The real and unreal

Noah Baumbach on White Noise, Ann Roth, Danny Elfman and James Murphy

by Anne-Katrin Titze

White Noise director Noah Baumbach with stars Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, composer Danny Elfman, and James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem)
White Noise director Noah Baumbach with stars Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, composer Danny Elfman, and James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig with Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola and May Nivola (Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola’s children), Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith, Lars Eidinger, and Barbara Sukowa was the Opening Night selection of the 60th New York Film Festival.

Noah Baumbach on the costumes by Ann Roth for White Noise: “That sort of real and unreal thing. Jess Gonchor, the production designer, same thing.
Noah Baumbach on the costumes by Ann Roth for White Noise: “That sort of real and unreal thing. Jess Gonchor, the production designer, same thing. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The last time I spoke with Noah Baumbach was for While We're Young and I asked him about his working relationship with the Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth. At the press conference the afternoon of the premiere of White Noise the incomparable Roth was once again my initial inquiry to the director, which led him to the production designer Jess Gonchor (Gerwig’s Little Women, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs and Hail, Caesar!, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Moneyball). I also passed on greetings from music producer and 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman to LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, whose outfit wrote the song new body rhumba for the closing production number in White Noise.

Noah Baumbach’s firm grip on Don DeLillo’s masterpiece, the first time the writer/director adapted someone else’s work, is vibrantly disturbing and joyously faithful to the source. The final, all-encompassing supermarket dance number, visually part Stepford Wives and Jacques Demy musical, is set to new body rhumba, all ready to show the Grim Reaper what we humans are up to.

In the novel, DeLillo uses the mythical quality of rhythms created by listing items in clusters of three. “Natural, whole-milk, low fat” or “Weejuns, Wallabies, Hush Puppies” read as incantations. “Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it” - the rhythm is what creates the texture of a never-ending cumulative tale of eternal renewal. Cinema has visual and musical forms of expression at its disposal and Baumbach, together with his expert crackerjack team, cinematographer Lol Crawley, Jess Gonchor, Ann Roth, Danny Elfman, and James Murphy and of course the actors, creates this effect in a multitude of ways. You can flee the bombardment of words, as the family tends to speak all at once, by inspecting the bright cornflake boxes and juice cartons, and Sprite cans. In order not to think that all of this one day will end for all of us.

Composer Danny Elfman with LCD kingpin James Murphy
Composer Danny Elfman with LCD kingpin James Murphy Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Gladney household, consisting of Jack (Adam Driver) and Babette (Greta Gerwig), his two children from previous marriages, Heinrich (Sam Nivola) and Steffie (May Nivola), Babette’s daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) and the wise, wordless Wilder (played by twins Henry Moore and Dean Moore), who, as opposed to the novel, is the son they have together (Wilder here also does get to say one single show-stopping word - “again”).

When Denise finds a container of a medication called Dylar in the trash, she connects it to the books on the occult her mother had hidden in the attic, and her more and more frequent memory problems. Adam Driver has a field day with his German pronunciations. Babette’s momentary out-of-house occupations consist of reading tabloids to old and blind people and giving evening classes on subjects such as “Sitting and Standing” or the upcoming course “Eating and Drinking.”

Anne-Katrin Titze: You mentioned the [Don DeLillo] dialogue being simultaneously real and unreal and I felt the same goes for the costumes. I see you worked again with Ann Roth, the wonderful Ann Roth. It felt as if the family dressed the way they eat [everything bright and poppy of the Eighties, from visors to cornflake boxes]. Could you talk a little bit about that? And for James, I have greetings from Ed Bahlman of 99 Records to you.

James Murphy [big smile]: Oh wow!

Noah Baumbach to Anne-Katrin Titze on Ann Roth: “Ann is a collaborator in the way that she gives you everything.”
Noah Baumbach to Anne-Katrin Titze on Ann Roth: “Ann is a collaborator in the way that she gives you everything.” Photo: Stephen Pardee

Noah Baumbach: Thank you. I mean, Ann Roth, I’ve worked with her a few times. An amazing friend, collaborator. I love working with Ann. And Ann understood immediately just exactly that. That sort of real and unreal thing. Jess Gonchor, the production designer, same thing.

And what we talked about in a sense was a sort of authenticity to the period but not any really specific year. That was to keep things, you know, both with color and style – again that thing of keeping everybody just slightly above the ground.

And Ann is a collaborator in the way that she gives you everything. I mean obviously she is an amazing costume designer but she helps me direct, you know. And actors will go for fittings and come out suddenly knowing so much more about who they are.

I mean at this point an actor will say to me at some point – I’ll say something, a line of direction or something, and they’ll say “Well, Ann thought maybe …” And I think, well, Ann knows best. Let’s just go with what Ann says. No, I feel lucky to have worked with her.

New York Film Festival Artistic Director Dennis Lim: This is the first time you’re working with Danny [Elfman], right?

NB: It is and not the last.

DL: I think the score plays a big role in how the film orchestrates its tonal shifts and I was wondering if the two of you can talk about what you had in mind, what kind of reference points and say a bit about your collaboration.

Sam Nivola and May Nivola
Sam Nivola and May Nivola Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Danny Elfman: Well, from my side it was really exciting because there’s no genre in this film and to have a film that has no genre that tells you the type of music you should write is pure joy. And then of course working with Noah everything was fun and pleasurable because he has ideas and nothing’s more enjoyable to me than just trying things.

We first met by Zoom and he was already like “Can you start on some music right away?” And I said “Well, I’m in the middle of this Doctor Strange movie [Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness], but okay.” And I just wrote some stuff blind and sent it to him and next thing I know he’s cutting my music into the movie in ways that I hadn’t even thought.

Then we got more and more into trying things. I’ve worked on I think 110 films now and this definitely is one of the most enjoyable. There is no moment in the film that dropping into a scene wasn’t just a pleasure to work on. There wasn’t these struggle sections of oh my god, how am I going to get through this section. It was just that the chemistry of everyone is so wonderful that no matter where I dropped into the film it was just pleasureful.

Noah would feed me ideas and we would just play up and back and bounce things. Try something completely different. And what’s more enjoyable than that? I mean for me. It may have been horrible for Noah.

NB: No, it was fantastic. I mean even our first conversation, I would just talk about the movie and say what I thought the themes were, I mean non-musical themes. In broad terms the first part in a sense is the systems and strategies we’ve created for ourselves to keep death at bay, or to keep this illusion of immortality going.

Ann Roth’s costumes on Sam Nivola, Adam Driver, May Nivola, Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy and Dean or Henry Moore
Ann Roth’s costumes on Sam Nivola, Adam Driver, May Nivola, Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy and Dean or Henry Moore Photo: courtesy of Netflix

And the second section is here comes death to our door and it’s real but we don’t know how to acknowledge its reality. Because we only know it from movies and from a distance.

And the third section is, okay now you’ve seen it, what are you going to do now? Do you go back to the same strategies? Can you? Do these things hold up with this new knowledge? I would basically say something like that to Danny and I’d hear silence and then Danny would come back on the phone and say “I’m sorry I just had an idea and I didn’t want to lose it. So I started writing down some stuff and recording a little bit of music while you were talking.” Then I would repeat myself. But it was amazing, he was so alive with ideas all the time. That was the whole process.

I went actually to his studio in LA and even while we were still editing, Matt Hannam, the editor and I, we basically set up shop without asking him while he was there. He would come and record and play around with things and he would come and knock on the glass and I would come out, we’d listen, we’d talk, he’d go back and I’d cut. His music would influence the cut, the cut would influence the music. It was really an ideal wonderful situation.

DE: It was the first time working like that for me too and I loved it. The response was instant. That’s the kind of thing maybe an actor has that kind of experience going through dialogue with a director, but as a composer you don’t get that kind of quick “Try something, play it!” So it was new for me too. It was great; I hope we do it again sometime.

Noah Baumbach with Greta Gerwig and Raffey Cassidy
Noah Baumbach with Greta Gerwig and Raffey Cassidy Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DL: We have to talk about the closing credits. James you have worked with before. Your films sometimes just become musicals. I think in Frances Ha there is a moment and obviously the Sondheim songs in Marriage Story. Can you say a bit about your decision to end this way? This is obviously something that has no corollary in the book. You’re just devising this musical fantasia to close the film. And if you can say a bit about working with James on that.

NB: In the writing of it when I arrived at the end – I mean it’s such a literate book and literate script and movie because of the source material, I felt in a way that the movie had given me permission to do something that felt non-verbal. Something that was kind of pure cinema and be something that was visceral and pleasurable and exciting and a way to both celebrate life and death at the same time.

I had worked with David Neumann, the choreographer who worked with us the whole movie. He had worked with me on Marriage Story as well. So I went to him and went to James and I had this idea if James had lived in the Eighties – I mean he did live in the Eighties, but if he had made music in the Eighties …

Adam Driver White Noise 99¢ poster at Lincoln Center
Adam Driver White Noise 99¢ poster at Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

James Murphy: I did.

NB: If I had heard any of the music he made in the Eighties.

JM: We’re the same age.

NB: We’re the same age? 53, 52?

JM: 52.

NB: I’m a year older. I was like basically, why don’t you write the song that you would have written then if you were trying to make a hit. I didn’t say that part because I knew he’d have a nervous breakdown, which he did anyway. With James I’d worked before and we became quite good friends since Greenberg when we did work together, so I had this idea, Why don’t you write a joyous song about death?

JM: That’s true!

White Noise will be released in cinemas in the US by Netflix on November 15 and will be available on December 30 to stream.

The 2022 New York Film Festival runs through October 16.

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