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Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How Palm Springs unknowingly captured the year’s biggest mood

Entertainment Weekly logo Entertainment Weekly 12/7/2020 Derek Lawrence
a person swimming in water: Andy Samberg and director Max Barbakow break down the time-loop comedy's stylish moment of isolation. © Hulu Andy Samberg and director Max Barbakow break down the time-loop comedy's stylish moment of isolation.

When thinking of the film that best represents 2020, it's hard not to go with Palm Springs, which made a record-breaking debut at Sundance in January and only became more prescient upon its July arrival on Hulu. Fittingly, a moment of isolation from the time-loop comedy is EW's Shot of the year. Here, star-producer Andy Samberg and director Max Barbakow break down their not-so-lazy float.

On a chilly day in April 2019, the Palm Springs team faced the first major challenge of their three-week shoot: Filming all of Nyles' (Andy Samberg) pool scenes. Money and time were tight on the indie, which sold for an unprecedented $22 million at Sundance and emerged as a streaming success on Hulu. But Samberg and director Max Barbakow saw the overhead shot below — filmed at a residence in Santa Clarita — as something that justified a splurge.

“We agreed pretty early on that it had priority," says Samberg, also a producer. "It adds style and production value. When dealing with a low budget, you’ve got to pick your moments."

Beyond the striking look, Barbakow viewed the moment as the announcement of "this character, what the movie is, and where we’re going to go," while Samberg agrees that it was important in establishing the arc for Nyles.

"In the beginning, you see him on this raft and he seems like someone whose got it all figured out and is having a great time," says the Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor. "But you come to realize it’s actually a little bit of an isolated prison he’s in, and floating on the raft and drinking a beer has come to represent the mode that he has reverted to after being completely broken of trying anything else. He’s completely given up and it feels like his existence has now been reduced to floating along this endless river, drinking a beer, and retaining the memories by myself, isolated from anyone else."

a person swimming in water: Hulu © Provided by Entertainment Weekly Hulu

The method wasn’t as languorous as the scene it portrayed: They used three cameras, including a Technocrane they were able to get for free thanks to DP Quyen Tran, who Barbakow also credits for catching the shadow and reflection of the water in an unexpected way. Filmed in an Olympic sized pool with a "substantial deep end," Samberg wasn't the only one getting wet in order to achieve the appearance of never-ending water. “We had somebody in a wetsuit who kept bumping me back into [the] frame with his hands or sometimes a stick,” Samberg says with a laugh. “It was a lot of slow drifting around, then realizing I’d reached the edge, and needing to be reset.” While Samberg insists it "wasn't hard for me," Barbakow was worried about his actor due to the cold weather and him constantly needing to get in and out of the water. "The next day we had to go do Andy's big wedding speech," shares the filmmaker, "so you're just hoping he doesn't get sick overnight."

Barbakow instantly knew he had something special in the shot but couldn’t have predicted how his time-loop film, about a man forced to endlessly relive a banal wedding day, would capture the coming year’s mood. “The movie,” he says,“is about sitting with your s---, being trapped with yourself, and figuring out ways to cope and rise above your circumstances, though they may be a bummer. And 2020 has been a challenge in that way. I think the film has been luckily cathartic in a way we could not have anticipated."

His star slightly disagrees. “To be the ultimate 2020 moment, I feel like it’d need to be more stressful,” Samberg says with a laugh. “Probably the [scene] when I got shot with an arrow would be the feeling of 2020. But I will say this shot is definitely what I'm missing; I'd love to be floating on that raft right now.”

A version of this story appears in the January issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Dec. 18 and available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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