Death Note director Adam Wingard interview: 'People send me death threats'

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
Adam Wingard on the set of ‘Death Note’. (Netflix)

Adam Wingard is no stranger to dealing with passionate fanbases having tackled the ‘Blair Witch’ reboot/sequel in 2016, but his latest project has seen him facing unprecedented vitriol online.

Wingard’s new movie ‘Death Note‘ (coming to Netflix globally 25 August) is an adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s hugely popular manga series, first published in the early ’00s, and he admits that the fans have been on his back right from the start.

“The second that I got attached to the film, I immediately got irate ‘Death Note’ fans telling me that I had ruined ‘Death Note’, before we had even finished the script,” Wingard tells Yahoo Movies.

“I understand people’s passion about it, and their opinion, and I really don’t take it personally when people send me death threats, or go tell me to go f*** myself and stuff on Twitter.”

‘Death Note’ has already been adapted a number of times with varying degrees of success. There’s been a TV anime series, video games, a series of live action Japanese-language films, and most recently a live action TV series, so it’s no surprise that hardcore fans are wary of their beloved series getting a Hollywood makeover, as it feels very Japanese in its sensibilities.

Willem Dafoe voices creepy Shinigami Ryuk who gifts the Death Note to Light, and offers him advice along the way. (Netflix)

The story sees Light (Nat Wolff), a young high school student, finding a supernatural book (the Death Note of the title) that gives him the power to kill people with the stroke of a pen. It’s a peculiar mix of high school hormones, otherworldly realms, teenage detectives, and global religions so it’s no wonder the Hollywood version has been in development for many years.

Here, in our exclusive new interview with the director of ‘You’re Next’, ‘The Guest’, and 2020’s upcoming monster mash up ‘Godzilla vs. King Kong’, Wingard explains the challenges he faced Westernising the story, meeting fan expectations head on, and his plans for future ‘Death Note’ stories…

Yahoo Movies UK: ‘Death Note’ comes off the back of ‘Blair Witch’, another adaptation of a property with a passionate fanbase – what did you learn from that experience that helped with this one?

Adam Wingard: Well, they were both so close together. The day we wrapped ‘Death Note’ was whenever ‘Blair Witch’ came out. So both productions were just jammed right next to each other. When I wrapped the sound mix for ‘Blair Witch’, we went right into pre-production on ‘Death Note’. So the lessons were hard to learn because it was kinda blurry in terms of the carry over. But also, even though they are passionate fan bases, they’re very different ones as well.

They’re similar in some ways in the sense that both of them, the anime fans and the ‘Blair Witch’ fans both feel like they’ve gotten raw deals in the past, especially with other adaptations, ‘Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2’ is kind of a travesty.

The majority live action anime adaptations have been either bad or unsatisfactory in some way or another, so it’s a tricky thing. Ultimately, we’re making such a different movie than the source material that you’re just going to end up with a lot of controversy just from that, you know?

But to me, it always felt like if we’re going to do a version of ‘Death Note’ that’s set in a different city it’s obviously going to change everything, you know? Not just on an aesthetic level, but also the backgrounds, the emotionality of the characters, and everything else is going to have to be updated for that background.

One of the things about adapting something is if you’re doing something very close to the source material, but you just deviate in these little ways, a lot of the times I feel like that can be even more offensive, you know?

Whereas, I think the route we took was, ‘we’re going to make this “Adam Wingard’s ‘Death Note’” not a half-assed adaptation of something that already exists.

You can’t possibly please everyone at once though…

That’s the thing. Certain fans have different expectations and the more militant fans, if you’re not adapting it literally word for word, then they’re just never going to be satisfied.

I made my peace with the fact that we’re never going to win those fans over, that there’s going to be people who are just not going to like that the movie exists at all. The second that I got attached to the film, I immediately got irate ‘Death Note’ fans telling me that I had ruined ‘Death Note’, before we had even finished the script, before we had casted anybody.

L finally confronts Light who he suspects is Kira, the deadly killer who has been wiping out the globe’s criminal underclass. (Netflix)

So immediately I was like ‘I’m walking into something really crazy here’, which is fine and I understand people’s passion about it, and their opinion, and I really don’t take it personally when people send me death threats, or go tell me to go f*** myself and stuff on Twitter. It happens quite a bit!

Because I know it’s not really based on anything that we’ve done with the movie. Nobody’s seen the film. We’ve actually had the experience, interestingly enough, where we’ve test screened the film, there have been some people who’ve been to the test screening and you read their cards, and they’ve admitted they went to the screening kinda expecting to hate it, and were pleasantly surprised as it does its own thing. It’ll win some people over, some it won’t, there’s just no way of getting them all.

Ultimately what I did was make the best film that I possibly could and hope for the best.

What areas in the source material did you immediately identify as things you would need to change

Almost all of them. Tokyo and Seattle are two totally different places. The approach to the characters was always going to be kinda different. I knew that Ryuk would be the main carry over in terms of him being the closest thing to the original. I tried to keep him visually as close as possible to the original version of the character.

But when it came to approaching Light and L, they just kinda naturally evolved into the characters they are and ultimately we took Mia, who is loosely based on on Misa from the Manga, she in some ways in our film is almost more like Light from the original source material, than Light is in this movie.

Nat Wolff and Margaret Qualley play deadly loves Light and Mia in ‘Death Note’. (Netflix)

But that was always the thing that I found interesting about it, it’s that there’s an interesting symbolic component between them where it’s the Adam and Eve coupling that gives birth to Kira. It’s not just one guy’s thing.

It’s hard to say how we arrived at these things but it just naturally evolved in that way. Like I said, there was definitely a point where I was worried because I knew that I’d get eaten alive by certain fans for some of the changes we were making, but you have to go with your gut and you have to go with where your characters in the story take you, and that’s what we did.

There’s a lot of exposition to get across, but it seems to be done very efficiently. Was that something you worked hard on in the writing process?

I think probably the most difficult part of this whole thing was getting the script right. We were finishing that script right up to the last day of shooting. The script is actually much longer and we shot a lot of stuff that we cut out and just condensed it down to the tightest beast that we could.

There is a lot of room to cover because not only are you setting up this high school reality but then you also have to make it believable that there’s a teenage detective in this reality, and that that’s a real threat to these characters. I’m not sure how we did it but it ultimately all coalesced in a really nice way.

How much of the original scripts did you use, or did it all go out of the window?

The film had been developed for some time over at Warner Bros., Gus Van Sant was originally attached to it, then Shane Black.

The earlier drafts that I saw it had much less Ryuk in it, it had much less L, it was a much more straightforward kinda thing, and I knew this was a really obviously weird story. The Japanese version is ultra-weird and gets really insane as it goes on. It goes in directions you would never imagine it going.

In the original script that I read it split it up, so the first half was in high school and the second half Light was in college. That just felt messy to me. It made it feel like too much of a jump in time. I don’t like movies where it skips forward in time like that. This movie obviously has a skip forward in time, but it feels cohesive, and they’re still in the same high school setting.

Nat Wolff’s Light is haunted by Ryuk, a demonic god of death who sets out the rules of the Death Note. (Netflix)

But ultimately what I wanted to do was I wanted it to feel like a 80s ‘Heathers’ high school reality, so that there was a clear context to what was going on.

The movie has so many crazy things that happen in it: there’s a magic notebook, there’s a demon, there’s a kid detective, and all these things in between, all the weird Illuminati backstory to everything. So to me pushing towards that high school thing was almost a way of grounding it and giving a sort of context to what we were doing.

So a lot of the style fell into place from there, even some of the more brave musical selections within the movie are really based around giving it that high school emotionality. In the sense that whenever you’re in high school everything is a big deal, like breaking up with your girlfriend is like the end of the world basically, and that’s the headspace that I wanted to get into. I wanted to re-experience that high school emotional mindset.

The ’80s stuff really worked for me, particularly the use of Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ at the prom, which lit up the audience when I saw it.

That ‘Take My Breath Away’ thing was the first indication that I was going to go in that direction. One of the first things I wanted to do whenever we were pushing towards the high school thing was that I wanted a big prom set piece because I’m just obsessed with doing a prom thing.

The finale of Adam Wingard’s ‘The Guest’ (2014) saw Maika Monroe being stalked by Dan Stevens in a Halloween maze at her local high school (Picturehouse)

‘The Guest’ almost does a sort of prom but without the prom, so with this one I really wanted to do a cool noir-ish prom sequence and from the get go had Jeremy Slater write in ‘Take My Breath Away’ into the script so all the producers and everyone knew my intention going into it.

That was the first starting place for those 80s ballads and that’s where we went from there.

There’s a lot of ‘Death Note’ story left to tell, is it your intention to do more in this world?

I’d like to. Obviously right now I’m doing ‘Godzilla vs. King Kong’ for the next two and a half years so it really depends if Netflix is willing to wait for me on that.

Whenever I did take it over to Netflix one of my main things was pitching that this is not just one film, this is at least two films, maybe three, and then you can spin it off from there. Potentially do a TV show that goes off, or maybe what I would really would like to which is the L origin story movie. It all just depends on where all that lands. I would definitely love to do it, I think they would love for me to do it, but it all depends on the timing.

You’ve mentioned ‘Godzilla vs. King Kong’, that must just be on another scale entirely than anything you’ve done before?

Right, right.

Well, ‘Death Note’ was a good step in the right direction for that because at least there’s some pretty big VFX moments. The Ferris wheel sequence was in a lot of ways a good warm up to that. It’ll be like 15 Ferris wheel sequences in that movie!

Willem Dafoe’s Shinigami Ryuk looms large in the key art for Netflix’s ‘Death Note’ (Netflix)

I’ve been lucky as a filmmaker where I’m not one of these indie darling filmmakers where your first movie comes out of Sundance and somebody just hands you the keys to the castle after that. Each film that I’ve done has been a step up budgetarily and it’s allowed me to mature as a director so I’ve done everything from $3,000 movies to $70,000 movies, half a million, and a couple of $5m films, and now ‘Death Note’ which is a bigger budget.

So it’s a good escalation to now basically what is going to be as big budget as you can get. I don’t know where you go from there but once you’ve done something that big you’re in an elite class of people who have that experience, and if it goes well then you can do anything you want which is really awesome.

Will you be drawing on ‘Godzilla’ and ‘Kong: Skull Island’ in terms of aesthetics and tone or will it be very much a Adam Wingard movie?

The good thing about those monster movies is that they do all feel like auteur pieces in a lot of ways. Gareth Edwards’ ‘Godzilla’ is very much his movie, same with Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ ‘Kong:Skull Island’ so I definitely expect to give my stamp on it and I think that’s what’s so cool about it, is that it is a big tentpole movie but it’s very much going to be my thing.

Brutal death scenes, 80s synths?

I hope so! I’d love to get some cool arpeggiated synthesisers in there!

‘Death Note’ is coming to Netflix globally 25 August.

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