The Director of Netflix's 'Death Note' Digs into the Mind-Boggling Ending
There's a point towards the end of Death Note, Netflix's adaptation of the beloved manga and anime series of the same name, where the film's main character, Light Turner, gets fed up. Wearing a tophat and swaying to Berlin's '80s synth ballad "Take My Breath Away" at a high school dance, he learns that his girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley) has sentenced him to death with the titular notebook, a supernatural tome which gives its owner the power to kill simply by scribbling a name in its pages. Mia tells him she'll save his life if he passes the Death Note onto her. Only then will she "burn" his page and spare him, but she can only do that once according to Ryuk, the spiky god of death voiced by Willem Dafoe who is tasked with explaining all the Death Note's dense mythology. Light is pissed.
"There's so many fucking rules," he says.
According to director Adam Wingard, the line was improvised by Nat Wolff, the actor who plays Light, but it might also reflect how you feel during the movie's dizzying final stretch. It certainly describes how Wingard, a veteran of genre-bending indie horror fare like You're Next and The Guest, felt while keeping track of so many narrative threads. "I really liked that moment," he says during a recent press stop in New York. "Because you do have to acknowledge the almost ridiculousness of it without being condescending. That's the fun of it. It's overly complicated and kinda playing with that."
While Death Note is not the 34-year-old director's first time dipping his toes into potential franchise fodder -- he also helmed last year's Blair Witch reboot -- it did present a range of new storytelling and filmmaking challenges for him. How do you satisfy the global fan base obsessed with Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's Japanese manga while still appealing to Death Note newbies looking for something to binge on a Friday night? What's the trick to landing a killer (and, yes, very complicated) twist? Why are there so many fucking rules?
When Wingard was brought onto the film, the script, which was penned by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater, already had what he calls the "brilliant wrap-up" of an ending, but it originally looked very different. For one thing, it was set in Chicago; Wingard moved the story to Seattle to give it a dreary, rainy look. It was also a film that spanned a longer period of time, with the first 40 minutes taking place in high school and then shifting to college; instead, he wanted to make a high school movie with a dark, Heathers-like vibe.
Staying true to his goal, the action in Death Note's finale begins at a high school dance, much like in his 2014 thriller The Guest. ("That was the empty high school dance, the low-budget version," jokes Wingard.) After Mia, who has become Light's partner in crime as they kill people around the world, betrays Light, the movie kicks into high-gear, leaving the gymnasium behind for a lengthy chase sequence between Light and L, the delightfully eccentric detective played by Atlanta's Lakeith Stanfield. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game filtered through Wingard's oddball sensibility.
"My director of photography [David Tattersall] and I were obsessed with expanding [the chase]," he says. "It was really funny because I think it was like two paragraphs in the script and we created storyboards for it and when we turned them into Netflix it was hilarious. Because we turned in 100 storyboards, and they were like, 'What the hell is all this? This isn't in the script?' We were like, 'No, trust us, this is important.'"
He brought that same mischievous eagerness to make things bigger to the film's final action sequence, where Mia and Light face off on a brightly colored Ferris wheel in the dead of night. After Mia declares her love for Light, she grabs the Death Note from him. He reveals that he wrote her name in the book, but that she would only die if she took the Death Note. "You said you loved me," screams Light. "I thought you wouldn't take the book."
That's when things really get crazy: As Ryuk laughs and Light's father watches helplessly from the ground, the Ferris wheel tips over, tossing Mia and Light from the structure. Light tries to hold onto Mia's hand. But his grip isn't strong enough. She slips away and plunges to her death, the Death Note tumbles through the air, Light lands safely in the water, and… Chicago's "I Don't Want to Live Without Your Love," an almost absurdly cheesy '80s ballad, plays on the soundtrack. It's a bizarre moment, riding a thin line between earnest sentimentality and kitsch.
While it might strike some as weird, the song helped Wingard find his emotional approach to the material. One day he stumbled across the Chicago track, which was a huge hit for the band in 1988, and it clicked for him. It had to be in the movie and the movie had to reach for the same broad emotional heights.
"I started zeroing in on the idea that at its heart this movie is a tragic teenage romance story, so that’s what I wanted the perspective to be couched in," he explains. "It's the teenage perspective where everything is larger than life, and very dramatic and melodramatic and all those things."
After the events with the Ferris wheel, Light wakes up in a hospital, where the Death Note has been returned by a mysterious visitor. His father sits next to his bed and reveals that he now knows that Light is behind all the killings. He confronts Light, who then drops the big, final twist: Light planned everything. Seriously, everything.
Using the Death Note, he got a doctor to rescue him from the water after falling from the Ferris wheel. He recruited a retired mailman to retrieve the Death Note and continue the killing of criminals on the news. He pre-wrote Mia's death. He even saved his own life by making sure the page of the Death Note with his name on it slipped from the book and fell into a fire. During this sequence, which plays out through a series of lightning-fast flashbacks, Wingard also cuts to L finding a page of the Death Note in Mia's room and starring at it, clearly thinking about using it to kill Light. Will he do it? Does the Death Note corrupt everyone who comes into contact with it? Or will L stay true to his principles?
It's a lot to take in. Also, it's a dramatic departure from both the manga and the anime series, which Wingard knows will alienate some viewers. But he views the movie as an origin story -- he compares it to the Star Wars prequels at one point -- and he hopes a sequel will continue the story in the future. He originally pitched it to Netflix as a series of "at least two or three films" that would follow Light as he becomes a darker character.
"Ultimately, the ground it covers is pretty small in terms of the full source material," he says. "I never wanted to skip forward, and then suddenly Near and Mello [two characters from the manga] show up at the end of the movie or something like that. It was one of those things where the ending was its own thing since technically we’re still at the beginning of that whole series."
Of course, the existence of a sequel depends on how this movie is received. While the film has become a source of controversy in the last few months due to criticisms of whitewashing and fan concerns that the adaptation might stray too far from the source material, Wingard seems confident in the movie he made and proud of its freewheeling tone. This is his Death Note. And his Death Note has a very different Light. And Air Supply songs. It plays by his rules.
"I was a little nervous doing stuff like that early on but we always consulted with the original creators and they always gave their blessings about that," he says. "We'll see once it gets out in the world. You know, Death Note fans. There's not much more passionate fans of any material in the world than Death Note. They'll be sure to let me know if they're unhappy."