Don DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise details how an "airborne toxic event" interrupts the family life of a "Hitler studies" professor named Jack Gladney, his secrets-keeping wife Babette, and their brood of children. The dense, satirical, and mortality-obsessed tome was long deemed unfilmable, although not by writer-director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Marriage Story) whose adaptation of DeLillo's book arrives in theaters on Friday with Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig playing the two leads.
"It wasn't something that really entered my mind," says Baumbach when asked if he considered the "unfilmable" tag when deciding to make the film. "It was something that I was responding to, and drawn to adapting, and drawn to make into a movie, so I was following that trail. I wasn't thinking about whether something is filmable or not. I don't even know what that means."
Venice Film Festival Greta Gerwig and Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach's 'White Noise.'
Baumbach originally read White Noise when he was attending college in the '80s and revisited the book shortly before the start of the pandemic
"I read it close to when it came out, and loved it then, and aspects of it have always remained with me, but like anything, you start to forget the specifics," says the director. "I started rereading it, on a lark really, at the end of 2019, beginning of 2020, and I was reminded how much I loved it, but also loving it in a whole new way now. DeLillo's real-but-not-real tenor that he strikes represented the world as it was feeling to me. When the pandemic hit New York, I was finishing the book, and it really felt like this document was telling me things about what was happening now. It just felt uncanny."
The director did not need to embark on some Gone with the Wind-style casting quest to find the film's two lead actors. Baumbach has worked on multiple projects with both Driver and Gerwig, who is also the director's real-life partner.
"Yeah, Adam and Greta came into mind quite early," he says. "It took me a while to decide if it felt like it was something I could do, and so I had them both read it, both as collaborators, but also really as friends. I wanted to see: Did they see the same things I was seeing in terms of it being a movie? And they both did. It also helped me personalize it from the beginning. It suddenly makes things immediately different from the book once you're imagining real people and real faces, and it helped locate the screenplay as opposed to the novel."
Wilson Webb/Netflix Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle in 'White Noise'
To portray Jack's oddball collection of college colleagues, Baumbach cast an eye-catching collection of actors, including Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith, André Benjamin, and music supervisor George Drakoulias.
"They're all people who I love and admire," says Baumbach. "Some people I've worked with before, and then new people that I've been wanting to work with, and have been looking for things to find for them — Don Cheadle being a big one, and André being another. George is an old friend, who has been the music supervisor on pretty much all of my movies, so he's always close by when I'm working. When we were thinking about [the character], it seemed like a good part for him. He's available, if you've got a part!"
Wilson Webb/NETFLIX Don Cheadle and Adam Driver in 'White Noise'
The director was determined that his film feature a mix of genres, from drama to comedy to horror to more unexpected cinematic avenues. The finished result boasts a dance sequence soundtracked by a new LCD Soundsystem track called "New Body Rhumba" and a car chase sequence which would not seem out of place in a Smokey and the Bandit film.
"The book draws upon many different genre elements and also is about how we're so influenced by movies and television and radio," says Baumbach. "I saw the opportunity in the movie to use the language of many of these sorts of movies and genres. Certainly an aspect of the story is a mad cop-car chase [similar to], as you say, Smokey and Bandit-type car sequences."
This approach would prove an expensive one, involving a reported budget north of $100 million. Baumbach admits to being daunted as he began to shoot the film.
"Because it's the first movie I've directed that didn't come from my own idea, I was almost surprised by the task that the writer had left me with," he says. "I was suddenly faced with the practical aspects of making it. It was certainly challenging. We were shooting in COVID. It had all the challenges you would imagine, but it was fun to shoot sequences that I haven't had the opportunity to do in other movies: cars racing through the forest, a car in a creek, people escaping from a boy-scout camp, all of those big sequences."
Monica Schipper/Getty Images Noah Baumbach
White Noise premiered in August at the Venice Film Festival and has received mostly positive reviews. While EW critic Leah Greenblatt suggested that the brilliance of the book "stubbornly resists any other medium but itself" she praised Driver for bringing "something both salty and haunted to Jack, and Gerwig feels like a beating heart, alive to every sunburst and storm cloud of her emotional weather." Guardian writer Peter Bradshaw hailed Baumbach's film as "a fascinating, invigorating spectacle" in his five-star write-up.
Most importantly to the director, his adaptation has also received the thumbs up (or the literary-giant version of the same) from DeLillo himself.
"We were only on the phone together during COVID," says Baumbach. "We finally got to see each other face-to-face a few months ago. He was really great and generous about it."
White Noise is released in select theaters this Friday and on Netflix Dec. 30.
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