Interview: Two years later, Daniel Lombroso reflects on the impact of his documentary ‘White Noise’

by | Mar 12, 2022

When filmmaker Daniel Lombroso released his 2020 documentary White Noise, he couldn’t have possibly known that an unprompted “sequel” was just around the corner.

It wasn’t one of Lombroso’s making, more of a culmination of what his observational political documentary entailed. White Noise tracked the alt-right movement as it grew from rowdy hotel convention hall rallies to the White House post-2016, centering on three of the movement’s most infamous grifters: neo-Nazi Richard B. Spencer, anti-immigration figure Lauren Southern, and “Pizzagate” conspiracist Mike Cernovich. All three, in some way or another, helped contribute to the rise of Trumpism and sparked the flames that were set ablaze on Jan. 6, 2021, when a crowd of Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol intending to undo the results of the 2020 election.

The Capitol insurrection instantly etched itself into U.S. history, with ongoing controversy within the Republican Party still struggling with how to describe what really happened, as well as their general complicity. Filmmakers are already planning a number of documentary projects that will investigate various angles of the event, and there will even be a narrative feature recounting what took place from Shattered Glass filmmaker Billy Ray and producer Adam McKay.

Lombroso, who worked for The Atlantic during the making of White Noise and is now at The New Yorker, can’t say he was shocked to see what happened after spending years documenting the forces behind the alt-right movement.

“At the end of [White Noise], there’s a very important montage where we do, as filmmakers, make a case that this isn’t any old conservative movement,” Lombroso explains. “This is fundamentally a racist movement, an anti-Semitic movement, and most importantly, a violent movement, that these ideas are violent at their core and will have lots of consequences.”

White Noise closes its production on a handful of race and religion-related acts of violence, including the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, 2019 El Paso shooting, and 2019 Christchurch New Zealand mosque shooting. To Lombroso, the film argues that, sadly, this could only be the beginning of a new wave of violence started in part by far-right radicals.

“The movie came out in October of 2020, and four months later, the Capitol was stormed,” Lombroso said. “I could’ve never predicted that specific event, but as someone who studied and had been around the movement for close to four years, it didn’t surprise me in any way, shape or form.”

Lombroso said he saw the ideas he followed in the film “spreading like fire” all over social media and in the real world.

“The figures in my film are able to draw hundreds or thousands of people to their parties, their events, their college campus speeches, and that stuff doesn’t go anywhere,” Lombroso recalls. “It’s not going away, and, when you say the man they adore, who they call jokingly or not jokingly ‘daddy,’ former President Trump, when someone like that is defeated by a multicultural coalition, a.k.a. the Democratic Party, that goes against everything they believe in. They can’t fathom with all this energy that they could lose, and they did lose fair and square, but they can’t believe it.”

In fact, one of the individuals featured in Lombroso’s film, Ali Alexander, started the Stop the Steal movement that led to the Capitol insurrection. He was recently interviewed by the January 6th committee—an investigation overseen by a select group in the U.S. House of Representatives—and informed them about his contact with Republican lawmakers. He has also been recorded saying he would work with extremist groups.

In the future, Lombroso says he feels that other wannabe Trumpist politicians will struggle to garner the same lightning-in-a-bottle energy that fueled Trump’s unlikely victory in the 2016 presidential election. Though he also cautions that someone like Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who has been repeatedly flagged by the right and left for pushing alt-right dogma on his highly-watched cable news show, could eventually inherit Trump’s massive political following.

“[Carlson is] using his huge megaphone on Fox News every night to break the ideas Richard Spencer was telling me four or five years ago,” Lombroso said. “Things that Spencer would tell me four years ago…Tucker Carlson talks about it every night. He’s making movies about it.”

Carlson has received heavy criticism for promoting ideas surrounding white nationalist conspiracies like “the great replacement” on his program and even recently produced a special that received widespread backlash for suggesting the Capitol insurrection could have been a “false flag” operation. Lombroso adds that filmmakers who worked with Lauren Southern and Mike Cernovich in the past are now working with Carlson, specifically on his controversial three-part series covering January 6th using outright fabrications and conspiracies to misinform viewers.

“There’s not as much division between the alt-right and its modern version and the modern conservative movement as people think,” Lombroso said. “People go to the [Trump] White House, they come back, they get hired off of social media, they get hired off of Fox News, so it’s way more porous than people realize.”

Lombroso says that recent films like Sean Baker’s Red Rocket have done good work to help capture the nefarious spirit of the moment that’s brewing in White Noise.

“It’s a movie where the characters don’t change,” Lombroso said. “[Simon Rex’s character], he’s a grifter, he’s an opportunist. He really embodies the ethos of 2016 Trumpism unlike really any other character I’ve seen on the big screen before. He’s motivated by getting ahead, by making money. Trump forms the texture of the entire film, whether he’s on TV or you hear his voice. It takes place in working-class, white America. So I think that’s a really great example of the kinds of people who drive in Trump’s America, the people who are looking to get ahead and don’t necessarily have a lot to give back.”

A common criticism of Red Rocket was whether or not it slid too far into endorsement as opposed to depiction, an age-old debate among film critics that is often removed from the intention of the filmmaker. Because it should be clear to many that Baker didn’t intend to endorse a morally bankrupt character like the one Rex plays, but some argue that audiences can still be “ignited” by the mere spotlight shown on these unsavory characters and dangerous ideas.

Lombroso encountered a similar conversation surrounding White Noise, with some critics pointing to the attention he gave these alt-right figures as unnecessary. As a filmmaker who had to balance the responsibility of documenting uncomfortable corners of American life and the risk of unfiltered exposure to those very corners, Lombroso looks back to what inspired him to make his film in the first place.

“It’s something I thought about every day for four years making this film,” Lombroso recalls. “I’m Jewish; I’m the grandson of two Holocaust survivors. Both my grandmothers lost the majority of their families in World War II in concentration camps or in Nazi-occupied Europe…I was on to the story early because I understand the dangers of fascism, and how it’s something that can pop up at any time in history, and especially at a time of intense politicization like now.

“I felt a huge weight on my shoulders, and so did my team, and it was our decision…to get unprecedented access inside this movement, and not platform these people needlessly, but to really analyze the folks who already had platforms and beliefs….[the subjects of the film] were shaping the public conversation when this all started. The things that they were talking were working their way onto Fox News and into [President Trump’s] mouth.”

An exact example Lombroso recalled was the baseless claim that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease, which started with Cernovich in 2016 and made its way to Sean Hannity’s Fox News program and eventually into Trump’s long string of repeatedly debunked lies over the course of the campaign.

“As a filmmaker, and with someone with my personal background, that’s incredibly alarming and merits coverage. If that doesn’t merit coverage, I don’t know what does,” Lombroso said. “It became my mission to get inside with those people, to understand their motivations, to understand why these things were taking on and ultimately, to expose them, to expose the emptiness of their ideas, the hypocrisies…I don’t think anyone who comes out of White Noise will want to join that movement.”

Lombroso says, instead, they’ll find an unflattering portrait, one that shows the subjects to be “lost, depressed, looking for a sense of purpose in the world, and ultimately finding it in the worst possible place, and that’s white nationalism.

“I think the films that don’t do well make them look like rock stars, and they’re certainly not rock stars. They’re people who have a huge amount of influence, and that’s dangerous, but they’re not rock stars. They’re the very opposite of that.”

Lombroso says that being sensitive in the post-production process and deciding which scenes to include helps with the looming responsibility to tell these stories properly, but also that the viewer ultimately decides how to judge the finished product. At that point, it’s out of a filmmaker like Lombroso’s hands to find the subtle intentions of theme. Even if some viewers didn’t take away Lombroso’s desired thesis, he said he still stands by his work.

“I still believe it was worth the four years of my life,” Lombroso added. “I don’t regret anything about it.”

And, in the case of films like White NoiseRed Rocket, and others like them, Lombroso says that you have to trust the audience to be able to discern the ethical underpinnings of morally questionable characters or subjects.

“As someone who works in media and tells stories for a living, it just baffles me that other journalists and other purveyors of information believe that we have to tie everything up in a bow and tell the audience exactly what they should think or feel,” Lombroso said. “That’s the magic of storytelling or journalism. It’s to report the facts, to see for when it’s history, and then to put it together in a structure for your audience to take away a clear, political message, but also to leave some things open for their own interpretation.

“We have a responsibility to contextualize, to not glorify, and the film I did doesn’t [glorify] in any way, but we don’t have an obligation to hand the audience something on a platter and tell them, ‘this is what you believe.’ … That’s propaganda, and I don’t have a whole lot of interest in making propaganda.”

Lombroso is a filmmaker and senior producer for The New Yorker. His latest short film “American Scar” recently premiered at DocNYC. His short film “When Fun is the Family Business” can be viewed on The New Yorker’s website.

White Noise is available for VOD rental.