PALM SPRINGS Director and Writer Talk Inspiration, Collaboration and Meeting at the AFI Conservatory
AFI alumni Max Barbakow (Directing, Class of 2015) and Andy Siara (Screenwriting, Class of 2015) just sold their debut feature film, PALM SPRINGS, breaking the record for the biggest sale ever at Sundance – by 69 cents. PALM SPRINGS stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as two wedding guests stuck in an endless time loop. Variety called it “ironic, irreverent and at times insane rom-com” and Indiewire said the film reinvented the GROUNDHOG DAY formula.
AFI spoke with Max and Andy about the journey to making their first feature, bonding over music and movies at the AFI Conservatory and their advice for future filmmakers.
AFI: Congratulations on all the success you have had with PALM SPRINGS. What was it like to have the film’s premiere at Sundance and land a record-breaking sale?
MAX: There is no better place to play a movie. I don’t think either of us ever expected it to happen. It’s totally surreal.
ANDY: I would say that I naturally am wanting to find something to complain about or be bummed about – the person that I am, I need to complain about something – but it’s hard to complain about anything because of the reception of it all. It feels kind of surreal.
MAX: When you finish a movie and you watch it, it’s very hard to like it because you’re so close to it. Watching it with an audience – a real audience, not a test audience – was incredibly gratifying alone. I think we had a good shot to sell the movie because of who was in it, and it’s a relatively high-concept idea and a comedy in a program with heavier subject matter, but you can’t dream up what happened.
AFI: Where were you when you heard the news about the sale?
ANDY: There were late meetings into the night, the kind of stuff that you read about that happens at Sundance, but I didn’t actually think happen. We were part of those meetings, but when it became totally official, everyone had already left. Max and I had drinks with some friends and we were walking to the next screening of PALM SPRINGS, and all of a sudden, our phones started blowing up because that’s when it was announced officially on Deadline. One of our friends caught it on video. It was kinda cute. Max and I met on the first day at the AFI Conservatory and bonded over music and EASTBOUND & DOWN over a beer. Fast forward seven years – pretty much just us two, a couple beers in, walking to the next screening of our film – our phones blow up with texts because the world knows how much money it sold for. It was a very strange experience, but I kind of liked that it was just us two getting that at once. It was a nice payoff for that initial meeting at AFI.
MAX: And the best way to do it was to then go and screen the movie right after that.
AFI: Can you talk a little bit about how the project came together?
MAX: We did our thesis film together at AFI – you do a thesis and it’s on such a big scale, you are doing a substantial amount of days and the crew is really big – and it felt right to go do a feature right after or try to get a story or idea that we were excited about.
ANDY: I remember THE ONE I LOVE [directed by Charlie McDowell (AFI Class of 2006) and written by Justin Lader (AFI Class of 2008)] came and screened during our second year at AFI. And the two guys – Charlie and Justine – talked about how they wanted to make something and they did it. Straight out of AFI, Max and I were like, “Let’s just make something. Let’s write something and go make it. Something we can actually do.” We went out to Palm Springs for a “Lost Weekend” – it was the weekend after we graduated, and we were just throwing ideas around. Later that year, I got married and that’s when the idea started to crystallize a little bit, and in a weird way evolved with us trying to entertain each other. I would go off and write and send him pages that I hoped he would laugh at or cry at. And then he would send me his thoughts back where he would be either laughing or crying or hating it. And we would refine and refine and refine until we felt it was strong enough. Then I got a new manager at the end of 2017 who read it and knew what to do with it. He passed it on to several people, one of whom got it onto Andy Samberg’s agent’s desk, who passed it to Andy. And then Andy brought me and Max in to meet, and we hit it off.
MAX: We got insanely lucky. That meeting was essentially me convincing them that I should direct the movie. We saw the same movie from that very first meeting, and it really didn’t even quite feel like a pitch. It was more like a conversation because everyone was on the same page. So we got lucky that we were linked up with a genius like Samberg and producers like The Lonely Island that could make it happen for us and be collaborators speaking the same language.
AFI: What were some of your influences or inspirations in creating PALM SPRINGS?
MAX: When we first really started talking about the film, we went to AFI FEST that year and I remember seeing THE LOBSTER and ANOMALISA on the same day. Those are two offbeat love stories about loneliness – I don’t know how much you can see that in our movie – but I remember thinking, “Okay, there is something to draw from in here, the energy in it.” And it’s thanks to AFI FEST.
ANDY: On the writing side, there was song that John Cale and Brian Eno did called, “Spinning Away.” When I heard that, it was a clarifying moment – because somehow when you hear the right song, you can see the movie through that lens. It brings the movie to a different level. We didn’t even use that song – we couldn’t find a place for it in the movie – but I know that song in particular unlocked certain creative avenues.
AFI: The film stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, two outstanding comedic actors. With the time-loop structure, were there any opportunities for improvising on set?
MAX: We spent a lot of time on the script and did a polish with Andy. And when Cristin came in, we did some rehearsing too and the actors made it their own. Everyone was on the same page on a script level and the structure is very intricate, so there wasn’t a lot of improvisation, but with these actors, you have let them do it in their own words and allow them to collaborate and make it better. On the day, in the moment, there were little changes, but the scenes didn’t really change. We were block shooting locations, so we shot a lot of alts just to have, which is kind of insane because our schedule was very short and there wasn’t a lot of time. We did pick up some extra stuff that wasn’t scripted but still what we had talked about beforehand.
AFI: You’ve spoken about how lucky you were to be able to surround yourself with the best creative team. One member of that team is the editor, Matt Friedman, an AFI Faculty member. How did he become involved in the film and what was it like working with him?
MAX: He came on to take us across the finish line, and it was like “Chicken Soup for the Burnt-out Filmmaker’s Soul.” He is such a great editor, such a smart dude, and we were all from AFI, so we were speaking the same language. He is first and foremost a filmmaker and a storyteller who knew what was important. He was very helpful in trimming out fat and cutting to the bone, to the bare essentials of what we really needed. I think the goal is to surround yourself with Swiss Army knife creatives who can do a lot of stuff and think on their feet. He was the best. We were really lucky to have him.
AFI: For each of you, what made you want to apply to AFI?
ANDY: I’ll go first on that one. All through high school I had made little shorts. Instead of doing course work, I would do little shitty short films, but never fully committed to it. I spent all of my post-undergrad years in a band touring a bunch, and then the band plateaued. We didn’t totally fail, but we hit this moment where we – my older brother who was also in the band – we were like, do we want to be those guys in our late thirties still trying to do this. So we decided to call it a day on the band in October or November of 2012 and I opened up this document that I had been compiling over the last 10 years – because I knew what I wanted to do which was always film and TV – and it was a document of all the grad schools and the application process. I had two weeks before the applications were due. I had some friends who had gone to AFI and I knew how great of a school it was. I used a demo draft of Final draft for my sample script for the application but didn’t realize there was a watermark on it, so I had to find a friend that would upload it to the real Final Draft. And I was lucky enough to get in that first year.
MAX: I always wanted to be a director but never really wanted to study film even in college. I had this outlook that I wanted to have life experiences and read books and shoot stuff on my own and take classes that I think are relevant, but I was very reluctant to do any kind of formal film education, especially because my favorite filmmakers always look down on it. I didn’t know too much about AFI, but one of my best friends, both of his parents were some of the first professional filmmakers I ever met – this was in high school – and both taught at AFI. They are brilliant storytellers and raconteurs and genius creative minds, so I was like “Oh, what is AFI? These amazing people are affiliated with it.” I looked into it and it was two years and it was all practical experience, so I applied and was lucky enough to get in. I moved from New York where I was shooting make-up tutorials for a fashion company and doing freelance doc work and took the plunge to take it seriously. And it was the best. I don’t think – especially for directors – there is no other school quite like it. The teachers always said, “You have a four-picture deal here, so take advantage of it and make the stuff you want to make with professional, Hollywood-style sets.” So it was great.
AFI: Can you talk a bit about what it was like when you would be creative partners when you first met?
ANDY: In the first cycle films, the writers are supposed to pitch to the producers and directors, and I met with about eight or nine directors and they were all lovely people, but there is a pretentiousness that comes with film school. And then Max had sent me an email saying he liked the script and wanted to chat. What I loved was that we bonded, we didn’t talk that much about the script, we talked about life—
MAX: And being little brothers –
ANDY: I knew at that point we could be friends, so we did our first cycle film together. Then we did other cycle films with other people but knew we were going to do our thesis film together.
AFI: How do you feel AFI prepared you and made you ready to tackle this project? What were some of the lessons you learned at AFI that you applied to your experience of writing/making the film?
MAX: I would say purely the importance and premium put on collaboration and checking your ego and really putting the movie first. I feel like that is the first thing they said at AFI, that was just something that was instilled in me and how I ran the set of PALM SPRINGS. From the first Gill Dennis Workshop – which was the best – that very much fueled the impulse to make stuff that you can pour your heart into.
ANDY: We were lucky to be doing that workshop together. My first and second-year writing teachers gave me a kind of perfect cocktail of tools and information and encouraged me to dig deep. Truly, a lot of people that showed me that there are so many different ways to crack a story, write a screenplay, but most important, to write from the heart and not the head, and I got that from AFI.
AFI: Now that you have gone through the experience of making your first feature film, do you have any advice for current Screenwriting and Directing Fellows?
MAX: Don’t quit. Keep trying and do whatever you can to support yourself outside of your passion project, whether it’s doing commercial work or working on friend’s stuff. Have a lot of things going so you are able to stay in LA and chase a feature and do something personal. It’s too hard and takes too long to do something that you aren’t completely jazzed about.
ANDY: I agree with everything Max said. I would add that in my year, one bad collaboration would make someone not want to do any cycle films at all and stay in their own bubble in the screenwriting world. That might work, but I think you can see that the reason, if nothing else, this movie was made was because Max and I found each other on that first day at AFI. I ended up doing four cycle films and two thesis films because the whole reason we were going there was to make shit. I would say, always try to find people to collaborate with and don’t give up on that side of it all.
Photo by Morgan Lieberman: AFI Conservatory at Sundance 2020 – Matt Friedman, Max Barbakow, Andy Siara and Susan Ruskin (Dean of AFI Conservatory)