EXCLUSIVE: Warner Bros has hired Shane Black to direct a live action adaptation of the Japanese manga series Death Note. Black will oversee a script that’s being written by Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry, his accomplices on Doc Savage, a drama he’ll direct for Sony Pictures Entertainment. Dan Lin, Roy Lee, Doug Davison and Brian Witten are producing Death Note.
Written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, Death Note was originally published in Japan and later collected in 12 trade paperbacks that have sold more than 38 million copies worldwide. The protagonist, Light, is a bright student who stumbles across a mystical notebook that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it. Light decides to launch a secret crusade to rid the streets of criminals. Soon, the student-turned-vigilante finds himself pursued by a famous FBI criminal profiler known only by the alias L. Death Note is wildly popular in Japan and has been turned into live action and animated films, an animated TV series, novels and vidgames. The trio of live action films were distributed by Warner Bros Japan. Warner Bros acquired the manga rights from Shueisha and previously got a script draft from Charley and Vlas Parlapanides.
Death Note was the favorite manga of Black, who made his directing debut on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the 2005 cult favorite that helped re-launched Robert Downey Jr.’s star. I’ve been covering Hollywood long enough to recall those heady 1990s days when Black became Hollywood’s spec script king. After landing $250,000 for Lethal Weapon, a script he sold right out of UCLA, Black’s subsequent scripts sent studios into a frenzy. Black was paid $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout and then set a record with the $4 million New Line paid for The Long Kiss Goodnight. He and Basic Instinct scribe Joe Eszterhas played a game of can-you-top-this that made for late nights for this journalist, and an excitement that just doesn’t exist in the business that rarely gets competitive enough for studios to bid up anything. One of the reasons Chris Nolan got so much industry respect for Inception was because he gambled on himself and wrote that film on spec.
“I remember how it used to feel, like the entire agency lit up over at Endeavor,” Black told me. “My agent, David Greenblatt, would say, let’s get to work on this, and more and more agents gravitated toward the room and soon the negotiations became like watching a football game.”
It’s hard to imagine any writer in his twenties not being impacted by the money and stature, but it became a stigma. Black became blocked as a writer for several years, getting away from the typewriter to travel, and have a life. “You can imagine people reading that stuff, and getting on the bus to LA with scripts, ready to hit the jackpot, but the idea that specs were lottery tickets wasn’t true then and it’s not true now. The money was terrific, but I never thought about that. Do you think Chris Nolan was writing Inception and thinking, this will be a good paycheck? To me, it was about, do you care about this enough to carry the ball all the way through, writing alone in the attic and saying, my mom will love this, because that was all you could count on.”
It bothered him back then that other writers didn’t see it that way: “A friend nominated me to be part of the writer’s branch of the Motion Picture Academy, which I thought would be nice because I could vote for the Oscars. At that time, you needed two produced credits. I had seven, including the Lethal Weapon films. They said I was ‘unsuitable for membership at this point.’ I hadn’t personally offended any of these people, and I thought, boy these guys must be really pissed at something. It had to be all that publicity about the money. In their eyes, I was the guy seeking a payday, which I wasn’t. The humorous extension of that is, of course they would have turned down that money, because they had too much integrity. I begged out for awhile, wanting to be known for the work and not how much it cost. Nowadays, I’ve got a girlfriend, a nice place to live. The writing process was so agonizing for me, so lonely, that the addition of a couple people in my life I can trust as writing/producing partners has freed me up tremendously. And when you get older, you stop being such a baby. At 49, I can look at it as a high quality problem and not complain the way I used to.”
Black has also found directing to be a way to have the kind of control he did when he was banging out specs, only it’s a lot more fun because he’s not alone anymore. That was the great revelation of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
“When I started writing, a lot of the fun and success was not knowing what you weren’t supposed to do,” Black said. “But I eventually discovered what I really wanted to do was write specs I could direct. I’ve worked with some great filmmakers, but I can’t imagine at this point in my life wanting to hand off something, since I’ve already thought through how to block it. The key was realizing I could do it, that there was nothing preventing me from doing it. I was writing all these gags with Robert Downey Jr, and it was the most fun I’d ever had. It was as if I’d been on the front lawn digging ditches and somebody opened the door and invited me in for champagne.”
Black isn’t sure which project he’ll next direct. There are also a couple of spec ideas rolling around in his head, and he wants to revive an old one with his friend Joel Silver, producer of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black admits he has been happily distracted by studios offers existing properties like Doc Savage, a seminal influence in his childhood days. He’s got the same passion for Death Note.
“It’s my favorite manga, I was just struck by its unique and brilliant sensibility,” Black said. “What we want to do is take it back to that manga, and make it closer to what is so complex and truthful about the spirituality of the story, versus taking the concept and trying to copy it as an American thriller. Jeff Robinov and Greg Silverman liked that.” Black’s repped by WME and GreenLit Creative.