‘It’s about the fear of death’: the director talks to Nick Chen about his new apocalyptic thriller, White Noise – a remake of Don DeLillo’s ‘unfilmable’ novel of the same name
In 2013, The Onion ran a fake op-ed by Noah Baumbach: “You Haven’t Seen Frances Ha Until You’ve Seen It in IMAX”. The gag was that Baumbach, an indie darling, specialised in low-budget, walking-and-talking comedies, the kind that are cinematic but more likely to showcase a passive-aggressive argument than a high-speed car chase. However, with White Noise, his 13th feature, Baumbach has directed an IMAX-worthy thriller that’s still recognisably a “Noah Baumbach movie” – it’s just now a running-and-talking comedy.
Costing between $80 and $140 million depending on which report you read, White Noise is certainly a Frances Halliday-style leap from the $3 million required for Frances Ha. After Marriage Story (a tiny, tiny $18 million), Baumbach happened to be rereading Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, a social satire centred around a poisonous cloud that’s approaching a suburban town. Thus in Baumbach’s 1980s-set book-to-screen adaptation, Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig adorn masks upon leaving the house.
“It isn’t about the pandemic, but the experience of going through the pandemic was so unusual and frightening,” Baumbach, 53, tells me in Corinthia Hotel during the London Film Festival. “The book reflected things I was feeling and not able to articulate. I went to the book to express myself.”
While DeLillo’s novel was for decades deemed unfilmable, its distinct sections are easily translated to the Meyerowitz Stories model: a trilogy of adjacent slices of family life. In the delightfully offbeat opening chapter, Jack (Driver), Babette (Gerwig), and their three children (Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola) are a Baumbachian unit with echoes of The Squid and the Whale. Less traditionally Baumbachian is when he switches to a squib and a wail: Jack’s nightmare is more Shudder than Netflix; a swooping camera documents an explosive train crash that causes a chemical leak. Acts two and three then grapple with the respective survival and aftermath of the so-called “Airborne Toxic Event”.
“The story’s about the fear of death,” Baumbach explains. “The beginning depicts the strategies we create to not deal with our own mortality. Part two is: no matter what we do, death comes for us. Part three is: well, maybe we escape death this time, but now we know it’s a reality, how do we go back to the same rituals?” While a typical movie would roll credits after an apocalyptic disaster is averted, White Noise presents Jack and Babette with a more metaphorical toxic spillage. “They have to address things about their marriage that were true at the beginning of the movie. The call’s coming from inside the house.”
On the whole, Baumbach includes the classic touchpoints of White Noise (though “the most photographed barn in America” will, ironically, remain unphotographed in movie form), including Jack’s career as a Hitler studies professor who can’t speak German, and his dualling lecture with Elvis expert Murray (Don Cheadle). Other university colleagues are played by Jodie Turner-Smith, theatre director Sam Gold, music producer George Drakoulias, and André 3000. “I love Outkast,” says Baumbach. “It’s like a dinner party: you want artists from other mediums who gel but bring different energies.”
In previous Baumbach movies, Gerwig embodied whimsical optimists and wannabe artists with a comically rising tone to their voice, while Driver depicted no-nonsense realists with a cut-throat attitude. In White Noise, the roles switch: in her first live-action role in six years, Gerwig imbues Babette with startling, raw humanity when the character develops an addiction to Dylar, a drug designed to fend off a fear of death. Meanwhile, Driver’s the wise-cracker whose asides may as well be to camera, his floating line delivery redolent of Gerwig’s in Mistress America.
In fact, a fun double-bill would be pairing White Noise with Frances Ha, the latter depicting Driver and Gerwig as flatmates you could never imagine in a long-term relationship, let alone their own marriage story. “Adam changed his physicality and is playing older than he is,” Baumbach notes. “Often, I bring characters to my actors, and have them play it as close to themselves as possible. You find a place where they reveal themselves, and it’s about stripping things away. Whereas this was bringing actors to the characters. There’s a level of performance with wigs, transformations, and gaining weight. Because the movie is real and unreal. It isn’t about hiding the artifice in a naturalistic setting – it’s about acknowledging the artifice in a lot of cases.”
“What’s in your supermarket cart defines you... In an old-fashioned way, the checkout will tell you what gum to buy. Now it’s algorithms. I felt like they’re all dancing inside the internet” – Noah Baumbach
In the eight-year gap between Mr Jealousy and The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach adapted novels into unproduced screenplays (Prep, The Wishbones, The Emperor’s Children and so on), which, to me, he calls “jobs”. In 2012, he attempted to turn Jonathan Frantzen’s The Corrections into a 40-hour HBO series with Gerwig and Ewan McGregor as the leads; it never progressed beyond an unaired pilot, supposedly because Baumbach was overwhelmed by the large budget. However, the director’s dismissive of any comparisons with White Noise. “The Corrections was very specific to that time and situation,” he says. “It’s a very different thing.”
Such is the ease with which White Noise handles car chases and gun-firing shootouts, you’d guess it was helmed by Brian De Palma, not the director of De Palma. Moreover, there’s little indication of any production difficulties (the cinematographer was changed midshoot). If there are juicy stories, Baumbach doesn’t feel like sharing them. “I had the support I needed [from Netflix] to do those sequences. It’s just moviemaking. You collect the images you need to tell the story, which is no different to shooting two people in a kitchen.”
Truth is, Baumbach has long been a secret writer of blockbusters. He co-wrote Madagascar 3, he nearly directed Mr Popper’s Penguins (his unproduced script included Peyton Manning as a lead), and he’s probably done punch-up on every Ben Stiller film (he allegedly penned Stiller’s dialogue in Tower Heist). With Gerwig, he wrote a still-to-be-made animation about talking dogs for DreamWorks, as well as 2023’s Barbie (“I can’t compare Barbie to anything,” he says).
A hint that Baumbach might delve further into IMAX-appropriate fare is the closing credits to White Noise. Like in Fantastic Mr Fox, which Baumbach co-wrote, the ending unfolds in a supermarket: the cast dance, Stop Making Sense-style, to “New Body Rhumba”, an original song by LCD Soundsystem, for eight minutes. André 3000 shaking a box labelled “COOKIES” like a polaroid is a GIF waiting to happen.
With Driver and Gerwig parading rectangular shopping items like fashion accessories, it mirrors how on, for example, a Letterboxd profile you stick four film posters at the top to define your personality. Baumbach concurs. “What’s in your supermarket cart defines you,” he says. “In an old-fashioned way, the checkout will tell you what gum to buy. Now it’s algorithms. I felt like they’re all dancing inside the internet.”
By ending in a supermarket, White Noise will segue seamlessly into the Netflix homepage, itself a row of itemised products vying for your attention. Baumbach confirms that on Netflix, White Noise’s credits will play through to the end, rather than be automatically minimised. However, he adds, “It’s definitely a big-screen movie with a big sound design. It’s 35mm anamorphic. It has a lot in every frame. And likewise, I agree with The Onion: Frances Ha should be seen big.”
White Noise is out in cinemas now, and will stream on Netflix from December 30