Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to Palm Springs director Max Barbakow about when to steer clear of Groundhog Day references, whether Roy (J.K. Simmons) gets out of the loop, and what that first screening at Sundance was like.
Palm Springs is the rare time-loop movie that starts when the character is already in the loop. When we meet Nyles (Andy Samberg), he’s already been at the wedding he’s attending many times. If you watch the film without knowing about the time-loop scenario, Nyles comes across as just an extremely intuitive life of the party, one who’s very aware of everything that’s happening around him.
That’s one of the things that director Max Barbakow tried to keep in mind when working on this film: to always keep audiences guessing and subvert expectations whenever possible. With Palm Springs, he does just that, taking an all-too-familiar plot device and making it feel new.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Barbakow about the film, and just as the movie surprises you with its twists and turns, I was also surprised to learn that it was never meant to be a time-loop movie or even a movie that took place at a wedding.
Awards Daily: So much takes place in the same scene. What was it like to film day to day? Did it feel like you were in your own time loop?
Max Barbakow: (Laughs) Not really. It was great in that we were shooting every scene for each location, but the characters were always going through different emotional circumstances, each and every day. We even designed the movie in a way where we’re never really recycling shots or shooting the same thing the same way twice. If anything, you’re kind of being pulled in every direction, trying to make the same thing feel a little different. A fun part of the movie was everybody keeping track of where we were in the loop, and we were challenging each other to be on top of it.
AD: That makes sense. You have the same setup, but every scene does feel different. Did you shoot like one day or week where it’s just the wedding?
MB: Yeah, absolutely. The first day was all morning Cristin waking up in that bed in that bedroom. Which is a little tedious, but again, even the macro shots of her eyeballs, I was always throwing different scenarios at her. “Now you’re waking up after you’ve fallen through the roof!” “Now you’re waking up after partying with Nyles!” “Now you’re waking up after you’ve hooked up for the first time!” We were always exploring strange different things throughout it all. The cool part about the schedule was that when we started wrapping actors, we got to the core of the love story. The last day was Andy and Cristin together, and it became this two-hander, and that was a really great way to make a movie. It was the heart of the whole enterprise.
AD: Is there a right way to do a Groundhog Day-type of movie? Did you want to steer clear of repeating what other time loop projects have done? Or did you want to veer away from some things in order to avoid being too much like the other things?
MB: The script-writing process and origin story of the idea was very much not a time-loop idea; it was more of a dark, existential comedy about this guy Nyles at Palm Springs. It wasn’t even a wedding movie. We just through a lot of different kind of things and false starts in development, and we figured out who Nyles was and who Sarah was, and what their problems were. Because of that, it was always about these characters. [Screenwriter Andy Siara and I] asked, “What’s the worst thing for these two people who are so afraid of intimacy?” And it would be to stick themselves with each other on the day of someone else’s wedding out in the desert. Once we arrived in that sense, it was like, how do we make this different than Groundhog Day? Why don’t we start at a place conceivably where that movie had ended at? We meet Nyles, he’s already been in the loop and figured out the meaning of life, and he’s still in it. He has to find peace in other ways. Once we cracked that and cracked the idea of putting another person in the loop, we stayed as far away as possible from anything else with the loop in it, because we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. Again, it was always about getting past that idea of a time loop, that these characters in this scenario explore themselves and the relationship that was growing between them more so than playing with a time-loop idea. It was always about the emotion that we could get to because of it.
AD: We learn fairly quickly in the film that Nyles seems to be all-knowing, in that sequence on the dance floor at the wedding. Then there’s the hilarious dance sequence in the bar. How much choreography did you have to consider in this film?
MB: Those two dances were very much choreographed together, and our choreographer Michelle [Johnston] did a great job with Andy and Cristin. They learned it super quickly and had no time to do either of them. It was so impressive to watch them execute it on the days. That was something that was one of the first things Andy and I came up with. If we’re gonna do this movie, why don’t we open it with a dance sequence and it was just about playing with the idea of Nyles being the master of this universe and knowing everybody’s movement. Once we got the choreographer involved, all of those people that he’s interacting with are background dancers. Because it’s such a bizarre thing, especially when you’re thrown into it at the top of the movie, I wanted to shoot it in a straightforward way, so everything felt real and messy and very deliberate. It was constructed like the first half of a call and response that’s never responded to. Sarah shuts him down, and then when they go and dance together at the bar, that’s kind of their arc of connection.
AD: Something I keep thinking about is how I almost wish I had not known anything about the time loop going into it. How much did you keep from audiences when you first showed them this film?
MB: No one knew anything about it. It was amazing. [The audiences] were engaged with the movie, but they were also like, how the hell are they going to land this plane and pull this off? (Laughs) It’s such a cool way to experience this movie. I would have loved for us to bring this out into the world without anyone knowing that it was a time-loop premise, because it is such a fertile sub-genre now. But I was assured by all of the marketing people and people in charge that we weren’t going to be able to promote the movie that way. I still think beyond that if you’re aware of it going in, hopefully it’s still surprising.
AD: Oh, 100 percent.
MB: It definitely was such a blast when that first arrow hit [a character hits Andy Samberg with an arrow] at the Sundance screening. People had no idea what the fuck was going on.
AD: If you watch it not knowing, you think, oh, Nyles is kinda kooky!
MB: Yeah, you’re like, oh, it’s a wedding comedy! We try to disarm you with that. We try to do that with the movie in general, throw a lot of curve balls and surprise them with the emotion and the relationship between the characters.
AD: How soon did you know that Andy and Cristin had dynamite chemistry?
MB: Pretty immediately. Andy knew Cristin for a little bit before she came on to the movie; they had met during a meeting. He had her in the back of his head when the script came across his desk, and she was a no-brainer in our top choice for Sarah. I got to meet her shortly thereafter, and I just remember sitting at an office at Party Over Here [production company] and Andy and Cristin just were so on the same wavelength in terms of taste and sense of humor and the way they looked at the world. During rehearsals, they were just reading the script for the first time, and I looked over at Andy Siara and we both telekinetically nodded. We were so excited it was going to work, because the movie really works or it doesn’t based on the chemistry. They just had such great chemistry from the get-go. You can’t create that. You just have to put them in a position to explore it. It was a blast to watch that come to life in the movie.
AD: I think it really culminates in the dance sequence in the bar, too, because they are both just bringing it in such a way. She’s on an 11 in terms of absurdness and so is he, when they’re flipping the bird. They’re both meeting each other’s levels. It was great to watch.
MB: Total commitment.
AD: One of the big things I walked away with from this film is that it’s an allegory for a couple going through addiction or a trauma together. Waking up every day stuck in the same situation, being ashamed of things you’ve done in your past, not being able to get out of that cycle. Did that ever dawn on you or is it just me? It made it a little more powerful, especially with the ending.
MB: That’s awesome. That’s what I’m proud of, the fact that is provokes. Obviously Nyles drinks too much and Sarah has her own issues as well, but it was always about that there is purpose in caring and rising above your circumstances no matter how shitty they can be. Having the courage and the strength to do that, which isn’t easy. Is it a metaphor for depression? Maybe. I think it’s a metaphor for breaking out of any cycle of behavior that’s holding you back. I just love that people can read into it in all of these different ways, but all of that is there for sure.
AD: I also liked that compared to other time-loop films, your main character considers just staying in the time loop. That’s different from the others.
MB: Totally. That was a thing that we worked through as a way to differentiate it from Groundhog Day. With Sarah looking into the science. It was also from a place of true human behavior. What would I do if I were confronted with this scenario? Maybe I’d been in a place where I probably would have just given up like Nyles. (Laughs) Or if I were Sarah, I would go on the internet and try to figure out how to get out of it. It was always about trying to keep these characters grounded, despite these heightened scenarios.
AD: Do you hope that Roy (J.K. Simmons) gets out?
MB: I think he probably does. I think he probably goes for it. Roy’s the kind of guy who takes that leap and tries to get out, if only he’s a little reckless and a gambler in his own right, the same energy that led to Nyles and him partying their asses off that night that they met. But at the same time, he’s found peace and happiness in Irvine, in that day. I think it would all depend on how he wakes up that morning, and whether he wants to potentially lose the peace that he’s found, whether he’s wanting to apply the lessons he’s learned in a new version of his life on the other side of the loop.
Palm Springs is streaming on Hulu.