The First Purge

How The First Purge uses costume design to balance fantasy and reality

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Jul 13, 2018

Halloween is traditionally the time of year for creepy masks, but since 2013 the Purge franchise has opted for a summer horror slot — and The First Purge is taking us back to the start. The annual event gives citizens a 12-hour period to do whatever violent delights they wish — crime is legal during this period — but how did it all begin?

The glossy suburban vista of The Purge, featuring Cersei Lannister in a cardigan, has been switched for a low-income subsidized housing neighborhood on Staten Island. In part, the Purge franchise is a social and political satire that has increasingly looked at how societal structures hold some back while letting others flourish — only with added gore and violence. It is why the rich in the original installment are the individuals that are perceived to be the safest.

first purge
This aspect is magnified in The First Purge, and SYFY FANGRRLS caught up with costume designer Amela Baksic to discuss how real-life events informed what these characters wear. We also spoke about the collaboration with the mask makers, how the prequel ties in with the original trilogy, and the challenges of working in horror for the costume department.

To get the right look for The First Purge, Amela Baksic went to Staten Island armed with a camera. This was the starting point for her research. The marriage between reality and fantasy is vital to the Purge aesthetic. For the latter, Baksic explained that producer Sebastien Lemercier was on hand to discuss the more fantastical elements. Because Lemercier had produced the previous Purge films, this communication process was how they ensured that the prequel would “tie a little more to the other movies,” noted Baksic.

The real world definitely seeped into the creative process in an overt manner, particularly when designing the look for Staten Island resident Nya (Lex Scott Davis). Nya is a social activist, and this informed her look, according to Baksic: “We looked at Black Lives Matter protests and ... how female activists were dressed.” This was an ongoing process, partly because of how many protests were taking place while they were making The First Purge. “It felt like every week something new was happening. The director [Gerard McMurray] would call me and say, 'Can you please look at this? Let’s try to incorporate this into our movie.'" This doesn’t just apply to 2017; recent events also came up during this conversation. “It is scary because it is even more apt now. It becomes more and more current,” Baksic said.

The First Purge
Horror often has a way of holding up a mirror to society, but the makers of The Purge probably didn’t factor in just how much social unrest would follow when the first movie was released in 2013. The action of The First Purge is grounded by characters like Nya, her brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade) and her ex-boyfriend — and neighborhood drug kingpin — Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel). Because of his profession, Dmitri’s clothes are more expensive and stylish. But that won’t stop them from getting bloody.

There are a number of challenges of working in this genre — a first time for Baksic — including continuity. The events of The First Purge take place over a 24-hour period, which means there aren’t a lot of costume changes per character; some wear the same thing throughout. Heightened violence has the odds of an outfit staying clean set at slim to none. “The Purge night is one look that goes through a progression,” said Baksic. “A whole journey of starting from clean to bloody.” This is a process that involves agers and dyers, working together to get “just the right level of where you start and where you end up with.”

Films also don’t shoot in sequence, so it isn’t a simple case of tracking it this way. Given that this was such a physical shoot, there was also the matter of needing multiples of the costumes for stunts, which rules out thrift or vintage garments. “It has to be something available, like a Gap, Macy’s or J.C. Penney,” Baksic mentioned, in terms of how they factor in this component.

Visually, another aspect to think about is how the costume reads on camera when it is predominantly a night shoot. Choice of silhouette and the texture of a costume can elevate tension further. “Anything that was shiny or had an interesting reflection to it was something we would gravitate toward because it would light better at night, look better and have more interesting mysterious element to it," Baksic said. But it was only one way the costume department considered the visual language; another was the muted color palette, which Baksic explained that cinematographer Anastas N. Michos was after, since “we wanted to create a stark, almost noir look to [the film].”

The First Purge
The masks are one such use of color, texture and silhouette. Baksic developed these ideas with costumer Shawna-Nova Foley, giving producers a number of options before hiring mask maker Gina Scarnati. The idea for the horned mask came by chance when Baksic was on vacation prior to this project; a book on Haitian Carnival showing the “tradition of horned bull masks” caught her eye while she was in a gift shop in Jamaica. That tradition traveled from Jamaica to Buffalo — where they were shooting the movie — where Baksic showed director Gerard McMurray, who loved it.

One link to the Purge trilogy comes via the gas mask imagery. “There is history of gas masks in all the Purge movies. We wanted to put a twist on the traditional gas mask that was done before,” said Baksic. 

The First Purge
As this is an origin story, a peek behind the curtain reveals the face behind the social experiment that becomes law. Marisa Tomei plays Dr. May Updale, aka The Architect. Updale is a behavioral scientist who believes something good can come out of this, not a strong hypothesis. And there is a very specific inspiration behind Updale’s jacket, which will look familiar. "The silhouette is a suit, but it is a little stylized, more 1940s inspired. If you look at her shoulder pads, they are more like 1940s stronger shoulder pads," Baksic said. "That sort of silhouette, Germany Second World War. A little inspiration to create more of a military look."

Again, this plays into the notion of fantasy with real world events — both the recent past and distant past — where the Purge franchise has positioned itself. This is Baksic’s first experience working on a horror movie, and what drew her to this particular one is the overlap between horror and reality. “It was grounded in social and political elements and in reality. The horror part came from reality.” It's this reality that impacts how the costumes inform the story of the Purge movies. With a 10-part miniseries coming to USA in September, expect even more creepy masks before Halloween.