Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, and Adam Driver Bring an Intentional Cloud of Dread to New York Film Festival’s Opening Night

“I wanted this to have more jokes, but it’s fairly sincere,” Noah Baumbach said about his introductory remarks at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall Friday Friday night before the North American premiere of White Noise. The surreal (or is it hyper-real?) meditation on media saturation, academic absurdity, and a looming cloud of existential poison had the distinction of being the opening night selection for the 60th New York Film Festival, White Noise,  “There might be one joke,” he warned.

For a Baumbach movie to play at the annual Lincoln Center festival is no great surprise—this new one makes nine of his movies to play here—but this is the first to hold the kick-off slot. “It really is a childhood dream,” he said.

As he thanked the festival for supporting his career, citing the inclusion of his first feature Kicking and Screaming back in 1995 as “rescuing it from the straight-to-video heap,” he also gave a shout-out to Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and Scott Stuber for their continued collaboration. “[This] really is the kind of movie that does not feel like it is made anymore, and, thankfully, Netflix is making these movies,” he said. This is Baumbach’s third picture with the Big Red Streamer after The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Marriage Story

He also thanked Don DeLillo, the 85-year-old author of White Noise, for “providing such an easily film-able book.” (“That was the joke,” the writer-director then pointed out.)

As he brought out his cast and crew, he was sure to say nice things about each of them, from supporting actors Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith, and Lars Eidinger, to co-producer David Heyman, to composer Danny Elfman and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, whose closing credits song (set to an elaborate dance routine) was later described by film critic Stephen Whitty as “the best B-52s song you’ve never heard.” When the time came to introduce his two leads, Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, he gave a bit of wind-up about how he’s worked with them both many times previously, but never together. Gerwig, of course, is not just a creative partner (she co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America, and Baumbach has co-writing credit on Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie), but a life partner, so his intro for her quickly drove into a charmingly bashful ditch. “Well, I can’t even, uhhh,” he chuckled, trying to come up with a way to describe her, before finally shrugging and just saying her name. (She emerged from the wings to plant a lovely li’l smooch. What a genuinely nice moment!)

After the film, which was well-received but not thunderously well-received, NYFF Artistic Director Dennis Lim had everyone back out for a Q&A. Baumbach explained that he read DeLillo’s National Book Award-winner when he was 17 (“my dad recommended it”) and while it was never his lifelong passion to one day bring it to the screen, “it stayed with me in a funny way. I had visions from that book ever since.” He reread it in late 2019 into early 2020, completing it just as the pandemic lockdown was happening in New York City. He said that the period after the Oscar-winning Marriage Story was “the first time in my career I didn’t know what I was going to do next,” and that he felt the book offered “the expression of what I was feeling in so many ways about the country.” (A paranoid book about creeping airborne death is understandably resonant for March 2020!)

He started adapting the book “as an exercise” but when he showed Greta pages, she said that it was coming together well. “Blame Greta,” he joked, only to be interrupted by Turner-Smith, saying we should actually “thank Greta.”

The many actors, including Sam Nivola, May Nivola, and Raffey Cassidy, who play three of the many kids in the lead characters’ blended family, all spoke of the camaraderie they felt shooing the movie in Ohio. Though Turner-Smith and Gerwig didn’t actually have any scenes together, they shared that they have since become good friends, and Gerwig teased a “stay tuned” about an upcoming, unnamed project they may be working on. Danny Elfman, coming in to score for Baumbach after the director worked with Randy Newman on back-to-back projects, said that it’s movies like these that remind him that he likes his job.