How the Lonely Island Came Aboard Palm Springs and Pushed for It to Be Nerdier

Writer Andy Siara on set with Samberg. (Photo: Christopher Willard/Hulu)
Writer Andy Siara on set with Samberg. (Photo: Christopher Willard/Hulu)

The story of how the new sci-fi romantic comedy Palm Springs came to be is fairly typical… until it isn’t. Filmmakers Max Barbakow and Andy Siara met at the American Film Institute, became friends, made a few shorts, and decided to attempt a feature. That’s the typical part. Their script then got noticed by none other than modern comic icons the Lonely Island and the resulting feature was purchased by U.S. streaming service Hulu for about $US17.5 ($25) million. That’s less typical, to say the least.

“They’re the Lonely Island,” director Max Barbakow told Gizmodo over the phone. “They just made [the film] way funnier and brought a new perspective to it.” Added Siara, who wrote the film, “The movie would not exist or would not be anywhere what it is without them.”

It’s probably safe to say the Lonely Island (the comedy team made up of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, responsible for SNL shorts like “Lazy Sunday,” “Dick in a Box,” and the films Hot Rod and PopStar, just to start) never would have heard of Palm Springs if not for the time Barbakow and Siara put into it, which started back in 2015. That’s when the pair went to the actual Palm Springs to spend a few days relaxing and talking about what their first feature film could be. At this time, they had literally no idea they were, basically, about to live their first movie.

Barbakow with co-star J.K. Simmons. (Photo: Christopher Willard/Hulu)

“It was out of that weekend that we settled on the seed of this character, Nyles, who was born out of this conversation between Max and myself talking about our deepest shame and hope and love and fears in our lives,” Siara said. “Then we knew we wanted to set it in Palm Springs, so it organically evolved from that point into what it eventually became a wedding time-loop romcom. But initially, when we first started talking about it, it was none of those things. It was a lost character who found himself in the desert.”

“Andy [also] got married in Palm Springs and it is very much inspired by my experience as a very, very lonely kind of lovelorn person at his wedding,” Barbakow added.

And so for the next four years, Barbakow and Siara would talk about their weird movie set in Palm Springs and Siara would write when he wasn’t writing on the AMC show Lodge 49. Along the way, the pair realised if they were doing a time loop movie, it had to stand out from other movies in the popular genre.

“Once we settled on should we do a time-loop thing my thought process was ‘OK, in Groundhog Day, he figures it out and is gifted the next day. What if we have a character who has been through everything that character went through it, figures out what he thinks the meaning of life is, and then you’re still stuck there?’” Siara explained.

“I look at it is as it’s essentially a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist,” he added. “There could be a ‘Palm Springs One’ where it’s Nyles getting stuck but we don’t need to do that movie because I think audiences are smart.”

Armed with their script, Barbakow and Siara worked their way through the Hollywood battleground. They got a manager. The manager got them an agent, and that agent happened to have an idea.

“[We got] this agent, Houston Costa, at UTA who tossed it up the flagpole and got it to The Lonely Island agents who shared it with those guys,” Siara said. “Andy read it, it struck him and he brought me and Max in to meet.” After just one meeting, the Lonely Island decided they wanted to be a part of the film with Samberg playing the lead.

“It was amazing getting to tailor it for Andy,” Barbakow said. “From the get-go, [we all saw the movie] as not your traditional broad, Lonely Island comedy, but something that kind of functions more on pathos and sadness and hits a more solemn chord. And Andy was game to try something a little new.”

According to the pair, the Lonely Island also helped make the film funnier, focused the third act, and pushed them to make the movie even nerdier, as well.

Samberg behind the scenes. (Photo: Christopher Willard/Hulu)

“When the Lonely Island guys came on, they actually encouraged me to dig more into the science of it all,” Siara said. “I got deep into string theory and watching plenty of YouTube videos and discovering some favourites about the Cauchy horizon and talking to physicists. So, you know, if this could happen I tried to at least rationalise or explain a way for it to happen and to explain a way out of it.”

What happened next for Palm Springs is even more unbelievable than an infinite time-loop. The film premiered at Sundance in early 2020, was picked up by Hulu for the most money ever paid for a Sundance film (by 69 cents ($0.99)) and is now coming out in a time where, like the characters in the movie, most of us are forced to endure the same day over and over again.

“I would have loved to play in theatres but that’s not gonna be possible,” Barbakow said. “I’m thankful that we have a movie to put out right now and I also understand there is more dire and serious stuff going on in the world with racial injustice and police brutality and covid as well. So I’m happy we’re gonna be able to get it out there and get people maybe an opportunity to laugh if they feel like doing that.”

Palm Springs is now streaming on Hulu in the U.S. It does not currently have an Australian release date.