(Warning: This post goes into detail about the ending of Hulu’s Palm Springs.)
Palm Springs is one of those movies that feels airtight. Watching it, you can get a sense of the years the filmmakers spent working out exactly how the movie’s time-loop romance would operate. Every time you start to think, But what about … ?, the script is right there with you. What happens if you die? What happens if you take a lot of drugs and don’t go to sleep? And if you fall in love in such circumstances, is it even real, or just a coping mechanism?
It’s also a movie that rewards careful study. In the weeks since Palm Springs hit Hulu, fans have noticed a few dangling strings, and begun to pull them. Many mysteries remain, from the specific rules of the time loop, to the possibility that others beyond Nyles and Sarah (Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti) are trapped in it. So we called up director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara in the hopes that they might be in the mood to reveal a few of the movie’s secrets. They were, but only up to a point. As Siara says, “If you want to crack it, maybe the clues are there. But maybe not though, too.”
When you were coming up with the rules of the time loop, what was the hardest thing to figure out on a metaphysical level?
Max Barbakow: I think probably the research — the solution of getting out. That was something that came after we started working with the Lonely Island. The earthquake and the cave were some of the first things that we had in there, just as a fun element to play with. But we talked to Clifford Johnson, our science consultant who plays the physicist. We were saying, “Time loops don’t exist, but how could a phenomenon like this actually happen?” He was like, “It would have to be a physical event.” So we got lucky in that if there were a time loop and the cave were to open, an earthquake would be a perfect explanation for what was happening metaphysically.
Andy Siara: I remember going down a YouTube spiral similar to the one that Sarah goes down, but much more brief. I’m trying to look up various articles and videos on black holes and string theory and the Cauchy Horizon.
I was going to ask: What is the Cauchy Horizon?
AS: It’s a really fun thing to say.
Does it exist?
AS: It exists. And maybe don’t quote me on this, but to be honest, I can’t remember. My brain has never … I got B’s in science class. I mean, for that week that I was putting that into the draft, which was two years ago, I felt like an expert.
Past Andy knew what it was, but current Andy …
MB: If I remember, it’s kind of like the boundary of a black hole. Like the threshold. That’s a very simplistic way of saying it. We’ll probably get dissed for simplifying it to that, but that’s the basic idea, I think.
AS: There are some cool papers that you can read online. It was a really fascinating week for me when I felt so enlightened. And clearly my brain didn’t really retain a lot.
I’ve read other interviews where you said that the first draft was a little darker, a little more Leaving Las Vegas-y.
AS: It’s funny, because a friend sent an article a couple of days ago about how it was originally a really dark movie. Max and I would say it was like a death-bender movie in the vein of Leaving Las Vegas. However, it was always an absurd comedy.
MB: Imagine that nihilistic montage, extended out over the course of an entire movie. He never killed himself. He was trying to numb himself and go on a bender safari. The way we arrived on the time loop — aside from just figuring out how to put Nyles and then Sarah in their own personal hells — it was born of thinking about movies like Dead Man and Anomalisa and The Lobster, which are not sci-fi, but there’s this mysterious existential umbrella that the universe is cloaked in. We just got out of our own way and became less pretentious about it: Let’s create a device and make it easier on ourselves.
Before you had the science, how did they get out in that version?
AS: I will say, do they get out of this version?
When the people come back from vacation, and then the credits sequence with J.K. Simmons, that seems to me to indicate that they did. Is there ambiguity for you guys?
AS: If you asked me and Max and Samberg and Milioti, we might all have different feelings about the end. The most important thing to me is that they go into that cave together. That’s the emotional ending.
The only thing [about the ending] that was there from that original draft, was the final shot of the movie, of the dinosaurs on the horizon. And me, I think those are real dinosaurs.
MB: The dinosaurs and going into the cave — or a version of that — are the two things that were always there. Then the getting out was something that we always wanted to play with.
When we talked to Cristin, she said that she originally had this long science monologue in the end that she was super excited about. And then she saw the movie and 90 percent of it got cut.
AS: That was the result of a long week of trying to crack how, if they were to try, what is a realistic way to possibly try to get out? I think Max remembers it being like a five-page monologue. It probably wasn’t that long, but it was very substantial. And then it was like, Oh, this is a little too long, and we don’t really need it.
When the goat goes through and gets blown up, Sarah says it disappears in the loop. But Nyles doesn’t; he’s still there [when Simmons’s character returns to the wedding], just his mind is wiped. So was she lying about the goat disappearing?
MB: I think that’s kind of what we’re referring to about the end, and if they’re actually out or not.
AS: I’d say everything is there for a reason, from our costume design and wardrobe choice, and production design and props, the choice of drinks and things on the tables in the background. And then there are specific lines of dialogue … If you want to crack it, maybe the clues are there. But maybe not though, too.
In the original script, Sarah asks Nyles how he got into the time loop, but he dodges it. Do you guys have an answer in your heads?
MB: We were talking about the time loop, keeping the time straight and all that. They always wake up on the morning of the wedding, so you also have to imagine what the night before they’re waking up from is. That was essential for Cristin, bringing in shame and imagining bad decisions from the night before. But in terms of how Nyles got in the loop, it definitely pertains to that bathroom hanky-panky that he shows Sarah. And probably drinking a lot and getting lost out in the desert and having nothing to lose.
If you stay up all night, your loop will extend beyond the single day. But then once you fall asleep, you go back to the loop. I was curious: If one of them stayed up all night and then said “hello” to the other one the next morning, what would happen?
AS: That is a great question that we asked ourselves and could not really crack.
It gets into something else I was wondering: Does everyone else’s consciousness continue on past that one day?
AS: It’s something we talked about. Sarah I think brings it up at some point. As for what we believe, I will defer to Max on that one.
MB: I’d say so, yeah. We’ve been getting questions like, “What’s the sequel?” The sequel could be any of these other days that progressed after [the loop].
AS: A family coping with the loss of a daughter. A marriage that fell apart …
The word “shukran” comes up twice in the movie — it’s an Arabic word for “thank you.” I wonder if you are able to speak to thematic resonance, and maybe the plot resonance, of two different characters saying this very specific thing.
[Nine seconds of nervous giggling.]
MB: The first time it’s spoken is in the pool, by Jerry. And Jerry is part of the Schlieffen family, adopted. He’s from Sudan originally. So that’s why he said “shukran” there. Nana Schlieffen is also part of that family, and has adopted Jerry. She also speaks the language. So that’s where that comes from.
AS: That’s stuff that was trimmed from the movie. So when something is trimmed from a movie, the film itself is the final … like, that is The Statement. So therefore, is there more meaning to “shukran”?
I dunno, I’m asking you.
AS: I’m asking you.
MB: It’s just important to have gratitude. “Shukran.” Thank you.
From some of June Squibb’s dialogue, are we meant to infer that there are more than three people trapped in the loop, and maybe Nana Schlieffen is one of them?
MB: There are definitely multiple people in there. I don’t know if Nana’s one of them. Maybe she’s relived the same wedding over and over again. Or maybe she just has been around for a while and went to a lot of weddings.
AS: I bet June can give you the best answer for that one.
[June Squibb’s take: “It’s funny that everybody’s wondering about it. Yesterday I was working on a cartoon, and the director said, ‘June, just a minute, someone wants to ask you something,’ and they wanted to ask about Nana in Palm Springs. I truly went into it without that idea. And we never talked about it. I really never questioned myself, and usually I question myself if I’m working on something like that. But before I left the shooting, I began to wonder if I did know more. I guess I’m leaning now towards maybe I did know, that maybe I was a part of this — before they were, even. I feel like there is something there.”]
A stupider question: How did you choose Equatorial Guinea [as the destination in Nyles’s drug-fueled attempt to stay up long enough to outlast the time loop]?
AS: I had a list of places that were a little more obvious: Australia, London, Paris. Then I remember Max said, “What if he went to Equatorial Guinea?”
MB: I don’t know, it just made sense. In chasing a laugh, get specific and absurd and random. It seemed like a far enough place away that it’d be really tough for him to get there. I don’t know how long it would take to go from Palm Springs to Equatorial Guinea.
[The answer is at least 24 hours, with layovers in San Francisco, Frankfurt, and Lagos.]
I don’t know if this is me being crazy, but the cave after the earthquake, is it meant to look like a female reproductive system? Sort of a nod to rebirth?
MB: No. But actually, when we were talking about the design of the orange orb in the back of the cave, it was always sort of like a heartbeat. This very ethereal, romantic heartbeat. So it was always meant to be soft in that way. But I like that a lot, let’s go with that one.
AS: In the script it was referred to as “the triangle cave.” I remembered seeing a cave out in Joshua Tree. It was a smaller tunnel, you had to wiggle your way into it. And I’m scrolling through Be Here Now, the Ram Dass thing; I feel like I may have grabbed the idea of the triangle from there. But then when it came to actually finding a location, that’s where we found that cave.
When you guys think about the ending, do you think Nyles and Sarah have a future together?
AS: To me, that’s one of those like questions where an optimist will say, “Yes, they’ll spend the rest of their lives together.” A cynic will say, “They’re going to last a week.” And therefore, rather than thinking about their longevity, it’s more that they decided to take that plunge together. And if they do last, then that’s beautiful. If they don’t last, then that’s still beautiful because that moment walking into the cave together is [worth] holding onto.
MB: They made the decision to try and be present in their relationship. Which is what Nyles pretends to have figured out in the beginning, this flawed version of Zen, which is really just selfish. And Sarah’s incapable of letting go of her past. By the end, they both meet in the middle. It’s one of those things where you think about a relationship, taking it day by day, and hopefully that grows into something lasting. I think they’re both capable of that by the end. They’re not putting too much pressure on themselves just living together in the pool.
AS: If they stay together for good or if they don’t make it past the week, that should never diminish what they went through together. Some of the greatest weddings I’ve been to, I’ve been in tears because of the love on display. Then the couple got divorced. There’s been a couple of weddings like that. But it doesn’t, to me, take away from that moment. We should never forget about them just because they are fleeting. Feeling love is a special thing.
And I’m getting too heavy now. For some reason as I was doing that, I was patting my bed sheet flat while I’m looking at my Jurassic Park paperweight. Like, I’m on my knees.
Why are you on your knees?
AS: I was pacing around the room. And then for some reason, I don’t know, when talking about love, it makes me not pace as much. It makes me just want to stop and enjoy the moment.