‘Palm Springs’ Interview: Screenwriter Andy Siara Breaks Down The Influences On His Timeloop Comedy

“Here you are, standing on the precipice of something so much bigger than anyone here. But always remember, you are not alone,” Andy Samberg’s Nyles tells a crowd of wedding guests in the new film Palm SpringsThe quote seems a little on the nose for a time-loop rom-com released during current political events. With COVID-19, quarantine, Black Lives Matter, and plenty of other social movements reaching their respective heads this summer, it truly feels like we are at the beginning of something so much bigger than our current existence. Though these times are difficult, I am reminded, time and time again, mainly through TikTok videos and social media, that we are not going through this alone.

All this being said, Andy Siara, the writer who wrote that quote, along with every other word in the Palm Springs’ script, didn’t plan for his film to be released in Quarantine and couldn’t anticipate how his words would hit differently during this time. Like us, Samberg’s Nyles has been reliving the same day over and over again, only he has been sucked into an actual time loop, reliving the same day over and over again. Far past trying to fix it, the commitment-phobe, carefree guy, just trying to attend a wedding in Palm Springs, has embraced his situation to the point of happily not caring anymore. This changes when Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the bride’s sister, gets sucked in the loop along with him, giving Nyles’ world meaning again.

The script is funny and deep, full of millennial humor and insecurity. Behind all that, is a writer with immense talent and not a lot of credits…yet. Siara graduated from the American Film Institute (AFI) in 2015, where he met the film’s director Max Barbakow and where the idea for the film started to form. After graduation, the two tried to get the film made, while Siara worked on the short-lived AMC show, Lodge 49, which has since developed a cult following. Eventually, The Lonely Island, which Samberg is apart of, became involved and the movie was greenlit, premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, selling for $17.5 million and 69 cents, the highest-selling film in the festival’s history. In February, it was announced that he would be teaming up with Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail on the dark comedy series The Resort. Clearly, if Siara puts the same dedication, thought, and research into his future endeavors that he put into Palm Springs, then he personally might be at the precipice of something bigger. And yes, he is very aware of the people

I chatted with Siara over the phone to discuss those people and the script in-depth, looking at its origins, inspirations, and the evolution of one of the tightest scripts of the year.

It’s really wonderful to watch something that’s not only fun and enjoyable, but clearly a lot of effort was put into it. I know the very early script for Palm Springs, sort of came about when you were studying at AFI, where you met the eventual its eventual director, Max Barbakow. Can you tell me a little bit about where the idea came from and then how Max got involved?

Max and I met on the very first day at AFI and we bonded over the bands, Pavement and The Replacements, and our love a certain tonal balance. I think Eastbound & Down had just wrapped up their final season, and that tonal balance, especially that final season where you can go from moments of guttural laughter to guttural tears. Those guys have like mastered that tonal balance, I think. So Max and I made a couple of shorts together at AFI and then when we finished in June of 2015, we were like ‘Let’s do our first movie together. We don’t know what it is but let’s do something that is cheap and maybe we can find someone to help us make it, but at least we’ll make it for ourselves.” So we went out to Palm Springs and kind of a had our little lost weekend to try to figure out like what do we want to do? What is the story we want to tell? We left that weekend not really knowing exactly, but we did have the kernel of a character. And that character was Nyles that we kind of made modern-day nihilist adjacent, perhaps.

How apropos of his name then!

Oh yeah! (Laughs) Yeah, we lacked subtlety in some places.

I mean it works!

 I’m cool with certain things that are just so on the nose that they’re absurd and I think that’s one of them. So we knew we wanted it set in Palm Springs, make it for cheap, very cheap, and we knew what this character was. And then it was just through endless conversation that it naturally evolved into what it eventually became, which was this time loop, wedding movie that’s a love story at its core about these two very lonely commitment-phobe people navigating their situation. A lot of that was pulled from my own life. I got married in 2015, in the desert. I was also going to a ton of weddings at the time and I love a good wedding.

But a good wedding can be hard to come by.

(Laughs) I mean I’ve been to so many bad weddings too. I think the sign of a good wedding is when I actually don’t know the people, but if I can be brought to tears during their vows, that’s a special moment. Seeing love on display, it warms my heart. And then there’s also so many terrible weddings that you can just tell that these people will probably be together forever, but it’s not going to be happy. Whereas, some of the ones where I am brought to tears at the vows, I know that’s true, great love there. But, who knows that might only be for the next two years and then they get a divorce, but at least they have that moment. It’s a lot of those feelings that went into those conversations that Max and I had as we’re navigating our own shame and fear and hopes for our futures and whatnot. And from those conversations, I would take all that and just go start writing. We kind of found the story of it all through the writing. There was never like a roadmap and five years ago, we weren’t saying, “Let’s do our version of Groundhog Day.” We kind of stumbled upon that over after many false starts over two years, probably.

That actually leads really well to my next question. Besides Groundhog Day, what philosophical and cinematic influences did you draw from when writing the script and when filming?

On the movie front, Rachel Getting Married was a huge one. I personally love that movie so much. It kind of helped us solidify shooting a wedding because you have these moments where you have the highest of highs meeting the lowest of lows and weddings have the tendency to bring out demons. The Great Beauty was another one we would reference a lot. In the much bigger budget version of this movie….in our dreams, we wanted an opening dance scene that was as intense and in your face as that opening dance scene in The Great Beauty. Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind], was another staple of our “somewhat” youth. Raising Arizona, Inside Llewyn Davis, this kind of circuitous storytelling that Llewyn Davis had. While it’s not like a time loop movie, there is this sense of like you’re just kind of on a treadmill there. We looked to that. Patterson came out, that Jim Jarmusch movie, just as I had gone off to start writing this thing. I think we saw that together and that is, in a sense, a time-loop movie that is not a time-loop movie. Every day is just the same for Adam Driver’s character. On the film side, those are some big references. Once I started writing, Max had given me his copy of Be Here Now, the Ram Dass philosophical ramblings. (Laughs) Max had a hundred post-it notes all throughout it with little scribbles in there of just little Max ramblings. So I looked to that a lot. Every day before I would start writing, I open up to a random page and then read one of those. Read the page and then read Max’s a little post-it note. That was almost like an inspirational centering thing to do every day. I feel like Niles believes he might be Zen, he believes he might be enlightening, but as we see he’s not necessarily. So, it just helped taking some kind of philosophical ramblings like that, and then what I would do is try to undercut it in the script.

How did the Lonely island and Andy Samberg get involved in the project and what is the greatest thing they brought to the script?

I finished the script sometime in 2017 and at that point, it was just me and Max and we were like, “Ok, well does anyone want to help us make this?” We didn’t really know how to go about doing that. But then around that time, I got hooked up with a manager, Sam Warren at LBI, and he was like, “I love this, I know what to do with it.” And he passed it around and then eventually the agents for The Lonely Island got it. And Andy read it. I’m pretty sure the offer was to ask him to star in it and also produce. Andy then brought me and Max in. You know, we knew that it was like a first-time writer, first-time director situation-”

Were you writing on Lodge 49 at this point?

Yes, but I mean like on the feature side, I had nothing. I think I had just got bumped up to a staff writer in the second season of Lodge. So, it was right around that time, but especially on the first-time director side of it, I think that’s where it was more of a calculated risk. But I think Andy and Becky [Sloviter], one of our producers, and Akiva [Schaffer], saw that for Max and I – this was our baby. We poured our hearts and souls into this. I personally remember leaving that first meeting going, “I hope to God, they want to do this because Andy would be perfect.” Andy understood this character and what we were going for, maybe even better than I understood it. That’s where their 20 years of experience comes in. Because I think both me and Max learned so much from those guys about storytelling, about making a movie, every part of the process. The movie got exponentially better because of them. I don’t know, I don’t feel like the movie could have existed without Andy being Nyles. Cause he got the character on such a deep level, probably better than I even understood the character.

I want to travel through time with Andy Sandberg. I didn’t know that’s a thing I wanted, but here we are! There’s quite a bit of scientific thought that also went into the film, especially for its resolution. Tell me about the research that went into making the science seem legitimate because science in movies always seems to be stretched. Because though I have no scientific background, how you resolve everything doesn’t seem far off.

A couple of parts, but I’ll say, do we resolve everything? Do they get out of the loop? Does blowing up the cave actually work? So there’s that part. As for what Sara thinks might work, or what she convinces Nyles might work and what they actually try to do, was actually one of the last additions to the script. By that point, the script had already got to The Lonely Island. We were working with them and one of the big things that they kind of brought in in developing it a little further was to get Sarah to try to find a scientific way out of this. So I went on my own little – in my memory, it was one long, crazy night where I went down the YouTube spiral, but in reality, it was probably a couple of weeks of me really looking at it. It was a lot of YouTube videos on black holes and string theory. And then a lot of science papers, one in particular that I found that I liked was about the Cauchy horizon. Then I tried to cobble together a bunch of theories that like made sense to me, the guy who doesn’t really know that much, but hopefully make it believable enough. And then we did have some consultants on the movie just to make sure the science could kind of line up. It was more like, “if this cave and loop happened, then what could potentially be the way out of it?” rather than the question being, “Could this ever happen?” That was never it, it was more like, “we know that they are in a loop and that it’s caused by this cave.” That almost made it easier to come up with theories of how they could potentially get out. The physicist that Sarah is skyping with in the movie, I think he was actually one of our consultants. He’s a real scientist.

You can watch Palm Springs with your Hulu subscription or at your local drive-in.

A D.C area native, Cortland has been interested in media since birth. Taking film classes in high school and watching the classics with family instilled a love of film in Cortland’s formative years. Before graduating with a degree in English and minoring in Film Study from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Cortland ran the college’s radio station, where she frequently reviewed films on air. She then wrote for another D.C area publication before landing at Punch Drunk Critics. Aside from writing and interviewing, she enjoys podcasts, knitting, and talking about representation in media.