Loopy Magic

Andy Siara, writer of time-loop rom-com Palm Springs, talks to Ella Kemp about having one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave, and the expansive magic of being a ‘desert person’.

Even if I don’t believe in magic, there’s somehow a magical solitude that comes in the desert.” —⁠Andy Siara

If you could re-live a perfect day again and again, would you do it? Would you be alone, or would it be better if your favorite person in the world was with you? Would the endless company, repetitive and increasingly claustrophobic, make you snap?

There’s a reason that time-loop movies tend to favor loners: watch as the hapless hero has to figure out the meaning of life! Harold Ramis’ 1993 comedy Groundhog Day is the gold standard for the device—Bill Murray trapped in a bizarre national holiday that’s become a universal adjective (which feels especially apt now). But Palm Springs, the new film from The Lonely Island comedy team, finds a way to dismantle the genre, play around with the ingredients, and cook up something entirely new.

There is still a time loop, we’re all still stuck, but here’s the thing: we’re stuck with two people now. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are wedding guests Nyles and Sarah—he, someone’s random boyfriend people pretend to know; she, the reluctant maid of honor and sister of the bride. Through one freak twist of fate involving a cave, they end up reliving the same wedding day, taking advantage of the daily ‘reset’ to throw as much life at the wall as they can, while probing every possible escape route.

It’s a first for the genre, and a first film for the writer-director team (Samberg produces the film alongside his Lonely Island brothers Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, who have years of glorious Saturday Night Live sketches and comedy specials under their belts). Director Max Barbakow cut his teeth making short films for the past decade—just like his closest collaborator, debut feature screenwriter Andy Siara.

Barbakow and Siara developed the story together over five years, and then Siara turned it into the fast-paced, razor-sharp, at once feather-light and often deeply moving script that became Palm Springs.

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in Palm Springs.
Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in Palm Springs.

A quick scan of Letterboxd activity finds plenty of fans already. Jacob recognizes the paradoxical brilliance of the film, calling it a “high-concept rom-com that wears its influences on its sleeve”, while still praising how it’s “so smart moment to moment that it absolutely feels like its own original story”. What makes this so special, so fresh—a movie about one day on repeat, released during, you know, a global pandemic, that neat event that makes so many homebound days blur into one—is just how much heart it has. “The little moments, the little cues, the timing,” Neema Sadeghi points out. “Everything felt so right and my heart was so so warmed.”

The following interview contains discussion of plot points and soundtrack choices, and has been edited for clarity.

Could you tell me about your relationship with Groundhog Day, before and after writing Palm Springs?
Andy Siara: Before and after, I still consider it one of the greatest, if not the greatest comedy of all time. Doing a time-loop thing in this movie was never initially the idea, five years ago when Max and I first started talking about it. It organically evolved to that point. What was helpful to me was thinking about how at the end of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character figures out the meaning of life, to a point, and it ends with the time loop breaking. In our film, Nyles figures out whatever he thinks the meaning of life is, and at the end, nope, the time loop doesn’t break, you’re still stuck here for eternity. So then what do you do? That became the jumping off point. Palm Springs is potentially a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist, and that helped free myself of repeating too much of what the time-loop genre, and especially Groundhog Day, has done so well.

If the time loop wasn’t the starting point, what was?
Nyles. Max and I knew we wanted to do a tiny-budget movie in Palm Springs. We didn’t know what that was, but the first idea was of this character of Nyles. We never outlined anything, so we let the character lead the way. In doing that, I got a full grasp of who he is on a deep level and everything else built from there. We never once were like, “This is a wedding time-loop rom-com about two lost souls!” Max and I joked that the earlier version of this was our version of Leaving Las Vegas. The story grew from Nyles, thinking: ‘What is the best way to deeply challenge this flawed character?’ And that’s where we came up with Sarah, who became even more fully realized. And the best way to challenge her was Nyles. Putting those two characters together and seeing the friction it causes, the story grew around that.

Their dynamic, and the film more broadly, feels very philosophical. I’m thinking of a line like “Your best bet is to learn to suffer existence”. When you were writing, were there any conscious thinkers you wanted to incorporate?
Max and I talked a lot about Albert Camus, and Jorge Luis Borges… but when I got to actually writing, Max gave me his copy of Be Here Now by Ram Dass. His copy, when he gave it to me, had over 100 Post-it notes. We’d talked in abstract ways in a philosophical sense, about individuation and what not. But every day before writing I’d take Be Here Now and open up at any page, read a page to kickstart the day. I think even that idea of suffering existence, that might actually be in Be Here Now

Quyen Tran (operating camera) and director Max Barbakow (right) on the set of Palm Springs.
Quyen Tran (operating camera) and director Max Barbakow (right) on the set of Palm Springs.

It felt so refreshing to see these characters delivering such epic lines seriously, but the film never becomes somber or dramatic. It stays light. Comedy is balanced with sincere emotion so well—especially when it comes to romance. In a scene outside the cave, when Nyles is giving his big speech, he says, “I’d rather die with you than live in this world without you.” Reading this out of context, it could be from an epic romance. How did you manage to marry the wit with such big feelings?
That is one of the lines that, read out of context, could feel heavy-handed, so I appreciate that! From the get-go, it was important to set the tone of this movie, that we will never take ourselves too seriously. Max and I would joke about having one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave, being able to go from slapstick to serious was always an important tonal shift for us. There’s a silliness to the movie, and so therefore with those lines, my hope is that even in reading the script, by the time you get to a line like that, you as a reader would know what Nyles is like in your mind. Also, I credit Andy Samberg for knowing how to deliver lines like that without them feeling cheesy. When we first met Andy and the Lonely Island guys, he understood this character, by the end better than I did. The character was just words on a page, a figure that existed in my mind. He created this character.

What did you learn from working with the Lonely Island guys, in terms of taking inspiration from their comedy experience while creating something brand new?
By the time it got to them, the script was finished to a point that I was happy with. But Max and I didn’t know that much! So those three guys, and Becky Sloviter who was the producer for them, they know so much more than we did. We were able to not only on the practical side make people want to make this movie, but also on the other side, I’d say primarily in third-act stuff, they helped me dig deeper, and find a satisfying conclusion to the movie where the earlier version of the script just wasn’t as satisfying—you still got to the point, but we were able to mess with the mechanics a little bit more. And they got me to dig deeper on the science part too, where I let this journey into the subconscious via a Jungian, individuation approach maybe take hold a little too much!

I’m not very familiar with Palm Springs as a place. What was the appeal to build everything around this specific location?
Both Max and I grew up in Southern California, and since the late 1980s I’ve been going to Palm Springs every year—my aunt had a condo out there. The place is a primarily LA retreat, with golf courses and retirement communities. Over the years, it’s just become a place for a lot of weddings to happen. So there’s that side, my own personal history of having seen the change and having gone there so many times over the past 34 years. I remember camping trips to Joshua Tree [National Park]—and I also got married in Palm Springs and went out to countless friends’ weddings there. But then also, I think there are mountain people, desert people, city people. I think I’m a desert person. There’s this mass openness that I find has a magical quality to it. Even if I don’t believe in magic, there’s somehow a magical solitude that comes in the desert. And there’s all sorts of literature, even going into pseudo-science, that is centered around the desert. Specifically the one surrounding Palm Springs.

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in Palm Springs.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in Palm Springs.

It feels like a blank canvas on which anything can happen—and if anything, having more space can make you more anxious about being trapped there.
I agree. And I had written two Gram Parsons songs into the script, and he was also drawn to the desert in the 1970s, [the] Joshua Tree area. He wrote a lot there with Keith Richards. There’s some kind of draw to the desert that I don’t totally understand to be honest, it’s on a deeper subconscious level that it strikes that chord for me.

Speaking of the music, the film has so many satisfying needle drops. I’m thinking of Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Partisan’ and then Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’ in that amazing final scene. Were these written in from the start?
A lot of songs were written in from the start that didn’t make it in for various reasons. ‘Cloudbusting’ came up in our first or second meeting with Andy—it was his idea and we were like, that’s perfect! Andy and Max [and I] all wanted to make sure Palm Springs didn’t use songs we had seen a million times in other movies. It was so important to us. And then we also wanted songs that spoke to a more magical quality too. I think the Leonard Cohen one was Cristin’s idea, so it was a very collaborative field, but we all knew what kind of stuff we wanted. It was about thinking, let’s try and find a sonic happy place.

What film first made you want to be a filmmaker?
Jurassic Park is my number one. It made me want to do everything.

Palm Springs’ is streaming on Hulu from July 10 and screening at select drive-ins. With thanks to NEON.

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