Death Note sounds like something you might pitch during a 15-second ride in a Hollywood elevator, with its easily communicable "high concept" idea and striking hook:
A high school student comes across a supernatural notebook, realising it holds within it a great power – if the owner inscribes someone's name into it while picturing their face, he or she will die. Intoxicated with his new god-like abilities, the young man begins to kill those he deems unworthy of life.
It's the kind of thing it would be sweet to collect royalties on.
Just ask Japanese writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrator Takeshi Obata – who created this famous manga series that was serialised over 108 chapters (2003-2006) in the Weekly Shonen Jump magazine – about their creation Light Yagama, the teen who attempts to cleanse the world of evil, with only a detective known as L to stop him. The original 108 chapters were later collected into a 12-volume book series that to date has sold nearly 40 million copies.
On a whirlwind of white-hot fandom, it quickly spawned an animated TV series, novels, a stage musical, multiple Nintendo DS video games, four live-action films, a live-action TV drama and a miniseries.
Now the rest of the world can pop some kernels and witness Light's omnipotence in the new Netflix film that drops this Friday. This "global original" movie sparkles with appeal for millennials, with its ensemble of rising young stars. Lending their talents are Nat Wolff as Light Turner, Margaret Qualley as his classmate and girlfriend Mia Sutton and La Keith Stanfield as L.
Wolff is remembered as the cancer-survivor Isaac in The Fault in Our Stars (2014), while Qualley co-starred on the telly in The Leftovers (2014), and Stanfield made quite an impression as the unfortunate victim of a suburban body-snatching operation in Get Out, released earlier this year.
Describing Light Turner as one of his favourite roles to date, Wolff says: "At first he is somebody who sees things in black and white, but as the movie tracks his journey, he starts seeing the gray areas things a little bit more. It's kind of like 'with great power comes great responsibility'. As the movie goes on, he really sees himself as a hero or a god, and his image of himself and the world's image of him starts slowly deteriorating."
On slipping into the skin of L, the world's greatest detective, Stanfield says: "What was so mysterious about L, and what really grabbed me was that he was not as accessible as the other characters. I liked the way he never really reveals himself. You can't really crack into who he is, and that makes for a very interesting character."
Stanfield pays homage to the original manga and anime by adopting most of L's unique mannerisms – especially his crouched seating position – and his bizarre hoodie and turtleneck combination to keep the bottom half of his face covered, so he's not identifiable.
It's pure ear candy to hear two-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe voice the character of Ryuk – a Shinigami, or Japanese god of death – who gives Light his lethal powers. Why? To amuse himself and satisfy his dual needs for entertainment and escape his deity boredom. Visually, at nine feet tall, Ryuk is a demonic figure with a partially humanoid appearance – black, spiky hair, glowing red eyes, a grinning mouth and razor-sharp teeth.
Sprinkling a pinch of veteran seasoning into this youthful manga stew of horror, suspense and comedy – with Blair Witch director Adam Wingard at the helm – are long-time film and television stars Paul Nakauchi, who previously voiced Hutch the wolf in Alpha and Omega (2010), and Shea Whigham of Agent Carter fame.
Korean-American producer Roy Lee, who achieved worldwide success for his westernised adaptations of Asian film sensations such as The Ring (originally the Japanese horror film Ringu) and The Grudge (originally the Japanese horror film Ju-On) recalls how, for him, it all began back in 2006.
"When I first heard about the concept for Death Note, it seemed like a wish-fulfillment movie for people who wish they could do something about all the criminals out there," says Lee. "It was a dark, twisted and fresh take on creating a superhero character – but in a normal kid."
"Roy brought this project to me," recalls his partner Dan Lin, producer of The Lego Movie and the Sherlock Holmes movie series. "He said, 'Dan, this is an interesting cat-and-mouse story about a cop who's trying to track down a killer.' It had a very provocative concept ... Who really deserves the power of the Death Note? Who can be responsible for it? I thought there were really interesting themes that could be explored with a Western adaptation."
For kids who feel powerless, Death Note appeals with the idea that you can make a difference. Yet, dramatically speaking, it powerfully introduces real-world consequences. Through the character of Light, we see the idealism of youth thrust into an adult situation with the highest stakes possible.
Shot in Vancouver – as a stand-in for Seattle, where the story takes place – Death Note ignites oodles of neon, both on-screen and slightly off-screen, to wash and imbue eerie hues to the actors' faces, giving the film a distinctive look.
"Working with Netflix was fantastic," adds director Wingard. "It was like doing an indie film on a big budget. They really trust the filmmakers they're working with, so I was able to express the vision I had for the film in the best way."
On being the femme fatale of the story, Mia Sutton, American actress Qualley adds: "It's funny. I looked at the film as a love story between my character and Light. And then there's also Mia's love of power, which is kind of like Lord of the Rings – becoming almost a possessed feeling at some points."
Mia may be smart, driven and fearless – but she's sorely lacking in conscience.
"She's really tough and gutsy and kind of an outcast, and I think with Light, he's her first real love and friendship, and someone that she really trusts.
"What they do with the Death Note shows her ambition and drive. Light sees everything in gray, but Mia is very black and white: 'This person has done something terrible and they deserve to die.'"
Death Note is available on Netflix on August 25