afew years ago, Max Barbakow found himself amid what felt like an endless Southern California wedding season. These circa-2015 nuptials all had traditional elements as well as of-the-moment millennial trappings like chalkboard signs, Mason jars, flower crowns and sometimes a photo booth thrown in for fun. “Every wedding started to feel the same,” says the filmmaker, who, at that time, had just graduated from AFI. Barbakow even acted as the videographer at a wedding, that of his classmate and now creative collaborator Andy Siara. Recalls Barbakow, “It was the happiest night of his life and I was privy to all that glory. And I just felt very far away from that. We were experiencing it at the opposite ends of the spectrum.” Later on, the experience sparked a thought: What sort of situation would cause a commitment-averse person to suffer an astronomical amount of existential dread? “Probably being stuck at Andy’s wedding for all of eternity as a hopelessly single person,” says Barbakow. That scenario became the basis for Palm Springs, which takes place at a wedding in the California desert where disaffected Nyles (Andy Samberg) and reluctant maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti) inexplicably get stuck in a time loop, leaving them to carpe the same diem over and over again. Contending with a tiny budget and a brief three-week shooting schedule, Palm Springs— which THR’s review called a “laugh-filled heartwarmer” built on themes of “pointlessness, isolation and the guarantee that no one will ever understand your plight” — went on to become a record-breaking Sundance acquisition and a darkhorse awards contender.
BACK WHEN THEY WERE recent film-school graduates, Barbakow and Siara wanted to try their hand at feature filmmaking — in the vein of a Duplass brothers film — with an eye toward something that would be self-contained and easily funded. With this goal in mind, they headed out to the California desert for what Siara describes as a “lost weekend,” but with “no hard drugs and just a lot mai tais.” They exited the excursion with headaches and the germ of the idea that would become Palm Springs. After three years of refining and rewriting — and what Siara estimates as hundreds of trashed drafts — the script landed in front of Samberg. “I often get sent stuff and think, ‘This is really good, but I don’t know that I would make it better.’ I often respond to people, ‘No, no! You want a Hemsworth for this,’ ” says Samberg. Palm Springs was different: “I thought I could do it justice,” says the actor. Barbakow, for his part, thought his film’s lead male role could offer Samberg what Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love had done for Adam Sandler. “[It’s] taking a generational comedic talent and zagging on that persona and doing a performance that is a little more driven by sadness,” says Barbakow. But Palm Springs — a time-loop movie that blends science fiction with a traditional romantic comedy centered on two millennial nihilists — would not be an easy sell to studios that look for genre-hewing material that is easily marketable. Palm Springs — directed by Barbakow and written by Siara — is inspired by everything from Inside LlewynDavis and Anomalisa to Ace Ventura and Jurassic Park— and, of course, GroundhogDay. “We would laugh because it is not that it cannot be defined by a genre. It just has so many,” says producer Becky Sloviter, who at the time was running Party Over Here, the production shingle from Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone (the comedy trio is also known as The Lonely Island). The filmmakers did not want to blunt the script’s inherent strangeness, and worried that execs would try to jam Palm Springs into a traditional commercial mold. “You can almost hear the terrible development notes from studios,” jokes Sloviter. “I had come up [and] worked in the studio world. I have a ton of love for that, but for this movie, I wanted to be protective of it. We had a small bull’s-eye to hit.” And while skipping studio partners allowed them to maintain their creative freedom and preserve what many of the cast and crew describe as a “creative cocoon,” it did present its own challenges — namely, money. A studio feature had just fallen through for cinematographer Quyen Tran when she was sent the script for Palm Springs. She called her agent and asked, “What’s the budget?” The answer, recalls Tran, was, “ ‘Oh, you know, it’s really small.’ And I was like, ‘So it’s not $40 million, because it should be.’ ” The budget instead landed around the $5 million mark. Chris Parker and Dylan Sellers’ Limelight funded Palm Springs, the first project for the fledgling financing outfit. In late 2018, the production also received a California Film Commission tax credit. “I remember Andy [Samberg] and I squealing with delight and envisioning shooting the movie in Palm Springs over a couple of months,” says Sloviter, who notes that reality came crashing down rather fast. “I had a budget and I had a script, and they were not matching up.” Instead of shooting in the actual Palm Springs, with its old Hollywood history, golf courses and midcentury glamour, the production landed in early 2019 in northeast Los Angeles County, shooting most scenes on the outskirts of the exurban centers of Santa Clarita and Palmdale. With three weeks of prep before their 22-day shooting schedule, Barbakow spent most days in weekly digital shorts, Samberg felt prepared for the breakneck shooting schedule. For Milioti, the idea of nailing emotional monologues made up of pages’ worth of dialogue in only two takes was “terrifying as an actor.” But, she adds, “An amazing aspect of that is that it teaches you to go for broke. There is no warming up.” Like their onscreen counterparts, the cast of Palm Springs was required to do the same actions ad nauseam so that enough coverage was captured, which would later be stitched together in editing to make a believable time loop. On the first day of filming, Milioti acted out every time she is seen waking up in the movie, which translated to four straight hours of shooting a close-up as she opened her eyes dozens upon dozens of times — all before breaking for lunch. Along with Samberg and Milioti, the movie is made up of an ensemble that includes veterans J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher and June Squibb, and a stable of young comedic talents like Meredith Hagner, Chris Pang and Conner O’Malley. In a feat of scheduling gone right, they were all present for the film’s wedding scenes, which all had to shoot over a four-day period. Says Sloviter, “I had no stomach lining thinking about how much we had to get.” The guests all accounted for, it fell on the art departments to create a quintessential, contemporary desert wedding that is described in the script as “a Pinterest board come to life.” “I know these people,” says costume designer Colin Wilkes of the film’s all-too-perfect bride, groom and wedding party. While they were lampooning some tropes of a late-2010s ceremony, the filmmakers also wanted to make sure that their wedding did not cross over into parody. Says Wilkes, “We wanted it to feel true.”