Max Barbakow and Andy Siara spoke with Solzy at the Movies over the phone about Palm Springs, which launches July 10 on Hulu.
Palm Springs premiered in January during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The film stars Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin, and Peter Gallagher. Max Barbakow directs from a script written by Andy Siara.
Palm Springs will be released on Hulu while also playing briefly at drive-in theaters. How excited are you that people will finally be able to watch the film outside of the Sundance audiences?
Max Barbakow: I’m super excited about it. We’ve lived with this thing for four years or so. Sundance was the first time that people saw it and it was a moment where we kind of realized it doesn’t kind of exclusively belong to us anymore. People can kind of take ownership over it, which is kind of what the experience of making it was when collaborators came on to make the movie. Just now having the opportunity to bring it out wider, especially in that cultural and historical moment that’s very bizarre, dark, and unique is special for sure.
Andy Siara: Yeah, I agree. Like Max said, the movie is no longer ours and that’s an exciting thing.
In retrospect, are you glad you got to watch the film with an audience at Sundance not knowing how much the world would change in the span of a few months?
Andy Siara: Oh, yeah. I was very, very happy to experience but I was maybe at two different screenings there. They were emotional experiences getting to share them with Max. We thought about seven years before when we first met and then five years earlier when we first started talking about some version of this movie to getting play it in front of an audience of our peers, friends, family, and all that. I’m glad that we least got to have that moment before we have people watch in the comfort of their own home.
Max Barbakow: Or a nice air conditioned sedan with FM radio utilities.
Andy Siara: Yeah.
Max Barbakow: I was at Sundance .I stayed the whole time because I’d never been before so I got to see the movie a few times. It was really cool to see a movie with an audience but also to see the movie with different kinds of audiences later in the week. You had kind of regular film fans rather than people in the business or acquisitions people watching the movie. It was just great to kind of see different crowds engage with it in their own ways.
When I attended the world premiere at Sundance, I felt that the film was Groundhog Day for the 21st century. Can you talk about crafting the story?
Andy Siara: Yeah, it was the summer of 2015. Max and I were like, let’s make our first movie together. We knew we wanted to do a small budget feature following in that Duplass brothers’ realm. And we went off to Palm Springs, have Mai Tais, and just talked a lot. Out of that weekend, we came up with the idea of let’s center it in Palm Springs, ideally in one location. We did not know anything about a wedding at that point but we came out of that weekend with this character that was kind of just born out of conversation, the character of Nyles. Over the years, we honestly just kind of let that character lead the way until it kind of naturally evolved to this point where it became a wedding. It was a wedding and had the time element involved but those are almost later additions to it because it was more about figuring out fully who this character was, what this character was missing in his life, his problem, and then finding forces to put him up against. Out of that came wedding, time loop, and other characters.
And then once the Sarah character kind of came into our conversations, she became even more fully formed and in a sense, took the movie in a different direction. We follow that relationship, follow that character, and kind of let them lead the way. It just naturally fell into this sci-fi, rom-com, time loop wedding movie that it never initially was
Max Barbakow: I would say the same thing. It was a very thoroughly enjoyable, joyous, cathartic, creative, therapeutic creative process that was utterly inefficient in the best way in that we were really digging for something that felt true to our sensibilities and each other, and our emotions in our lives at the time. We were trying to entertain each other and that’s kind of what we what we ended with.
Andy Siara: Yeah, yeah. For about two and a half years, it was really just about making each other laugh when no one else was involved in this movie at all. We followed that compass.
Was the film written with the cast in mind or were there changes made to the script after actors signed onto the film?
Max Barbakow: There were other people who were thinking of for Nyles that were kind of shades of who Andy Samberg is. The fact that we got him attached and got to work with him was not an expectation at any point. We’re just very fortunate that we were connected with The Lonely Island and that they took an interest in and saw the movie the way that we were seeing it and for what it was and what it could be. I know it was a different role for Andy, which he was game for and elevated in an incredible way. I guess the answer is we just pictured archetypes of these characters and the people came in and took ownership over them and elevated the roles and made these people their own. Once they came on, we tailored the scripts to degrees whether that was in rehearsals with Cristin or on the day with J.K. Simmons on set to their sensibilities but it really was kind of this echo chamber for a very long time between Andy and me in the writing of it and then The Lonely Island as well before people jumped on.
Given that it is a time loop, are there days that we don’t even see on screen?
Andy Siara: Oh, yeah. On the Nyles side of it all, once we decided to maybe do the time loop thing, we looked at Palm Springs as kind of a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist, where there’s a whole other movie that could exist that follows when Nyles first goes into that cave and first gets stuck in a time loop and is therefore however long he’s there for—however long it takes him to figure out that life is meaningless. We were just not interested in that movie so that’s why this movie already kind of skirts past all of that, except for the occasional little flash to one of the earlier days and then after the Sarah side of it all, I mean, there had been discussion. One point, I think I wrote in a title on screen that says exactly how long it’s been since the last time we saw them but we did not end up doing that. But yeah, there are plenty of days that we do not see. They have been in there for a long time.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
Max Barbakow: I think all of it. We shot the movie in 21 days, which is kind of madness. And it was madness but I would say everybody really, again, took ownership over it and elevated the movie. I think, generally, just the amount of stuff that we had to do in 21 days is challenging just because I don’t think there’s a really straightforward moment. Even when the moments are straightforward, performance-wise or emotionally, they’re very loaded and layered and rich and you want to give performers time to kind of sink their teeth into it but there wasn’t a straightforward moment in the movie. It’s an offbeat world there’s always a lot going on logically, aesthetically, otherwise. So just getting the pages that we’ve labored over for so long in the can, which we were able to do but then also just shooting in the desert is very unforgiving. Weather was very unpredictable and insane as were—oddly—bugs.
When you’re shooting a comedy, is it tough to restrain yourself from laughing behind camera?
Max Barbakow: Yeah, totally. My laugh sounds like I’m choking because I’m trying to hold it in. So there are definitely some takes on dailies where you feel like somebody is choking on a jelly bean or something behind the camera and you can hear that. But it was so fun. I mean, there’s so much stuff that is not in the movie that is amazing.
Andy Siara: Yeah, having the entire cast in front of the camera, there are plenty of moments where you’re busting up behind the camera. I think for me and Max, I know there’s a thing where Max grabbed me. He grabs my arm or my shoulder I think as a way to control his laughter. Rather than the choke chortle, you get into me and that’s when I know its working. And I had the same thing with him.
Max Barbakow: There’s a similar thing, too, that isn’t necessarily related to comedy but it’s a combination of when you’re making something and with it for so long, and it’s being realized, you’re kind of smiling because you can’t believe that people are taking what you come up with seriously because it could be so good and also the emotional moments of performances that are just really special and coming alive. I remember looking over to Andy a lot and him having a very satisfied smile on where you tell it was working and that was always kind of the barometer, too, where it’s like, Oh, yeah, we’re smiling. This is good. This feels right.
Andy Siara: Yeah. Specifically the campfire scene—that was in early, early versions of the script. I remember when Max and I were in my little bungalow in LA and going through the script just before we kind of finished the draft that most resembles the current movie. That was such an important scene. I think that was the last day of filming right or one of the last days of filming.
Max Barbakow: That was the last day.
Andy Siara: It was a first take. Andy and Cristin both just knocked it out of the park. Initially in the script, it was a very long scene. That’s where I remember looking over at Max and I’m like, Wow, let’s just call it a day here.
Max Barbakow: We were lucky. There was a lot of that in this movie where actors would do a take and you’d be like, Great. Cool. Let me go pretend to talk to this grip while I come up with a note for you because it’s already perfect.
The two of you both met at AFI. Can you talk about how important the training has been to your careers?
Max Barbakow: The mere fact that we met, it’s been the best most important, most appealing thing in my creative life and in my general life, too, to have met Andy. But I will say this, just from a work standpoint, too, and a training standpoint, I feel like we got kind of redeemed—maybe not necessarily redeemed because it’s very expensive, the cost of education in that place—the first week we were there, when we were kind of thrust into a bunch of creative exercises that really just were based on doing personal inventory about emotions and how to infuse stories with emotion and have the courage of your peculiarity, which is something that a mentor named Gill Dennis always said, and that is something that I think we both really leaned on in the conception and the writing of this.
Andy Siara: Film school is not for everybody. There’s a lot that you can learn there that you can spend—you can download a bunch of script notes podcasts. However, there’s the other side of it where I met Max on the first day and we are here, seven years later, about to premiere our movie to the world. Having as we went through and we were immersed in that environment for two years around people who just only want to talk about movies—an environment that I’ve never been in in my entire life. I didn’t have people like that—friends like that in high school, friends like that in college. It wasn’t until I got there that I was around people that only wanted to talk about movies and TV shows. Not only that we were encouraged to dig deep on those and so for that alone, it’s been a very—I got a lot out of it. But I also know that it’s not for everybody. I am deep in debt because of it though—financial debt—which I think that’s a problem with our film school system.