly, who is no stranger to the world of television, discussed how the themes of the film series impacted his decision to come aboard The Purge, even if he didn’t have a great deal of genre expertise.
“When they approached me about The Purge, I was intrigued by the concept, so I watched the movies, and I really enjoyed them. The first thing that appealed to me, as someone who doesn't come really from a genre background, was that in that first movie, you are ten minutes in and there's a black guy being chased down the street by a white mob. It just felt so relevant to the world we live in, so that intrigued me deeply. I met with James DeMonaco, who's a lovely guy. We had a very long lunch and we talked about the idea of transforming a franchise into a television show, and I think he was excited by the idea of the 10 hours of storytelling.”
“That was very exciting, the idea that we would still be telling the story from the confines of the one night, but by using flashbacks, we would really get to know the characters in a much deeper way than the movie space allows. Right away, he had a pretty contained vision for what the first season would be, and it was nice to sit down in a writers’ room and have a pretty good idea of (a) we all knew what the franchise was, and (b) how we were gonna expand the franchise. We had some characters that we really all felt invested in and we were able to just spread that over the ten hours.”
According to Kelly, DeMonaco, who has been a driving force in the trajectory of The Purge film franchise since the very beginning, was also instrumental in the writers’ room as the scripts were coming together for this new television series. The showrunner also credits having a diverse staff taking on writing duties for The Purge as a way to dive into the multitude of themes at play during this 12-hour period of lawlessness where all bets are off. For Kelly, it’s about more than just killing people without consequences.
“We have a great writers' room,” said Kelly. “We have a good mix of people, in terms of gender, different ethnicities, and class diversity, too, which no one ever talks about. People forget that class diversity is a huge part of the problem in our country. So, it was great to get a lot of new perspectives, bring them in, and they all helped inform our characters that operate in the stories, and for me, everything starts with character.”
“When it comes to this world, I think the most intriguing question is, ‘What would you do?’ If you were stuck in this world, what decisions would you make? So, our characters explore that in their own ways through different audience viewpoints. We tackle things like race, class, workplace issues, gender identity, and how we function in a capitalist society, and pit that against this concept. We’ve all had these thoughts, right? Even before The Purge, what if you couldn't get caught, if there were no ramifications of your actions, what keeps you from going out and just going batshit? Is it a moral center, or is it just these scriptures that society puts on us? What is the human condition? Our history shows it's pretty rotten and pretty awful at times. There's a real darkness in the heart of humankind, and it’s been centuries of trying to overcome that darkness and those more basal instincts.”
“Something else we set out to examine here is the idea of the American Dream. Is it real? Is it an illusion? What are the costs of it? Do you have to sell a part of your soul to achieve it? If you get it, is it everything you thought it was going to be? It’s like when people win the lottery. How many people win the lottery, and then their life spirals out of control and they're broke and no one really can save them? What is the price of success? That’s what we set out to figure out with this show.”
Of course, writing is just one of many necessary ingredients when putting together a compelling and entertaining television series, and Kelly discussed how integral the cast, crew, and director Anthony Hemingway all were to ensuring that The Purge was set on a course for success.
“I couldn’t be happier with how everything is going. We've been able to get an amazing crew and an amazing cast across the board. I think everyone was attracted to the material and the franchise being as strong as it has been certainly helped as well. We were also lucky to get director Anthony Hemingway to come in and do the first two episodes and really establish the visual style of the show, which is stunning. I think he's done an amazing job.”
“I use this word very sparingly, but he is a visionary. Usually, when someone's called a visionary, they're just some nincompoop who calls themselves a visionary, and Anthony would never call himself that. But every time we were going to attempt to do a version of something, he just pushed us through the bigger, better, cooler, bolder version of it, and I think it really shows.”
“Plus, we also have Sharon [Lomofsky] and Lauren [Bott] here, too,” Kelly added, “and they’re both pushing just how far we can take this show on a visual level, and I think the audience will really respond to it once we debut.”
The first set from The Purge that we spent a great deal of time on was called Pete’s Cantina, which acts as a safe haven amongst the chaos of all the Purge-related activities, and plays an essential part in this first season of the brand new series. Lomofsky explained the ins and outs of the locale to us, saying, “The cantina is owned by Pete the cop, who knows everything. He's a retired cop, and this is a third-generation family bar he's renovated and turned into a nice speakeasy. The idea here is that this feels like an old-school Irish bar that’s also a safe haven. It's a place you can come on Purge night to just have a drink, put down your weapons, take off your masks, and refresh. Some of them stop to take a breath before heading back out, and some come to Pete’s to think about whether or not they should even go out to purge. It’s just one of the few safe zones out there, so there are security guards outside and a code of ethics everyone inside must abide by that keeps everyone safe.”
The cantina interiors hummed with a gauzy warmth, with green splashes, dark woodwork, and bold crimson accents that felt very lived in and were very welcoming to those who entered through the safe haven’s doors. And, according Lomofsky, the color palettes to The Purge’s various settings are all part of a grander design on her part.
“Everything you’ll see throughout the show has a color code going on with it,” Sharon explained. “One of the couples you will meet, their color theme is blue, and there’s the mansion set which is all gold. We’ve themed out everything, so when you see the show, you’ll notice that we were very intentional with how we used color throughout.”
For designer Lauren Bott, the one thing she knew that had to be perfect when it came to The Purge series was the creation of the show’s masks, as the various looks and false visages we’ve seen over the years from the film series have now become iconic touchstones in the realm of modern horror.
“When it comes to these stories, everybody's always obsessed with the masks. So, for the TV show, we had to come up with ideas that were similar in tone, but different. Obviously with television, there’s a tighter schedule, so it's quicker, it's faster, and it's a little bit more intense. And for me, that just meant that we had to pump out more masks. I think we do between five and ten masks per episode.”
“They all have that DIY element to them, where the masks need to look like someone could make them, and they need to look like they were done in a way that would promote murder, too. The scariest masks to me are the ones that have that human element to them, but they also look nothing like the way anyone would normally look. That’s the idea behind the ponytail mask.
“The rest are similar. The nun was something we did recently that was scripted. It was something our showrunner Tom really wanted in the show, where we had six guys dressed in various stages of black. The idea for me was that the lights around them in their scene would look like a halo. And for the teeth, those are real dentures, and then we just maneuvered the teeth, popped out a couple teeth and moved them in different spaces, so that everybody's mouth is slightly different and very, very odd. None of the teeth make sense. I don't even think they can grow like that.”
“We just want them to be as scary as possible, and I think the main thing with the masks in this show is keeping them very simple and very scary. We have these serial killer masks for the Stanton mansion party. It was in the script that they would all have serial killer masks, so we just punched that idea up a little with some surreal and creepy touches. We like to take these things that you find sweet and heroic and all-American and make them gross and disgusting and scary and murderous,” Bott added.
Lauren also confirmed that we will see a mask that is referenced in the Purge films, but is not directly tied to a character in the TV series.
Another Purge tradition that will carry through to the television series is the exploration of violence and the physical and mental effects the annual tradition of murder and mayhem has on those under the rule of the New Founding Fathers of America. According to Tom Kelly, fans need not worry about whether or not the leap to the small screen will impact The Purge’s ability to go all out when it comes to the homicidal tendencies of those who decide to participate in the titular activities.
“One thing I think people always forget is that these movies aren't full of gore,” explained Kelly. “They're full of violence, but there's really no gore in the movies, and James has been pretty fastidious about that, and we've matched that here. For us, obviously it's a violent world and bad things happen, but we really try to treat the violence in terms of how it affects our characters, or how it lands on these characters. There are some pretty bad acts of violence, but mostly we don't see it, we see how it lands.”
“We have two types of violence. There’s what we call Purge texture, like we’re driving down the street and there’s this crazy bit of weirdness going on, we just blast right by it, we don't really dwell on it. It's not really in our characters' world. And then, there’s the stuff that's more directed at our characters, and that’s when we make it about how they respond to it, or how they try to avoid it.”
“We do feel deeply [that] the show is a cautionary tale, though, and it's a very anti-violence story where, if we're not careful, this is where we're all gonna end up. We have always been very judicious about that. And the best thing is that because we’re on basic cable, there’s not much that we are doing that will be a problem for the networks, especially these days.”
While Tom confirms that The Purge television show will transport viewers to nearly a decade in the future, he said that they’ve been very careful not to directly connect to any particular time frame as a way to keep the material feeling very timely and “in the moment” for audiences. Kelly also confirmed that there may be a few Purge film franchise Easter eggs to be found throughout the new series (“there may or may not be a character from Anarchy that makes an appearance in episode nine,” he admitted), and that while the intention of the Purge television event series is to be anthological in its storytelling, there is still potential for some of the characters we meet in these first ten episodes to be carried over into future seasons.
“The big problem is that whenever you are doing television, networks tend to fall in love with certain characters, so that’s why I always try to hurry up and kill ’em, just so the network doesn’t get that chance,” Kelly joked.
Before Tom gets a chance to do away with the various characters from the upcoming Purge TV series, we’re going to introduce you to several of the show’s cast members in the second part of our set visit report. Be sure to check back here on Daily Dead tomorrow for more from the world of The Purge TV series.
In case you missed it, check here to read part 2 of Heather's set visit for The Purge TV series!