Shane Black and Gus Van Sant couldn't be more different as filmmakers. Black is a pillar of pop culture cheekiness, known for sticking jokey asides into his screenplays and mining glib wisecracks out of pulpy genre fare (ranging from Lethal Weapon, to his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, to last year's Iron Man 3); he's also obsessed with Christmas. Van Sant, meanwhile, takes himself more seriously, outputting a fluctuating mix of topical neo-realist dramas (Elephant), biopics (Milk, Last Days), and hits like Good Will Hunting, with occasional disasters such as Psycho sprinkled in between.
So the idea of Black jumping ship on a project and handing the wheel over to Van Sant seems kind of odd, especially when the project is an adaptation of a popular Japanese manga. The idea of Van Sant bothering with comics of any make or model, and from any cultural perspective, sounds like a weird joke; they're miles outside his usual purview as an artist, far removed from his usual human (and often political) studies of people living on the fringes of society.
But be that as it may, there's a chance Van Sant may actually be taking over on Death Note for Black. Rumors about Van Sant's involvement on the very, very long-gestating adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's addictive moralist tale come from The Tracking Board; no reason explaining the changing of the guard on the production is given. Black is a hot commodity, though, and it doesn't take much imagination to deduce that his sudden, newfound involvement on the Predator reboot might have something to do with it.
Of course, name-dropping Van Sant doesn't guarantee that he's actually going to direct Death Note. But his plate at present seems rather empty, apart from Sea of Trees, a film he's working on with Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar) and Ken Watanabe (Godzilla), and if the material doesn't seem tailored to his typical bent on its face, there's enough meat on Death Notes bones to possibly draw his interest. The story focuses on high school student Light Yagami, who discovers a supernatural grimoire that allows whoever possesses it the power to kill anyone simply by writing their name down in its pages.
The manga expands rapidly after Light comes into ownership of the book; he embarks on a campaign of cleansing, jotting down the names of criminals and those he judges as evil in the hopes of creating a utopia inhabited only by honest, kind people. He's joined, such as it is, by Ryuk, a Shinigami (or death god), bored with his own existence and seeking amusement in the human world; Ryuk mostly just apathetically observes Light's activities, occasionally offering advice when it suits him.
It's a terrific series, and one Black is incredibly well-equipped for; Van Sant is less so, but Elephant and Paranoid Park both revolve around protagonists Light's age, and both arguably delve into similar themes and ideas as Death Note (sans the crazy-looking spiritual companion and general fantastical qualities). In that case, maybe Van Sant can bring a level of pathos to the film that Black might not have been able to.
Regardless, it'll be interesting to see him tackle the series (which has already been adapted to live action before, as well as anime and light novels) for an American audience. Death Note continues Hollywood's fascination with transplanting Japanese literary and animated properties from the page to screen; most recently, Edge of Tomorrow did the same for light novel All You Need is Kill, while adaptations of Bleach and Akira are still stuck in holding patterns. Maybe Van Sant can give Death Note the juice it needs to get off the ground ahead of the pack.
We'll keep you updated on Death Note news as it becomes available.
Source: The Tracking Board