For the latest feature from Noah Baumbach, the writer-director who adapted Don DeLillo’s award-winning 1985 novel about existentialism and instability, White noise. Trying again with frequent collaborators Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig (also Baumbach’s mate) in the lead roles, Baumbach brought the novel, previously considered uneditable, to the screen — the result — the result. is a funny and engaging disaster film that, although set in the ’80s, has a fresh sense of examining American culture.
Set in the 1980s, the film revolves around Driver’s Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college in New England. Gladney’s world is turned upside down after a catastrophic accident devastates his hometown and when it unleashes an ominous “toxic event in the air” — pushing his wife Babette (Gerwig) and family together. them into an emotional spiral.
Baumbach spoke to THR about his love of DeLillo’s language and its impact on his own work, and White Noise — like the rest of his films — to from a very private place.
When did you first read this book and what impressed you about it?
I was a teenager, and my dad introduced it to me. I was really hooked and excited by the voiceover and found it really funny, but also like a different world – a different world in a way that our world really feels a lot of the time. I think when we’re young, we’re reading upward – reading things that are fundamentally more complicated than you are at the time. When I reread it in the early 2000s, I’m basically old now [protagonist] Jack Gladney, and weird [am now] my father’s age when he introduced the book. Not only was I revisiting a book from the past, but I felt like I was communicating with my younger self.
Do you consider DeLillo an influence on your writing, especially your dialogue?
The way I use language in my films, and the way he specifically uses dialogue, is both a form of communication and a form of distraction. I suppose there’s a trick in DeLillo’s language. It’s very stylized, but when played properly, it feels pretty natural. language in White noise always retain some of those techniques, [which] I also think is very cinematic.
This idea has been in the making for many years. Have you made any previous attempts at adapting the book?
It exists for me because of the pandemic. First of all, because I have the time to experiment and the means to experiment. I also think that the wild, wild, novelty that was unprecedented at the time drew me deeper into the story and made me want to interpret it even more. It really represents how I feel about the world – that anxiety, fear, and disorientation. Not knowing what it is to be afraid, and then also disconnecting from the real tragedy. A lot of people died during that time and we read about it, but if you’re lucky enough not to be exposed… It’s both very present and very relegated, which is another thing DeLillo talks about a lot. In the 80s, it was the world of television and radio; For us now, it’s largely the world of the internet. [It gives the] The illusion is brought closer to things, but it also creates a great distance for us.
It’s interesting that you mention the gap, because I’m curious about the process of adapting a novel set in the present day when it is published, while your film is a historical work.
It was a very formative time for me. I think all of my movies are influenced by some kind of connection or conversation with myself when I was younger. Sometimes it’s more literal, like Squid and whalea fictional story very related to the time and place where I grew up but also [about] the sense of play, possibility, and discovery that I had at the time. I just love movies and I’ve come to a lot of movies for the first time. Now, when I make a movie, I’m rediscovering that love, every time — [although] sometimes it’s hard to reach that when you’re standing on a remote highway in Ohio at four o’clock in the morning.
For DeLillo, White noise is an 80s looking to the future – a different, alternative look at the present, facing the future. For me, it’s a flashback past, but in a way, an alternate past. I approach design more from that point of view, with references to photos, movies, commercials from the time, ’80s yearbooks. We’ve seen a lot of people’s photos from that time just because it carries. gives you more of a sense of tactile qualities, such as how people look and dress. With color and photography, we were always aware that the film would bring a sense of sublimation.
White noise larger in scale and scope than your previous films. Was the lack of limits a challenge for you?
Netflix gave me the resources to do where I felt the movie needed to be. The middle is basically a disaster movie and I want to do it the right way. That makes it a movie that’s hard to even think about making. When I adapted it, I just tried to tell the story as best I could and didn’t think about [how big it was] — partly because we were in a pandemic, and I wasn’t really thinking realistically. I’m not even sure what the making of the film would be. But because I wanted to explore practical solutions as much as I could… Like, actually putting a car in a creek, actually letting a truck hit a train. The cloud is done in post using cloud footage, so we use real, tactile images, because those things matter to me and during that time period.
Was adapting a different process for you as a director than when you were directing your own original material? Do you feel like you’ve been split into two roles?
There’s always a fork that happens when I go from being just a writer to being a director of something I’ve written. I think I built it naturally so that I can approach what I’ve written objectively. In the early stages of writing, I try to stay free and open to what I’m doing and not think too much in terms of how I’m going to do it. When the script started to take shape, I moved on to the director’s role. With this, perhaps there have been many divisions. But once it became a screenplay and I was no longer referencing the book, and I was actually working on the script material, it felt like something of my own. I borrowed and reinterpreted, but it’s not as different as I thought it would be. I worked out a different type of muscle.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the independent January issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.