Sébastien Lemercier on Creating the Iconic Terror of ‘The First Purge’

We chat with the producer about the craft of blending the ordinary with the grotesque, and how that mixture is essential in constructing the masks for the Blumhouse franchise.
The First Purge
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on October 2nd, 2018

All we need is an excuse. If Big Brother were to turn out the lights and look the other way, would any of us be that surprised by the resulting carnage? That very real and horrific notion energizes The Purge franchise. Blumhouse has obviously tapped into an idea that is incredibly relatable, and just a few fictional tweaks away from a possible reality.

The four films have grossed over $455 million worldwide, and this Fall, the concept bled into our television sets. Producer Sébastien Lemercier has been there since the beginning, and he was instrumental in fine-tuning the aesthetic of America’s bloodiest night of the year. Even before there is a story to follow, Lemercier and his team start assembling the masks that The Purge’s participants hide behind.

What makes for the scariest and most iconic disguise? How did the mask-makers land on their perversion of the Statue of Liberty, or the black tape facade of The First Purge? I spoke to Lemercier over the phone, and we discussed how, when it comes to realizing the costumes, a gut reaction trumps intellectual design.

We also talk about when the envelope is pushed too far, and how to balance entertaining horror with genuine political and social strife. He is a man who loves his job and brings a lot of thought to each and every one of the designs you see in the film. For each one of them, there are fifty rejected concepts.

Here is our conversation in full:

What is your process for developing the masks of The First Purge?

I would have to start on Purge One to be honest because it’s a method that James [DeMonaco] and I have sort of elaborated on throughout the movies; trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work for a mask. We realized that it’s very hard to have a theoretical approach to work on designs of drawings and things like that. What you have to have is sort of a gut reaction to a fabric, to an idea or something, and it’s a very interactive kind of process where you work with the mask creators and you go in there and you talk it through. It’s something that comes more from the gut and from the brain if you want.

You know it when you see it.

We also discovered the two guidelines that we sort of realize, you know. I’m gonna take an example not from a movie of ours, but I was watching Blue Velvet the other day, and there’s this very creepy image of Dennis Hopper walking up the stairs, and he has like a wig and a mustache, and both the wig and the mustache are a little too big, so they look fake, but at a glimpse it looks very creepy. I think that that’s the idea that to be creepy and scary, there has to be uncommon something off, you know.

So far instance, take The First Purge, the leather mask where we have the guy in the translucent raincoat with the water pistol. There’s like a leather mask then we put teeth on it, which is completely uncommon and it becomes very disturbing because there shouldn’t be teeth in there, and we put on teeth that don’t look like monster teeth. They look like human teeth, so then it’s uncommon and disturbing immediately. It’s to find these elements and then, of course, there are also thematic elements in every movie. In Election Year, the thematic element of the Statue of Liberty is big.

I was at Comic-Con this year in San Diego, and I was walking the show floor and a woman in full Purge: Election Year cosplay, the Statue of Liberty on stilts, came strolling by, and it absolutely terrified me.

It’s funny that you say that, that is exactly what I was trying to say. We should like the Statue of Liberty. In a way, Ghostbusters did that with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. If you make it too big it becomes creepy and then if you take the Statue of Liberty and find the elements that create distortion, then it becomes a monster.

So you’re not working necessarily from drawing designs, you go right to the fabric itself and just start putting pieces together?

Yes. There are different elements. James often compiles a file of images. He has a book of images that he takes from paintings, that he takes form photographs, that he takes from art in general. And this could be elements from movies or from documentaries even, and we compile a big bunch of images that are inspirational and then we explain it to the mask maker. We realized very quickly on the second movie, and the third and the fourth, that we needed to have a mask department. So we actually have a person who is making the masks who is responsible, the costume designer also makes masks and on top of that we have an extra person to be in charge of the masks. We had one particular lady on the last movie, Gina [Scarnati].

So what we do then is we talk about what is scary in this image and what is scary in that image and we try to analyze the reactions and then just to say did we use this kind of image before, because we try to always come up with new ideas, and then we narrow it down with a few elements and then we decide on fabric. Take an example from The First Purge, we have been trying to get a scary S&M black leather mask for all the movies but we’ve never succeeded. It was never creepy. It was never working for some reason.

And then finally, on the last one, a mask maker got it right with the costume and everything and it’s one of our creepiest characters we’ve created so far. We were very excited. We’ve been trying to make this work for a very long time. But again, you’re in the room, you look at stuff, you touch things also, why is this weird, why does this feel wrong in a good way? What is disturbing? Another thing you have to know, for 20 masks there were nineteen masks that were rejects and one mask that will stay in the movie. Meaning that you have to create a lot to find the striking image.

So, you’re thinking a lot about what’s going on socially and politically when you’re designing.

Yes absolutely. I think that is very important. Let’s take the example of the last movie. At the end with the militia, we have what we call that black tape mask which is inspired by a black face kind of thing. That’s something that Gerard [McMurray] came up with, he and a friend of his that he knows from Harvard University. They came up with the mask that James and I wouldn’t have come up with which is culturally different, which is rooted in the African American experience and we were very grateful for that too because some were very striking and powerful images. We have to sort of dive into the world we live in for sure, it’s unavoidable, and to be honest, the world is making it easier and easier to come up with these horrible images. Which is kind of scary for sure.

It is interesting. You had a scene where the massacre in the church and the hero would never go into the church and there were white supremacist exiting the church. It’s the first time where the test screening audience thought this was too real. We tweaked it a little bit. I think it’s interesting to have the reality of the world being ten times worst than the movie. So we always have to keep a certain symbolic distance, which is linked to the genre, and if it becomes too real it becomes too painful.

You talked about trusting your gut on designing these masks but how do you know when one mask works and when one doesn’t?

You just know. You know what is interesting, because it’s not just one person or two person, we all work on it and then, when I feel something I can see I look at the assistant costumer who is way behind me in the back and I say have a look at this or I just see it when she looks, her reaction or somebody walks in the room and is not expecting to see what they see. You surprise people and you see immediately their reaction then. It’s interesting when people have to stop thinking about it, they convince themselves that it’s an interesting mask or it’s not working. It has to be an immediate reaction. You have to be disturbed by what you see. It’s just something that you see and it works and it’s not just for one person, it’s for everybody, “oh wow this is working great”.

One of my favorite masks is from The Purge: Anarchy. There is a mask that says “God.” A white mask with the “God” word written on it. This is to us is one of our favorite masks throughout the franchise. Wonderful actor, wonderful body language with the white mask on and it looked interesting, wasn’t bad. We both felt there was something missing, then James came up with the idea. I think I came up with maybe we should write something and James came up with the word, or the other way around, but it was an interaction, talking to the costumer like what can we do? Then James said lets put the word “God” on the mask and then suddenly everyone around us said this is great. It’s telling a story.

It’s hard to make an iconic image, but when you do make an iconic image like the candy girls for instance, when you film it you know it’s iconic. You recognize it. You don’t decide it. Before you succeed you will try 50 different things before you find something that’s really cool.

And with The First Purge, because you’re going back to the beginning of this experiment, what exactly do you have to take into account in evolving or devolving the design?

We had a simple principle on The First Purge. People wouldn’t have elaborate masks because they haven’t planned on it for a very long time. There are a few people out there who have been waiting for this all their life, and so we can also go a little bit crazier. We wanted the people, not the militias, but the people masks to be more traditional with Mardi Gras, and Gerard our director is from New Orleans. We wanted to be more in line with Mardi Gras, with the concept of carnival, a mask just for fun. You have like a happy kind of theme to it. On the other hand, we wanted the militias, the evil people to disguise themselves and to use the masks as a way to cover up their identity. Meaning they have to be a little bit more elaborate masks and they have to point people in the wrong direction. These were the two principals of The First Purge. It’s to be happy on one hand and the disguised on the other one.

Now The Purge has invaded our TV sets. What does that involve from your point of view?

I would say when you make a movie, you create a ride. It’s the punch in the gut, you go in there, you come out of there, and it’s like you’ve been through a washer and dryer for a while and we really want to have that intensity. Which is very important. It is the collective experience of having 200 people in a room screaming together, laughing together, being scared together. I think that’s very unique, that’s really what the movies are about. The movies are never about having people come back the next week, but you want people to enjoy and be happy for the fact that they came. It’s a little different dynamic. What that doesn’t allow is to really go into the psychology of the characters. For instance, to go into the past, to go into the psychological motivations. We don’t really have the time to do that as much, we can do it a little bit, but not at the same level. The show allows us to do just that, to go back into the past with the characters and to see how The Purge affects the psychology of the human being in a deeper way, not just in the experience of the one night.

The First Purge is out now on Digital HD and is available on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)