All good horror is really about something lurking beneath its blood-red surface. Jaws, for instance, with its out-of-his-depth law enforcer trying to tackle an unseen adversary, ever further from home, is really about Vietnam, not a shark. The Shining? Well, that’ll be about the US class wars danced out over the graves of the Native Americans (or the 1969 moon landing, depending on who you believe). The Exorcist, meanwhile, headspins off the female empowerment movement of the ’70s, Night of the Living Dead the Civil Rights Movement of a decade previously and its sequel, the mall-set Dawn of the Dead, previews the rampant consumerism of Reagan’s ’80s like a bullet to the head.
And so it is with Adam Wingard’s Death Note. On one level it is a gory, Final Destination-style modern horror about a book that can give its owner bloody vengeance against anyone they choose. On another, it’s a clever-clever skewering of the troubling nature of modern terrorism and politics – how power can corrupt.
“What [our hero] chooses to do with the Death Note is a very American thing,” says Wingard. “You know, this idea of, ‘Who do I go after? I know – I’ll go after terrorists, I go after North Korea...’ All the things that we’re sold as being the big villains in the world, whether they are or not. That wasn’t something that was just superfluous, you know?”
The movie is a logical advance for Wingard in terms of scale and ambition following the brilliant low-budget likes of You’re Next, The Guest and his underrated exhumation of the grand old lady, the Blair Witch. It’s also a remake of a manga and anime tale so beloved that it’s given him sleepless nights. Not least because the action has been moved from the beating heart of Japan to, jeez, Seattle.
“I have to admit, I was kind of nervous in the early stages,” says Wingard. “Because I realised that to have this in a different setting meant tons of changes. And one of the main things fans get upset about is when they feel you aren’t being respectful enough to the source material. They feel like you don’t take it seriously and are just making arbitrary changes. But none of our changes are arbitrary. We set out to make a different thing all together. We embraced those changes.”
And besides, the shift to the States wasn’t even Wingard’s call in the first place. Like many famous anime reduxes – hello, Akira – Death Note has been in development for what feels like an eternity, but is in fact “just” a decade. Originally at Warner Bros before Netflix heroically stepped in and saved it, the project has been through a whole host of scripts and directors – including, perhaps most randomly, indie legend Gus Van Sant. “It had been through a lot of different iterations,” understates Wingard. “The original version I read was set in Chicago. I moved it to Seattle and pretty much changed everything from that script. Each director had a different take. There were even versions that didn’t have Ryuk in it, which I think was a huge mistake. Ryuk is the glue that keeps the story together but he’s also what makes it Death Note! What is a magical notebook without its demon?”
What is it, indeed? The movie is built on a premise that starts off deceptively simple before becoming decidedly morally murky. Light (played but Nat Wolff, of The Fault in our Stars fame) is your standard high school boy with his standard high school preoccupations – the unattainable girl, the relentless bully, the questionable dress sense. One day, a mysterious book quite literally drops into his lap; contained within it is just a list of names and imaginative descriptions of how they should die. This, explains Willem Dafoe’s seven-foot, spiky-backed, evil-glowing-eyed demon, Ryuk, when he appears to Light the next day, is what the book does. All its owner has to do is write the name of the person who has in some way wronged them in the book, along with the manner in which they think they should go to their maker, and the book will take care of business. Want that annoying love rival on the football team to be decapitated by a flying frisbee? Just get your pen out and you’re good to go.
“We knew Ryuk would be played by a seven-foot actor on set, and then voiced by someone afterwards,” says Wingard. “[In the original cartoon] Ryuk has a great glam rock vibe to him and we wanted that too. So my initial thinking, back in 2015, was, ‘Let’s cast somebody who’s a glam rocker!’ So, first stop I tried to cast David Bowie. And then right before we started casting he died. So I thought, ‘Well, we can’t do that…’ Then, the second person on my list was Prince, actually!” Wingard laughs. “I was like, ‘Oh no, my casting list is like the death note!’ So after that I was like, ‘Okay, no more rockers – let’s look at actual actors!’ And Willem was at the top of that list. I did worry that I was doing something [harmful] to him as I was casting him, but he’s fine!”
As it turns out, Dafoe is perfect in the role, that cackling voice of his tempting our hero down some seriously dubious paths. What starts as disposing of some local undesirables – that local bully going down in particularly spectacular style – soon shifts to bigger targets, on a global scale.
“Light is a true American superhero,” says the Tennessee-born Wingard, “in the sense that these days we are less known for actually going into a place as we are for piloting a military drone into a country and blowing some stuff up. It’s very impersonal. And that’s the sense with Light. He’s very much a military drone operator but a superhero version of that. In the anime [the hero] is much more of a super genius who turns more villainous as he goes. Our version is more about a kid who is in over his head. And by the end of the film he’s pulling all these strings…”
And, though there are undoubtedly some fascinating paths that any potential Death Note sequel could tread should this one be the size of success Netflix is banking on – especially the relationship between Light and his opposing government agent, L, played here by Get Out, Atlanta and Straight Outta Compton’s increasingly in-demand Lakeith Stanfield – whether Wingard will direct it will likely depend on his increasingly busy diary.
“King Kong vs Godzilla?” Wingard says of his monster next project, due in May 2020. “We’re in the early stages. There’s a great outline written by Terry Rossio. In the next month we’ll start cracking down, doing animatics and stuff. You know, what does a battle between King Kong and Godzilla actually look like? The pressure is absolutely there to deliver.
“Yes, that is my first movie with a release date already set going into it. But signing on to a ‘go’ movie is a great thing. When I signed on to Death Note it was with Warner Bros, and then one day they were just like, ‘Okay, we’re not doing the movie any more’. That can happen with any movie, but when you’re dealing with a franchise like Kong and Godzilla, they have a definite timeline. You know, Godzilla 2 is coming out next year or the year after and then our movie follows that, so there is a definitive approach to it. You don’t have to worry about the movie falling out!” Wingard laughs. “It’s also the first time I’ve ever done a movie that’s not rated R. So… it’ll be an interesting US$200 million experience figuring that out!”
Death Note is on Netflix from Friday August 25.