Adam Wingard didn’t necessarily set out to be a horror director, but his love of horror films, and his deep familiarity with the genre, pushed him in that direction. He started out with low-budget, high-intensity projects (Pop Skull, A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next), and became part of a generation of young horror filmmakers who gradually built a reputation off gruesome shorts in anthology films like V/H/S and The ABCs of Death. In 2014, he and frequent screenwriter partner Simon Barrett made The Guest, a terrifically taut, John Carpenter-inspired thriller starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as a military vet infiltrating a family under false pretenses. That film was part of a multi-year plan to gradually ramp up to bigger movies and bigger budgets, including 2016’s Blair Witch, which premiered to mixed response. The plan may have worked — Wingard is currently attached to Universal’s Godzilla vs. Kong, a would-be blockbuster monster-movie crossover scheduled for release in 2020.
But in the meantime, Wingard has a smaller project: Death Note, Netflix’s live-action feature-film adaptation of the popular anime and manga series about a teenager who gets possession of a magical book that lets him control and murder anyone, as long as he knows their name and can picture their face. Light (Nat Wolff) sets out to clean up the world by killing criminals, and he quickly comes to the attention of quirky, troubled investigator L (Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield), who tries to hunt him down. The film, which has courted controversy by moving the action to America, launches on Netflix on August 25th. I recently spoke to Wingard about why he feels it works as an American story, how he decided to use a mix of CGI and practical effects for the demonic villain, Ryuk (played by Willem Dafoe), and why the way Lakeith Stanfield runs was both a production problem and a huge asset on set.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did Death Note come together?
It was quite an interesting process. The film was set up over at Warner Bros. for a number of years. They had gone through a lot of different directors, from Shane Black to Gus Van Sant, who was the last one attached before me. They were just looking for a director who had a take that really pulled it all together, because there’s a lot of things going on in Death Note that are not conventional. It’s a detective story, it’s a supernatural story, it’s a movie about young adults. The original version of the script I read started in high school, then skipped forward and was a college film. It didn’t really have a focus. I grounded it by taking this complicated story, and rooting it in this idea of a coming-of-age teenage tragic romance. That at least gave context to everything within it.
How did it end up at Netflix?
Warner Bros. put the movie in turnaround like two days before we were supposed to go into official pre-production. I’d been working with them on developing the screenplay for some time while I was making Blair Witch. I thought, “Okay, there’s no way this is going to happen,” because we’d already budgeted the film within an inch of its life, and we knew it needed to be rated R. So I thought, “Okay, it’s an expensive film. Who’s going to pick this up and do it the way we want to do it?” We shopped it around, and there was a lot of interest around Hollywood, but most people wanted to do it for $10 or $15 million less, or they wanted it to be PG-13.
“we just fit into a mold that Netflix is looking for.”
It just so happened that everything clicked at the right time. Netflix was starting to do bigger-budget movies. Within a week, they were already expressing interest, and the thing was ready to go again. So I was really shocked at how quickly it came around. I think we just fit into a mold that Netflix is looking for. They want to be doing theatrical films that could play to a mainstream audience, while at the same time doing something off-center. This is still a pretty quirky story. In all honesty, it would be a big risk to play theatrically, because it’s not an easy film to market. Normally, these types of things get put on the back burner for that reason. But if you look at their slate, things like Okja and Bright and even War Machine, they’re bigger-budget things that fit this paradigm of being accessible movies that are doing something very different.
People complained because the movie was moved to America and cast with largely white actors, but while you made some big changes in those regards, you kept a lot of really small details, like the way L perches on chairs, or his obsession with candy. How did you decide what was important to preserve about the original Death Note?
I think the main thing was just the thematic elements, the idea of the cat-and-mouse chase, and the exploration of good and evil, and what’s in between, is there a grey area. Those kinds of things were the forefront of what was important. And then all the other little details kind of worked themselves out. We kept certain aspects of L, but we gave him a more ominous background, based on a more clandestine sort of programming. And that informed some changes. So you know certain things about him are the same, certain things are not. They main carryover for me was always Ryuk, trying to bring him to life as accurately as possible to the original source material, but in a way we had never seen before. The main thing behind that was to make sure that he was tangible, that he didn’t just look like a CGI thing. He needed to be real, so you feel like you can reach out and touch him.
Using an actor in a costume and then using motion capture on Willem Dafoe’s face certainly helped with that feeling of physicality. But how did you decide on that approach?
The character is supposed to be eight feet tall, so on set, we had a seven-foot actor in the costume, but we knew the only thing we really couldn’t achieve accurately would be the nuances, the eyes and facial expressions and mouth. So we always knew we’d just have a cutout for his face, and we’d adding Ryuk’s CGI face at the end. The mo-cap thing with Willem Dafoe was just on his face, not on his body, and it was really just about being able to inherit as much of his performance as possible, and keep that consistent, so it wasn’t just like animation voiceover: “Okay, we’ve got some voice to slap onto this CGI thing.” It was about trying to keep his performance intact.
Death Note has been described as being about the conflict between liberty and security. You’ve said you wanted to tell a specifically American story with this adaptation, and that conflict seems particularly relevant to America right now. Was that the American theme you most had in mind, or were there others?
“‘Death Note’ can be translated in different ways and still retain its core values.”
Yeah, I think there’s an aspect to this film that is very American, in the sense that we’re a country that always seems to think we’re number one, and that it’s our responsibility to police the world. Light Turner, in a lot of ways, represents that concept. He thinks he has the moral high ground. He’s read that North Korea’s bad, so he goes after a North Korean general. He’s read about ISIS, so he blows up an ISIS camp. But really, at the end of the day, just like other American things, he really doesn’t know anything about anything, because he’s just a high-school kid. He’s kind of the embodiment of the CIA and the American military. That’s the cool thing about Death Note. It can be translated in different ways and still retain its core values. It has a different context when you put it in different places. But it has significant relevance I think, especially when you put it into America, especially now.
You don’t explore the origins of the Death Note here, or get into who trained L or where his school came from or what happened to it. That seems like a setup for an entirely different story. Do you want to continue this as a film series?
Yeah, when I went to Netflix, I pitched it as a multiple-film series, because really, this is the tip of the iceberg. It also still works as a closed loop. I think the movie thematically says everything it needs to say in the context of this film. But there’s a lot of places to go with the characters, and the background that’s only hinted at here through some esoteric symbolism. It’s purposely mysterious, and there are plenty of places to go with that. So I’d love to see where these characters go. Especially because everybody’s so damaged by the end of the film, which is a cool place for a comic-book movie to go, and not a conventional place to end.
You’re working with intense neon colors again, as you did with The Guest. But there, you were trying to achieve a 1980s look. What were you out to accomplish with the cinematography here?
I think this movie is also couched in a little bit of an ‘80s sensibility. The perspective on this is much different than The Guest, which is much more a heavy John Carpenter homage. Here, the color palette is kind of wild in places. There’s a complexity to it — it’s saying different things in different scenes, about the emotions of the characters. Ultimately, the thing that binds the story together, and gives a relevance and context, is 1980s approach, that colorful neon feel. Those things just evolve naturally with the story. The movie’s color palette does change as it goes, which I think is an interesting thing to do with a film. As the characters’ feelings and idea change, so does the world around them, to a certain degree.
The sequence here that most seemed likely to produce interesting behind-the-scenes stories was the foot chase, where L is chasing Light, and they’re smashing through people and leaping over counters. How did shooting go on that scene?
That was a really fun thing to do! I’ve always wanted to do a really cool foot chase. It was one of those things where in the script, it was like two paragraphs long. David Tattersall, who’s the DP, sat down with me, and we created like 100 storyboards on this thing. And Netflix initially was like, “Wait, what is all this. We’ve never seen this chase scene in the script!” It was developed out of a passion to take the movie to another level, especially because there isn’t a lot of action in the movie. It’s all condensed in the ending. So we wanted to really make the movie explode.
Nat Wolff [who plays Light] and Lakeith [Stanfield, who plays L] are really fun to watch in this scene, because they both had perfect running styles for their characters. Nat is like flailing all over the place, and Keith has this almost like T-1000 Terminator-style run that makes him look like a machine. So even in wide shots or shadows, it’s incredibly easy to tell who you’re looking at, at all times, because they’re so drastically different. When we were shooting — luckily, nobody ever got hurt doing it, or anything like that. The only time anybody got hurt in the film was at the beginning. In the scene with the bully, Nat actually got punched. You can actually see a couple shots where we’ve combed his hair down over this big bruise.
But there’s a shot inside the diner where Lakeith was doing his own stunts. And the reason for that is that in the first few shots in that sequence, Lakeith is getting out of a car, and jumping over a car that’s turned over. When we did that, I was like, “I don’t want Keith to hurt himself at the beginning of this chase, so let’s use the stunt guy.” That was before I’d seen how Lakeith runs. So the stunt guy did it, and he’s just conventionally running around. He’s a good stunt guy, but he’s running like anybody normally would.
“We can’t get a stunt guy do this, because he runs so crazy, nobody could imitate this kind of vibe.”
And then after that, we brought Lakeith in and he started doing the rest of the scene. And I realized, “We can’t get a stunt guy do this, because he runs so crazy, nobody could imitate this kind of vibe.” So there’s a really great shot when he runs into the diner and jumps over the counter and slams a guy’s face into his soup. Then he jumps on the counter. If you watch the film, you’ll notice he slips off that counter, but he just keeps going. He never stops, he never breaks. He slipped and fell and kept it completely in character. So I have a ton of respect for him in terms of his physical abilities. Both those guys gave it their all. I mean, it’s horrible shooting those kinds of things as an actor, because you’re asked to run over and over and over and over again. [Laughs]
Without getting into spoilers… there’s something hugely important that seems like it’s going to happen in the final seconds of the film, but you decided not to show it, or to keep it offscreen. Why that decision?
We wanted the ending to feel open-ended, so the reason we didn’t show anything is because… it seems like your interpretation is pretty definitive, but some people have different ideas about what’s going on there. In some of our test screenings, some people actually thought something was going to happen to the dad at the end, or something else. So we purposely left it open, to leave the interpretation up to you about what had happened, what might happen.