Since Don DeLillo’s hit novel White Noise hit the shelves in 1985, readers have imagined how the settings like the supermarket, College-on-the-Hill, and the Gladney home would look. Collaborating with a visionary production designer who could bring the novel’s world to life was crucial for filmmaker Noah Baumbach. Two-time Academy Award nominee (True Grit, Hail, Caesar!) and frequent collaborator of the Coen Brothers, Jess Gonchor, was the perfect fit.
Gonchor is no stranger to book-to-screen adaptations. He designed Miranda Priestly’s office in The Devil Wears Prada, illustrated darkness in the desert in No Country For Old Men, and crafted the warmth of the March sisters’ home in Little Women (2019), to name a few. He knows how to create brilliant sets that translate the environments readers imagine to the screen.
With White Noise, Gonchor made DeLillo’s postmodern world more vibrant than readers could have imagined. The film’s memorable set pieces, like the immaculate supermarket, pop off the screen. I was thrilled to speak with Gonchor about his extensive career and creative work on the film. We discussed the importance of product placement, the beauty of listening to the audiobook while location scouting, and bringing the adaptation of the dystopian masterpiece to life.
Sophia Ciminello: Thank you so much for speaking with me today about your fantastic new film, White Noise. I loved it.
Jess Gonchor: Oh great. Thank you.
SC: You’ve had such an impressive career as a production designer from collaborations with the Coen Brothers to, now, Noah Baumbach. What led you to work on White Noise?
JG: Well, he first contacted me about the script through Greta (Gerwig). I worked on Little Women with her. And he said, “have you ever read this book White Noise?” And I said I hadn’t. He said, “well, I’ve adapted it, and I’d love you to read it and let me know if you’d be interested in discussing working on it.” So, I said “yeah, great, send it to me.” I read the script, which I loved. I’ve only worked on a few movie adaptations of books, this being one of them. I got the book and thought, okay, this is a 500-page book. It was during the height of the pandemic, so it was kind of perfect.
But I identified with the material because I felt like I relived a lot of my life by reading the book. Not so much being a child of a college professor, but just living in a college town in the ’80s. So there were some things that just really rang true to me where I thought, yes, I get this. Because so many times as a production designer, you get hired for a job where you absolutely know nothing about the subject. And I felt like this was one that I very much wanted to contribute my take on. So that’s what drew me to the project.
SC: I’m so glad you mentioned your work on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. I did wonder if the Greta/Noah connection was part of what drew you to this film.
Jess: Yeah, she made the introduction. I hadn’t spent any real time with Noah. I had met him briefly, I think twice during the shoot of that film. Maybe one was when we all had breakfast and something else at the house. So, there were two brief meetings with him. But I enjoyed those very much, so when she reached out and said, “Hey, Noah’s doing this movie, is it alright if he reaches out?” I said, “please, that would be great.”
SC: That’s great. So you talked about this being an adaptation. In familiarizing yourself with the novel, were there moments when you read something in the book and thought, I know exactly how I want to depict this based on how I’m imagining it as I’m reading? Did Noah have specific ways that he envisioned scenes from the novel that he shared with you?
JG: Well, it was definitely an evolving process, and we had a long time to think about it because it was during the height of COVID when nobody was working. It was interesting because I had gotten the book, and they put me on for a few weeks to figure out where to make the movie. I had gotten a car and was scouting the movie in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, and New York. I was going to start with those places. Nobody was on the roads, on any of the campuses, or at any motel. There was nothing. So it was just an incredible way to be able to scout a movie without all of the, no pun intended, white noise around you. You could stand in the lecture hall of a university and make up your own story because there wasn’t a story in there already of a teacher that looked a certain way or kids that looked a certain way. You know what I mean?
SC: Oh yeah. That’s very interesting.
JG: Yeah, it was an incredible thing. And during that time, I was listening to the audiobook. So I was driving around, and DeLillo would describe the station wagon scene with the orange sculptures. And then, I would pull into Colgate University or another school I scouted. We didn’t shoot there, but it was incredible to listen to this book and drive around and be on a stretch of highway or at a boy scout camp. And I’m not saying that what I was scouting aligned with what I was listening to, but occasionally, it was pretty close. So it was wild.
We both had our idea of what it was like in the ’80s and what it was like to go to school then. Noah went to Vassar, so maybe that’s what he was thinking of because it was a good liberal arts school close to New York City. That could be where Murray came from. And I went to a school way upstate called Brockport, which is between Buffalo and Rochester. Buffalo was a big steel town with Bethlehem Steel. So, that was Iron City, whereas Brockport was Blacksmith. For months and months, I would text pictures of real things to Noah that I saw on the road or a couple of amazing things where I could get into some schools–schools where a professor wanted to get out of his house because the school was closed, and we masked up, and he let me in. We went through all of the yearbooks from the eighties and that kind of thing.
So it was a big thing to arrive on the look. But then it took a while to figure out what it was. Because there were two ways you could have gone with this. You could have gone with the academic, very monochromatic look for the whole thing, with some things that popped out, like cheese doodles or Twinkies, as he describes in the book. Or you could have embraced the full white noise sort of world that things were; it was just a lot of white noise in the background, particularly in the supermarket.
SC: I feel like I could spend this entire conversation asking you about the supermarket. After I saw the movie, I wanted to live in it. It was so beautiful.
JG: (Laughs) Oh, nice!
SC: Could you walk me through the process for designing and creating that immaculate, colorful space?
JG: Sure. I remember the conversations I had with Noah and that he wanted it to be some, I don’t know, heavenly, spiritual space that also had all the sins of temptation. He wanted a world like that, a magical place where good or evil could happen. You can imagine life or death but in a beautiful way. And that it had to be the heartbeat and the nucleus of the town. Again, I drew on my own experience when I left Brooklyn, New York, to go upstate, where the supermarket was 20 times the size, and everything was bigger, more colorful, and more spacious. And at that time, they were putting ATMs and banks in places. I was like, wow, I could take 20 bucks out of the bank and go shopping here. It was the most amazing…like you just said you wanted to live there. I wanted to live in the Wegmans in Rochester, which was groundbreaking at the time (laughs).
SC: (laughs) I completely understand.
JG: So I started to think about that and about the way I would see things packaged. I remember in the ’80s, Marlboro cigarettes came out with menthol, and it was this green Marlboro box, and I thought, what is this? And it was just a gimmick to sell more cigarettes, but in a green box of Marlboro. I started to think about Campbell’s soup and all of the Warhol stuff going on a bit earlier than that. But it was just like a museum. It was like an art installation of all of the packaging. And I just thought this is white noise, man. You go down these aisles, maybe you see somebody you know, maybe you’re with your family, and there are all these things just screaming at you to take them off the shelf.
And whether it was good for you or bad for you, I don’t think anybody cared. It was just all about the packaging and the colors of Lucky Charms cereal. My mom brought home the fun pack of ten small cereal boxes in one shrink-wrapped package. And I was like, oh, I don’t have to have one cereal. I could have ten. So, I was really in love with the graphic shapes and colors. If you were to Google “1980s”, in every list in the top five is the Rubik’s Cube, and I think Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” or something. I latched onto that Rubik’s Cube. It was crazy. This had every color and shape; there are primary colors here, and there are secondary colors. So I thought, I’d like to try and make this supermarket like this. You just put all these things together, and it was perfect. And if you noticed, there was nothing out of place on the shelves either. It wasn’t picked over, which was a conscious decision–to have it sort of pristine. At one point, some scenes were in there, like maybe you picked out a can of wheat germ, and another one slid in behind it. But that was a little too far out there. We didn’t go that far. But that was the basis of this utopia.
So those were the guidelines. We had all the product in there, and it was beautiful, and I thought, well, why stop here? Let’s do the walls; let’s make the opening of the butcher and the bakery. Let’s go for it. I feel like that’s what things were like at those times. So many more people read the book than I ever imagined and have their idea of what it’s supposed to be.
But you have to take this when you’re making a movie with all the creative people, the director, the DP, and everybody, and you have to make your take on it. It might be different from what everybody else is thinking. Have you ever read a book where you were pronouncing the main character’s name wrong, and then the author told you what it was and changed the whole book for you?
SC: (Laughs) Of course. And you pointed out one of my favorite details. I love that even though that supermarket is crowded, all of the products are where they’re supposed to be.
JG: Yeah, because we built the whole thing from scratch, the aisles were much wider than normal. When they pull back on a big wide shot, you’ll see it’s very graphic, and things are in their place, which allows the rest of the movie to be messier. So if things started out organized and militant and beautiful in the supermarket, then by the time he was going through the garbage looking for the Dylar, it was a nice sort of journey that the garbage had made. But that’s only something that I would know or people worked on, but still, it meant something to us.
SC: Yeah, and product placement feels so essential for recreating the ‘80s, but it’s also very prominent in the Gladney home. This space, even in its mania and chaos, felt so lived-in and realized.
JG: Oh, great!
SC: How did you want that space to look and feel? What did you want it to say about them as a family?
JG: Well, I wanted to say that they were a close family. That was a set we built on stage. We went through different layouts of it because I knew it was important for Noah to have choreographed dialogue. Somebody would be on the phone, and somebody would pass through underneath the cord and grab a quart of orange juice, and somebody would open the fridge. It had to have a rhythm. The set had to have a rhythm and places to go, and things meant what they would in a real kitchen. Both of those people were on their third or fourth marriage, and four kids lived there. And in the book, there are even more children. So there had to be a lot of layers in there that a family of four would have. And a lot of that ended up being a product from the supermarket. I tried to get something from the supermarket and some branding into most scenes so you knew that the pulse of everything was white noise. I grew up down the block from a college professor from Brooklyn College, and his wife was a high school teacher, and they had four kids. I grew up with just my sister and my dad, and he was a minimalist and very stark. And I used to go over there and go, wow, this is incredible. It’s like books piled up on the couch, toys underneath things, and the TV is on in a room where nobody is and the radio. And I was like, this is awesome. I was able to base it on something.
So anyway, that’s how that came across; they can travel through a lived-in space and keep things moving. It’s a place where you can have a still moment if you want one. If not, you don’t have to. We also created a big enough space for the cast to be able to improvise. It’s the same thing with the supermarket too.
SC: That’s great. I know many people ask you about the supermarket, their home, or College-on-the-Hill. Do you have any other personal favorite details from the movie that you’re particularly proud of?
JG: Sure! I love the motel set. My previous movies look a lot like that. We looked for months and months for a practical motel that would work, and in the back of my mind, I always thought we needed to build this facade of this motel, a place that’s so different from Blacksmith but in Iron City. I had been passing by this apartment I rented in Cleveland by where the Guardians play. I walked past; it was a gravel pit. There was a train that went over; three or four interconnected highways. I said this is where this thing should be. It took a while to convince everybody that that was a good thing to do. And finally, everybody was like, yeah, let’s do it. It just evolved into something that I knew would be great, and I just loved every minute. I got to see it being built because I would drive by on the way home every day.
It was just extraordinary to take this gravel pit and tailor-make this motel for the movie and to have the Owen Motel and roadway–the brightest letters in there–representing the Dylar pills. I tried to latch onto as many circles as possible in the movie. The dialogue in the lecture hall between Murray and Jack was circular. I loved the interior of it, and I was happy to be able to get that look in there.
SC: Yeah, I loved that. It had this noir-inspired quality to it that some of your Coen Brothers films have too.
JG: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, there was also a Paris, Texas look in there. I just knew that the motel and the hospital had to separate some part of this. What’s the sketchy part of town? Because there’s always a sketchy part of town in most college towns. That was the chance to do that. So we did.
SC: I love that comparison too. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today, Jess. I loved learning more about your work on White Noise.
JG: You’re welcome. Thank you. I’m glad you liked it, because I think it’s great too. I really do.
White Noise is currently in select theaters and will begin streaming December 30 exclusively on Netflix.