Springing some surprises with ‘Palm Springs’

Director Max Barbakow talks about the new Hulu romantic comedy

Director Max Barbakow (left) and J.K. Simmons on the set of "Palm Springs."
Director Max Barbakow (left) and J.K. Simmons on the set of "Palm Springs."Christopher Willard/Hulu

The Max Barbakow-directed comedy “Palm Springs” — starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons — is a love story set during a wedding that never ends.

A mild spoiler, one that’s revealed fairly quickly in the film (stop here to avoid it), is that the narrative involves a “Groundhog Day”-esque time loop; it’s one day experienced over and over.

Our main characters wake up every day to see the same faces. They float in the same pool under the same hot sun. The characters are stuck. Some — such as Samberg’s character, Nyles — more than others.

Barbakow had no idea when he was making the project, which debuted at Sundance in January, that the film’s wide release (July 10, on Hulu) would happen when many couples have been isolated together because of the pandemic, and feeling like they’ve been living the same day over and over since March.

In an interview from home, Barbakow talked about how this story, about two very indifferent people falling in love amid monotony, lands in COVID times, what inspired the film, and what he’s watching now that he’s home day after day with a partner. “Palm Springs,” produced by Samberg’s Lonely Island team, is Barbakow’s first narrative feature. Worth noting: It broke the Sundance record for biggest sale of a film (more than $17.5 million).


 Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in "Palm Springs."
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in "Palm Springs." Courtesy of Hulu/Associated Press

Q. How has it been to talk about this film right now, when many people feel like they’re living the same day over and over?

A. It’s pretty incredible . . . the wide release [happening during a] seismic worldwide moment that leads into our theme . . . hopefully it can be cathartic and an escape for people. The movie was very much born out of a lot of conversations between Andy and myself about relationships. At the time, he had just gotten married — taken that profound leap to a lifelong commitment with his lovely wife — and I was leading a very aimless and kind of dark cynical single life, figuring out why my relationships weren’t working in the throes of my late 20s.


The characters were so afraid of commitment and intimacy and vulnerability, kind of like I was at that point. Then we put them in their own personal hell, which was reliving the same wedding over and over again. The best night of someone else’s life on kind of the worst nights of theirs, respectively, and it’s just so cool that it has more resonance now, in this moment. I got engaged during quarantine. I fell in love right when I was about to go make this movie. It was nice to bring that energy and openness into the process, [even though] it started from a darker and more hopeless state.

Q. Based on the premise of the film, it’s easy to go in assuming that it will be cynical about weddings and love, but it’s actually an incredibly optimistic take on why we partner.

A. Absolutely. I think very early on, you’re more tethered to this theme of Nyles’s nihilism, and not feeling that anything has consequences. Very early on, when Sarah [Milioti] came into the picture, we started working on that character and realized the love story. That kind of turned [the story] from “There’s purpose and caring about stuff in a meaningless world” to “Love is really the only truth in a meaningless world.”


Q. The film’s dissection of what it means to have a forever-partner — someone who’s around during the most boring and isolated moments — reminded me of another movie that takes on couples and isolation. Have you ever seen “The One I Love” [2014]?

A. Yeah! So that movie — [director] Charlie McDowell and [writer] Justin Lader went to AFI [American Film Institute] years before us [Barbakow was AFI Class of 2015 with “Palm Springs” screenwriter Andy Siara]. They came back and showed that film. They made that film on the cheap, I think, in like 15 days or so, one location. And that was kind of the inspiration for [”Palm Springs”]. We didn’t know we were going to do a relationship movie. We knew we wanted to do an offbeat movie about humans in a heightened world.

Max Barbakow (right) directing Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in "Palm Springs."
Max Barbakow (right) directing Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in "Palm Springs."Hulu

Q. There are many movies that explore repeated days — “Groundhog Day,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Source Code,” and more. They’re very different with their lessons, but I imagine they’re all complicated to make with editing and continuity.

A. I would say a lot of the work went into the writing of it. The kind of storyboarding and shot design of it. We shot the movie in 21 days, so there wasn’t a lot of time to figure things out. You have to be very precise. We’re not recycling moments. Each shot, even if you’re seeing the same moment play, it’s shot subtly to correspond with where the characters are in their journey and what the emotional [point of view] is. You’re not seeing the same shot twice.


Q. J.K. Simmons plays an important character, which I won’t spoil. How did he get involved?

A. Andy Samberg had worked with J.K. before, in “I Love You, Man”. Their scenes together in that movie — there was obvious chemistry there.

Q. What are you watching during your quarantine?

A. My fiancee and I started [Michaela Coel’s] “I May Destroy You” [HBO], which I’m in awe of. The next movie that I’m supposed to do is a gothic western, so I’m doing a survey of — rest in peace — a lot of stuff that [Ennio] Morricone scored. Last night, we watched “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” [1971]. I think [the TV show] “Ramy” is really good. Then I’m just watching old classic movies that I haven’t had a chance to revisit in years, like we recently watched “Sweet Smell of Success” [1957]. I’m very genre agnostic.

Interview was edited and condensed. Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.