Gerwig caught up with writer/director Noah Baumbach at NYFF to discuss her latest film, which fuses decades of cinematic history and American iconography to be distinctly contemporary.
“White Noise” holds up a mirror to American culture, especially cinema history. It’s the purely controlled, heightened on-screen chaos that reminds us why “family is the cradle of misinformation,” much like the blurring of media, art, and celebrity similarly fragments into everyday existential crises.
Based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Don DeLillo, “White Noise” was meticulously written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Adam Driver stars as Professor Jack Gladney tasked with protecting his family, played by Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola and May Nivola, after a toxic airborne event forces them to evacuate a quaint college town. “White Noise” opens in theaters on November 25th and will stream on Netflix on December 30th.
Ultimately, “White Noise” is a dissection of the distractions of daily life and the inherent need to “smooth out” our emotions on the inevitable march toward death. But the Hitchcock-meets-Spielberg-meets-Altman sentimentality, with a pinch of Wes Anderson, makes “White Noise” a uniquely composed film that reflects culture as a whole — a meta-version of mid-century icons like that this year’s “Blonde” and “Elvis” and mark an ode to the spectacle like “Nope”. Even Professor Gladney’s colleague Professor Murray Suskind (Don Cheadle) compares Hitler to Elvis in the film while giving a lecture on the beauty of car accidents at the cinema with no thoughts of death.
“It’s so smart that to explain it you end up sounding like a stoned teenager,” Gerwig said during a press conference ahead of the opening premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival on Sept. 30. “But it records all the ways we distract ourselves and then allows us to enjoy them too. So then you’re pleased with the distractions you’ve already been given, and multiple mirrors are happening, so to speak.”
Gerwig continued: “Just as science flattens everything, advertising flattens everything. You have a commercial for M&Ms right after the plane crash. This is the same value; it comes through the same. You have Elvis and Hitler, it’s all the same. There’s a way we welcome the flattening of our own psyches because we don’t want to know that we’re on a one-way trajectory. So we say, ‘That’s good. Maybe we’re all floored.’”
There is an ongoing theme of Déjà-vu throughout the movie. “When you celebrate all that is, you celebrate all that was,” Gerwig remarked, joking that she “smokes that good California shit” in describing the many layers of the novel and Baumbach’s film adaptation.
“I was thinking about Robert Altman’s influence, how he mikes everyone and lets everyone talk at once, but also plays with focus so the audience can sit back and let it all be noise if they’re watching, or they can go in and see too They what they want to see,” Baumbach said, citing the “sensory” element available in part thanks to the on-screen 35mm anamorphic cameras that allowed him to “grab the frame.”
Baumbach was referring to Hitchock’s famous “Notorious” intro shot for a lavish party that ends with a close-up of Ingmar Bergman’s hand holding a key. Now it is Gerwig who holds a mysterious pill that allows her to forget her own impending death.
“It’s so much history in one shot, but it also shows the broad to specific, and I’m like, ‘Of course. This movie is about that in so many different ways,” Baumbach said. “The film gave us permission to try something new. It also has so many genre elements built into it. I’ve always wanted to know what genre is available to me.”
A later scene in a motel is, according to Baumbach, an ode to ’80s noir. “It’s something Alan Parker or Adrian Lyne would have done,” said the writer/director. “I had the feeling that maybe it could also be a musical. Maybe the film allowed us to do that. I felt like the film had given me permission to do something that felt non-verbal, that there was something that was pure cinema and instinctive and enjoyable and exciting in a way of celebrating life and death at the same time.”
Baumbach added, “Joel and Ethan Coen have a great quote when asked how they adapt other material. Joel said, ‘I’ll hold the book and Joel will type.’”
WILSON WEBB / NETFLIX ©2022
The emphasis on the spectacle of death so remote from life spills over into domestic scenes with the Gladney family acting like a dance, with each member existing in different planes, different realities, and different generations, maybe even different ones Film overall, even if only inches apart. Baumbach rehired Marriage Story choreographer David Neumann and collaborated for the first time with Academy Award winner Danny Elfman.
“Even from our first conversation, I just talked about what I thought the issues were,” Baumbach said when addressing Elfman. “Broadly speaking, the first section is about the systems and strategies we have developed to maintain this illusion of immortality. The second section is that death has come to our door, and it’s real, but we don’t know how to deal with it remotely. And the third section is, OK, now you’ve seen it. What will you do now? Can you go back to the same old strategies? Do they stand up to this new knowledge?”
The transcendence of the genre and the tonal shifts of “White Noise” also inspired Elfman to sign up for the feature.
Elfman recalls, “I was in the middle of this ‘Doctor Strange’ movie and I said, ‘Okay,’ and I just wrote some stuff on the spur of the moment. Next thing I know he’s cutting my music into the film in ways I hadn’t even thought of. I’ve worked on 110 films now, I think, and this was definitely one of the most entertaining. I loved it. The answer came immediately.”
As IndieWire’s David Ehrlich noted in his review, “There’s still something almost subliminally divine beneath that eeriness when Baumbach turns up the volume.”
And that’s perhaps the white noise that underpins all of us – now and in the past – that Baumbach resonated with and brought that sonic resonance to the big screen.
“White Noise” opens in theaters on November 25th and on Netflix on December 30th.
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