“A large part of the job of film editing is understanding how audiences take in story, visuals, sound, dialogue and ideas,” Matt Friedman explained to TheWrap. The veteran editor, whose career stretches back 25 years, has been responsible for cutting a pair of the most popular and acclaimed films of the last two years: Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” in 2019 and Max Barbakow’s “Palm Springs” (co-edited by Andrew Dickler), a summer sleeper hit that broke streaming records on Hulu. (Distributor Neon also booked the film at drive-in theaters.)
“What drew me to ‘Palm Springs’ was that it had this wonderful combination of humor paired with the story of two deeply sad, nihilistic characters,” Friedman said. “That pairing mirrors ‘The Farewell,’ which was also very funny but dealt with a terminal illness. In terms of editing, it’s the combination of those two tones that I really like to be a part of.”
“Palm Springs,” though, has another dimension. Three of the film’s characters (played by Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and an Oscar-winning actor whose role we won’t spoil) are stuck in a ‘Groundhog Day’-like time loop. The same day, a wedding party in the destination of the title, repeats over and over again.
“That time loop element, for an editor, is just sugar-coating,” Friedman said. “It’s the cherry on top. You just know people are going to watch this moving and comment on the editing. Even though the editors are involved with so much more than keeping track of the time loops. But it’s flattering to know that the editing grabs attention.”
Is there a special trick to editing movies in which the same action will play repeatedly? Friedman deliberately did not watch films like “Groundhog Day” or “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Run Lola Run” for guidance. Instead, he focused on striking the right balance for both the movie and the audience.
“We wanted to tell the story of these characters stuck in a soul-crushing repetition without actually inflicting that same soul-crushing repetition onto the audience,” he said. “That’s the sweet spot we were going for. I knew that every time we showed the same thing again, the audience wouldn’t need as much information. They already knew what was happening. I thought about it like ‘Name That Tune,’ where contestants tried to guess a song with the fewest notes possible. I thought, ‘How do we establish the loop in the fewest frames possible?'”
But it was the first minutes of “Palm Springs” that created conversation between the creative team. Early on in the film, the audience does not realize we are watching the thousandth version of the same day for Nyles, Samberg’s character.
Friedman explained, “The first 20 minutes was an area of intense discussion. All the way through post-production, we carried two different versions of the beginning. In the version that is ultimately in the film, there’s a comic scene with Nyles and his girlfriend in their hotel room. So you get permission to laugh. And then you understand a little bit about who he is before he gives a crazy wedding speech that night.
“But the other version started the movie off in a more vague way, in terms of the tone. We delayed the understanding that it was a time loop movie longer, about six minutes longer. In this version, Niles does not wake up in bed with his girlfriend. There’s an earthquake, Nyles is wandering in the desert, and then we see him giving the speech at the wedding. That’s the first time we actually meet him. In this version, the movie starts off strangely and you do not know what’s going on. We tested both versions and we found was that audience weren’t really bothered by being asked to hang in there a bit longer, but ultimately after months of discussion, we opted to go with the version that was released.”
Though “Palm Springs” didn’t have a typical theatrical rollout due to coronavirus restrictions, Friedman did get to experience watching the film with a large audience at its premiere last January at the Sundance Film Festival.
“People were raucous when they realized what was going on with the time loop,” he remembered. “Especially cutting comedies, it’s always harrowing to wait for the first laughs. There’s inertia to overcome, for the audience to understand that it’s a comedy. Luckily, we got our first laugh before the film even started, because the Lonely Island guys have a logo that’s a parody of Sony Pictures Classics. So for an industry crowd, that got a laugh. It was uphill from there.”