Surprisingly, given the reputation of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise as unfilmable, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s adaptation is marked by its faithfulness to the original text. While you won’t see “the most photographed barn in the world,” perhaps the most famous fictional artifact of DeLillo’s 1985 postmodern masterpiece, you will hear much of DeLillo’s clipped, coldly sophisticated dialogue spoken aloud.
Where Baumbach’s film takes the greatest liberties is on the level of tone. When director and editor Matthew Hannam gathered in New York, London, and Los Angeles to edit the film, they put their own spin on the novel’s existential overlap between signal and noise.
Speaking via Zoom, Baumbach says that in several scenes, including those set inside the bustling home of protagonists Jack and Babette Gladney, they created a cacophony of sound through overlapping dialogue.
“We miked everything and everyone was on different tracks,” says Baumbach. “That really created editorial challenges, because the cacophony from frame to frame is never quite the same.”
Hannam adds that “those scenes were reverse engineered, because we wanted to make the sound drive the energy of the scene. You wouldn’t be able to tell that from a picture, because everyone is moving everywhere. It was a real exercise in finding rhythms in the actors’ performances and figuring out how much we could overlap and complicate the sound and then make the picture match it.”
Baumbach’s films, which include “The Squid and the Whale” and “Frances Ha,” are mostly chatty and intimate, while the big-budget “White Noise” includes car chases and a “toxic airborne event.” For the filmmaker, however, the various projects share a conceptual unity.
“In my previous films,” says Baumbach, “which are original scripts, I’ve always been drawn to characters who don’t always mean exactly what they’re saying, and dialogues that are a form of communication, but also obfuscation. It’s all obvious and part of DeLillo’s story.”
The filmmakers framed “White Noise” in a clear structure of three acts, plus an epilogue dance sequence. To emphasize this, they display DeLillo’s three chapter titles as on-screen titles.
Hannam says, “There’s a certain friction you can create with a chapter title. It actually has three parts: there’s the outgoing image, there’s the title, and there’s the incoming image. For us in editing, it was a real pleasure to come up with the energy that enters [to the title image] and then stop it completely. And what follows is the product of those two things. My favorite example is when we show “The Airborne Toxic Event” over a picture of an untouched neighborhood. Like, ‘These idiots don’t know what’s coming.'”
Baumbach says he wanted to make the three-act structure explicit because “I’m always interested in movies where, because of narrative or emotional or structural development, other things suddenly become available to you. In Part 1, the camera actually only moves with the characters. It’s this illusion we create to control our lives, and the camera goes with us. In part 2 the camera starts moving without them, and in part 3 the camera really starts moving outside the characters. The sound begins to break down and becomes even more ambient, more musical, less literal. Matt and I always saw the dance sequence as just a further development of that.”
Indeed, the film is choreographed throughout – from the controlled chaos of the Gladney family in the kitchen, to the sequence in which two professors give dueling lectures on Elvis and Hitler, to the musical grace of the caravans making their way to College-on-the-Hill.
For the filmmakers, the most complicated sequences were the big action scenes. Baumbach says that the biggest challenge is “that we did everything practically.” We really put the car in the creek, and they really run away from the scout camp, and things fall around them. The challenge is to do things safely, but with the right dynamics.”
Like Baumbach, Hannam was also new to action sequences, and saw his freshness as an advantage. “What I learned on this project,” he says, “is that with a lot of things, you’re better off not knowing how to do it by heart. Like, ‘let’s make no. 6 on this, Charlie.’ Instead, it’s fun to just say, ‘imagine if the camera could come here’.”
“It was a pleasure,” adds Hannam. “The script says, ‘Jack starts driving the car like a boat.’ Editorially, it’s quite fun figuring out how to make it feel that way.”
For the film’s climactic supermarket dance sequence, set to a new song by LCD Soundsystem, Baumbach wanted to create a sense of “the film finally opening up.”
Hannam says the sequence is central to the filmmaker’s overall vision. “Noah and I have always, always talked about how the second version of this movie is a harsh critique, and we’ve always wanted to be celebratory. As soon as you accept death and stop taking the pill to make the fear disappear, you can dance a little.”