VENICE, Italy — Noah Baumbach started re-reading Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” in the early days of the pandemic. The 1985 novel, a biting satire about a blended middle-class family in suburban America, didn’t feel like a period piece. It felt relevant and familiar.
So Baumbach, known for directing original films like “The Squid and the Whale” and “Marriage Story,” started working on his first-ever adaptation.
“White Noise” is opening the Venice International Film Festival on Wednesday night, where it is playing in competition.
The film stars Adam Driver as Jack Gladney, a college professor focused on the study of Adolf Hitler. He lives with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig) and their children and stepchildren, Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Denise (Raffey Cassidy) and Steffie (May Nivola).
Like the book, the film is divided into three sections, “Waves and Radiation,” “The Airborne Toxic Event” and “Dylarama,” and how the family deals with various dangers and threats on macro and micro levels.
“The movie is about life and death and how we have to acknowledge that they’re the same, rather than exist as two separate things,” Baumbach said in Venice on Wednesday. “The movie is about how we create these rituals and strategies to hold off danger and death … and sometimes it comes for us and we don’t know how to react.”
Driver, Gerwig and co-stars Jodie Turner-Smith and Don Cheadle, who play Jack’s colleagues at the university, joined Baumbach to discuss the film before its world premiere.
Gerwig, who shares a child with Baumbach and has starred in and co-written several films with him, said she started re-reading the book when he did.
“It makes you, while you’re reading it, want to look up and say ‘listen to this.’ It had a performative quality to it. It seemed to be emotional and intellectually exciting,” she said.
Long rehearsals, she added, helped make the characters become real people and less abstract.
Driver, who was reuniting with Baumbach after “Marriage Story,” said he liked getting to play a character who was “so stressed” but “pretending not to be stressed.”
The part of Jack also required some physical transformations, including a wig to simulate a receding hairline and some actual weight gain.
“I’m very satisfied where things are going,” Driver said about seeing himself on screen as Jack. “We had a backup stomach. We didn’t need the backup stomach.”
Some have already noted to Baumbach that the film is a departure for him, stylistically and tonally. He said the material had never called for it before, and DeLillo’s material did. The novel’s 1980s setting inspired the look, feel and sound of the film, which was shot on 35mm anamorphic film in Ohio.
The score was done by Danny Elfman, who Baumbach encouraged to revisit some of his own scores from the time period that he had long put to bed — like “Midnight Run” — to inform the music.
“White Noise” also features LCD Soundsystem’s first new song in five years, “New Body Rhumba.” Baumbach said he told the band’s front man James Murphy to “write a really catchy fun song about death” as though he were writing a song in the 80s. He wanted something to go with a dance in a supermarket.
“The story is the story of American culture and being surrounded by American culture,” Baumbach said.
The next stop for “White Noise” is the New York Film Festival, where it will also be the opening night film. Netflix is debuting the film in theaters first on Nov. 25, before it is streamlined on Dec. 30.