Right before going into production, Warner Bros dropped the project. Since Adam Wingard was passionate about the project, the studio let him move the film into another platform, with Netflix buying the rights.
Adam Wingard addressed the whitewashing controversy over the film by explaining that the film is an American take on the Death Note story, stating, "It's one of those things where the harder I tried to stay 100% true to the source material, the more it just kind of fell apart. You're in a different country, you're in a different kind of environment, and you're trying to also summarize a sprawling series into a two-hour-long film. For me, it became about; what do these themes mean to modern day America, and how does that affect how we tell the story."
Despite the backlash on whitewashing, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the original creators of Death Note, have praised and defended the film, with Ohba stating, "In a good way, it both followed and diverged from the original work so the film can be enjoyed, of course by not only the fans, but also by a much larger and wider audience".
Producer Roy Lee stated that the film is "definitely for adults. It has a zero chance it will get below an R-rating." He also stated that it "will be one of the first manga adaptations that feels very grounded but still has fantastical elements."
Adam Wingard read the "Death Note" manga comic to find a way to translate the story to an American environment: "Death Note is such a Japanese thing. It became about what do these themes mean to modern day America, and how does that affect how we tell the story. What are the things that people chalk up to conspiracy theories? What kind of weird underground programs does the government have? How do those work in the world of Death Note?"
About to meet him, James is told of how L has "helped the FBI once before". This is a small but clever nod to the novel "Death Note: The Los Angeles BB Murder Cases", a prequel to the manga (which namedropped the case in a throwaway line). The storyline of this novel involved L helping the FBI solve a series of mysterious murders happening in and around L.A.
In the film, L is constantly seen eating tons of candy and other assorted sweets including gummy bears, Sweet Tarts, Snickers, hard candy, and Ice Cream. This is an intentional homage to L from the anime who, along with also being autistic and rarely wearing shoes, was also shown to have a big sweet tooth.
In their defense of the whitewashing accusations, producers Roy Lee and Dan Lin have argued that: "Our vision for Death Note has always been to introduce the world to this dark and mysterious masterpiece. The talent and diversity represented in our cast, writing, and producing teams reflect our belief in staying true to the story's concept of moral relevance - a universal theme that knows no racial boundaries."
The Shinigami Death God Ryuk was brought to life using a combination of CGI and practical effects and with the aid of two actors. Jason Liles played the character in costume and performed motion capture for the body movements, while Willem Dafoe provided voice work and performance capture for the facial elements.
In the manga and anime, Light Yagami has more family members including a mother and sister named Sachiko and Sayu Yagami respectively. While in this film, his mother is already dead before the events of the film, his sister was completely cut from the adaptation and Light Turner is an only child.
Similarly to Ghost in the Shell (2017), a previous anime adaptation from earlier that year, this film came under fire with accusations of whitewashing when it was decided to cast American actors in the role of characters like Light Yagami and Misa Amane, and rename them with westernized names Turner and Mia Sutton. According to the filmmakers, auditions were held for Asian American actors to be cast but none were selected on the basis that none of there were fluent in English, resulting in further backlash.
In the scene where Watari (Paul Nakauchi) sings to L (Lakeith Stanfield) he is singing the song Optimistic Voices (1939) (uncredited); Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; Music by Harold Arlen; Performed by the offscreen voices of The Debutantes with The Rhythmettes from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Before Detective James Turner meets L in person, he interacts with him first on a computer screen interface which is simply the letter L. This is an homage to the anime where L as a character is not physically seen in person for several episodes and until then, is only seen as a disembodied voice on a computer screen interface with just the letter L.
This film strays from the anime in where Light actually has people killed in a more creative manner when using the Death Note. However, one of his victims in the film, an FBI agent, dies by a simple case of a heart attack, an homage to the anime where Light Yagami generally kills people with just a heart attack using the Death Note.
At the scene of a mass killing in Japan, a police officer (played by Masi Oka) comments that the crime does not make sense as "the Nakamuras and the Inagawas have had a truce for over ten years." Hiro Nakamura was the name of Oka's character in Heroes (2006).
During the film's opening, one of the cheerleaders can be seen wearing blond hair long with two small pigtails either side. This is a homage to the original manga/anime design of Misa Amane (changed in the film to a brunette named Mia Sutton).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The scene when Watari, under Kira's influence, is at the abandoned buildings looking for L's real name is filled with conspiracy theories references: the place is called Montauk, a reference to the infamous Montauk Project, a series of alleged government programs on everything from time travel to psychological warfare. Later, an Ouroboros (a serpent biting its own tail) is seen painted on the ceiling. Finally, Watari opens a hatch on the floor with the Rothschild family crest on it who, according to conspiracy enthusiasts, are the alleged secret controllers of the Federal Reserve and much the world's economy.
L in this film is based on his original portrayal (a sweet-loving detective assigned to hunt down Kira), but incorporates traits from his successor Mello (hot-blooded personality, black attire, and grandiose surroundings) and Near (he keeps the Death Note for his own use). He is also partly based on Naomi Misora (investigators who dress in black and who lose a loved one to Kira, which drives them to seek revenge).
The film uses flowers as a symbol of death (one of Light's victims is killed in front of a flower shop, and Mia herself dies after falling into a bed of flowers). Additionally, Mia has a few butterfly decorations in her bedroom and locker, and during the carnival scene, a person holding a butterfly balloon briefly passes by her, butterflies represent bearers or bringers of death.
Mia Sutton is mainly an Americanized version of Misa Amane (a former cheerleader who becomes Light's aid), but she incorporates traits of mass murderer Aoi Sakura from Death Note - Desu nôto: Light Up the New World (2016), and Light's other girlfriends Kiyomi Takada (from the manga/anime, a dark-haired and cynical girl) and Shiori Akino from (from Death Note (2015), an envious girl who gets killed by Light). The filmmakers have also said that they gave her much of Light's negative qualities, to make Light more heroic.
James Turner is a widower, and he deduces that his son is Kira. This came from Death Note (2015), where Soichrio Yagami (Light's father in the Japanese version) lost his wife, and found out his son was Kira.