In Japan, "Death Note" is something of a phenomenon.
It began as a manga (comic book series) by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, first published between December 2003 and May 2006, it is the tale of a young man named Light who gets gifted a book that will allow you to control life and death simply by writing inside of it. (The fact that it's given to him by a spiky demon name Ryuk should tip you off to the moral nebulousness of this proposition.) The original manga would inspire everything from a long-running animated series to several live-action films to a Broadway-style musical but it hasn't reached western audiences ... until now.
The live-action American remake of "Death Note" will premiere on Netflix this Friday and introduce an entirely new audience to something genuinely beloved in other parts of the world. In this version, Light (Nat Wolff) is a pouty Seattle teen and Ryuk is now a creepy, porcupine-y weirdo with the voice of Willem Dafoe. Tonally, it fluctuates between bloody horror and arch comedy (and everywhere in between). As someone who has never seen anything "Death Note"-related before this, I can tell you that it's an obscene amount of fun. It's a goofy, funny, bloody blast. It's also proof that the summer movie season hasn't lost momentum, it's just moved into your television set.
I was lucky enough to talk to "Death Note" director Adam Wingard, who is one of the most talented genre filmmakers working today, having already made "The Guest," "You're Next," and last year's underrated "Blair Witch" reboot. He's the modern king of the midnight movie and "Death Note" is another wonderful addition to his resume. (And it'll also be his last movie for a while; his next feature is "Godzilla vs. Kong.")
During our conversation we talked about what drew him to the property, what challenges were involved in adapting the material, if anything changed when the production moved from Warner Bros to Netflix and whether or not he'd be back for more installments. Some spoilers follow.Moviefone: In the press notes, it says that your brother was the first person to introduce "Death Note" to you. But what made you want to take it on as a filmmaker?
Adam Wingard: I've always had a fascination with anime in general. That's really what drew my awareness. My brother had mentioned the project to me years before I got the script sent to me. That's what enlightened me to "Death Note" specifically, but if you had asked me in high school what my favorite film was, I'd have told you "Ninja Scroll." That was one of my main obsessions growing up. I'd kind of gotten out of anime by the mid-2000s or I wasn't keeping up with it as much. So this was a fun way to return to form on that, to approach it with a different eye. But "Death Note" itself is an interesting property. It's a very topical thing, it deals with a lot of interesting themes about good and evil and the grey area in-between. Being able to explore that in a way that allowed me to create an ultimate genre mash-up at the same time is a chance that is irresistible.
Was it hard to find new stuff to do with the property? Considering that, in addition to the manga, there have been animated series and movies in Japan.
Yeah, I think there's even a musical I heard about. It's one of those things that's been fully explored and fully translated and adapted in very specific ways to the original source material. That was the whole thing with this one, What happens to "Death Note" when you set it in Seattle, Washington? What are the differences? How does that change the backgrounds of the characters? L is now part of this clandestine mind control background, which is a much more ominous place than where he came from. But this is all stuff based on real or perceived as real things that are going on beneath the surface here. This is really an exploration of taking a different approach to "Death Note." The creators were always fully behind us on that. They understood what we were doing. They just wanted to make sure that Ryuk was the right size but for the most part they gave us free reign to do it. I think they liked it for that reason.
Even though "Death Note," for instance, isn't associated with any kind of action, and this film is by no means an action film, we do have a really cool chase sequence at the end of the movie. And the first time they watched the film they specifically talked about how much they loved that chase scene, which was really surprising but cool.
Was there one aspect that was particularly hard to figure out in the adaptation?
Yeah, I would say that the whole thing was particularly challenging, just in terms of trying to encapsulate the story. There are so many different tonal things that we could have done with it and avenues to take. The manga series was never designed as a movie; it was very much a serialized thing. So with the movie trying to figure out what part of this were we taking from? Ultimately, it was pretty clear early on that trying to summarize the whole thing into one movie would be a diluted mess, especially because "Death Note" goes through so many crazy things as the series goes and all of the crazy characters who show up later. So we looked at this as an origin story with the idea that there are potentially two more films, at least that's how I pitched it to Netflix, to continue the story. But it also plays as a closed loop as well.
I think this film says everything it needs to say but there are a lot of explorations to do with the characters. I think Light's character starts in a much more altruistic place than he does in the manga. But I think what this film is setting up is that this character is going to go in a downward spiral to see a character go through that over the course of a couple of movies would be super fascinating to watch, especially since we end this in a place where he's totally wrecked.
That's true! You don't even know if he's going to survive the next five minutes after the movie ends.
And I'm so proud of the ending of this film. How often do you see a comic book movie where all of the heroes are totally f*cked?I was going to ask if you'd be interesting in directing future movies in the franchise.
I'd absolutely love to. At the very least, I want to be involved in the writing process of it. As you probably know, I'm doing "Godzilla vs. Kong" next and that's a solid two and a half years. That was another offer I couldn't refuse. So we'll see if everything goes well and Netflix orders more, we'll see if timing works out and what their ideas are. At the very least there's not a terrible hurry. I think for the next chapter Light should be a couple of years older anyways. I'd like to pick him up a little bit more down the line and see how he's developing and what everybody's been up to and all that kind of stuff.
Not only have their been countless iterations of this property in Japan, but an American adaptation has been worked on for so long.
Yeah, that's true.
Did you look at any of those earlier versions, like the Shane Black draft he'd submitted at Warner Bros?
No, I didn't. I talked to people about it. Because they'd spent so long working on all of these different versions, the producers never offered it up and I never asked honestly. Because it felt like this script was going in the right direction. It still needed a lot of work once I came on but it didn't feel like I needed to go back. Gus Van Sant, I think, was the last director before me who was attached, which is surreal. I'd love to have seen if his version was just Light and Ryuk walking through the desert for an hour and a half like "Gerry." That'd have been the best movie ever. "Gerry" is one of my favorite movies. But it probably wouldn't have been that. I don't know what it was.
But I did hear that, in some earlier versions, Warner Bros. was nervous about Ryuk in general in the film. They had tried versions when they had tried to cut him out of the movie. Even as we were leaving Warner Bros., there were still some junior executives there who came up to me and they were totally serious and said it in a way that made it seem like I'd agree with them. They said, "Yeah I keep telling them the script would be perfect, you've just got to get rid of Ryuk." I said, "What are you talking about?" It's ridiculous now when you look back on it because Ryuk is the main selling point of the movie, in terms of marketing. Everybody loves him. It allowed us to get Willem Dafoe and give him a really cool platform. But these things, you never know. There's no precedent for a glam rock demon working in a movie before this. [Laughs]
Did anything change when you moved from Warner Bros. to Netflix?
We picked up where we left off. I was actively working and knew there were a whole lot of notes of what I wanted to do in terms of another draft. We were preparing to do that anyway at Warner Bros. When Netflix picked it up, I convinced them to hire my writer. There was never a mandated change of any kind from Netflix. They were perfectly happy to pick up where we were and shoot that version but the changes were all self imposed. They were all things I wanted to do.Can you talk about bringing the demon to life? Because it seems like it was a combination of a character on set plus motion capture for the face.
I think my process was in response to the approach of the Japanese live-action films, where he was a much more fully realized CGI character. I really wanted to do something where he felt more tangible -- he was on set and interacting with the other actors and the lighting and all that stuff. That's probably because I come from a low-budget indie background, and I'm so traumatized by the idea of having bad VFX in my movies.
On those other films, when you can't afford it you just don't do VFX because there's no assurance that it won't look schlocky. So my approach to this was keeping that in mind. It was about keeping him in front of the camera as much as we can. The only thing we knew we couldn't do really well was the facial expressions -- the mouth, the eyes, and stuff. But even the actor on set was wearing these LED glasses that would represent where Ryuk's eyes are. We were able to light the character with confidence, because even if he's in silhouette you'd see his eyes. And sometimes that was all you need.
"Death Note" premieres on Netflix this Friday.