It was early in the pandemic when filmmaker Noah Baumbach, for the first time in his career, found himself wondering what he was going to do next.
2019 had been a big year, both professionally and in his personal life. He lost his father. He had a child, with partner Greta Gerwig. And both had big movies ( his was “Marriage Story,” hers was “Little Women” ) that had put them on the months-long awards circuit with an infant up until the Oscars.
Weeks later, when the world shut down, Baumbach picked up Don DeLillo’s 1985 classic “White Noise,” about a professor of Hitler studies at a generic Midwestern college, his blended family and the airborne toxic event that has everyone in a panic. In it he found a voice that was both inspiring and familiar and the themes a little uncanny in the context of the pandemic. He decided to try his hand at an adaptation.
Baumbach spoke to The Associated Press about making the film, which hits Netflix on Dec. 30 and stars Gerwig, Adam Driver and Don Cheadle, getting to dabble in different genres and how “Greta is always right.” Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: People throw around the word “unfilmable” a lot when it comes to “White Noise” and a lot of post-modern books. Did that mean anything to you?
BAUMBACH: No, I guess if I had known maybe I would have been more daunted. I also don’t generally look to adapt things. My movies have all been from my own ideas and scripts. But in re-reading it, the voice got in my head. I was never thinking of it in terms of it being filmable or unfilmable. It always seemed filmable to me.
AP: It does seem like a strange lack of imagination.
BAUMBACH: I guess what people mean is that it’s very literary and extremely literary books seem like so much a book and something you can only do in literature. But this one had so many overtly cinematic elements, the notions of sound and vision, the mass culture that surrounds these people, the cloud. All of these things seemed to have real cinematic analogues to me.
AP: When it comes to the cinematic language you use, Spielberg’s name has come up often and so has Godard’s. Could you walk me through an example where you were referencing something specific?
BAUMBACH: DeLillo, on one hand, is telling the story of a family in a contemporary, elevated version of society in the ’80s, but a big part of that is illustrating the influence that culture and pop culture, advertising culture, movie culture, TV culture, news culture has on our lives. I felt like that’s all inherent in how I shot it. So, take the evacuation and the disaster element of the movie from part two. That has a real movie counterpart and a language that was available to me.
Then Jack (Driver) going to the motel later to kill a man is a very noir sequence. The kids talking in the car while the dad is trying to drive through the woods feels like a family comedy, with the put-upon father and everyone making demands that he can’t live up to. I thought it would be fun to embrace those movie elements. It was exciting to me because I haven’t had material that’s asked that of me, or I haven’t written it for myself. So following that line seemed intuitive and also gave myself opportunities as a director to do other things.
AP: I was trying to think of whether you’ve even had a gun in any of your movies.
BAUMBACH: No, no one even says the word gun.
AP: Greta makes Babette, who is a tricky character, relatable and empathetic and profound. How did you figure out who she was going to be outside of DeLillo’s gaze?
BAUMBACH: I have the privilege of having Greta often sitting across the table from me while I’m writing. In this case we were quarantined and in lockdown, but I could look up at any moment and say, what about this? And early in that time I mused aloud, “Who do you think would be good as Babette?” And she immediately said “Me, I should play her.” And Greta is always right so I signed her up then and there.
I think it gave me confidence in that Greta saw herself in the character. It allowed me to see that character in a clearer way. I follow the structure of the book and she appears to be one thing in the first part and then reveals herself to be somebody more complex. But in the book, you’re in Jack’s head so she’s more of a projection. I also changed aspects of it to bring Babette into more of the ending, because I saw it as a kind of comedy of remarriage.
AP: The kids also become real people in the movie and provide some of the white noise, while also getting some of the best lines.
BAUMBACH: They were all so professional and also such kids at the same time, which is the best combination. I suggested to them that they were like a radio that was turned on at the beginning and then it’s just on for the whole movie. Whether they’re on camera or not, they’re still talking, so when we find them again, they’re just going further into whatever conversation they were having earlier. For everyone, it was a bit like learning a song, knowing when to overlap, when it’s too much, when it becomes good white noise or kind of unappealing white noise.
AP: You used choreographer David Neumann not just for a dance at the end but for the crowd scenes and breakfast scenes. Had you worked that way before?
BAUMBACH: I kind of backed into it on “Marriage Story.” I had brought him into work on the theater stuff in that movie. In this movie I brought him in from the beginning because I had a feeling that, knowing it’s going to end with a dance, everything is kind of threatening to go into a dance from the very beginning.
AP: You have tackled a big book before in working on “The Corrections” for HBO (which never aired). Did that set up how you approached this one?
BAUMBACH: Not really because that was with Jonathan (Franzen) and it was also set up to be a long form TV show. Partly what I leaned on that was that I don’t think in terms of that kind of form. I remember having the realization at some point, like none of us really watch television, why are we doing this? It was a different thing. But I think when I’m reading a book that I’m loving I will always muse on ,“What would the movie be?” It never goes further than that. This one just did.
AP: A lot of filmmakers and showrunners set their pandemic films in warm vacation spots like Greece and Sicily and Hawaii and you went to Cleveland in November.
BAUMBACH: It seems like a lot of people went back to their childhoods too. But I had already done that. I really was just following the novel and the logic of the script and not thinking as much about what it all would entail.
Ohio offered the most exciting possibilities. But it was a lot to fling myself into after a lot of time indoors, like now we’re going to be in Ohio for six months and I’ve got to put a car in a creek and build a Boy Scout camp. But I liked working in Ohio and the community there.
People were excited about the movie and being in the movie and I used a lot of real families. I liked that there was a kind of enthusiasm that in my years of shooting in New York City I’ve watched dwindle. It used to be if I came back to Brooklyn to shoot, people would get excited. Now nobody’s excited.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.