The new Netflix horror-thriller Death Note (out Aug. 25) concerns a book which can cause the demise of any person whose name is written down in the tome. The film stars Nat Wolff as a high schooler named Light who is gifted the book by the Willem Dafoe-voiced death-god, Ryuk, and Lakeith Stanfield as L, a detective attempting to solve the rapidly growing list of fatalities essentially ordered-up by Wolff’s character and his new girlfriend, Mia (Margaret Qualley).
The irony? This latest movie from Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest, last year’s Blair Witch) almost died itself before the start of production.
“It was originally set up at Warner Bros,” says Wingard of the movie, which is adapted from the Japanese comic by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. “They’d been developing it for quite some time before I was attached. Shane Black was attached. Gus Van Sant did a version. Warner Bros. was interested in me for it and I was immediately like, ‘Wow, this is Death Note!’ Funnily enough, my younger brother had told me, ‘If you’re ever going to adapt something into a movie, you should do Death Note.’ That was the first time I heard of it. I think that was right around You’re Next, so I didn’t really have any way of being able to go to a studio and say, Hey, I want to adapt Death Note!’ [But] I didn’t even have to go after this, here it is! It was a long [development] process, because we always knew the film to be rated R and we always knew that it wasn’t a low budget movie. I actually had signed on to it before doing Blair Witch and we were developing the script concurrently while I was shooting that. The last day of the sound mix, I had a conversation with them, at WB, about, ‘Okay, this is definitely going.’ That next Monday, we were going to start full-time on it. We’d budgeted it out, everything was good. So, I go out of town on the weekend, and I’m driving back from Joshua Tree, I get a call from my manager, and they’re like, ‘Yep, Warner Brothers put it in to turnaround over the weekend.'”
Movies rarely escape being put in “turnaround,” essentially a declaration by the relevant studio that it has no interest in continuing with a project. Wingard admits he was shocked by the news.
“Well, first off, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of a studio doing anything over the weekend,” says the director. “But it was really shocking. It just came out of nowhere. I thought initially, There’s no way this is going to happen, nobody’s going to pick this thing up, because it’s just such a bizarre film, and it’s not a cheap one. So, they started shopping it around town. There was interest, but some studios wanted to do it for less, and we’d already budgeted it to within an inch of its life. But, within a day or two, Netflix raised their hand, and said that they were interested. So, this movie literally exists because we’re in a very specific time, where a company like Netflix is looking for projects like this, that do have a mainstream appeal, but are a little off-center and doing something different.”
Watch the trailer for Death Note, above.