Making ‘White Noise’ at NYFF60 Opening Night

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Letterboxd correspondent Isaac Feldberg takes us inside Alice Tully Hall for the details on the 60th New York Film Festival’s opening night premiere of Noah Baumbach’s latest, starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig.

A touch of fall in the air and leaves on the ground around Film at Lincoln Center, the 60th edition of the New York Film Festival opened Friday, September 30, with the US premiere of Noah Baumbach’s White Noise.

An ambitious satire of American culture, consumerism, and academia that Baumbach adapted from Don DeLillo’s epochal novel of the same name, White Noise brought stars Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, May Nivola, Sam Nivola, and Jodie Turner-Smith—along with composer Danny Elfman and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy (who recorded a song for the film’s closing scene, an elaborate dance sequence in a supermarket)—to Alice Tully Hall for opening night. 

On stage, the Brooklyn-raised filmmaker discussed his long-term relationship with NYFF, which has screened six of his films, from his 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming to 2019’s Marriage Story, which served as NYFF’s centerpiece selection that year.  “This festival was part of my film education and has been a home for me and many of my movies over the years,” he said. 
A decade before bringing his first film to the festival, Baumbach reflected, he and his father had driven to see Akira Kurosawa’s Ran open its 23rd edition. The year was 1985—the same year Baumbach’s father first introduced him to DeLillo’s novel. Though he’d long been interested in adapting White Noise to the screen, revisiting it right before the spread of Covid-19 reaffirmed to Baumbach the modern relevance of DeLillo’s postmodern work, exploring existential crisis and fear through the experiences of one middle-class family forced to flee an “airborne toxic event” imperiling their midwestern burg. 

“I reread the book at the end of 2019 and early 2020,” Baumbach said in a press conference earlier that day. “During the pandemic, the book represented how I felt, the fear and the confusion.” Faced with the challenge of bringing it to the screen, Baumbach added that he sought a “cinematic analogue” to that sensation—a goal that felt more achievable once the film’s starry cast came together.

Baumbach didn’t have to look far to find his leads. Driver has starred in all but one of his narrative features since 2012’s Frances Ha; “I think Adam’s one of the most exciting actors working,” he said. Gerwig, meanwhile, has been an even longer-term creative collaborator and is also Baumbach’s romantic partner. “Greta cast herself while I was writing it, and I agreed right away,” he said; referencing the first time he “sent her the script,” Baumbach mimicked sliding a stack of paper across their kitchen table.

Asked at the press conference about the ideas of death and modern life that pervade White Noise, Gerwig waxed lyrical about both the novel and Baumbach’s adaptation of those themes. “It’s so smart that, to explain it, you end up sounding like a stoned teenager,” Gerwig said, adding that she felt like she was definitely “smoking that good California shit” in trying to discuss it anyway. “But [White Noise] chronicles all the ways that we distract ourselves, and then in that, it allows us to delight in it as well. You are delighted by the distractions that have already been given to you, and there are multiple mirrors happening.”

Added Gerwig: “In the same way that academia flattens everything, commercials flatten everything. You have a commercial for M&M’s right after plane crash footage. That’s the same value; it comes through the same thing. You’ve got Elvis and Hitler, it’s all the same. There’s a way that we welcome the flattening to our own psyches, because we don’t want to know that we’re on a trajectory that goes one direction. So we go, ‘That’s good. Maybe we’re all flat.’ To play the part is to steep yourself in the distraction and let the fear poke through.”

That fear will poke through to audiences when White Noise releases in US theaters November 25 and streaming on Netflix December 30.