Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan engages in an email exchange with Palm Springs cinematographer Quyen Tran.
There are many different colors one might associate with Hulu’s Palm Springs. The beige sand of the California desert, the electric blue chlorine of the pool that’s become iconic, and of course the hot pink font of the movie poster.
But as I learned with my email chat with the film’s cinematographer Quyen Tran, there’s another color to look for on a rewatch, one that represents Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles’s (Andy Samberg) connection within the time loop. Just as the themes within the film play with lightness and darkness, so does the contrasting lighting and hues.
Awards Daily: I read that you knew you just had to do this movie. What typically draws you to projects?
Quyen Tran: Yes, I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO. After I read the script I was like “Holy #$%@ what the @#$# is this film it’s so @#$^ insane I absolutely must work on this!” Ha ha. I mean, how often do you read a script that has dinosaurs, caves, quantum physics and weddings? So, it was pretty clear that I immediately felt a connection to this story. It’s not often you receive a gift like this!
I am drawn to projects that make me laugh, cry, wonder, and think, hopefully all within the same project. I don’t discriminate or have a genre I prefer, but I need to CONNECT with the characters in the story and feel their plight somehow. If I don’t, I won’t entertain the idea of shooting it, as I think that would be unfair both to the collaborators and to the story.
AD: You’ve done some of my favorite projects of the last year, including A Teacher and Unbelievable.
QT: I’m so happy to hear that! Again, I thought both of these projects had important themes to discuss, even though they’re totally different.
AD: Palm Springs is such a light and bright film for having some dark themes. Did you use the desert and colors at all to enhance the look of the film? I feel like at points everything feels a little hazy in the background, almost like a dream.
QT: I’m glad you felt that way because I intentionally found frames and lighting that would highlight the nature of anamorphic lenses. By placing lights with interesting bokeh around characters, and by distorting lines I wanted to give the viewer the sense that this was a different world, that maybe it’s a bit surreal and exists in a different time. I embraced the aberrations of the lenses, with the distortions enhancing the abnormal situation the characters found themselves in over and over again. I also used atmosphere in all the interior spaces to create a heightened realism and exaggerate rays of light and create soft flares at the edges of frame. When Nyles wakes up and finally sees Sarah again, I wanted that to feel like a dream, playing with the blue anamorphic flare across her face and using haze to make it feel as though he was dreaming and she wasn’t there. “Sarah? Is that you?” Even though there are indeed dark themes, I wanted to play on the use of bright, carefree lighting for all of Nyles’s scenes as a misdirect. Then, when we cut to Sarah’s wake-ups, it would juxtapose with her very dark and contrast-y room. I literally wanted her to wake up in a dark place, both physically and mentally, and that darkness continues when she drives all the way back to her home in Texas. I closed the blinds, and let her play in silhouette—she can’t escape, she’s trapped in this new world, but what is it?
AD: Even in my favorite scene, the dance bar scene, there is so much light pouring into that bar. Was that deliberate? Did you often make use of the natural surroundings?
QT: Yes, the dance bar scene, which is one of my favorites, is intentionally bright for a couple of reasons. We wanted that scene to contrast with the “Happy Birthday, Nyles” scene, which takes place at night, and is very special. I didn’t want the same look for the dance scene, so I chose to keep it bright, cheerful, and constantly moving with the camera. Since we shot 360 degrees, it was just the actors and my incredible Steadicam operator Chad Persons dancing together, a beautiful choreographed trio!
AD: I heard that the montage scene was a challenge to shoot. What made it especially difficult?
Montage is French for overtime or something, right? We had a lot of trouble with the montage because we had an incredibly tight shooting schedule of just 21 days or something, and there were, I don’t know, a hundred shots to the montage, so we would shoot them whenever and wherever possible! For example, the tattoo sequence was shot with no rehearsals. We were running out of daylight and it was either “now or never” so I shot that scene vérité with no rehearsal, as well as sneaking into the airplane, torture, etc. In fact, I would say most of the montage sequences I shot vérité without rehearsals since we were improvising so much and we had no time.
AD: As you mentioned, there are dinosaurs in this film. Did you have to do anything differently knowing that you would be accommodating that digitally?
QT: There are dinosaurs in this film? LOL Yes, I left negative space in the frame for the dinosaurs. While we were scouting the campfire scene, we looked for a ridge of rocks that allowed for dinosaurs to walk behind them. I also shot super-wide landscapes in case the dinosaurs would appear in those shots as well, but also to show how small Sarah and Nyles were in their universe.
AD: I love the scene where Sarah throws a birthday party for Nyles, because her face looks so warm and happy there, warmer than it ever does at the wedding. What kind of lighting/shooting techniques were you going for there to really accentuate that moment?
QT: The color orange plays a very prominent role in their love story—we use it for the cave light, the color of the tent, the orange firelight from the campfire scene, and then finally in the birthday party for Nyles. When Nyles is at the bar and he finally recognizes that Sarah is the reason for his existence, I have an in camera light gag where all the lights go dim in the bar and the color on her face goes from a neutral white to a deep reddish orange. I also changed the frame rate to 60fps, enhancing the moment at which Nyles makes this discovery. By changing the color, I hoped that at the subconscious level we would see the glow of the campfire, the cave light, and know that in those moments that’s when Nyles and Sarah had their deepest connection.
AD: Everyone in the crew and cast has a different interpretation of the ending (or so I’ve heard from Cristin!). What do you think happens?
QT: I think that Sarah and Nyles have found their Irvine, which exists in an alternate universe, dinosaurs and all. It may not be what they had before, but at least they’re together, and that’s what matters.
Palm Springs is streaming on Hulu.