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How the ‘Palm Springs’ Team Found a New Wrinkle in the Time-Loop Movie

When it comes to the subgenre, it’s impossible not to think of ‘Groundhog Day.’ But director Max Barbakow, writer Andy Siara, and the Lonely Island had a vision, and followed it all the way to a record-breaking debut at Sundance.

Hulu/Ringer illustration

On the happiest day of his best friend’s life, Max Barbakow felt extremely lonely. Near the end of a long wedding season in 2015, the young filmmaker was in the throes of what he remembers as a “toxic relationship,” insecure and discontent. “I was in a moment that I think some people have experienced in their mid-to-late 20s where you’re just trying to figure out what kind of person you want to be, through relationships and through yourself,” Barbakow says.

Since graduating from the American Film Institute, Barbakow had been mulling over a loose idea for a feature with his creative partner Andy Siara, a comedy about a young man stuck in a rut, afraid of intimacy and commitment. And as Barbakow found himself in a similar cycle, observing yet another buddy cut wedding cake and experience the “profound nature of love,” the bones for a time loop movie suddenly became obvious to him. “What if someone who felt so deficient in his own love life was stuck at the best day of somebody else’s life forever?” Barbakow thought. Over the next five years, Barbakow and Siara completed a feature-length script and teamed up with Andy Samberg’s The Lonely Island; soon they were sitting in the back of a sold-out Library Theater in Park City, Utah, watching their circular story turn into a Sundance hit.

Available to stream on Hulu on Friday, Palm Springs tells the story of Nyles (Andy Samberg), a carefree bridesmaid’s boyfriend, and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), a cynical maid of honor, who get trapped repeating the same day at a wedding. Like the best time loop movies, it embraces the comic absurdity and philosophically ripe nature of their caged situation. Unlike most of its predecessors, however, the movie puts a sci-fi spin on the subgenre, dropping multiple characters into the same loop. The movie’s winning combination of humor, honesty, and chemistry made it the talk of the film festival, and the night after Palm Springs’ premiere, Hulu and Neon Films purchased the film for the largest sum in Sundance history.

“It was very unexpected,” Samberg says. “It turned into the story you hear about, where we went out to dinner and then quickly were told to stop drinking—you’re going to be up all night negotiating because we have offers coming in … I think we got an hour or two of sleep and went to bed at 5 or 6 in the morning.”

The record deal affirmed Barbakow’s directorial vision and Siara’s script; it also proved once again that the time loop movie—established in the mainstream by Groundhog Day and since repeated numerous times—remains a timeless and enticing subgenre. “There’s a reason this concept is evergreen,” says Becky Sloviter, producer and head of Lonely Island’s production company, Party Over Here. “We all wonder what it might be like if we [made] different choices.”

For filmmakers like Barbakow and Siara, though, crafting a time loop movie can be a challenging and painstaking endeavor. Implementing the structural device requires constant check-ins and communication, but above all, it demands strict attention to detail. In the case of Palm Springs and its creators, building and executing a time loop movie quickly became a repetitive—and therapeutic—experience.

When Barbakow and Siara committed to a time loop story, they knew Groundhog Day would serve as both a foundation and a point of comparison. The 1993 classic has long been considered a storytelling masterclass, with a tone that toggles from comedy to philosophy to romance, becoming a lighthearted and thoughtful morality play in wintry Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. For Palm Springs to use a similar structure, it would need a distinct narrative angle. After tinkering on a script with Barbakow from 2015 to 2017, Siara decided their movie should open with Nyles already inside a time loop, months into living the same day for the rest of his life. In this way, it became “a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist,” Siara says, one that skips over the main character’s origin story and previous attempts to live morally. “Audiences have already seen that movie before.” Dropping Sarah into the time loop with Nyles to navigate surreal existence together was another new wrinkle that seemed like the next logical step. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s add Sarah because that separates it [from Groundhog Day],’” Siara says. “It was more that the movie, the story, needed Sarah.”

Siara describes his initial script as “a weird Jungian journey” that captured the spirit of two Southern California natives approaching 30 and figuring out what was important to them. “There was never a proper road map to the movie,” he says. “The story was born out of these conversations just trying to entertain each other in a way, and then I’d take that and go write.” Because a time loop movie can feel like a collection of short films, often separated by diverse death scenes, Siara found clever ways to insert both war film tropes and more romantic, open conversations about mortality, nodding to movies as varied as Saving Private Ryan and Before Sunrise. “It’s all over the place,” Siara says. “We wear our influences on our sleeve.”


After the script reached Samberg’s inbox in April 2018, he and Sloviter set up a meeting with Barbakow and Siara; Samberg quickly agreed to star in and produce the movie. “When we took the script on, in my mind it was Groundhog Day, and then way later, Edge of Tomorrow—those are two of my favorite movies ever made,” Samberg says. “It’s kind of squishing them together.” He connected with the Nyles character and sensed the young filmmakers’ honesty and ingenuity. “It was just a really great vibe and collaborative spirit from the very beginning,” Sloviter says. “Throughout the entire process of putting this movie together, what it came back to every single time was how much everyone loved that script.”

Subsidized by a slightly bigger budget, Barbakow and Siara began rewriting, expanding the movie’s final act by adding a third distinctive character to the time loop and enhancing its sci-fi elements. Samberg also suggested focusing more on Sarah’s arc, to make it, in his words, “feel a little bigger and broader, without sacrificing what was cool and kind of stylistic and existential about it.” Barbakow felt confident Samberg could pull off something akin to Adam Sandler’s role in Punch Drunk Love or Jim Carrey’s dramatic turn in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “They’re zagging on their personas and what they’re known for and there’s a little more pathos and sadness and brokenness inside,” Barbakow says. “I think [Samberg] read it and saw the same thing.”

Andy Siara and Andy Samberg on the set of Palm Springs.
Hulu

In the long shadow of Groundhog Day, not many time loop movies had been made by the time Siara started writing. But the subgenre quickly came back into vogue during Palm Springs’ production. In 2017, Before I Fall starred Zoey Deutch as a teenager reawakening multiple times from a fatal car crash; later that year, Happy Death Day (and its similarly structured sequel) put a slasher twist on the same-day mold; then, at the start of 2019, two months before Palm Springs was scheduled to start shooting, Leslye Headland debuted her eight-part Netflix series Russian Doll, a cyclical story starring Natasha Lyonne as a video game architect who gets trapped into repeating her 36th birthday party. The series earned immense critical acclaim; it also employed a similar tactic to Palm Springs by placing two people into its time loop.

“It kind of caught us off guard,” Samberg admits.

Though production was moving forward, the subgenre’s sudden reemergence into the pop-cultural conscience made Samberg hesitant. “Over the course of it, especially when Russian Doll came out … I definitely had a lot of real talks with [producer] Akiva [Schaffer] and Becky and other people about whether or not we should cut bait,” Samberg says. Sloviter admits she also had pause about Palm Springs potentially getting lost in the shuffle. But when she considered the success of her company’s comedy series Pen15, released around the same time as the middle-school-set series Big Mouth and the coming-of-age drama Eighth Grade, she regained her confidence. “That was my guiding light whenever time loop issues would come up,” Sloviter says. Samberg agreed, resolving to put his faith in the strength of the script. “It kind of just stuck with everybody,” he says. “We all kept thinking about the script and just liking it and wanting to see it get made. We already had traction on it … and it just felt like it had its own gravity.”

To round out their two-hander, Barbakow and Siara cast Milioti to play Sarah after an impressive three-hour meeting. “We talked about everything under the sun and I left there feeling like, ‘Wow, what a great group of people,’” Milioti says. “A couple days later they sent me the script and asked what I thought, and I loved it … I got a call out of the blue that they wanted me to do it and I jumped.” The filmmakers had admired Milioti’s work in Black Mirror and Fargo, and felt her immediate chemistry with Samberg could anchor a role that required plenty of versatility. “She never does the same thing twice,” Barbakow says. “I remember the first time we read through the script for the scenes they had together, Andy [Siara] and I just sat there looking at each other like, ‘This is going to work. This is electric.’”

Before he started filming Happy Death Day, director Christopher Landon cast aside his notebooks and began marking up white boards. As a way to keep his story—about a college girl repeatedly terrorized by a masked killer—straight and organized, he drew up columns for each of his numerous time loops and tracked the precise, daily actions of his protagonist. “I wanted to make sure that each subsequent day reflected her attitude in waking up,” Landon says. “That was what really defined the structure of the movie … because she’s evolving with each [wake-up].” Headland applied a similar system for Russian Doll, using big walls to map out the story over multiple episodes and labeling each time loop with different letters.

For Palm Springs, Barbakow and Siara relied primarily on the meticulousness of their script. Because the movie had budgeted only three weeks of shooting, each day needed to be a full team effort. The condensed schedule meant filming out of order and doubling down on the movie’s repetitive scenes and locations, starting in the bedroom of the hotel where the wedding is set. Barbakow remembers his first day of shooting was devoted to “macro eyeball shots,” capturing each variation of Nyles and Sarah waking up. That required Samberg and Milioti to open their eyes successively in different moods to account for the beginning of each time loop. To stay focused, Milioti kept extensive notes. “I had a script right next to me and I was very communicative with Max,” she says. “This has just happened, this is what she knows, this is what she doesn’t know, this is what literally just happened, this is how she just died—really trying to keep track of all that stuff.”

“It is very much like an acting exercise, but you also are trying to not let it get reduced to painting by numbers,” Samberg says. “You want to find your way to the performance that feels like you’re feeling something even though you’re doing a lot of repetition.”

Because of the repetitive nature of these shooting blocks, Barbakow didn’t require many lighting changes or pauses for new setups. That made continuity a little easier to manage, especially when filming the outdoor wedding reception scenes, which feature lots of alcohol, lots of dancing, and lots of speeches. According to Landon, the biggest challenge for a filmmaker is to “establish the repetition but avoid tedium that will bore the audience.” To follow that maxim, Barbakow intricately designed and shot-listed everything in advance. “Even though you’re seeing similar moments, you’re seeing them from different perspectives, and there was a difference in camera height and the angle and lens,” Barbakow says.

Max Barbakow directs Samberg and Milioti.
Hulu

“Max knew exactly what he wanted,” says Meredith Hagner, who plays Nyles’s wedding date, “which made the unique circumstances of a time loop movie really easy to navigate as an actor.”

In one early sequence, before Sarah is sucked into Nyles’s loop, he impresses her with a perfectly choreographed dance weaving between wedding guests, the result of having memorized everyone’s exact positions after so long. The scene, which needed a few rehearsals, pays homage to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and allowed Barbakow to flex his filmmaking muscles while still developing the plot. “They almost feel like games between actors,” Barbakow says of those scenes, like when Nyles pops the same morning beer can to get him through each day’s monotony.

“Yeah, I definitely had a little bit of a blister on my pointer finger,” Samberg jokes.

Once all the repetitive scenes had been shot, Barbakow could focus solely on the romantic arc between Nyles and Sarah, who become closer—and closer to breaking down—as Palm Springs progresses. At that point, the shoot started to feel like a regular movie again. The evolution of the characters’ relationship allows for some hilarious set pieces and improvisation, as well as leading to some deeper conversations between Nyles and Sarah on their past lives and hopes for escaping their situation. “We go through some really heavy stuff together in this film and he was there every step of the way, really showcasing how deep he can go,” Milioti says of her screen partner.

Nailing the delicate balance between comedy and drama in Palm Springs proved to be the biggest challenge in the editing room. “Talk about living the same day over and over again,” Barbakow says of dissecting all the repetitive footage. He and Samberg, working with editor Matt Friedman, sifted through the multitude of shots, scrolling between different tonal openings to the movie and the plethora of wake-ups available to them. “Editing is entirely about collaboration,” Friedman says. “If Andy and Max have one take on the character and I have a slightly different one, and if I’m cutting it with a different intention, the performance isn’t going to be sharp.”

Friedman made pacing a priority, which meant Barbakow learned a hard lesson in cutting extraneous story lines to fit a tight 90 minutes. “It was just trimming fat and finding a rhythm and really just making it a piece of music that sings,” Barbakow says. Unlike Groundhog Day, which follows the same sequence of events throughout the movie, Palm Springs has a looser narrative structure, allowing Friedman to play around with flashbacks and abrupt restarts to suggest a handful of loops at once. One montage in particular crams numerous wedding receptions, day trips, and songs into a few minutes, an ambitious sequence that tested well for early audiences. “When there’s three of you together trying to figure shit out like that, you get the courage to try some things that you might otherwise not,” Friedman says. “We did, and people laughed all the way through it.”

“One of the benefits of so many things repeating is we were able to poach shots from different scenes and bridge gaps with them,” Samberg says. “It’s really where you take something from being a good idea to something that’s actually worth watching.”

Barbakow and Siara had low expectations entering Sundance, but the theaters were packed for each screening, the buzz on Main Street was positive, and by the end of the festival the team had inked a record deal for $17,500,00.69 (the extra cents were Schaffer’s idea, Barbakow says with a laugh). “We definitely could never have imagined this,” says Siara, who celebrated by following the lead of his protagonist in the midst of unbelievable circumstances. “You kind of shrug, take a sip of beer, and go with it.”

Now, though, five months after Palm Springs became the toast of Park City, its cyclical themes have seeped into reality. The global pandemic and quarantine orders have made many feel trapped in their own time loop, each day slowly blending into the next. “I think especially in this moment right now we can all really relate,” Hagner says. “It does bring up all these questions: What about my life is the thing that makes me the most human? What gives my life meaning?”

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in Palm Springs.
Hulu

While this current shared experience might enhance the movie’s messaging, time loop stories have always prompted these kinds of inward journeys. At their most fundamental, they highlight the negative habits that accumulate throughout our lives, and the challenge of breaking from their repetitive nature. They reexamine the banalities of daily routines with the philosophical weight of fate and free will. “It’s a very enduring concept because it speaks to people in so many ways,” Landon says. “It’s easy to sort of get lost in the day-to-day business of life, but if you’re stuck in the same day, you’re constantly being forced to look in the mirror.” Almost by necessity, time loop movies also convey the value of human connection, and the selflessness attached in achieving it. “There’s a certain fantasy, wish-fulfillment element to the idea of being forced to take the time to better yourself and improve your relationships,” says Samberg. “[To] learn how to forgive yourself enough to let another person love you, and for you to love them.”

The structure of a time loop in particular offers an entertaining and subversive way to smuggle these profound concepts into a familiar story. That’s especially true in Palm Springs, which embraces messy and complicated characters struggling to come to terms with themselves. When writing the screenplay, Siara specifically liked the idea of Nyles settling into the no-consequence nature of his repetitive life, becoming content in stasis. Siara understood that tendency, especially on the verge of his own wedding, which marked a seismic break in his own life’s loop. “It’s a terrifying thing to take that plunge, to take a leap, make a change in your life, be it having a baby, buying a house, or [going] to school, or [getting] married,” he says.

That Palm Springs takes place on a wedding day, in the “cosmic emptiness of the desert,” as Siara notes, only encourages his characters’ deeper introspection. Aside from being an ideal backdrop for heightened comedy and drama, it casts the concepts of love and commitment into further relief. “There’s something about seeing love on display,” Siara says. “If you can get family and friends together to just enjoy the beauty of life for a brief moment, there’s something magical about that.”

It’s a moment that Barbakow hopes he’ll eventually experience firsthand after proposing to his girlfriend three months ago. The engagement—and the movie’s five-year journey—has made him appreciate that 2015 wedding season he once found so banal. What started as “an intense period of self-reflection and vulnerability” eventually became an unlikely source of creative and personal fulfillment. “The writing of it really helped me work through those insecurities. It was really invigorating to see as more people experienced the movie and connected with it on a human level,” Barbakow says, taking a beat. “These feelings are universal.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

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