Noah Baumbach On Adapting Daunting Novel ‘White Noise’ – Contenders NY – Deadline


In the depths of the Covid pandemic, stuck at home in an emptied-out New York City, filmmaker Noah Baumbach figured he and his life partner and creative collaborator Greta Gerwig had two choices for their next project. 

“It was either, we were going to do something in the apartment or a Spielbergian apocalypse movie,” Baumbach said, not entirely in jest, in a White Noise panel discussion Saturday at Deadline’s Contenders Film: New York awards-season event.

RELATED: Contenders New York 2022: Deadline’s Complete Coverage

The movie he, Gerwig, actor Adam Driver and producer David Heyman ended up making arguably is both: a large-scale, big-budget, cast-of-hundreds environmental disaster movie with a lot of the interior life and offbeat emotional detail of his past work. Set in the 1980s, it contains both a fully staged train crash and whimsical cross-talk among characters around the house while catastrophe looms.

White Noise is also the writer-director’s first adaptation after more than a dozen other feature-length films. His source material, Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, is a sometimes plotless, abstruse meditation on contemporary America often described as movie-proof — “unfilmable.” DeLillo’s novel examines the impact of a catastrophic “airborne toxic event” on a Midwestern college professor, Jack Gladney, suddenly faced with the end of his picturesque suburban family life. 

RELATED: ‘White Noise’ Venice Review: Noah Baumbach Teams With Adam Driver & Greta Gerwig In Wickedly Smart Comedy For Dark Times

Baumbach rediscovered DeLillo’s cult classic during the height of the pandemic and was struck not just by the topicality, 35 years later, “in terms of things that are alluded to or depicted in the book,” but also the “strangeness” of DeLillo’s tone — a “real but not real” authorial voice that he said “felt very much to be how the world was feeling” in lockdown.

Driver, who plays Gladney, recalled that Baumbach — his director for 2019’s Marriage Story — called him and said: “I’m reading this. It seems prescient. Take a look at it.”

“It’s a great book,” Driver said. “Even if we made it before the pandemic, I think we would have found connections that are interesting.”

Gerwig, who plays Babette, Gladney’s unfaithful wife, said she had devoured the book as a 19-year-old, underlining every passage. “I just loved it so much because it was so outrageously funny and wicked and it was like, Don DeLillo was on fire when he was writing it,” she said. 

Addressing Baumbach, she said, “I think even when you started reading it again, I was still able to quote passages pretty much verbatim because I probably memorized them and tried to pass them off as my own observations.”

Baumbach said he used lockdown to write the script. 

“And then at some point he said, ‘Could you read what I’ve written?’” Gerwig recalled. “And then I felt incredibly jealous, and I was like, ‘All I’ve done is eat ice cream standing in front of the fridge, and you’ve written an amazing script.’ But I loved it right away.”

Brooklyn native Baumbach built a reputation for wistful, human-scale dramas and comedies with such films as Mr. Jealousy (1997), The Squid and The Whale (2005) and Frances Ha (2012), the latter starring Gerwig. His most recent, Best Picture Oscar nominee Marriage Story, was a darker turn for him, with its portrait of household dissolution. White Noise is arguably the bleakest story yet undertaken by a filmmaker known for winsome humor. It arrives trailing stories of set difficulties, a punishing on-location shoot in Ohio — the longest of Baumbach’s”s career — and a spiraling budget.

David Heyman, Baumbach’s producing partner, said, “It’s a misconception that making a film on a larger scale, which this is, is substantially different from making a more intimate film. 

“Yes there were more elements, a lot more extras, staff,” he added. “There are explosions, the second unit — it’s a bigger project. But it’s very much along the lines of what Noah did … on Marriage Story.” Just with “more toys, more elements.”

Baumbach’s father was a book publisher, college professor and author of experimental fiction in the DeLillo mold, so White Noise might not sit that far outside of his literary and cinematic wheelhouse. 

Driver described a dinner-table scene at home with Gladney, Babette and their children trading information from media reports of an industrial disaster unleashing a toxic black cloud on their community — and Gladney comically trying to explain away or downplay the unfolding disaster.

“It’s all about denying what is actually happening until he can’t,” the two-time Oscar nominee said. “There’s no more way to escape. He has to kind of face his mortality, his betrayal … these things that he’s kind of compartmentalized.”

Check back Monday for the panel video.




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