Director's Chair: Max Barbakow — Hulu's <I>Palm Springs</I>
Issue: November/December 2020

Director's Chair: Max Barbakow — Hulu's Palm Springs

When Hulu picked up the Sundance hit Palm Springs for a reported record $22 million deal, it took many industry observers by surprise. But it immediately set new records on the streaming platform, and it’s easy to see why. The time-loop rom-com, inspired by Groundhog Day, directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara, is perfectly tailored for these stressful times, when the re-occurring COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and restrictions have helped turn every day into the same day.

Starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, and produced by The Lonely Island trio of Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, the movie begins as a standard time-loop comedy when carefree Nyles (Samberg) and reluctant maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti) have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, and things get complicated when they find themselves unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other. But thanks to some clever twists to the genre, this basic setup soon grapples with far weightier and thornier issues of the meaning of existence and free will, and the frothy comedy gradually makes way for a poignant and moving love story.

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, Barbakow, whose credits include The Duke: Based On The Memoir I'm The Duke by J.P Duke, a short film which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and was shortlisted for a BAFTA Award, talks about making the film, his love of post and the challenges of editing.

This was your first feature film as a director, so how challenging was it, and any surprises? 

“I felt really prepared for the scope of the set and the size of the production, and I had a great crew. The real challenge was achieving the ambition of what we’d written and dealing with all the tonal swings, and then giving space and time to all our actors for the comedy and the heartfelt moments. Some of the set pieces were a big challenge in terms of scale, and then the sheer amount of work we had to do in a tight schedule. As for surprises, they happened every day, and you want those happy accidents with your collaborators, and they make it all better. I was also very surprised at just how fast it all went. Andy and I’d been living with the idea so long, so when we finally got on the set and shot it and then got into post, it was just a blur, like a crazy sprint to the finish line.”

Director Max Barbakow and actor JK Simmons

What sort of film did you set out to make considering there have been many time-loop genre movies, going way back to Groundhog Day?

“We wanted to make a super-fun, very energetic comedy, but also a film that made you feel things and that made you think — and also a film that was very self-aware and did its best to draw the audience into it and make them keep up. Groundhog Day is one of my all-time favorite films, but once we knew we were going to do a time-loop movie, it became all about building on that idea and that legacy, and involving the audience in the narrative and the characters and their emotions. And for Andy and I it was all about a very specific tone — having one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, and making a compelling character-driven story that could stand by itself and not just another time-loop comedy.”

You got a great cast. What did Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti bring to the project?

“They made it go, thanks to their great chemistry, which drives the story, and they’re such well-rounded performers with such great chops that they could sell the shifting tone, which goes from physical slapstick to dramatic, and bring the audience along with them.”

How tough was the shoot?

“We only had 21 days, so it was very tough. And we had to shoot in the desert a lot, which was very intense with the heat and wind, even though we shot in the spring. And we also had a lot of night shoots, which is hard. But it had that indie film feel and spirit where everyone was pitching in.”

Talk about the look you and DP Quyen Tran went for, and what did she bring to the mix?

“She’s an amazing DP and we both immediately agreed that we should avoid the usual comedy look with over-saturated colors and unnatural light. I wanted a more dynamic, natural look, and she had the same instincts. She was the perfect partner for making this, and she understood that we had this weird blend of a popcorn movie that also has pathos and some art house elements, and we spent a lot of time in prep talking about themes and character and the design of the movie, and the look of movies we both loved. And we landed on the idea of love as transformative, and grounding the story elements and creating a style that expressed what Nyles and Sarah feel as they fall in love and as the film opens up and feels more alive. So it starts in a more rigorous formal place, and then it gets freer and more hand held as it goes, and she also operated the camera herself and called in so many favors to make it work on our budget and schedule.”

What kind of camera and lenses did you use and why?
“We shot with the Alexa Mini and Panavision T-series lenses, and used a special lens for the romantic moments. We knew we’d be on location and shooting in tight spots, so we’d need a versatile camera like the Mini, with a small body, and then the anamorphics add so much to the surreal moments and the emotion when you’re shooting close up in tight quarters.”

Tell us about post. Where did you do it? 

“We cut at SMV in Burbank, and mixed at 424 Post in Hollywood, and did the DI at Light Iron, and Crafty Apes did all the VFX. I really love the whole post process. I started out in documentaries and I cut The Duke myself, which really taught me the power of editing and of post in general, and how to think about it creatively. So when I designed this film in prep, and I was making shot lists, I was constantly thinking about editing and cut points and how to build the rhythm and pace. As they say, post and the edit is really the final rewrite of the script where you get the chance to elevate the material and make it more cinematic, and it’s especially true of comedy, where you’re able to really hone it and refine the rhythm in post and make it soar throughout. After the craziness of the shoot, it’s where you fall in love with your movie again.”

You had two editors — Matthew Friedman and Andrew Dickler. How did they work together, and what were the main editing challenges?

“What happened was that Andrew, who comes from the Christopher Guest world, started us off while we were shooting. Light Iron did the dailies and he began the assembly and he really got the tone and found a lot of those fun moments that weren’t necessarily scripted. And then Matt came on to finish it, and he’s like this Swiss Army filmmaker with so many skills, and he helped pressure-test each moment and cut to the bone to drive each scene forward. The big challenge was definitely the tone and balancing all the various elements — slapstick, romance, drama and so on — and making sure the film felt coherent as it shifted moment to moment. And then we had the challenge of the time and budget constraints in post, as we had to hit the Sundance deadline, so the whole process was like a crazy sprint in the end, but we got it done.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you, and what did you aim for?
“It’s everything. Good music and sound can make a good movie really great, and a bad movie passable, and I think often it can be an afterthought, so I really push to think outside the box. When Andy and I were first working on it, we spent a lot of time playing around with music, and we had a lot of John Cale and Demis Roussos, and some of that ended up in the film. Then when Andy Samberg came on board, he had a lot of great ideas of what songs would be really cool in the film, and then our composer Matthew Compton wrote a great score that started with classic Palm Springs genre music and then added some sci-fi synthesizer elements, so there was so much going on. 

“It was very important to make the wedding feel full and alive, and then for the desert to feel vast and to have the needle drops kick in a nuanced way, and we went for a very vibrant, immersive mix that’d also match the anamorphic wide-screen visuals. And our editor Matthew Friedman did a lot of pre-mix sound work in Avid between sessions to make the most of our time at the mix at 424. And we had a great team at 424, including sound designer Paul Pirola and supervising sound editors Jon Wakeham and Sean McCormack.”

There are obviously quite a few complicated VFX. What was entailed?

“I hadn’t worked with VFX at this level before, so it was an education, but Crafty Apes were great to work with, and they worked on the caves and dinosaur scenes, and really finessed them. And then we also had a ton of other VFX to deal with as we shot so fast, so we had a lot of clean up and then we had the split screens, some dynamic speed-ramping changes and other stuff. I definitely enjoyed doing the VFX as it’s a lot of fun, and they were integral to the story but I didn’t want them to overwhelm it, so that was a balancing act as well.”

What about the DI? How important is it? Who was the colorist and how closely did you work with them and the DP?

“It’s the vital, final step in post and I worked quite closely with our colorist, Ethan Schwartz, as well as Michael Romano, our DIT on set, and the DP. We started all talking about the look in prep, so everyone was on the same page, and the aim was to get that heightened realism look to complement the story.”

Did it turn out the way you hoped?

“Totally. I feel we really achieved the look and tone and energy I’d first imagined, although it turned into this much bigger film. It’s been a labor of love that we started back in ’16, and it surpassed all my dreams of what it could be.”

What’s next? 

“Depending on the COVID crisis, I’ll be starting soon on Good Bad & Undead, a con artist comedy set in a Bram Stoker kind of universe, and my mom’s stopped asking me when I’ll get a proper job, so I feel vindicated.”