SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the series premiere of “The Purge,” which aired Sept. 4 on USA.
When Anthony Hemingway was considering whether to come aboard the television version of James DeMonaco’s “Purge” franchise, a big draw for him was the chance to “be somewhat reflective of our current reality and the temperature we live in in this current political climate.”
But more than just creating a world humming with the tension of potential danger, Hemingway also became excited about having an opportunity to take something that is “pretty well known” as a franchise while helping the “TV show find its own identity.”
“I felt like I got to really take something that is familiar and really present it in a different way and shake it up and turn it on its head,” Hemingway tells Variety. “It gave me an opportunity to be creative and artistic.”
It’s an experience he’s familiar with, having put his stamp on projects like USA’s “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.” and FX’s “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story,” which earned him an Emmy nod for his directing work.
Here, Hemingway talks with Variety about setting the tone for the series, getting into the minds of the characters, and negotiating the amount of violence to portray.
How do you feel the name recognition of the franchise affected how much work you had to do to establish the world?
I totally feel like I didn’t have to do any real big set up. … Part of the viewing experience is taking the viewer on this ride and letting you feel what each character is feeling in that moment. Of course, just thinking about over time this show will live at night, and so you also are trying to really feel that sense of the clock ticking, the urgency of trying to devise the plan or whatever each character’s mission is in this piece — wanting to feel it differently and the way they are entering it.
What was most important to you about the earliest scenes in the premiere, pre-Purge?
I was able to really just be impressionistic with things, and that was where I felt I had the room to really design and be creative — and to get into story and character. And that was the fun part because you get to be very ambiguous, in a sense, and set the stage of the beautiful characters that come through here and the storylines that the writers got to dive into. … I [had to] figure out how to balance what we were setting up and all of the themes, like social disparity and the visceral tensions and release of what the night of purging could bring, which all goes back to the intention of the franchise as a cautionary tale. There was a need for giving them all a beginning that would allow them all to have an arc, even visually.
How differently did you want to shoot the characters once they were in their chosen locations for the Purge?
That was part of the fun — just trying to figure out how you’ll allow yourself to fall into the psychology of these different characters’ storylines. From the impoverished to the most elite and entitled in society, each one of them gave a different insight and inspired me…. From the simple sense of having more resources and money, which can afford you the most and the highest end of technology, versus someone who has to commit manual labor and figure out how to be very creative with their own barricading to help their own safety…. With Rick and Jenna, it was trying to take them into this elitist world and see and feel how they felt — the tension and the fear, because they also have an underlying relationship issue that will be revealed down the road. I wanted you to feel how they felt riding in that car, being almost attacked by the driver and really setting up this whole dichotomy of disparities that come — whether it’s political views or personal. Miguel, being this Marine and the loss of his sister, having recently lost their parents, the yearning for family and what that meant — just the urgency that came in there, feeling his heartbeat and feeling his loss when he kept getting so close and yet so far away.
Miguel is the only main character who shows signs of physical aggression in the premiere, yet he’s not a Purger.
With Miguel we really wanted to get a sense of who this character is from the very beginning. And then you come into understanding why, and hopefully you ask the question, “Would [I] feel the same?” Part of this is to allow us to create conversation and to really figure out how to have these water cooler moments and be able to talk about things and share. So for him, it was really imperative that there was an interesting dichotomy of his hard edge but realizing he’s on a noble mission at the same time.
Do you find action scenes like those with Miguel or the more intimate, almost claustrophobic scenes on the bus or with Rick and Jenna in the car to be more complicated?
They’re all challenging! Really because I try to reinvent myself. Of course every story is different, and that’s where I take my marching orders from, so they’re never the same, even if you can do some things the same way, technically.
Which is more fulfilling?
The end of the pilot, with Arthur’s kill, to me that was so rewarding because I wanted to approach that in such a different way than being literal or doing what we expect. I love being unexpected and finding different ways to tell a story.
How did you approach filming the violence of that scene, given that it’s for an ad-supported network?
To be impressionistic with that was more effective, to me, than if I had seen it play out in real time. And even within that moment, that storyline is really the point of view of Penelope, so it was about seeing how she was affected by it. And so to start to see her crack — we saw what she came into it thinking, feeling, believing, and to see that over time be affected by what she was witnessing. … James DeMonaco will say the films were never about the blood or the gore for him, but for me, I listen to that, and I hear him, and again it’s about what this particular moment needs. … I can’t just completely go into it with a fully loaded rhetoric of too many limitations or rules. I have to be open to listening to what this piece needs. So those were some of the obstacles that come with any piece, but this was one in particular where a lot of those ideologies were shared from the beginning, and I honored that and respected it, but within the collaborative space I was allowed to be free with what I felt was right.
What did you think would be the biggest challenge going into this project, and did that prove to be your actual biggest challenge once you were in it?
The challenge in a lot of situations was just trying to get people to let go of what the film’s identity initially dictated. That was something I continued to question before I even said yes — that I was going to be able to come in and really contribute to this from a design stage, as well as all the way through tone and structure. I came in early enough to really help flesh it out. … It was the opportunity of bringing a fresh voice, a fresh lens to it, and also just being bold with it. I am one who doesn’t like to settle, and I love to push the boundaries on a lot of things, and so I continued to challenge where sometimes things wanted to settle just based on the franchise’s imprint. And that was part of the thrill for me, as well as the challenge — to color it a little differently than what the films did.