“I just thought he’d be perfect…so many people have so many good feelings toward him,” said Paul Brooks, one of the producers of the supernatural thriller “White Noise,” about its star Michael Keaton, who plays an architect who becomes obsessed with communicating with his dead wife through a process called EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), based on the premise that messages and images of the departed come to the living in the background noise in radio and television broadcasts. “His body of work is extraordinary…he’s one of the American iconic actors.”
Brooks and Keaton visited Dallas recently and spoke to the press about the film they’d made together. Brooks spoke about casting the actor before Keaton entered the room, intent on keeping the mood light despite the picture’s darkness. “Sorry, I’ve got something in my shoe,” he said, removing it and poking it with a finger. “I don’t know what it is.” And then with a start: “It’s a scorpion! What if I got bit, but I insisted on staying and carrying on?” And after doing a whole riff on the possibility, he added, “Just goes to show how sick you people are–you want me to die just to get a better story!”
But Keaton soon got down to business–though always ready with a joke–explaining how he came to take the role. It wasn’t simply that it was a dramatic part. (“I’m actually dying to do a comedy,” he said. “I can’t seem to find anything that I find funny.”) It was that it was a challenging part. “This was a genre in which I’d never been involved, so this was just really intriguing,” he explained. “And also I just thought it was very well-written and very interesting. And then an interesting thing happened, which had never happened to me. A lot of times you say, this is really good material if you get the right director. Just because [somebody’s] really good doesn’t mean he’s the right guy. It’s got to match up. That’s going to take a long time, and it may never come together.” In this case, however, luck was with them. “Paul said, ‘I’ve got the guy,’” Keaton recalled. “I just thought, this won’t work, because it’s the first guy.” But when he saw the work of Geoffrey Sax, the man Brooks had in mind, Keaton changed his tune. “He’d done this version of ‘Othello’ for the BBC, and it was really great. There’s constant tension in it. What he managed to do was make you feel like, man, you think you know what your life is…and then something goes wrong, you run into the wrong person at the wrong time, and you’re saying, ‘I’m not that guy, I’m not that guy,’ but all of a sudden you are that guy. [In Sax’s ‘Othello’] you really feel that, and it’s spooky, creepy. He made you get in [Othello’s] shoes. That’s what had to happen in ‘White Noise.’” Brooks interjected that there was “a Kafkaesque aspect to both of them in terms of what happens to the main characters” through “the inevitability of fate.” To which Keaton said, “He’s talking about Larry Kafka, by the way–an excellent sausage-maker.” But he added about Sax: “He wasn’t just talented–he was the right guy to do this kind of material.” And in Keaton’s view the confidence wasn’t misplaced.
Keaton was unaware ofthe popularity of EVP and its many adherents when he said yes to the script. “I just thought the guy [screenwriter Niall Johnson] made it up,” he said. “I thought it was a good idea.” And even after learning how widespread belief in the phenomenon was (and making a movie about it), he continued, “I don’t know enough about EVP to say whether it’s BS or not. At the same time, I can’t tell you there’s tons of proof [in its favor]. There’s a kind of logic to it to me, though.” Logic or not, he declined to test it himself. “We all decided not to take a stand, or even try it,” he explained. “Because then I’d be in a situation if someone said, ‘Did you do it?’ that it doesn’t work, or yes, it does work and this is my experience. And I don’t want to know. And as the character I didn’t want to know. It gave me a longer place to go.” Brooks noted, though, that the EVP movement clearly wasn’t financially motivated. “There’s no agenda,” he said. “It’s not like somebody’s trying to make money out of it.” At which point Keaton interjected: “Well, there is this radio I’m selling. Like my version of the George Foreman Grill.”
Keaton described the journey the audience is meant to take with his character over the course of the film. “You set it up right, and then you say, what if that happened to me? Or, what if this is really true? And now, hopefully, if it works, you’ll go down the road with him. [You’ll say] what would I do, if I were him? Then you spiral down with him, or spiral up–depending on your point of view. Certainly in this [movie], that’s what we wanted to do, what I wanted to do.” He explained that he and the director made a conscious decision to rein in the dramatics of the journey. “We shot some scenes that were more openly [emotional],” he said. “A lot of tears, a lot of crying, a lot of I couldn’t hold it in anymore–which were fine. But toward the end I said, let’s do that, but I’ll bet you things will be more interesting if we play it all smaller in the grief.” That’s eventually the way they decided to go, and Keaton hoped they made the right choice. But he wasn’t sure. “It’s so hard to get everything done in a movie that you want to do,” he said. “It’s hard to make [even] a bad movie. But it’s really hard to get a movie done, and do what you want to do with the schedule and the time and the budget. It’s really enormously difficult. So a lot of times you go for things and hope they’ll work. If it was up to me, I’d remake almost every movie I’ve been in. And I would probably take myself out of a few of them.”
When asked about how much of the special-effects and audio work in “White Noise” he had seen before doing his scenes, Keaton merely said, “None of it. That’s the freaky part–we don’t know how it got there.” To which Brooks added, with a slight sigh, “For a minute you’d think this was a serious movie!”