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September 2018, Week 2

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 		 [Through the characters, The Purge explores the issues of the day,
whether it’s race or class or the reality of a really small
percentage of people getting all the power. ] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 REPORTING FROM THE SET OF THE PURGE WITH REALITY KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
 
[https://portside.org/2018-09-09/reporting-set-purge-reality-knocking-door]


 

 Alex McLevy 
 September 4, 2018
AV Club
[https://tv.avclub.com/reporting-from-the-set-of-the-purge-with-reality-knocki-1828362964]


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 _ Through the characters, The Purge explores the issues of the day,
whether it’s race or class or the reality of a really small
percentage of people getting all the power. _ 

 , YouTube 

 

There’s a young woman nearby in restraints, screaming. She’s
surrounded by people, but none of them seem very eager to help her. To
say more would be to spoil the episode, but let me assure you, it’s
fucked up.

A group of us are currently taking refuge from the sweltering
Louisiana heat, soaking up the cool air of a soundstage while watching
the cast and crew of this show set up for another shot. They’re
about halfway through filming season one of _The Purge_
[https://tv.avclub.com/even-with-a-lot-on-its-mind-the-tv-adaptation-of-the-p-1828668360],
an adaptation of the hit film franchise that’s premiering on USA
Network today, and the set design is a horror fantasist’s dream come
true. From the outrageous Day-Glo aesthetic of one stage to the eerie
minimalism of another, the series isn’t going to want for engaging
visuals. But that’s never been the main appeal of this high-concept
premise—and the new show, in particular, will be about figuring out
just what all is there to unpack, psychologically and
sociopolitically, once you get past the initial action-horror rush of
the conceit.

“What is there to care about in this alternate universe, other than
the night of the Purge itself?” was my first thought, when I heard
about this new iteration of the story. That’s the mission of the TV
adaptation—to get beyond the gonzo appeal of the films, to something
more expansive, more involved, more _everything_; to turn a one-night
bacchanalia of mayhem into an ongoing narrative as rich as any drama
out there.

“We had a pre-greenlight writers’ room, and if I ever do that
again, light me on fire.” _Purge_ showrunner Thomas Kelly is
standing in a set location known as Pete’s Cantina—a violence-free
neutral zone during the night of the Purge—and holding court before
the assembled journalists, explaining the perils of being granted the
opportunity to start writing for a series more than half a year before
production began. It’s given him the opportunity to craft some very
strong scripts, he feels, but the downside is clear: “Then you give
studios and networks like seven more months to give you notes on
scripts.” A ticking clock, he ruefully admits, can be a very good
friend to a writer.

Kelly may seem an unlikely choice to head up a genre exercise that
traffics in so much chaos. A novelist-turned-TV-writer who graduated
from Harvard’s Kennedy School Of Government with a master’s degree
in public administration, he doesn’t talk like someone tasked with
delivering a show where murder is legal for one night. “You can
watch it as a pure sort of entertainment, a thrill ride,” he says,
but it’s clear where his interests lie. “Through the characters
[we can] explore the issues of the day, whether it’s race or class
or the reality of a really small percentage of people getting all the
power. How does that affect the way we live our lives?”

That sense of addressing universal issues carries over into nearly
every aspect of the project, much as the movies have increasingly
foregrounded issues of race or class over gratuitous violence. (Kelly
notes screenwriter James DeMonaco has always steered clear of gore,
despite the intense violence of the films.) Despite filming in New
Orleans, the show is set in an anonymous “small American city,”
part of Kelly’s concern with making sure the series not only
addresses a broadly diverse scope of characters and lives, but zeroes
in on the complex issues of American economic turmoil. “You know, I
come from deep in the white working class and I think you watch the
media and it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re like the orangutans in the zoo
and they created Trump,’ and obviously it’s a lot more complex
than that,” he says.

“I’ve been squawking about deindustrialization since I was in the
Kennedy School Of Government at Harvard 30 years ago, and nobody
wanted to listen. Like, how do we deal with this? How do we deal with
this huge structural change in the economy? There’s no other
industrialized democracies in the world who just allow cities to be
obliterated and millions of workers to be put out of work without any
real attention to that and remedy for that. So here we’ve created a
disenfranchised class of people and geography, and we sit back and go,
‘Oh, they’re all racist morons,’ which is bullshit. Some are
racist morons. But I’ve met racist morons at Harvard.”

He knows this is probably not the angle USA wants to hear when
promoting its splashy new show, but he’s also smart enough to
realize it’s likely the biggest draw for a good portion of the TV
audience that doesn’t want to just sit through a 10-hour version of
the _Purge_ movies, a notion that sounds exhausting at best. So
while there’s plenty of Purge-night excitement (about “70 percent
Purge night, 30 percent flashbacks/outside the Purge”) in each
episode, his attention keeps returning to character development, and
how those characters help illuminate complicated real-world issues
that are uncomfortably close for most of us. “This is going to work
best,” he emphasizes, “if the audience feels like this could
happen 10 minutes from now, 10 yards away.”

Of course, that’s not necessarily a tough ask when you’ve got a
show with families being ripped apart and people being thrown into
cages. At the time of this visit, it’s the height of public
attention (and outrage) over the Trump administration’s new
practice of separating children from parents and locking them away
behind bars
[https://news.avclub.com/stephen-colbert-invites-satan-to-defend-putting-kids-in-1826944942],
regardless of how young. For the cast of _The Purge_, daily life and
the fun dystopic fantasy series they signed up for are starting to
look a little too much alike.

“It’s an adventure, most of all.” Everyone I speak to on the
show drops a variation on this line at some point, part of what I’m
rapidly surmising are some clear instructions from their PR handlers
to avoid current events whenever possible and, god willing, keep
Trump’s name out of their mouths. But there’s only so much you can
do when real life intrudes in such a way on your primetime
horror-drama before people start being honest.

“A scenario where a country, the leader of the free world, the
leading country of the free world, has 12 hours to be a lawless state?
...That is so scary. And so possible. Because something has shifted in
our global society where people are quite brazen and fiercely free in
expressing thoughts like these.” That’s Amanda Warren, the actor
playing Jane, a woman who has found herself stymied by a business
culture that refuses to allow her to advance regardless of talent. So
she channels her frustration into a Purge-related decision. “[Jane]
is trying to get a good result out of this. Something that is well
deserved—and this night, this law, presents her with an opportunity
to resolve some things and set things in motion that goes into a
better direction for her and what she believes for the community
around her.”

Warren, like the other actors, relishes the mix of real-world drama
and subversive satire at work in the series and its outsized moral
dilemmas. Praising Kelly and his writers, the veteran of projects
like _The Leftovers_
[https://www.avclub.com/c/tv-review/the-leftovers] and _Three
Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri_
[https://www.avclub.com/the-unpredictable-three-billboards-outside-ebbing-miss-1820287079] rattles
off the writers and directors who she’s worked with that have
similar facility for blending the horrible and the hilarious:
“Whether it be Martin McDonagh, Barry Levinson, Damon Lindelof...
good people. I always do that look [at the resume] and I’m like,
‘Lucky gal, lucky lucky gal.’”

But despite the obvious injunctions against making parallels to
current events too explicit, she refuses to pretend there aren’t
lines to be connected when it comes to, say, the New Founding Fathers
of _The Purge_ and certain white supremacist movements that may or
may not have received the blessing of being called “very fine
people” by the current White House occupant. “You know, people
would call me stupid if I weren’t saying that,” she says, her
degree from NYU’s Gallatin school coming into play as she discusses
the social and psychological touchstones of her character as it
relates to contemporary society. “I mean, that is what it is right
now. We are such a fractured, isolated global society that anything is
possible. Anything.”

It’s a refrain the other actors cautiously echo, everyone trying
speak diplomatically while still acknowledging the glaring realities
staring them—and viewers—in the face. Lili Simmons plays Lila, the
daughter of prominent New Founding Fathers-affiliated parents. She
sees it throughout her story arc, which begins at a party for the
well-to-do on the night of The Purge. “You really see Lila
struggling. The people she’s talking to at this party are completely
oblivious that this [Purge] is a horrible thing, and they have no idea
what’s happening to the lower-income houses.” Simmons says the
class-struggle element hits hardest for her. “Oh, especially with
the new tax laws,” she says. “Excuse my French, but the lower
class is always getting screwed.”

For Hannah Anderson and Colin Woodell, who play married couple Jenna
and Rick, the political situation plays out differently, her being
Canadian and him a U.S. citizen. “Regardless if I was on this show
or not, I’m just very frustrated,” Woodell mentions. “I’m
constantly reading something or seeing something new on a daily basis
and it’s really difficult. I’m at the point right now where I just
want to block it out, but that’s not my duty as an American, to
block the truth out.”

Anderson tries to channel her real-world concern into her work.
“Being on a show isn’t going to solve any of the [problems]
happening in America, but I think it makes me wanna fight harder as my
character to want to help people,” she says. “It really ignites a
frustration and anger inside of me that I think is helpful, actually,
in this [fictional] world. As a Canadian I feel there is a bit of a
helplessness, because I can stand up for people but not in the same
way as if I was able to vote here.” Still, they both express relief
that at the end of the day they can leave the world of the Purge.
“We get to laugh,” she adds, not coincidentally with a
serious-topic-puncturing laugh, as if to prove the point.

Even though so much of that rich, meaty drama is what will give this
series heft, let’s not forget that at the end of the day it’s a
gonzo genre piece where all crime is legal, and things get bananas.
“Think of all the fun things you could do!” Simmons offers with a
playful clap. “I’m like, why does killing have to be the fun one?
Can’t we do something else? Like go steal a Louis Vuitton bag, or a
car, yeah! That would be really fun. That’s what I would wanna
do.”

Clearly, everyone has given a lot of thought to the question of what
they’d do were they truly in their characters’ shoes the night of
the Purge. “I think there is a part of me that would love to be
thrust into this exhilarating tension of not knowing how I get from A
to B and what’s going to happen,” Woodell confesses, “but I
really am a bit of a wuss. I am pretty set on the idea that I would
lock myself up somewhere.”

“You could come to Canada,” Anderson reminds him with a laugh.

He readily agrees. “Right. She [Woodell gestures to Anderson.] told
me she had an extra bed, so I would probably come to Winnipeg.”

Warren has an even more philosophical response to the question of what
you would do, were you really in the Purge. “How freely are you
willing to admit that?” she says, and it’s a valid point—the
opportunity of the Purge presents an outlet for darker desires.

Of course, none of them even know if their characters will make it to
the end of the season. “I’m like, ‘Do you know anything?’”
Simmons says about pestering the writers. “‘I need to know. Tell
me.’ I definitely try to pry it out of them.” Not that any of them
would trade the roller-coaster ride of the experience for certainty.
“It’s been really fun, like getting a new _Harry Potter_book,”
she adds. “Remember when you would have to wait for those things? I
feel like it’s that.”

That sense of excitement was reflected in the face of everyone I
walked past while exploring the set. From camera operators to script
supervisors, there was a sense of glee readily apparent, a feeling
that the whole project was a giant playground of dark-humored fun that
was actually more enjoyable in some ways for its current relevance.
It’s a vibe that hopefully carries over into the show itself, a
world gone mad that nonetheless reflects ours in nearly every way save
one. And even that one boundary is starting to look a little
threadbare, with the daily death toll by gun violence rising.

“We’re numb to it [the real-life tragedy] at this point,” Warren
says. “And I never thought I’d say that about myself, because I
tend to think of myself as incredibly compassionate, and someone
who’s very in touch with my emotional life, so to see certain things
on television repeatedly—same stuff, different place. That’s
scary, to say, ‘Oh, that happened again,’ without any....” she
trails off. “It’s not Columbine anymore. It’s Tuesday.”

It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s a slow-motion Purge
already in place.

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