Editor’s note: The following story contains spoilers for “Palm Springs.”
Andy Samberg isn’t sure he was the first choice to lead rookie director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara’s brain-bending romantic comedy “Palm Springs,” but it’s hard to imagine another actor taking his place. He plays a daffy layabout drifting through life — who happens to be stuck in an infinite time loop — with the balance of nutty charm and physical comedy that wouldn’t be out of place on his “Saturday Night Live” days or even on his TV sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
After hatching the nascent idea behind “Palm Springs” while studying at the AFI Conservatory, Barbakow and Siara brought the script to Samberg, who said it had a unique way of “getting out in front of things, acknowledging that you’ve seen a time-loop movie before, and this one starts where those ones left off.”
Samberg also came on board as producer, suggesting “we add a little more fun and games,” specifically when Nyles and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), whom he meets at a Palm Springs wedding, find themselves both stuck in a time loop replaying the same day over and over, “Groundhog Day” style. “When the two of them start doing the loop together,” Samberg said, “not to sound like a producer about it, but that’s the trailer. That’s when I was having the most fun. And I was craving more.”
Samberg shares a joyous chemistry with Milioti, making for the kind of romantic comedy that could easily see becoming a generational touchstone. “Palm Springs” sold to Neon and Hulu for a record deal close to $22 million back at Sundance in January 2020. But life had other plans, with the pandemic shuttling the film exclusively to Hulu, save for a few drive-ins, in July.
But Samberg said that actually benefited the film becoming available in the midst of a complex home entertainment market informed by the shutdowns. “We had a more captive audience,” he said. He noted that Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island” had already gone straight to VOD, followed by the Disney+ success of “Hamilton” and Netflix’s Will Ferrell comedy “Eurovision.” When “Palm Springs” came out, “everyone was at home,” Samberg said. “It was the middle of the summer time, and it was normally when everybody would be going to see ‘Wonder Woman’ and stuff, and they couldn’t.”
While “Palm Springs” isn’t what you’d call Oscar bait, with Samberg unlikely to break into a crowded field of Best Actor contenders, it sailed from a buzzy Sundance premiere to become Hulu’s biggest opening weekend ever. Five Critics Choice award nominations, and placement on many critics’ 10 best lists, could help keep it in the conversation for indie awards this year.
Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection
And of course, it doesn’t hurt that the premise has an inadvertent relationship to the quarantine experiences of its viewers. “The idea of being stuck with the people you’re with, and living that day over and over again, I think really resonated,” Samberg said. “Our movie is a version of that that, even though it’s full of existential dread, it also has a lot of joy and fun to it, and was a nice little escape for people.”
While the film’s time-travel technicalities may seem dizzying on paper, “Palm Springs” largely eschews over-the-top, Rube Goldbergian levels of explanation for how the portal that traps Nyles and Sarah in a single day actually works.
“We wrote a whole scene that was much more specific, which Milioti memorized and performed ably, but when we started doing it at my friends and family screenings, we realized people didn’t actually need it,” Samberg said. “We tried lifting most of it out, and it moved faster.”
Throughout test screenings with friends and family, Barbakow, Siara, Samberg, and their team (including Samberg’s fellow Lonely Island partners Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone as producers) toyed with multiple endings before settling on the one that made the final cut. (Which, by the way, ends gloriously set to Kate Bush’s anthemic “Cloudbusting,” the kind of song that makes you want to run toward your future as the characters do.)
“Most everyone who worked on the movie had a different take on what happens to varying degrees,” Samberg said. “The one thing we all agreed on was that it would be a mistake to try and say definitively what happens. Our dream was that people would be leaving the theater discussing and arguing about what happened.”
There is one conclusive fact about the ending, though. “What actually happens in the end is that Nyles and Sarah chose to go for it together,” Samberg said. “They took that leap together.”
The film ends suggesting that Nyles and Sarah indeed escaped the time loop trapping them in Palm Springs, and Samberg said that’s in part because early audiences “got panicky thinking there was no way they got out. We definitely needed to leave it in a way that people could believe they got out if they wanted to believe that, but there are little things here and there that suggest it also might be some other version.”
Samberg fans will have to stay busy scrutinizing “Palm Springs” until NBC’s police sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which he also produces, returns. Samberg said that the team, along with creators Dan Goor and Michael Schur, are still in the writers room trying to figure out how to pivot the cop comedy in the wake of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, among the other watershed moments of 2020.
“I am hesitant to say anything in case it changes,” Samberg said of the storyline for Season 8. And their process, he added, is not unlike the approach to “Palm Springs,” which involved modulating the story over time. “Anything to do with sensitive subject matter, anytime we’ve done an episode like that in the past, those scripts went through so many iterations until we felt comfortable moving forward with them. That’ll probably be the case this year, too.”
“Palm Springs” is now streaming on Hulu.