Helmed by first-time writer Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow, produced by Lonely Island Classics, this laugh-a-minute stars Lonely Island founder Andy Samberg and singer/stage actor Cristin Milioti (Fargo, Black Mirror: USS Callister). They make a great team: their deftly-timed humor won over audiences at Sundance 2020… with metaphysical twists that I won’t spoil here. 

The film also landed a record-breaking deal brokered by UTA Independent Film Group, Neon, and Hulu for $17,500,000.69. Yes, they toppled the Sundance record set by Birth of a Nation by 69 cents. If this isn’t a publicity coup for Lonely Island—not to mention a subtle dig at the disgraced former record holder—I don’t know what is. Beyond strategic PR moves, this feels like an elaborate in-joke amongst friends… which, as it turns out, is the key piece of advice NFS gleaned during interviews with the filmmakers.

Palm_springs_photo_credit_chris_willard_0'Palm Springs'

Wait, back up—  What does a "69" joke have to do with this movie? A theme emerged when we spoke to the team behind it:  write unapologetically.  Write for yourself, or for specific friends, rather than targeting a broad audience. Obviously, in order to get the attention of Lonely Island—who previously came to Sundance with offbeat gem Brigsby Bear back in 2017—original ideas are key. And Palm Springs is, without question, original.

As soon as they read the script, Samberg and Milioti knew it would be a dream to perform.

“I’d never read anything like it,” Milioti recalled. “It was very refreshing. Exciting.”

“It’s a strange one,” Samberg nodded, goofy smile forming. “But… Broad!”

“And poignant!” Milioti shot back.

Palm Springs is all of the above.  It’s not a traditional rom-com, even though it hits all the right beats. It finds the happy medium between an offbeat indie and a by-the-numbers blockbuster, with a fresh take on a classic twist. It’s unpredictable but familiar. It’s heartfelt but callous. Even the prerequisite scenes of romantic confessions and emotional truth are unexpectedly funny. 

It can all be traced back to the script’s assured tonal balance… and the personalities of the writers. 

Screen_shot_2020-01-29_at_12'Brigsby Bear' (2017)Credit: Sony

AFI classmates and longtime friends, Barbakow and Siara have survived thanks to a shared sensibility. “We’ve known each other for seven years, right around when we both started taking ourselves seriously as filmmakers,” Siara recalled. "We’ve got the same worldview, the same sense of humor.  We’re both perfectionists. It’s rare to find someone else who laughs and cries at exactly the same stuff. That’s why I wanna hold onto him.” Siara patted his pal on the back. “We love the movies that make you have a gut laugh at something absurd, then transition into gut-wrenching emotion, then go back to the laughter. 'Cause life is both silly and sad.”

The duo got where they are through experimentation: by being true to their own sensibilities and failing until they got it right. Barbakow describes their earlier work, including their AFI thesis, as “trying things, throwing everything at the wall, going for really ambitious tonal balances. I honestly don’t know how effective our earlier work was, but it was great training.”

It was their AFI thesis—plus their script for Palm Springs—that won Lonely Island’s attention.

“Our AFI thesis may not have lived up to our ambitions—but it showed them what we could do. And that, plus our script, helped our would-be producers imagine what the movie could be.”

Then came the re-writes, with Lonely Island guiding the way. An American comedy trio formed by Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone back in 2001, The Lonely Island team honed their skills on Saturday Night Live, then went on to produce – which means making sure that the scripts they choose to back have a well-distilled voice.

2014thelonelyisland_getty125603580051114-1The Lonely Island Trio (Left to Right: Schaffer, Samberg, and Taccone)

“I did a lot of work on the script with Andy and Max over the course of many months,” Samberg recalled. “While I don’t like the logistical side of producing, I do like being involved on the creative side: casting, rewriting, editing, tweaking. Doing quality control.”

For Siara, their collaboration was a gift from the gods. “Those guys are where they are because they’re comedic geniuses. And tireless workers. We learned so much from them.”

Barbakow nodded: he and Siara still clearly in sync. “My biggest epiphany was that they entirely changed my notion of knowing when to kill your darlings,” he admitted. “I thought I knew what that meant, but no. You have to be completely merciless, not just when you’re writing but when you edit. We cut out so much good stuff that we’d shot, it was painful—but now, it’s clear. The film is better because we were ruthless.”

He shrugged: still a little sad, but a whole lot wiser.

“They also taught us to never settle. Whether in the script or the edit, they taught us to really dig deep for something funny or poignant at every turn.”

Black_mirrorCristin Milioti in 'Black Mirror' (2011)

Another key Palm Springs collaborator was their editor, Matt Friedman (who also did last year’s The Farewell). Friedman helped them navigate some of the film’s trickier, twistier sequences. “My philosophy on editing is always the same whether it’s drama or comedy,” he explained. “It’s all about staying true to the emotional arc of the story. Making sure that we don’t get in the way of it.” He paused, almost paternal. “Jokes are delicate little creatures. There are 1000 different ways to kill them and maybe one or two to get them right. It’s kind of like dancing: you feel the music of the dialogue, the rhythm of the comedy and just react to it as an editor. You make sure the comedy comes out through the performances. And you don’t get in the way.”

As the team tells it, much of writing and editing is intuitive. You want to keep hitting those sweet spots, but that requires rigorous dedication—and you can get bogged down if you overthink it. So how do you strike the balance?

“Always write what you wanna see,” Samberg asserted. “Don’t write what you think other people want. Odds are, more people wanna see what you wanna see than you think.”

Samberg’s co-star Milioti agreed. “You can only do you. So you have to stay true to your own taste.” Her eyes flashed. “How can you not make what you want to make? It only works if it makes you laugh. And besides, people are drawn to unique voices. So be one!”

Executive Producer Akiva Schaffer voiced a different approach: write what you want, then stay away from the shoot. “The food sucks on indie film sets,” he griped. “When I would show up on set, people would hear me complaining: ‘This is the food?' They’d be like, ‘We can hear you on mic.’ I’d be like, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ At a certain point, I was so disruptive that I wasn’t invited back.”

Just kidding? You be the judge. But one thing is certain: Schaffer loves Palm Springs’ singular vision. 

“We all read Barbakow and Siara’s script and thought it was awesome,” he stated with frank admiration. “It’s cool when you get to a point in the business where you can read something and actually make it a reality.” Hearing himself, he looked sheepish. “Sorry to do a genuine answer.”

Schaffer knows what they all know. It’s what fueled Lonely Island’s pre-SNL days. It’s why Barbakow and Siara became friends at AFI. It’s how their films became an extension of their friendship. It’s what got them to Sundance. 

It’s all about making each other laugh. 

It’s about letting go, having fun, feeling fearless—all in hopes of getting a reaction from—at the very least—each other. In other words, instead of trying to write some million-dollar idea for the masses, just loosen your grip and let the ideas flow. In the process, you might wind up with a 17.5-million-dollar idea (and 69 cents).

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by SmallHD: real-time confidence for creatives and by RØDE Microphones – The Choice of Today’s Creative Generation