How Death Note And Willem Dafoe Brought Ryuk To Life

Ryuk in Netflix's Death Note

In Death Note, a powerful book cursed with unlimited power lands in the hands of a curious teenage boy (Nat Wolff). Write a name on the pages of a book, and that person dies. The boy, Light, wants to use the Death Note to eliminate criminals. His girlfriend, Mia (Margaret Qualley), has different ideas. And the two are pursued by a detective (Keith Stanfield), who protects his true identity so it doesn't end up written on the pages of the book.

All of this mystery and menace is started by a vengeful spirit named Ryuk, a classic figure in the Death Note lore, who will be played by Willem Dafoe in Adam Wingard's planned adaptation, hitting Netflix in August. Earlier this year, CinemaBlend traveled to Vancouver to watch Wingard film, and we learned the intricate process that went in to bringing his Ryuk to life. The director told us:

The starting point, for me, is that there were pre-existing, live-action adaptations of Death Note, and in those adaptations, the way they approach Ryuk was in a fully-CGI kind of way. That was something that I wanted to avoid. I wanted to bring him to life in a way that we'd never seen before, which meant getting something on set as much as possible.My original instinct was, 'Let's create a big puppet.' Ryuk is this 8-foot-tall being. There's really no one who can be that tall. So we thought we'd actually just build something and actually have it on set in an old-school way. We actually went down that road. We had a prototype, animatronic version of Ryuk. But it only got us so far, so we kind of scrapped that. We figured we'd take a 7-foot-tall actor, named Jason Liles, put him in the suit... for most of the shots, we expanded in the movie anyway, just to give the actor Ryuk's height and size.

So Ryuk became a mixture of on-set acting and the influences of Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is no stranger to playing villains on screen, and just the tone of his purring voice in the Death Note trailer sends a chill down one's spine. The one thing that they weren't able to do on the Death Note set, according to director Adam Wingard, was perfect the facial features and the muscles in the face to fit Ryuk's dialogue. As a work-around, Wingard says they did this:

What we did was basically cut out the on-set creature's face and had Jason wear these red LED glasses, so at least we could see a representation of his glowing eyes, knowing we were going to replace that later with some CGI, and then voice it over with Willem. On set, Jason Liles is basically doing all of the mannerisms of Ryuk. He's speaking the lines to the actors, so that they're actually working off of somebody. They're not just working off of nothing. That really helps their performances. And ultimately, a character like this, what really brings it to life is how other people interact with it.For me, it was really important that [Dafoe] felt free to be able to try a lot of different things, and give it a different attitude, depending on how he felt in the moment. And it really came together very quickly. Ultimately, that character really starts from the laugh and works its way up from there. It almost starts at the laugh, you know what I mean? Once we heard the laugh for the first time, we were all in.I also should mention one thing. It wasn't just a straight ADR session with Dafoe. We actually did a full motion-capture session with him, so that his face is absolutely Ryuk's face. The motion of the CGI character is Willem Dafoe, so it is his performance that you are seeing on screen.

Ryuk is a shit-stirrer. He drops the Death Note in Light's hands, essentially out of boredom. For centuries, this evil spirit has been passing the Death Note along from person to person, seeing what kinds of trouble he can cause. Find out more about the problems Ryuk invents when Death Note hits Netflix on August 25. The movie also will host a massive panel in Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday, and we will have more regarding the movie from that presentation, and from our own exclusive set visit, in the coming days.

Sean O'Connell
Managing Editor

Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Having been with the site since 2011, Sean interviewed myriad directors, actors and producers, and created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.