Director Adam Wingard On How 'Death Note' Prepared Him For 'Godzilla Vs. Kong' [Interview]

Adam Wingard has made a name for himself with horror movies like You're Next and The Guest and his latest contribution to the genre made waves when Netflix swooped in to rescue it from turnaround after it was developed at Warner Brothers. Based on the manga, which itself had been adapted in anime and live-action in Japan, Death Note arrives on Netflix this Friday.

Light Turner (Nat Wolff) finds a notebook that says it can kill anyone whose name he writes while picturing their face. The demon Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) makes sure to point out all the other rules listed. Light and Mia (Margaret Qualley) start researching deserving war criminals and prisoners to kill. But an investigator named L (Lakeith Stanfield) starts piecing it together, hiding his face and true name. Wingard spoke with /Film by phone out of New York about Death Note, and gave a preview of his next film, Godzilla vs. Kong.

If fans go back and watch some of the anime and Japanese live-action Death Notes, are there different versions of how people use this notebook from Ryuk?

Yes. Our film is very much a different take on it. The characters themselves have different backgrounds and motivations and things. Even the approach to the Death Note is very different. In the original, almost exclusively the deaths are associated with heart attacks whereas ours takes more of a Final Destination approach for the first half of the movie when it's still kind of fun and games for Light. Obviously as the movie goes, the consequences get real so the deaths become more realistic as well.

Was it your idea to elaborate on the deaths or was that already in the script?

It just seemed like movies are such a visual medium. Heart attacks themselves are not that interesting to look at. We do have one in the movie, but we even manage to have the heart attack happen at the top of a staircase so the guy falls downstairs as well because in the terms of Death Note, nothing is that simple. That was basically the idea behind it. It was always open to that in the original source material, but we just thought this was the opportunity to experience the Death Note through Light's eyes. From his perspective at the beginning of the film, it's very much a fun exciting thing so the deaths are much bigger and operatic. That's very much told from his POV as the Death Note's still a fun or exciting thing for him early on before it gets serious.

Death Note Clip

Why do they attribute the deaths to the name Kira? If they just left these deaths random, then they'd be untraceable.

Well, I think they wanted to give it a name because their whole idea is that they're not just trying to stop random crimes all over the place. They're trying to come up with a God-like entity that would strike fear into people as a deterrent from crime. In some ways, Kira is designed to prevent crimes before they happen to scare people into preventing it before it happens.

Ryuk always has an endless amount of new rules they have to follow. Have there been different rules in every incarnation of Death Note?

No, somebody actually told me today that the original films, which stick very close to the original source material, were actually contractually obligated not to change any rules. Our film, we don't really change any rules, but we do add some rules. For instance, the rule where if you don't use the notebook for seven days then it reverts back to Ryuk and he can do whatever he wants was one of ours. That was mainly because we wanted to make sure there was a rule in there that forced Light to have to use the Death Note regardless of if he had changed his mind or if he had grown a conscience. The stakes would always be there in terms of forcing him to go forward. There's no turning back, in other words. There was a few little rules like that that we added just to add more complexity to the situation. We didn't really change anything.

Is there room for new rules in a sequel if someone else gets the Death Note?

I doubt that we would add any rules but I think that it would probably be more like we would be exploring even more of the rules within the Death Note itself because there's a lot of interesting ones that we just don't have time to get into that apply plot-wise. For instance, there's one really cool rule where you can work with Ryuk where he can take years off of your life but it allows you to be able to know somebody's name just by looking at somebody's face, which obviously is a really valuable thing to have. It also has consequences to it. That's not necessarily a direct rule, but it's more of a Shingami thing. There's lots of stuff like that to get into and play with.

Death Note Netflix

At some point they're looking at rule 80-something so we don't necessarily know rules 5-75 are.

Well, there's a lot of red tape in the Death Note, but they're all online. Some of them are less consequential than the others. At a certain point, it just has to dot all the I's and cross the T's.

Ryuk always has a loophole, doesn't he? There's no getting one over on him.

No, not at all. To me, I think it's actually implied that Ryuk actually wrote the warnings in the Death Note to just fuck with Light anyways. Ryuk in the original source material is probably the most clear carryover. We try to keep him visually very similar and personality-wise. I'd say he's pretty close. He's maybe a little bit more scheming in ours, but he still has that same kind of attitude, which is he wants to be amused. He doesn't really care about what's going on. Ultimately, our take on him is he's most amused by people getting murdered, so he has an added investment in people dying because that's what amuses him or entertains him. That's what he's always gearing the Note towards.

Is it really a case of with great power comes great responsibility?

Yeah, this is definitely an exploration of good and evil and what's in between. What's the gray area in there? That's the whole point of it. Each character almost represents a different aspect of that, including Light's Dad. Even he's not really willing to turn Light in. The whole thing is just sort of a breakdown of all those things.

Light even asks the questions. What if he gets bad intel? He can think he's taking out someone who deserves it, but people post false information online to mess with people.

Exactly. It's the whole vigilante thing where if there's no rules or oversight then what's going to keep them from misusing them?

Death Note Trailer

When this film went to Netflix, is it still the same film you would have made at a studio?

Yes. As a matter of fact, Netflix let us really make the movie that we were going to make in the first place. It was set up at Warner Brothers and we had been working on it quite a bit there and we were kind of at a point where we were about one major draft away from getting the film pretty close to what it is. It just happened that we were able to do that draft over at Netflix. We always intended the film to be rated R. The budget is exactly where we were going to it at Warner Brothers. That was one of the scary things when the movie got put into turnaround over there. We were far enough into preproduction that we knew that there wasn't really a cheaper version of the film. Whenever we were shopping it around initially to other studios, they wanted to do it for $10-15 million less. Some of them wanted to do it PG-13. Fortunately and very quickly, within a week, Netflix raised their hands. This film fit into a paradigm I think that they're looking to do, which is movies that have a very mainstream appeal, but are doing something off center. I think Bright looks like another one of those types of situations. It just worked out.

And you're doing a movie at Warner Brothers next, so I assume there's no hard feelings?

No, not at all. You can't really take any of that seriously. Plus, that was a completely different regime. That sounds like a dictatorship, but that was with Greg Silverman and his gang. They're all shook up. Greg's out now. Ultimately, Godzilla and Kong is much more of a Legendary thing. We're still kind of early, so we'll see.

Godzilla 2 starts filming

Did doing the Ryuk effect with performance capture prepare you for Godzilla vs. Kong?

Yeah, I think that and the big ferris wheel finale in Death Note were real great preparation for that film. Prior to that, I hadn't really had that much experience with VFX. All the stuff I'd done was fixing shots, adding squib hits and things like that, just trying to do very practical feeling effects, to add to practical elements. With this film, I went into it really nervous because one of the things I hate the most in movies is bad special effects and overuse of green screen. This film really taught me how to trust into that, but also not trust into it to the point of blissful ignorance. I'm able to now look at it and know when does it look a certain way? What kind of things to put in front of the camera and the lighting stuff to approach it. There's nothing scarier I think as a filmmaker than going on a soundstage and just seeing all that green in the background and thinking to yourself, "I don't know what's back there. I know theoretically what's back there but right now I just see a bunch of green. I've seen this go wrong in other movies.

At a certain point you have to let go because, for instance, the ferris wheel finale in this movie, you just can't do that kind of thing in real life. You can't put the actors in that kind of peril. You have to really take that leap forward. On the indie level, you can't really rely on VFX in the same way, especially on lower budget indie films like I've done. You just have no assurance that stuff is going to turn out because VFX are very expensive and sometimes you have to keep pumping money into it to get it right. For me, I've always stayed away from VFX because I had no assurance I could do it. Something like Godzilla vs. Kong we're going to be working with the absolute best in the industry. We'll have plenty of money to work it out so it should be good. Time will be a factor but that's about it.

Is Godzilla vs. Kong still in the '70s in continuity with Skull Island?

No, ours is more in continuity with the sequel to Godzilla right now. They're doing Godzilla 2 with Mike Dougherty directing, so our film is in present day. We have a couple characters from Godzilla 2 in ours, but it'll be interesting to see how Kong has fared over the years. You see him in that film and he's just constantly under attack. Things are going wrong and there's probably been lots of human intervention since then. It'll be interesting to see a more rugged, a bit more aged Kong in this film.

Is I Saw the Devil on hold for a few years while you do Godzilla Vs. Kong?

I think so. There's a chance it may get turned around to another filmmaker. I'm not sure. It's one of those films where I already have the soundtrack picked out. The script is already done. It was one of those things that I've been really excited about doing, but an opportunity like Godzilla vs. Kong was just one I couldn't turn down. It's two and a half years at least of my life on there, and we'll just have to see if they've got it going before then. Never say never.