When “Palm Springs” debuted at Sundance January, it was the toast of the festival. The film, directed by Max Barbakow, broke records by fetching the highest price ever for a Sundance pickup, with Neon and Hulu snapping it up for a reported $17,500,000.69, placing it just a smidge above the previous record-holder, “Birth of a Nation,” which went to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million in 2016.
Since then, “Palm Springs” has also become one of the timeliest movies of the year, with its “Groundhog Day”-esque plot surrounding two characters (Andy Samberg, who also produced, and Cristin Miloti) stuck in an endless time loop, living through the same day again and again. That concept is certain to resonate with many viewers in these quarantine days, but the writer who dreamed it up never could have expected it to go this far.
“Palm Springs” was hardly a surefire commercial bet when screenwriter Andy Siara, a founding member of the L.A. band The Henry Clay People, came up with the idea in film school — and he still wasn’t sure about it when he finished the last draft.
In a recent interview with IndieWire, Siara recalled the moment when he and Barbakow lined up support from Samberg’s production company, Lonely Island, who he said helped them feel secure they were making the right choices with their script. “We’re brushing up against one of the most beloved scripts of all time,” Siara said, recalling a five-year journey in which he said the project originally had more in common with “Leaving Las Vegas” than “Groundhog Day.”
“Palm Springs” follows Samberg as Nyles, a restless young man stuck enduring the same desert-set wedding day over and over again (and over and over again) after encountering an unexplained phenomena in a nearby cave. After he inadvertently brings Sarah (Miloti), another wedding guest, into the same conundrum, the movie’s playful time-based twist brings a clever new dimension to the romcom formula.
However, when Siara first wrote “Palm Springs” during his second year as a film student at AFI, it didn’t have the sci-fi component. In fact, when he initially conceived of the story with fellow AFI classmate Barbakow, the pair were reticent of bigger-budget storytelling. “The week after we graduated, we were like, ‘Okay, let’s make something that we can actually make, that is small and contained, tiny budget, one location, maybe a couple of locations,” Siara said. While the script gestated, Siara served as a writer on “Lodge 49,” a since-canceled TV show that has garnered some measured of a cult following, and he came to terms with the prospects of turning “Palm Springs” into a more ambitious concept.
“I still have that ‘Jurassic Park’ part of me,” he said, referencing his favorite childhood film. “I needed something bigger. That’s where I drifted away from a tiny-budget mumblecore movie to adding this idea of a cave, which then sent the story in a different direction.”
It was that version of “Palm Springs” that impressed the Lonely Island team and secured Samberg’s involvement. “Andy gets this character far more than maybe even I get the character, and I created the character,” Siara said. “Having those guys come in and having Andy lead this thing, it honestly legitimized it. They helped us take the script from 70 percent completion, in a sense, to what ended up on screen.”
Siara’s current screenwriting momentum is especially notable considering his first career path, which goes back to his teen years. He started The Henry Clay People with his older brother Joey while still in high school. “Then that kind of just dictated the way I lived my life for the next 10 years,” Siara said.
HCP never “hit it big,” but they were beloved Los Angeles mainstays (coming up alongside bigger acts like The Airborne Toxic Event and Silversun Pickups, groups that also got their start playing around on the Eastside, bouncing between gigs at Spaceland and the Echo) and enjoyed a robust touring schedule (plus stops at Lollapalooza, SXSW, Austin City Limits Festival, and Coachella, just to name a few) all the way until the end. The Siaras cycled through a handful of other members, but the brothers were always the nucleus of the group.
Joey was the frontman and lead singer, and Andy played guitar and sometimes sang (emphasis on sometimes, his vocal contributions were such a novelty that the band literally has a song called “Andy Sings!”). Their songs are fun and smart and capture a certain kind of “oh, shit, guess I am an adult now” worry that’s endearingly relatable, no matter your age. (Their last record was called “Twenty-Five For the Rest of Our Lives,” both an ethos and a concern in one nifty, rocking package.)
The band disassembled in 2013, leaving Siara at a crossroads, forced to consider what he wanted to do with his life for the first time. (The elder Siara, funnily enough, also became a writer, most recently working on the ABC series “Emergence.”) “When the band kind of plateaued and I was 27, that’s when I realized I had avoided answering that question,” he said. “There’s nothing else that I could think of doing.” Eventually, he enrolled at AFI, all the better to feed a childhood obsession with filmmaking, and met Barbakow. Within the first week, the two hit it off during a pitch session, where writing students were tasked with pitching ideas to directing students using a speed-dating model.
Siara had talked to “at least” nine other directors before he met Barbakow at a bar to chat. “We had some beers and talked about Pavement and The Replacements,” Siara said, invoking the two groups that inspired his own band’s distinctive sound.
While Siara admits to being torn on the true value of film school (the financial boundaries it can put up are top of mind, and Siara has no bones admitting he’s still in debt for his two years of grad school), it’s easy to draw a straight line from his classes and experiences to what would become “Palm Springs.”
“There where a couple of classes that really forced us to dig into certain parts of our psyche and our subconscious and break down stories on a Jungian level,” Siara said. “I was in one class with Max where we talked about our greatest moment of shame, our greatest moment of fear, our greatest moment of love. I shared that with Max, that’s where this movie came from, it was born out of conversations between me and Max, then I would just go off and write from this splattering of ideas.”
All of that leaves Siara in awe of the historic deal behind “Palm Springs” — not to mention its surprising topicality. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “We never would we have imagined we’d even be playing at Sundance, let alone selling it for all that money. To the theme of the movie, where it all doesn’t mean anything anyway, nothing really matters, money doesn’t matter, the fact that I got to share in that moment with Max and having gone on that journey, that was the best.”
“Palm Springs” will be available to stream on Hulu on Friday, July 10.