Max Barbakow’s wild Palm Springs trip

A woman and a man on inflatable rings on an outdoor pool.

The director discusses the inspiration behind his debut feature film, a surprising rom-com spin starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, and how he’s put his heart into this eccentric ride

By Louis Wise    Images: Palm Springs (Hulu)   Thursday 3 September, 2020   Long read

When the movie Palm Springs started showing this summer, critics tended to say the same two things. First, that 31-year-old Max Barbakow’s feature debut, which uses a time-loop concept to develop an unorthodox romantic comedy, was excellent. Second, that such a brief description really can’t do it justice. Indeed Barbakow, aided by his lovable stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti and screenwriter Andy Siara, gleefully bounces from genre to genre and mood to mood, making you laugh and cry along the way (a cocktail that reportedly made Hulu and Neon spend a record $17.5m on distribution rights at Sundance in January). Little surprise, then, that one review dubbed it ‘deliciously eccentric’, as well as ‘faux-mainstream’, whatever that means.

‘I love that,’ laughs Barbakow down from the phone from his home in LA when I put it to him. ‘I don’t quite know what it means either, but I like making stuff that kind of shifts — you think you’re getting one thing and then you’re getting another. And I think we have that in the movie. You think you’re sitting in a wedding movie, and then, “Oh my god”. There’s just so much more going on.’
A man spitting beer into the air.
Palm Springs opens as Nyles (Samberg) prepares to attend his girlfriend’s friend’s wedding, but it’s soon clear that something’s not right. When he meets the bride’s sister, Sarah (Milioti), this feeling intensifies in a sequence that involves a mysterious cave, snogs, time travel and a menacing pursuit led by the ever-foreboding JK Simmons. To be clear: that’s just the first time-loop we get. Imagine the subsequent variations, all set against the backdrop of Palm Springs’ striking Californian desert resort. 

Yet if the movie is, in multiple senses, a trip, it also realistically reflects a tranche of the director’s own life.
A woman sitting under fairy lights at an evening outdoor dinner.
A native of nearby Santa Barbara, Barbakow grew up with film (his father was heavily involved with the prestigious Santa Barbara International Film Festival)  and you catch glimpses of this throughout Palm Springs, which winks at everything from Rachel Getting Married and Leaving Las Vegas to Groundhog Day. He and Siara — friends from film school and ‘SoCal boys’ through and through — first conceived the concept on a weekend trip to Palm Springs five years ago. They know the place well and, as Barbakow explains, it has always been odd and inspiring; a place visited by the Rat Pack, retirees, US presidents and Coachella caners alike. ‘It’s always been this destination that feels very magical, but also very arbitrarily artificial.’ 

On their trip, the duo came up with the character of Nyles and ‘a loose idea for an absurd existential comedy’. But as the two men grew — not least when Siara himself got married in Palm Springs a year later, with Barbakow a somewhat doleful guest at the ceremony — it became both a wackier and more wistful proposition. ‘Cristin Milioti improvised a line in the movie and called him a “pretentious sad boy” and I think there was a time in my life where I was that,’ he laughs. ‘The film corresponds to moments in your mid to late twenties where you’re in the throes of failed relationships, trying to figure out whether you can be a mature adult, friend, lover, and all the things that come with that.’
A film crew filming two actors by an outdoor swimming pool.
Perhaps one big thing to get out of the way is that, no, this isn’t a Gen Z Groundhog Day. ‘I mean, we obviously worship at the altar of Groundhog Day — it’s one of the best movies of all time,’ says Barbakow, but he confirms he was also ‘very scared of it’. Palm Springs does something else entirely, with both Nyles and Sarah trying to escape the ‘hellscapes’ they’re in: Nyles has a terrible relationship; Sarah has a loaded secret. And, in case you’re wondering, the science behind the time loop is (briefly) explained to us and apparently feasible. In fact, the USC physicist who provided it even makes a cameo in the movie. ‘It is sound, in movie science language,’ promises Barbakow.

Naturally, though, most people will be drawn to the very human relationship between the two lead characters, played with typical charm and wit by Samberg and Milioti — something that Barbakow wants all his work to be about. His previous film, a documentary pithily titled Mommy! I’m A Bastard!, dwells on the circumstances of his adoption, telling a larger-than-life tale involving various larger-than-life personalities. On the surface, he says his documentary and this feature film are pretty different. And yet…