In ‘This is the Night,’ a love letter to cinema, ‘Rocky III’

·3 min read

Filmmaker James DeMonaco remembers the day “Rocky III” hit theaters as if it were yesterday. On Staten Island in 1982, it was an all-out event.

He waited four hours in line to get tickets and saw it twice in a day. Kids at his school carried the poster around like a trophy. There even were fights in the theater and squabbles between the “tough guys” and the “nerds” over who was allowed to love the character. It’s these memories that inspired “ This is the Night, ” which follows one Staten Island family on the film's opening day.

DeMonaco wrote and directed “This is the Night,” which is newly available on video on demand and stars Naomi Watts and Frank Grillo as the parents of two teenage boys. All have their own crises to navigate (in addition to getting tickets to the film). The father’s restaurant is struggling and he might have to lean on a local mobster (Bobby Cannavale) to help. The younger brother Tony (Lucius Hoyos) is trying to impress a girl and make it to her party in time. And the older one, Christian (Jonah Hauer-King) is having a revelation about his identity, with the gentle encouragement of his mother.

It is a big departure for DeMonaco, who is best known for creating “The Purge.” Somewhat by accident he’s spent the better part of a decade in that world after the first film went from something that no one would finance (“too anti-American” was a phrase he often heard) to a franchise-starting hit that grossed over $90 million on a $3 million budget.

But “This is the Night” is something that’s been brewing for years and, with the support of his friends at Blumhouse, he decided the time was finally right.

“It was kind of my way to pay back my love of cinema that kind of saved me,” DeMonaco said. “I always say, it’s like my religion in life has been movies... It was the way we kind of learned about the world beyond Staten Island.”

He strived to capture that ineffable feeling of “the cinematic experience" in his film. It’s why he asked for four full shooting days inside a movie theater. He wanted it to be grand and operatic.

“It’s a compelling time to look at the cultural significance of theatrical movie-going and remind ourselves why it’s so critical to our society,” said producer Jason Blum.

And yet DeMonaco’s film never actually shows “Rocky III,” which was a debate with everyone from the producers to Sylvester Stallone himself. He tried it their way, but it just wasn't working. Besides, he said, “it's not just about ‘Rocky III.’”

“I’m hoping that it becomes more about any film that has inspired anyone,” he said. “It’s about cinema as a universal theme.”

Still, it was special thrill for an Italian American — who remembers scrapbooking about Rocky with his sister — to show his film to Stallone.

“In a weird way, I needed him to like it. I’m like, we have to show him the film. It will be weird if he just finds out. He wanted to screen it alone, which I totally understand, because he could have hated it,” DeMonaco said. "But I got early word from someone who worked with him, that in the screening he stood up and was shadowboxing with the movie."

Afterward, Stallone invited DeMonaco to his home and talked for a few hours.

“He loves that character. He knows that character built his career. And he loves seeing that other people love it the same way he loves Rocky.... he actually was like, yeah, I know you Staten Islanders really like me,” DeMonaco said. “Spending that day with him was really, really wonderful, a dream come true. All my Staten Island friends are jealous of that more than anything I’ve done.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press

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