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Exclusive Interview: Director Adam Wingard talks DEATH NOTE, adaptation and the “Takashi Miike moment”

Wednesday, August 23, 2017 | Exclusive

After rising through the horror ranks with HOME SICK, YOU’RE NEXT and THE GUEST, and tackling an American horror icon with BLAIR WITCH, director Adam Wingard puts an English-language spin on a Japanese favorite with DEATH NOTE. RUE MORGUE got some exclusive words with Wingard on honoring the project’s roots while making it his own, the possibility of sequels and more.

DEATH NOTE, a Netflix exclusive premiering this Friday, August 25, was scripted by Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater from the manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, which was previously adapted in anime as well as a series of Japanese live-action features. In this version, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a student at a Seattle high school who receives the Death Note, a supernatural book that gives its owner the power to kill anyone whose name he or she writes in its pages. With the guidance of a demon called Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and the encouragement of his new girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), Light uses the book to kill criminals and others the couple deems deserving of death. They create the alternate identity of “Kira” to take responsibility for the trail of bodies, which attracts both a worldwide following and the attention of L (GET OUT’s Lakeith Stanfield), a genius investigator who keeps his true identity a secret. Giving DEATH NOTE its own new identity was a challenge Wingard eagerly took on…

How did you originally got involved with DEATH NOTE?
It was interesting—my younger brother had always told me that if I was going to adapt something into a movie, I should do DEATH NOTE. That always stuck with me, and ever since then, I dove into DEATH NOTE and enjoyed all that stuff. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later, right before I went off to do BLAIR WITCH, that Warner Bros. contacted me and sent me the script. I was like, “Oh yeah, DEATH NOTE, how about that! This is a real possibility now.” So I signed on, and it was a long road from there, because we went through quite a bit of development at Warners before it eventually went into turnaround there, and that’s when Netflix swooped in and picked it up.

“This movie absolutely stands on its own.”

-Adam Wingard

Would you say that Asian cinema has informed your previous films?
Oh, absolutely. When I was in film school, which was about 2001-2002, that was the heyday of, especially, Japanese horror—Takashi Miike films, Kiyoshi Kurosawa films, all those kinds of things—coming over to the U.S., even though a lot of it was in bootleg form. I remember seeing BATTLE ROYALE on a VHS cassette my brother bought at an anime convention, which obviously was the only resource to get those movies back then, but the quality was so terrible; it was like a 16th-generation EP recorded-over tape. That’s how I also saw RINGU and all those films, and it kind of added to them—that kind of dirty quality, you know?

But later on, I was very glad to finally see these movies the way they were meant to be seen. And yeah, they were a huge influence on me, especially the way they approached violence in that almost operatic style. There’s one sequence in DEATH NOTE where we introduce L, and his investigation has brought him to Japan, and it’s a homage to ICHI THE KILLER. We just filled this room with naked bodies—people at a sex club that has been attacked by the Yakuza—and that was definitely my Takashi Miike moment. Some of my earlier movies too; if you look at HOME SICK, the very first film I did, that one’s almost entirely influenced by Takashi Miike as well as Lucio Fulci.

How much of your DEATH NOTE takes place in Japan?
Almost none at all. There’s really just that one scene, where we meet L for the first time. It’s more of an acknowledgment in many ways, that this is where this story came from. Our version is so different that it felt like it would be cool to at least have a moment in Japan.

What are the key differences between your DEATH NOTE and the previous films?
There are almost too many to name, really just starting with the tone and the style. I think when people tune in to my version, they’re going to know right away that they’re in for a completely different trip, just from the way it starts. The whole opening sequence is essentially a music video set to this ’80s Australian Crawl song.

And in this one, I would say that Light is more a normal kid who has to kind of own up to his own brilliance. He starts out as just a very smart kid who’s essentially normal, and has to amp up and become closer to the version we know in the comics. He never quite gets there in this one, but the idea is that in either two or three films—I haven’t exactly decided how to play it, but that was always my pitch to Netflix—we’re looking at an arc here. It’s not just about a guy who starts in one place and goes from there. We almost play it in that Annakin Skywalker sort of way.

In many ways, though, you could say that Mia, who’s very loosely based on Misa from the manga, is a bit more like Light. In this version, it’s less about him being on his own, and more about this couple coming together to give birth to Kira in a metaphorical way. Her personality is more based on the Light we know from the original source material.

Getting back to Light’s arc—so you’re planning on doing further DEATH NOTE movies?
Well, I’d like to; that was always the idea. This movie absolutely stands on its own, and is a beautiful kind of closed loop. All the themes and the ideas we wanted to explore are all there and attacked. But the characters are really fun and interesting, and because this is an origin story, it opens the door to be able to explore them even further. We don’t tell you exactly everything about where L is from; we leave some of that a mystery on purpose, but we give lots of little clues—lots of esoteric hints about what’s going on under the surface, the programs he was raised within and things like that. So there’s a lot to explore, but ultimately, if there’s not a big demand for more, the movie plays great on its own.

Look for more from Wingard on DEATH NOTE in RUE MORGUE #178, on sale soon!