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Noah Baumbach brings an acclaimed novel to life in 'White Noise'

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the acclaimed novels of the last century is a movie in this century. The novel is "White Noise" by Don DeLillo. A college professor moves about campus, teaching class, going home to his family. It's an ordinary Midwestern life in which filmmaker Noah Baumbach perceives something eerie.

NOAH BAUMBACH: There's this sort of otherness, this other reality that's, like, floating above the ground. We all recognize when we have those times in our lives, when we acknowledge that the world feels very strange to us. It's like things are familiar and not familiar.

INSKEEP: You mean, basically, the way we've all felt for the last several years?

BAUMBACH: Yes, and particularly the last few years, I think.

INSKEEP: In the movie "White Noise," Professor Jack Gladney is played by Adam Driver. He lives an ivory tower life, trying to figure out the deep meaning of ordinary events in conversation with his academic friend, played by Don Cheadle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHITE NOISE")

DON CHEADLE: (As Murray Siskind) The supermarket is a waiting place. It recharges us spiritually. It's a gateway. Look how bright. Look how full of psychic data, waves and radiation. All the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases. We just have to know how to decipher it.

INSKEEP: Everything around Gladney seems prosperous and orderly until a sudden event causes panic, conspiracy theories, loss of trust in authority. Gladney slowly becomes aware of secrets in his own family. His wife is played by Greta Gerwig, who's the director's partner in real life. The story is personal for Noah Baumbach in other ways. He first read the novel "White Noise" early in life.

BAUMBACH: My father actually recommended it to me. I read it also in high school. It had a big effect on me at the time, but I hadn't reread it. And I was rereading it somewhat arbitrarily at the end of 2019 into the beginning of 2020. And I kept stopping and reading it aloud to Greta or to anybody who would listen and just saying, I can't believe how much this book speaks to all time. But, I mean, it's certainly anything in the modern world.

INSKEEP: So many things to follow up on there. First, you said your father gave it to you. Wasn't your father a college professor?

BAUMBACH: He was - and a writer and a novelist and short story writer. But yeah, he taught at Brooklyn College. He passed away in 2019. So I think also, returning to the book was a kind of way of revisiting times with him and conversations we'd had and books we'd love. And I also - when I was writing it, I had those uncanny thoughts of realizing my father was the age of Jack Gladney in the book when the book came out in 1985. He was 52. And then now I was that age. I remember reading it now, and so that certainly had an effect on me.

INSKEEP: When I think about Jack's character, I'm recalling the moment when I first read this novel that I come across a line where he says, I am a professor of Hitler studies. And I - maybe that's the moment when I realize there's this kind of dark humor throughout the whole setup.

BAUMBACH: Right. Well, I think that's a great example of what the tone of the novel and the movie, as well, which is it's both credible and not credible. And it also feels slightly absurd at the same time.

INSKEEP: Gladney, the college professor, shows his students films of crowds listening to Hitler and inadvertently reveals his own preoccupation with death.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHITE NOISE")

ADAM DRIVER: (As Jack Gladney) These crowds were assembled in the name of death. They were there to attend tributes to the dead - but not the already dead, the future dead.

INSKEEP: Death begins to seem real for the characters instead of academic when a train crash produces a toxic cloud near the college town. The characters scan the media, unsure what to believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHITE NOISE")

SAM NIVOLA: (As Heinrich) The radio calls it a feathery plume. But it's not a plume.

MAY NIVOLA: (As Steffie) That's what dad said.

RAFFEY CASSIDY: (As Denise) What is it?

NIVOLA: (As Heinrich) It's like a shapeless, growing thing, a dark, black, breathing thing of smoke.

MAY: (As character) Why do they call it a plume?

INSKEEP: What feels very current to you about this film that is set in the 1980s?

NIVOLA: That book, if you read it after any major event in this country over the last whatever years, it would feel like it was written for that moment. I think if we - if I'd reread it after 9/11, after Trump was elected, after - I mean, really any kind of major moment, it's - there's something about it.

INSKEEP: There are so many moments that do make you think of the pandemic. Like, for example, the medical advice over the radio in the media about what symptoms to look for changes daily, which is a thing we've all experienced now. I'm also thinking of a moment when the cloud is approaching the town, and Jack Gladney, this college professor, has a line about why the cloud is not going to come for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHITE NOISE")

CASSIDY: (As character) Have they said what kind of chemical it is?

NIVOLA: (As Heinrich) It's called nyodene derivative or nyodene D. Saw it in a movie in school on toxic waste.

DRIVER: (As Jack Gladney) What does it cause?

NIVOLA: (As Heinrich) The movie wasn't sure what it does to humans. Mainly, it was rats growing urgent lumps.

DRIVER: (As Jack Gladney) That's what the movie said. What does the radio say?

NIVOLA: (As Heinrich) Skin irritation and sweaty palms.

BAUMBACH: The kids are all very much aware of the urgency of the situation. And Babbette is kind of toggling between the children and Jack. And Jack is is living in absolute denial.

INSKEEP: But there's even a moment where he essentially says, social inequality will protect us.

BAUMBACH: Right. He does. He's a university - a college professor rowing a boat down his street (ph).

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BAUMBACH: Yes. And that...

INSKEEP: I mean, I'm laughing, but it's dark. But he's essentially saying because the world is unfair, poor people and people who are not like us, the disadvantaged, are the ones who are put in the way of catastrophes like this.

BAUMBACH: There's the great line that's from the book that's also in the movie, which is, family is the cradle of the world's misinformation. The children are that throughout. They're sort of full of facts which are either true, half true or not true at all. And that was even my direction to the kids. I said, you're like a radio that was turned on at the beginning of the movie, and then you're just on for the whole time.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BAUMBACH: So even when you're off camera, just imagine you're still having this conversation. And they embraced that wonderfully. And I saw the family in this movie as a kind of microcosm of the culture at large, which is how we both contribute and also collaborate in false information. This story opens it up to the culture at large - I mean, this notion of fake news that we've been living with for the last few years.

INSKEEP: Well, Noah Baumbach, thank you very much for taking the time. I really enjoyed it.

BAUMBACH: Yeah. Thank you. It was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHITE NOISE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Now Kool (ph), Crush, Jolt, Hi-C.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER DINGING)

INSKEEP: The movie, based on the novel by Don DeLillo, is "White Noise."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHITE NOISE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Nancy, Sanka. Sanka, Nancy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.