How Noah Baumbach made “White Noise” a disaster film for our hour

DeLillo surveys the confusion created by the airborne toxic event in “White Noise,” writing, “In a crisis, the real facts are what other people say.” And as the Gladneys evacuate, past the brightly lit windows a furniture store and then a motel, Jack is unnerved by all the unconcerned guests staring at her from inside. “We felt like idiots, like tourists doing the wrong things,” he says. “We were a parade of fools subjected not only to the effects of chemical fallout, but to the contemptuous judgment of other people.” Baumbach marveled at how accurately the book portrayed what was happening now: the triple guessing and self-awareness, the ridiculous ones Ways left for us to triangulate our fear in a catastrophe. And yet, he said, “the book didn’t survive the pandemic. The book was written sane.” It had a clarity about this new reality that he could not otherwise comprehend.

He started halfway through the book just as an experiment – to see if he could translate the most cinematic section, the evacuation sequence, into something script-like. Up until then, arguably the most action-packed thing that happened in any of his films was Ben Stiller running down a Brooklyn street, believing someone had accidentally left a restaurant wearing his father’s coat. To do White Noise, he’d have to shoot a mile-long traffic jam, an attempted murder; a station wagon that jumps through the air, in the style of Evel Knievel; and a gigantic CGI-enhanced poisonous cloud swallowing the sky. But Baumbach felt something working on the adaptation in isolation this spring — momentum — and just kept going. After all, his copy of “White Noise” always lay open on his desk, telling him what happened next.

The project was big and ambitious. It was also a life raft. According to Gerwig, Baumbach was drawn to “White Noise” in a “sense of total uncertainty”: Will films be made again? Will people come? Will we only live on the exhaust fumes of the world that once was? I think it allowed him to write something that in other circumstances would feel too big, too spooky, too unwieldy, too much. It was almost like this challenge: if they ever let us do this again, then I want to do it.”

Baumbach is 53 and speaks in long, repetitive stops and starts and carefully considered multi-point turns, like a man trying to parallel-park his consciousness in an impossible place. We first met in London in May, at a house in Notting Hill where Baumbach and Gerwig were staying while Gerwig was filming her next film, Barbie. She and Baumbach co-wrote the screenplay after he shaped White Noise. “We got into ‘Barbie’ in the middle of the pandemic,” he said.

Baumbach edited “White Noise” in a self-contained building at the back, furnished with a workstation for his editor Matthew Hannam and a huge L-shaped couch overlooking a large screen. On the wall were three long rows of stills of White Noise, each about the size of a Polaroid, which they had pasted one at a time to track their progress. I spotted a close-up of Jack Gladney’s wife Babette – a distant but equally troubled character whose own fear of death drives her to search for a mysterious drug. Gerwig suggested Baumbach for the role after coming to a point in the script when another character told Jack that his wife had “important hair.” “I saw them incredibly clearly in my head,” said Gerwig. “I saw her hair. I saw her glasses. I saw her acrylic nails.” Now she was standing against Baumbach’s wall, her face in a permed blonde cumulonimbus: part lioness, part aerobics instructor.

Baumbach had completed a first cut of the film about two weeks earlier. (The finished film comes out this month.) Now, while he did a second, even more meticulous, run, he and Hannam were fixated on a lengthy sequence that followed Jack, played by Adam Driver, through the Boy Scout camp that people were going to along the way were evacuated the airborne toxic event. Driver, who has acted in four of Baumbach’s previous films and has become a close friend, is 39 years old but appeared on screens as a man under siege for at least a decade deep into middle age. He had his hairline pulled up with a wig, wore a chunky leather jacket, and got a proud, round stomach from drinking lots of beer. Driver, as Jack, walks through a crowded field of evacuees, buzzing from crosstalk when a colleague from college shows up: Murray Jay Siskind, played by Don Cheadle, a resettled New Yorker and cultural scholar who doesn’t so much experience everyday life , by improvising a scholarly monograph about it in real time. Stopped by Jack, Murray exclaims, “All white people have a favorite Elvis song!” I laughed out loud. That’s what’s on his mind – how Murray greets his friend in the eccentric apocalyptic circumstances.