Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to Palm Springs screenwriter Andy Siara about the film’s allegory for addiction, dinosaurs, and whether June Quibb’s character was also in a loop.
2020 felt like a time loop, so it’s fitting that the Hulu film Palm Springs broke the streaming platform’s opening weekend record last July. Because how else do you commiserate being stuck in quarantine over and over again than with characters going through a similar experience?
But as I learned from my interview with Palm Springs screenwriter Andy Siara, he didn’t necessarily set out to write a time-loop movie when he first started working on the script back in 2015. Sometimes, like history, your fate is to repeat yourself, and in this case, that isn’t a bad thing.
AD: Your film broke streaming records. Did you ever imagine that would happen or that there would be a bidding war for it? What do you think made this film become such a coveted property?
Andy Siara: I have no idea. (Laughs) I never imagined any of that, back when I started working on it in 2015 when Max [Barbakow, director] were just shooting the shit, trying to come up with a micro-budget idea and then I’d go off and try to write something. At that point, zero expectations. We didn’t even think the movie would necessarily get made. Every step of the way on this exceeded expectations. Once the script was done and people were reading it and responding to it, especially when Andy Samberg came on board, that already exceeded any expectations. Everything from that point on, you kinda just had to take the Nyles approach and shrug, sip a beer, and see where this all led. It had a life of its own at that point. I feel very lucky and fortunate that people responded to the movie at Sundance and that they wanted to buy it. I did not expect any of that.
AD: I feel like this film is subtle allegory for a couple going through addiction or trauma together. Was that ever part of your intention?
AS: Everything I’ve written has been some form of therapy. (Laughs) I’ve worked on other scripts where I wasn’t working on anything deeper. I spent about three years in the writing of this, and from the beginning, the trip that Max and I took out to Palm Springs in June 2015, we wanted to figure out what we wanted to make this movie about. The conversations didn’t really have much of a form to them. It was more, like, the conversations were just two guys swimming in some kind of stew of all of our fears and shame and hope and joys and love and existential angst. Anything you’ve probably talked about in a therapy session. That’s kind of what those first conversations with Max were like. We’re buddies, and we’d already done a couple of things together, so it was just direct access to vulnerability that he and I had.
While those conversations were kind of like a stew and more exploratory and not plot or idea-based, once I got into writing the script, the characters of Nyles and Sarah, that’s where I would be thinking about story mechanics, structure, and all that stuff. Because the starting point was out of this mini-group therapy between me and Max, therefore, I think that yeah, that is the true root of the movie, is everything you just said. It was all born out of that. I’d work on it, then put it away, then I’d come back to it, almost like when I needed to or when I felt I needed to. My world was changing around me. In the span of this time of writing this, I went from being engaged to married to the birth of my first child. Those are life changes, and all of that was injected into the script. The country was changing drastically, from 2015 to 2018, when we first took the movie out for financing. There’s another thing that has a clear influence on the movie.
AD: The Groundhog Day trope has been done a few times now. Is there a formula to doing it right? What did you do to try to surprise the audience?
AS: In this process of discovering what the story was, after all of these abandoned drafts and whatnot, it was after my wedding, we came out with the challenge of taking a character on a journey, a character who cares about nothing to who perhaps finds a reason to care something, about anything. Plot-wise, the time stuff and the wedding, none of that was in there. That simple journey from not caring to caring was the backbone or the North Star the entire time. So it was after my wedding where I started to realize, maybe this should be a two-hander, about a relationship that started at a wedding? What better way of torturing your main character who cares about nothing than to have him trapped in a place where people perhaps care too much about the things that don’t really matter that much? Seating charts, color palettes, floral arrangements. Somehow weddings cost huge prices, but they don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Trap him for all eternity in a place like that. In order to get your character to this plateau, it made sense that perhaps he’d been stuck in a time loop.
The reason we went with time loop was because we already had this character who had this point of view of the world, the way he saw it all, and the time just informed the character on that side. And then to separate from the time loop movie, going through all of those motions until they get to the plateau point, has been done, far better than we could have done. In all of these movies, the character reaches a moment where their life or what they think the meaning of life is, and they’re gifted with the loop ending and a new day beginning. What I thought was like, okay, well you have this character who goes through all of this, reaches a plateau moment, figures out the meaning of life or what he thinks the meaning of life is, and it’s like, nope, the day just starts over again, because he is truly trapped here for all eternity. I’ve always looked at it like this was almost a sequel to that kind of movie, where in theory there could be a Palm Springs 1, which Nyles heading out to a Palm Springs wedding with a girlfriend who’s in a relationship on the rocks, getting drunk that night, wandering off into the desert, and finding that cave, and the entire movie is him getting to the time loop. Other movies explore that ground, so I thought, okay, let’s take the baton and then run in a different direction, and that’s where Sarah and the Roy aspect of it all came in.
AD: Now it’s making me wonder, do you think Nyles did care about things before the time loop and then the time loop made him not care? Or do you think he’s never cared?
AS: Thats’s a good question. I would say that he did care, to a point, but then it didn’t really matter. What the time loop device did for me, and I think why fundamentally all of these other earlier versions that I was running with back in 2015 of the story, the pre-time loop story, Nyles was still the same character, but it felt almost false, because for a person to get to that point, you almost have to be stuck in a time loop first for how many years he was stuck in a time loop, hundreds or thousands of years. (Laughs) The whole point of his character is that he’s already at that plateau point. What was he like before? Someone asked me how long he’s been in the time loop. There was never a number given to it, but the main thing for me was that he’d been there long enough for him to have actually forgotten most of his life beforehand, so therefore it almost doesn’t matter what he was like beforehand. He’s been here longer than he ever was alive in the normal world.
AD: That’s mind-blowing. Speaking of mind-blowing, I have to ask you about the dinosaurs. What was the significance of them?
AS: That scene is an important scene for the characters and the story itself. All I will say is that when I was writing that scene, I knew what this scene needed to do. It needed to be at the point where each character sees the other’s point of view and they’re starting to meet in the middle a little bit. All of the sudden, it’s this point where all these things meet, and in writing it, I hesitate saying this, but it’s that feeling when you fall in love. They have that point where everything’s aligning. For some reason, when I was writing it, I thought, I think they should see dinosaurs then. Where did that come from? Where in my subconscious did that come from? It could be so many different things. I will leave that to you to decide. It could just be my long-winded way of getting dinosaurs in the movie because of Jurassic Park.
AD: One final question: June Squibb says to Cristin at one point at the last wedding, “I guess you’ll be going now.” Was she also in a loop? Or just loopy? Were more characters in a loop, too, that we didn’t even know about?
AS: I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. I will defer to June Squibb on that one!
AD: I like that. And I also love the use of the Hall & Oates’ song at the end [“When the Morning Comes”].
AS: That was Andy Samberg, by way of Joanna Newsom’s suggestion. In the original script, I had written a bunch of songs. Initially, in the original script, “Forever and Ever,” the song that opens the movie, that was the closing song. But then in one of those first development meetings, he brought it up and he said his wife had read [the script] and she showed him the song, and all of us were like, “Oh, yeah. That’s perfect.”
Palm Springs is streaming on Hulu.