Near the start of Death Note, Ryuk, a CGI-demon voiced by Willem Dafoe, emerges from the shadows to wreak havoc on high schoolers and future lovers Light (Light Turner) and Mia (Margaret Qualley). Ryuk is not your run-of-the-mill terror, what with his beady red eyes slightly illuminating the details of a face that looks like it’s been scorched with acid several times over. Such a stark image of the horrific signals the typically striking work of director Adam Wingard, who over the course of nine feature films has proven himself an indispensible voice on the global horror filmmaking scene.
Wingard cut his teeth directing shoestring-budgeted flicks like Home Sick and Pop Skull—both released in 2007—and went on to make more polished but still ferocious horror fare. He contributed the most memorable shorts to the omnibus films V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, while You’re Next and The Guest remain two of the most distinct genre entries from the past decade. He’s proven capable of sheer experimentation too, as with 2016’s Blair Witch, which turns the found-footage aesthetic into a wholly absurdist, gonzo madhouse.
If Death Note retreats onto a more conventional narrative perch, it’s also a headfirst dive into the delights of mixing genres. Given Wingard’s taste for synth-based electronic music, Death Note can be understood as his shot at DJing some of his favorite hits from both 1980s Hollywood and pop music into the template of a horror-inflected, tentpole origin story.
Last week, I spoke with the director about how he made Tsugumi Ôba’s source material his own, why he abhors using temp tracks, and how Death Note fits into his larger career ambitions as a filmmaker.
Death Note is interesting because it’s a mid-budget film that has horror elements but isn’t simply a horror film. Horror still seems to be something that has to be a relatively low-budget entity to exist as such. Why do you think the genre is still maligned as a bigger-budget possibility?
Horror films are easy to make cheap, so there’s always a lot of them, especially a lot of lowbrow horror movies. I think that kind of leaves a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. The whole genre is seen as being this lowbrow kind of thing. It’s not because it really is, but there’s enough of it out there that it gets that bad rap. It’s understandable to some degree.
I come to Death Note as someone who’s interested in your past work more than the source material, which is completely unfamiliar to me. But I’d guess most of the questions you’ve fielded during interviews are concerned with your treatment of the manga.
Were you concerned about losing your voice in adapting a property that has such enthusiastic followers with specific expectations?
Not really. I think the reason I picked it was because I saw the opportunity to really be able to express lots of different avenues in terms of things that I think are my voice. One of the things that was really clear right away was that this isn’t just a clear-cut genre movie. It’s not a horror film. It’s really like the ultimate genre mash-up. It has everything in it. Especially after Blair Witch, where we were doing a very straightforward horror thing. It was found footage, so it was almost dictated by how you have to shoot and edit it. This was a really great and freeing thing to do right after that, where, suddenly, I could put the camera wherever I wanted to. I could really get back into the zone of full creative expression. For me, a lot of that starts with picking the soundtrack and this film was no exception. With Blair Witch, you can’t pick a soundtrack because there’s no music in it. As soon as I found some of the ballad songs for this, everything sort of fell into place stylistically from there.
Music is a huge part of your approach to filmmaking, particularly electronic music. Aside from the song selections, what has your process been like in working with Atticus and Leopold Ross on composing the film’s score?
We’ve worked together now twice. I worked with them originally on the TV pilot I did for Robert Kirkman called Outcast and we had a great experience. The way we communicate is really fun. I’m all about getting music while or before you start shooting so that you can think about the editing in relation to actual sketches of songs. I refuse to use much temp music. I never use a piece of music just to get a point across. I own a couple of synthesizers myself, and so one of the ways to communicate to Atticus and Leopold for what I’m looking for is instead of just throwing in some temp music, I’ll just put something together myself and put that in the edit. There’s nothing more crushing than attaching a piece of music and not being able to outdo it. But music is tricky, especially electronic music. It means so many different things to different people. With this film, we weren’t trying to a straightforward [John] Carpenter homage or anything like that. It’s a much more experimental and nuanced thing. But we did want it to be texturized in that ’80s, arpeggiated kind of world, just to also do something more expansive.
The film fits thematically with your previous work, and particularly The Guest, where at the core of that film you have Maika Monroe’s character realizing her crush is actually a horrible person capable of unthinkable violence. How much of exploring the teenage psyche grounds your interest in the horror genre and the films you decide to make?
That’s a good question. I kind of saw this film as being sort of my most personal movie that I’ve made in a long time. Obviously The Guest is a personal film too. But if I really had to zero in on the most personal thing I’ve ever done it would be Pop Skull, which was one of the first things I did in the late 2000s. In that movie, it’s also kind of about an epic breakup. Even though that wasn’t a high school film, it’s still about a guy who’s right out of high school and depicted in a sort of high school way. So I immediately saw Death Note as a film that would be couched in the high school experience. I felt like it was a good framing device for the movie by giving it a sense of context. And it really allowed me to do the thing I’ve always wanted to do, which is a big high school dance sequence. The Guest was obviously a lead in to that with the set at the end, we just couldn’t afford the actual dance. So you see the setting, but there’s nobody in it. [Laughs]
The set was more than enough given how you used it at the end of that film. So it sounds like the high school couple was what you saw as setting the tone of this film, but I imagine there are a lot of different directions you could have taken with this material.
Yes, 100%. I felt like I really understood the movie when we amped up Mia’s character. That’s even what the opening is about. We’re setting the tone and place, but you’ll also notice at the end of that Australian Crawl music-video montage, the last thing you see is Light and Mia making eye contact for the first time. And it’s right after that that Ryuk drops the notebook. The idea behind that is that Ryuk isn’t giving that notebook just to Light. It’s Light and Mia’s coupling that’s going to give birth to Kira. If Ryuk wants to be entertained through violence, then that’s why he’s giving it to Light. He knows they’ll create that entertainment for him. But like I said, the music I chose for the film really personifies that feeling you have when you’re a kid, especially when you’re in a relationship and it seems like the end of the world. We wanted to put the movie in that high-school perspective with the Air Supply song at the end, the Chicago song, even “Take My Breath Away.” Those are all things that really say everything I wanted to say about those characters.
The Seattle setting for your version of Death Note gives these characters a distinctly American feel, to the extent that they seem rooted within the mythology of the outlaw couple, from The Honeymoon Killers to Badlands. Were you thinking of your protagonists in this way as you started filming?
Absolutely. There’s definitely a Bonnie and Clyde sort of thing to their relationship. And if you notice, at the beginning of the film, it’s really Light and Mia in their honeymoon phase, using the death note together. All of the violence you see is explosive and exciting and kind of fun. But as the movie goes on, as L [Lakeith Stanfield] and the task force starts cracking down and zeroing in on Light, the whole thing becomes less of a game and more real. So the movie kind of switches tones into being less about that explosive violence and more about where it becomes real. It’s more like a heart attack or an off-screen gunshot as opposed to someone’s head exploding right into the camera. We go through these extremes, but it’s all a calculated thing. It’s not just violence for the sake of violence. It’s couched in a perspective that evolves with the movie, and as the characters evolve as well.
And it’s that evolution that leads them abroad, to a desire not just to settle scores with classmates and local toughs, but also international leaders. They want to go global. I’m wondering how much of their ambitions you see in your own goals as an artist. We could say the goal is to reach more viewers, but isn’t it really about making movies that are bigger and more expansive? Is that the direction you’ve envisioned for your career from the start?
For me, my influences have always been, from the get go, very big films. Growing up, I was really into the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Alien, and Terminator movies. Always these big kinds of blockbuster type of things, usually erring on the side of sci-fi more than anything. I always knew that was the trajectory that I wanted to go, but there’s a big difference between knowing where you want to go and actually going there.
The starting point of my career is Pop Skull, which was made for three thousand dollars. Each film has been a very progressive crawl upward, but it has all been motivated toward a certain goal. There’s always a methodical aspect to that. You’re picking the films you want to do, but you’re also hopefully using them as chess pieces at the same time. Death Note was definitely one of those where it was the biggest budget I’ve had yet.
Like you said, it becomes a worldwide thing. So, not only was I able to make the movie I wanted to and accomplish all of those goals, but it achieves the secondary goal of pushing me up the ladder again. Godzilla vs. Kong is now my next film and that’s going to be about as expensive as it gets. It’s kind of exciting to be hitting the ceiling, but at the end of the day I’m not one of these guys who made one indie film and was catapulted straight to the top. There’s people who do great work under those circumstances, but my process has been more of a trial and error type of thing. I find myself fortunate that my career has gone the direction that it has, and at the pace that it has.