quantum physics

Cristin Milioti Explains the Time-Loop Science Behind Palm Springs

Turns out her character, Sarah, had a three-page speech on quantum physics that was cut from the final film. Photo: NEON

Spoilers for Palm Springs below. 

Though writer-director duo Max Barbakow and Andy Siara conceived of Palm Springs five years ago and sold the film at Sundance for a record-breaking $17.5 million (and 69 cents, nice) back in January, the surrealist rom-com speaks perhaps too directly to our current national plight, which sees us reliving some demented version of the same day over and over, slowly splitting at the proverbial seams. Now on Hulu and in select drive-ins, the film follows Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles (Andy Samberg), a pair of detached depressives who find themselves in, as Nyles bluntly puts it, “one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard about,” trapped for eternity inside a cloyingly hipster desert wedding. The two cycle through a variety of responses and escape tactics, ranging from absurd (planting a bomb inside a cake) to bleak (standing directly in front of a speeding truck) before Sarah starts to get serious about quantum physics and plots a metaphysical jailbreak.

Though Palm Springs is a riff on Groundhog’s Day and its ilk, it still feels completely fresh: wildly funny, extremely weird (dinosaurs and ’80s-themed dance breaks are involved), and occasionally rather deep (quantum physics and existentialism are also involved). Vulture spoke to Milioti for a few hours over FaceTime about the arc of her career (which you can read about here), and she gave us a bunch of fun behind-the-scenes stories from the film. If you’ve already seen Palm Springs, read on for a spoiler-y breakdown of some of its best moments, including the dinosaur cameo and dance break, the real science behind Sarah’s escape, and the cut scene that Milioti is desperate to see.

Tell me what specifically appealed to you about Palm Springs.
I really liked how deeply flawed Sarah is. I mean, that’s such an umbrella statement, but she’s done a ton of things that have hurt people, and she has hurt herself, and she’s in enormous pain and also gets to do a lot of very weird and zany things and be in this very, I think, moving scenario of what it means when you can’t escape yourself. I think that’s what I love about the time-loop mechanism. Yes, it’s sci-fi, but we’re experiencing that right now in quarantine. At the beginning, people were like, “Oh, we can’t escape ourselves.” And now, quite positively, we’re looking at systemic racism and institutions that have been in place for hundreds of years and being like, “You cannot not look at this.” It’s, like, one of the great works of one’s life to learn how not to escape yourself.

How much do you relate to the philosophy of the film? I’d describe it as a sort of hopeful nihilism.
It did resonate with me. There’s something about it — we do repeat the same patterns. We do sometimes feel like we can’t get away. So much of Sarah’s journey, I think, is her inability to escape her shame. I think she’s operating from such a place of white-hot shame and trying to run from herself, and Nyles is too. This world is wildly overwhelming, and it’s easy to numb yourself. It’s easy to tell yourself that you don’t care, because the stakes are so high. The stakes of being alive are enormously high, of being a citizen of this world, especially more and more so with each passing year. And she chooses to do something about it, you know?

And then as far as the commitment aspect of it — that it matters who you live this life with — I always love what she says, which is “I’m fine without you.” I really loved that when I read that. “I know I will be okay without you, but I think my life could be a little less mundane with you.” To choose the people we’re with, to choose how we’re going to be citizens of this world, to choose the right thing, to choose to lead with love. It’s a choice, and you can totally throw up your hands and numb yourself and let things happen to you and let the waves of life [crash over you], but you can also choose.

When you film a movie, it’s already like Groundhog Day in the sense that you’re shooting the same scenes over and over. Was it even stranger to do the same thing like 100 more times?
It was! But I kept very detailed notes. I had my script with me at all times, and I would track on every page. It was very Beautiful Mind–style, scribbled everywhere, especially because shooting out of order is just so insane. We shot all the stuff where I wake up in one day. We had the bed for that one day, and that was the first day of shooting. I had my script next to me, and we would go through each time and I would have little calibrations. “This is the thing that just happened. This is the information I know at this point about him. This is the information that he knows about me. And then they’d call “action” and I would just kind of black out and be like, Okay, you know what you’re doing!

How many days did it take you to film all the wedding scenes?
I think a week.

So you filmed the whole wedding over and over in one week?
Yeah, everything gets done in one chunk. So all the pool stuff was one week, all the wedding stuff was one week, all the desert stuff was one week. It was in these chunks. The wedding stuff was a blast, but it was all at four o’clock in the morning because you’re doing night shoots.

Some parts of the wedding scenes were shot where I’m in that terrible bridesmaid dress and all of us are in summer clothing. I think it was 30 degrees out, because, I don’t know a lot about deserts, but they’re like 110 degrees in the day and 30 at night.

Can you walk me through an example of how you calibrated your performance to be just slightly different in each take?
When Sarah wakes up each day, and there’s that montage of her waking up — there’s so many different levels of joy and release in her. At first, she’s waking up and fighting this, fighting this, fighting this. It’s just a very slow burn of her finally accepting where she is. And then they’re just micro-adjustments, remembering the last bits of what feels like a dream but is actually her new reality. It was fun to be able to play that. I’m someone who always leaves a scene having got it and then immediately, two hours later, thinks of 70 things I should have done differently. You know that phrase, “L’esprit de l’escalier?” I live in that when I’m shooting. Where I’m like, Fuck! It should have been this! Even though I didn’t get to revisit specific scenes, I kind of got to.

It’s kind of a perfectionist’s dream.
Yes! It’s a perfectionist’s dream! A “control enthusiast’s” dream. I don’t call myself a control freak anymore.

What was it like to film the scene with Andy when you guys have your big fight on the side of the road?
I love that scene. We did talk a lot about that scene. That was a scene we kept pretty loose. I may be misremembering this slightly; I didn’t talk about it with Andy, but I’m almost positive I talked about it with Max [Barbakow] and Andy Siara, our brilliant screenwriter, that I wanted to say things to him that would be the most hurtful for that character. One of the things I lobbed at him was I called him a “sad boy,” because for that character to hear that — he is! He’s a fucking sad boy, and he’s in love with his own grief and his own nihilism. And then all the stuff that he lobs at me, we both wanted to make sure it was the worst thing for her to hear — that she’s always the victim, that she’s a perpetual child, that she doesn’t take any action in her life, that it’s a “woe is me” thing. I know Andy is known for his comedic chops, obviously, but he fucking brought it in that scene. That’s an uncomfortable scene, and I thought he was so beautiful in it. We really went toe to toe.

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in Palm Springs. Photo: Neon

Was there a lot of improv, or was it completely scripted?
Mostly scripted, but there was a good deal of improv. The scene where he’s the bomb guy, I mean, obviously that’s in the script, but he didn’t know I was going to come out with an ax or a hook. I was really trying to Richard Gere him — just pull a reverse Richard Gere! [Laughs.] That was just very fun for me to do, and I thought she should be having fun in that scene. And the scene with Connor [O’Malley], when I go to him and I’m like, “Will you meet me in the bathroom?” That was very, very, very loose. Very improvised. We were pretty loose when we were in the car. The montage was pretty loose. It was a blast, I gotta say.

I wanted to talk about the dancing scene because it’s incredible. How did you guys put that together? How long were you rehearsing? 
Are you a Showgirls fan?

I am a MASSIVE Showgirls fan, and the woman that choreographed the dance number — I don’t want to fuck this up. I never told her this in person, either, because I was too nervous to be like, “Hey, I love that movie so, so much.” I want to make sure I get the character’s name right. Okay, Michelle Johnston, who played Gay in Showgirls.

Yes, yes.
“Get her some brown rice and vegetables and a bottle of Evian!” She choreographed it. She was such a blast, so much fun to work with. She was really incredible at — you know, neither of us are dancers, but I’d say we’re both really good movers — and she just worked with what she had, and it was a blast. Those dance rehearsals were so much fun, and she just really let us explore and tailored things to what we were able to do. I loved working with her.

When you guys talked about the tone of the dance, what were you thinking of as inspiration?
I think we were looking for something these characters would be able to do [in] an ’80s style — like an ’80s movie. When we bust open the doors! There used to be, I think, a lot more stuff in the beginning leading up to the dance that they cut, of us completely acting like sexual deviants to all the bikers in the bar, and I was sad to see that that was gone.

That scene stood out to me, and so did the cake-bomb scene you mentioned. You improvised the accent? Was that a spur-of-the-moment choice you made?
No, I knew like a day before. I went to the props department and said, “Can you get me the jankiest hook and eye patch?” They did and then I hid it under my jacket. We rehearsed the scene a bunch and then I put the hook and the eyepatch on and came out with the accent because I knew it would completely throw [Andy] off, which it did.

Did you keep filming through that take, or did Andy break?
We kept filming. I think everything that’s there is what happened. I have the hook on my mantle in Brooklyn; it was the one thing I kept from the movie. I asked for it in the campfire scene, and I had it hidden under my coat. I guess something happened where they didn’t have it for the [final] edit, but there was this moment when he was getting serious and looking off in the distance and I just grabbed the hook and caressed his face with it. Max told me that part of it is still in there — Andy’s reaction to realizing that I had the hook is still in there — but they didn’t have the right coverage for the caressing.

So when Andy replies to your pirate costume with “She’s of unknown origins!” that was all on the spot?
That’s totally him making it up.

And Connor O’Malley — everything he says is improvised. Everything. They just let him go each time, and the scene where I come over to him and I’m like, “Come meet me,” I couldn’t get through a single take of that because every single thing that came out of his mouth was so insane. You can see in the take that I’m laughing, and it’s because I could not get through one single take. I don’t think this made it in, but at one point he was like, “Yeah, something you should know about me is that I throw up when I come, and I hope that’s okay.”

Dinosaurs not pictured. Photo: Neon

What sort of conversations were you guys having about quantum physics on set? Was there a lot of heavy digging into the science of it?
Yes, they confirmed with a quantum physicist. There used to be a scene — part of it is still there in the movie, but this part of it was cut, which is really funny. Not the scene itself but the fact that it was cut. There was a three-page speech Sarah had about quantum physics and how she figures out the time loop. They sat with physicists, FaceTimed with scientists, and it was actually fully down. I have a whole folder — wait, I just want to make sure I’m saying some of these things right, because this was a while ago — it’s the Cauchy theory, which is a black-hole theory. And I have a folder called “Cauchy You Stay.” It’s just about the different types of black holes and how they work. Anyway, I did all this research, I had this three-page speech that I was saying pretty much whenever I wasn’t on set. I was in the shower reciting it over and over, brushing my teeth, and really taking a deep dive so I could understand it as best I could. There’s a ton of YouTube videos about “Quantum Physics for Dummies.”

And then they cut the whole scene. Maybe a couple of lines made it. I remember when I saw it for the first time I was like, “What?!” It was just so long, and while it completely explained everything, they had all these screenings for friends and family and they were all like, “The speech is great; you don’t need it.” But it is incredible to know how it all happens. It was all researched, and the stuff I talk about when I’m FaceTiming in the diner is all real.

Do you feel you could confidently explain it right now?
Not at all.

So it kind of just fell out of your head.
Much like my education in New Jersey growing up.

I did know about [the physics] a little bit because I got intrigued by dark matter and how it knows it’s being observed. They can only study it when it’s not being observed, and they don’t know how it has a consciousness — like how these molecules and these atoms know. Then I got really into these theories that we share — I’m gonna fuck this up — that we share atoms with Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and everything keeps recycling. So I have atoms in me that belonged to dinosaurs. I find that to be very cool!

Speaking of dinosaurs, I want to hear about the dinosaur scene. How did they explain that to you within the universe of the film?
They didn’t really explain it, which I loved. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the whole film, and even when I read it, I was so moved by that. I also am a huge fan of magical realism. I love things that are unexplained. I binged all of Better Things in quarantine. The things they do with Duke, the youngest daughter, and the ghosts. I was watching it, and I was like, That’s incredible. And they never explain it.

Anyway, I don’t think we ever described [the dinosaur] to each other, and we never talked about it. I think it’s all something we intrinsically understood.

Did they have any sort of stand-ins for the dinosaurs, or did you just imagine them?
We just imagined it. I’ve had movies where I’ve had to imagine things and they’ve had someone holding a stick with a ball on it, and that’s never ideal. I’d rather just use my own imagination.

The end of the film is sort of a vote for monogamy. What are your own feelings on monogamy as a concept?
My own feelings are sort of constantly shifting. I feel like it’s such a personal choice, you know? I have friends who met at 19 and got married and are still together and are wildly in love. I have friends who have had multiple partners, like a three-year person here, a five-year person here, and that works for them. I have friends who are in open relationships, and that works for them. My own feelings are I think I buy less into what I now think is a very toxic ’90s rom-com fairy tale. I think women are told they’re gonna be “rescued” by someone. That’s what we all grew up watching. I don’t know if you’ve watched Pretty Woman recently, but it does not hold up, like, at all. Even Disney movies! I remember being so obsessed with Belle because she was such an avid reader and she was so intelligent and then a Beast kidnaps her dad! She’s like, Okay, fine. I’ll stay here. You know what? He’s kind of cute. All right, fuck it! I thought I was gonna read books and own a library, but I’m just gonna fucking live with this hot guy! There was a bad message for a while that you couldn’t fully have yourself until someone came along and gave it to you.

I know that’s not necessarily monogamy. I do believe that it’s possible. It’s definitely something that I would also like in my life.

Cristin Milioti Explains the Science Behind Palm Springs