“Everything is extra!” blurts out Don Cheadle at the press conference for “White Noise” at the Venice Film Festival.
The Noah Baumbach-directed film, an adaptation of the 1985 Don DeLillo novel, opens the Italian festival on Wednesday night, and is nothing if not theatrical, as its cast members explained at length before the screening.
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“When [Baumbach] started re-reading the book, I did too,” said Greta Gerwig, who is Baumbach’s real-life partner. “[The writing] has this quality that makes you want to say, ‘Listen to this!’ and read sections out loud. There’s a performative quality to it; you want to share with other people. It seemed to be both emotionally and intellectually exciting.”
When asked whether the film was trying to convey DeLillo’s language or Baumbach’s, Adam Driver noted that he “didn’t define it as one or the other.”
“A lot of material in the book was curated by Noah and we rehearsed it like how we normally work on movies together,” explained Driver. “It felt very theatrical. Although this one, there are moments of big theatricality…but it’s the same process of a play just condensed into one bit.”
“White Noise” follows Jack (played by Driver), a professor who made a name for himself by teaching Hitler studies at a liberal arts college in Middle America. With his fourth wife Babette (portrayed by Gerwig) and their kids, they attempt to navigate the usual rocky passages of family life. But their existence is put to the test and disrupted when an airborne toxic event forces them to face the threat of death together.
The supporting cast includes Jodie Turner-Smith and Cheadle, who play Jack’s colleagues at the university, and Raffey Cassidy, siblings Sam Nivola and May Nivola (the children of actors Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer), André L. Benjamin and Lars Edinger.
Of the similarities between the pandemic, which was in the backdrop for much of the Ohio production, and the central story, Baumbach said: “I couldn’t believe how relevant it felt and how it felt of the moment, but I also thought whatever moment was going on, it would feel relevant to that.”
Driver added: “When we’re playing the scenes, we’re not thinking about the pandemic. Thinking of the scenes, I can’t think of any off top of my head [where I felt distinct parallels to real life]. Pretty much what was written in the script, we played that. That’s what was fun to play about the character — he was so stressed and pretending he wasn’t.”
Driver, who was asked about his frumpy appearance in the movie, later joked about having to gain weight and also having a “back-up stomach” on hand. “I put on weight and we had a back-up stomach, and then we didn’t need the back-up stomach,” he said with a smirk.
Baumbach noted that “there are many things on this movie that wouldn’t be appropriate with movies I’ve made…Everyone on this stage was in a wig.”
He also referenced a key line by Cheadle’s character Murray in the film (and book), who tells Driver’s Jack that his wife (Gerwig) has “important hair.”
“That transcended everything and gave it a performative element that felt right for this movie,” said Baumbach. “In other movies I’ve made, it’s about getting as stripped down as possible — [getting closer to] the person behind the character.”
The director described “White Noise” as a “a story of American culture in a sense and being surrounded by American culture.”
“I thought, well I was a child in the ’80s, I was an adolescent. It was a very formative time for me; the movies I saw then informed me and led me to want to do what I do. I saw it as a story of American cinema. Because of the genre elements and the tonal shifts available to me, I could use this language,” said Baumbach.
“I thought of ’80s noir — someone will probably say I shouldn’t call it that because noir is not from the ’80s — but the [themes of] family-on-vacation movies, romantic comedies, all of that is inside this. That language was available to me and I wanted to use it. People have already said, ‘Well I haven’t seen you do this before,’ but the material didn’t call for it. And this material really did.”
The movie, which has a run-time of 136 minutes, follows many of the plot points in DeLillo’s 1985 novel, and similarly ruminates on mortality and society’s reliance on pharmaceutical cures with Baumbach’s signature whimsy. Notably, there are a number of significant, big-budget action sequences that are something of a departure from Baumbach’s usual style as a director.
The film also features a new song by LCD Soundsystem that plays in full as part of an extensive supermarket dance sequence at the end, that Baumbach says he “designed” himself.
“I said [to LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy], ‘Write the song you would have written if you were writing music in the 1980s and write a really catchy, fun song about death.'”
“White Noise” marks the second consecutive film Baumbach has debuted at the Venice Film Festival following 2019’s “Marriage Story,” which also starred Driver in a leading role. Driver and co-star Scarlett Johansson became instant Oscar contenders for “Marriage Story” after it earned acclaim out of Venice. Netflix was also behind the film, which went on to score six Oscar nominations, including best picture, and win Laura Dern the prize for supporting actress.
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