Death Note Producer Masi Oka On Working With The Manga Creators & Adapting This Challenging Property For Netflix

It’s been incredibly rewarding to seen the landscape of film change over the past few years. Yes, blockbusters are only getting bigger and bigger, but we’re also seeing a real divide, not only in the content between theaters, TV, and streaming services, but in the actual content being delivered. While things in film have been getting safer and safer on the big screen, there’s been a recent surge of truly unique filmmaking thanks to streaming services like Netflix, who are willing to take a leap of faith.

This is the case with Death Note, a film that’s been in development for God knows how long. Like Ghost in the Shell and Akira before it, Death Note has passed through several hands on its way to being a film. It passed through the likes of Shane Black and Warner Bros. before it finally landed with Adam Wingard and Netflix, who were willing to take the film in a bold, unique direction.

LRM had a chance to sit down with one of the film’s producers, Masi Oka, and discuss the process of getting this film on Netflix, working with the original creators of the manga, and his what he meant when he said he joined to “protect the property” of Death Note.

Can you tell me about your original exposure to the Manga?

Masi Oka: Original exposure to Manga, well, I was born in Japan and moved to the states when I was 6, and I grew up with Japanese culture. I mean, I was reading Death Note real time in Shonen Jump so, that’s my original exposure to it.


Oka: Before anyone, I am sure it was before anybody in the US, I was reading Japanese in real time, so, more, before any of the filmmakers out there.

Right, and how did you get involved in the process of this movie? Because I know, I am pretty sure this one has been, they’ve been looking to bring this one to America for quite a while.

Oka: Yeah, it was definitely for a while, it was recently developed with Dan Lin and Roy Lee. And we actually came in, Jason Hoffs and I came midway through because we were working on a different Shueisha — who was the publisher — a different Shueisha project and while that was kind of like coming to a close, they kind of said, “You know what, we’re thinking about doing Death Note again, and it’s coming back to us, so could you help us out?” And Jason and I said, oh, absolutely, we’d love to have property if we do it. And then Dan and Roy said, you know, we still want to continue, and of course they’re amazing producers so, you know, we just wanted to work with them and collaborate with them. And fortunately, one thing led to another and here we are.

So, you’ve been quoted saying that you jumped on board, and intended to protect the property, protect the film, and I’m curious, what were your greatest fears about what this film could have become?

Oka: Basically, when I said come in to protect the property, by that I really mean protect the creator’s voice. You know, I have seen many adaptations of Japanese manga, and you know, the ones that, as I said, I grew up with, kind of like just, gone to the wayside because they’ve ignored the creator’s suggestions, or you know, just kind of took them out of the whole process. So that is what I meant by trying to protect the property, I want to make sure the creators’ voices were heard. It’s their baby, so that’s one of the obstacles to overcome. This is going to be a cultural adaption so there are so many things that are going to be different about the characters, that are, there are going to be things that are different about the story. You know, while showing respect to the property and keeping the collaboration, there’s going to be changes. So, trying to get the senseis to understand that, but also trying to make sure the filmmakers understand it like, “Hey look, this is what’s core to the property,” and what’s really important to the senseis, in terms of the fans. So, those were the kind of things I think were our biggest obstacles.

Did creators [Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata] talk about what aspects of the property were its core that they wanted to make sure were in the movie?

Oka: Ryuk was one of them definitely, you know there’s certain things about Light and L, their silhouettes, how they look, and what their visions were. We wanted to make sure that in the U.S. side, we wanted to make sure we give character arcs, or journey, to our characters. This is kind of their origin story, whereas in the manga, first of all you have 12 volumes to see that growth. And we have to put that in a two-hour visual medium. And also, the characters [in the manga] immediately heed the call. They already start out where kind of the movie ends — where Light ends in the movie. So we had to give the characters a point to start, and give them a journey for growth. So those were like, the things that we were talking about.

– New York, NY – 8/17/17 – Atmosphere attends the New York Premiere Screening of “DEATH NOTE”. The film stars Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Willem Dafoe, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, and is directed by Adam Wingard. The film launches August 25th on Netflix and in select theaters in NY and LA.
-Pictured: Atmosphere
-Photo by: Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix
-Location: AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13

So you call this more of a like an origin story, and I know in the past the other producers talked about this potentially being a big franchise. Are you guys talking about sequels, or sort of spinoffs, or other stories set in this world as well?

Oka: I mean, we would love to because the way that movie ends, I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to see it yet, but the ending leaves that question open, right? And also our, the creators, they had to comment and one of the comments was, “I can’t wait to see what happens next,” because they’re definitely on board. So, I think the filmmakers would love it, but at the end of the day is at the hands of our fans and also Netflix.

Yeah, I thought it was a really interesting ending, like, it was really graceful in that it literally could be the ending or it could be the beginning depending on what happens going forward. So, what came first, Adam Wingard or the writers, as far as getting the ball rolling on this particular iteration of “Death Note”?

Oka: I’m trying to think, once again, I think also we joined in late 2012, I believe, so we joined like in September 2012, that’s where Jason and I came in before. Before that we had the original writers, and then I think we had Shane Black on board over at Warner Bros. So I think we got Jeremy Slater 1st, and then we were able to attach Adam Wingard based on that script. We did another iteration where Adam Wingard brought a writer that he worked with to also do another patch up. But the biggest overhaul, done by Jeremy Slater, who is the current version of the script, I think that came first before Adam came on.

Right, and what made Adam Wingard the right choice for this movie?

Oka: [Producer Roy Lee] had a great relationship with him but he’s also like, he just killed, you know, The Guest and Blair Witch, he just knocked those out of the park. He’s a really smart filmmaker with a great, unique and distinct vision, and we wanted someone who was smart, intelligent, can take this hip franchise and make it his own. Because there’s always been a lot of Japanese live-action adaptations of this, we want to make sure we have a strong point of view, and Adam was a great fan of the property, that’s a huge thing, we wanted to make sure he was passionate about the property. But he also brought in a sense of that core, which was unique to Death Note. He also knew how to bring in humor to kind of balance that. So, really intelligent and that’s something that Adam was a perfect filmmaker for this because he was someone who brought all of that together, and just makes a really stylish film.

So you mentioned Warner Bros., and as we know this is a Netflix original movie. Was Warner Bros. still involved at all? Or was it moved wholly over to Netflix?

Oka: Basically, Netflix came in and saved the day, Warner was not going to make it anymore, and Netflix says, “You know what, we love it, we want to do it.” We were so grateful because of that because this movie actually wouldn’t have been made at any other studio because of the content, I think, because Adam wanted to push the envelope, you know, there is a lot of gore, and that gore is not gratuitous. I think it’s really important to the story teller to let people know this is like a death game, you just have to realize what is happening here, so it was important to push the envelope. And because of Netflix allowing us to have freedom… I think if it wasn’t for Netflix we would not have been able to push that freedom envelope and put Adam’s vision on the screen.

So was it that Warner Bros. didn’t want to continue at all with the property, or was it that they wanted you to tone it down for more mainstream audiences?

Oka: I don’t quite remember the situation or the reasoning behind that, but I just know talks fell apart, and we were scrambling to find a different studio, so, I don’t know the full reason behind that, but all I know is that Netflix came in and saved the day.

As far as Netflix goes, obviously, they’re making a huge splash in recent times with the movies that they’re bringing out, their original movies, and it’s kind of a big deal, especially that these aren’t just small-time things, they’re pretty big movies which is fantastic. And, I was wondering if you could let us know, sort of the budget that they allowed you to work with on this flick?

Oka: I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that, that’s a Netflix question.

Fair enough.

Oka: Well I’ll put it this way, it was much bigger than like, Paranormal Activity.

Got you [laughs].

Oka: But much less than Avengers. It’s somewhere between Paranormal Activity and Avengers, if that helps.

[Laughing] That helps perfectly, thanks so much. So, what were the biggest challenges that you faced personally as a producer and in bringing this to the, I guess the small screen?

Oka: I think the biggest, one of the biggest challenges for me, you know, because there were many other producers who were, you know, very talented and we had an amazing filmmaker, my challenge was to make sure the creators’ voices were constantly heard. So, I wanted to make sure that they were constantly involved in the development process, and the production process to the best of our ability, and make sure that their voices were heard, and have them understand the changes that we’ve made as well. I think it’s just about trying to get both sides to understand that this is a cultural adaptation, there’s going to changes to the characters, there’s going to be certain changes to the storyline, but there’s things that we’re going to respect, there’s things that creators definitely want to hold on to, and try to convince all the filmmakers and the studio that this is what’s really important, and this should be done because of the fans. Versus, like, oh these things definitely should be changed and we’ll try to talk to them as the creators, and get them on board. So I think those kind of battles were in collaboration were challenging, but also necessary, and also enhance the quality of the film.

Right, and how involved were the creators during the process? Would you guys check in every few weeks, every few months?

Oka: Basically, whenever we had a new script, and I would always check in with them, they’re a very busy, they’re currently working on their own syndicated series Platinum End, so it’s really hard to get their time, but me, I make sure like if, you know, make sure we get the script translated, and fortunately I can speak to them in Japanese, so I communicated with them in Japanese, and got their feedback. We got them an earlier cut, we made sure we hand-delivered the early cut to them, and showed them at a screening, and they were ecstatic about it. So those are things, we just make sure they’re constantly in communication, that I never left them out, especially if I felt there was a critical choice that we were making based on a character, or a plot point, I just made sure that the creators knew about it so they weren’t surprised. And if they had a strong opinion about it, I would bring it back to the filmmakers.

Can you remember of any specific instances that they had a really strong opinion that you guys had to back peddle on?

Oka: They had a really strong opinion on a lot of the logic rules with the Death Note. The way Death Note is conceived, at least for the senseis and editors, [is that] the Death Note is a program, and they were really adamant about making sure we see the rules upfront, rather than adding the rules in act three, because then it looks it’s convenient. So it was important for us to lay the rules — it’s okay for us to change the rules — but to lay the rules upfront. And it’s about how Light utilizes those rules to outsmart L and everyone else. We also had to make sure the logic was followed through on in every aspect.

Last thing just wanted to say. I’m a big fan of the manga and the anime, and coming out of this, I was really impressed with it. I really enjoyed it, and I really hope that not only manga fans but also the mainstream audiences really take to this movie.

Oka: Thank you, that means a lot to me, you know, as a manga and anime fan as well, you know, I grew up on this and this is a favorite property. And, look, I understand that if you’re expecting the exact same thing, you’re not going to get it, but if you come with an open mind, you’ll see the love and respect that Adam and the filmmakers have for this property, and hopefully it shows up on the screen, so thank you for enjoying the film.

Death Note hits Netflix tomorrow! 

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