Flickering Myth spoke to Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin, the filmmakers and stars behind one of 2020’s most critically acclaimed independent films, The Climb. The Climb is out on Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on January 19th courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment…
From its impetus as a short film in 2018, to Cannes in 2019, to screens across America in 2020, filmmakers and stars Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin have been on a long bike ride with The Climb. And yet, as the two friends and longtime collaborators are reaching the last leg of their promotional tour, with the film’s home video release set for Tuesday, seemingly, the film’s marathon is just beginning.
The much-buzzed-about indie charmer opens with a scene that closely resembles the short film that started it all. Two best friends, Mike and Kyle, are biking up a hill when Mike decides to reveal a secret he’s been holding onto for quite some time: he’s been sleeping with Kyle’s fiancé. What ensues in the rest of the scene, and The Climb as a whole, is a blend of off-kilter tragicomedy and impressive thematic and technical acrobatics — all of which feels wholly unique to the two talents, both in front of and behind the camera.
Told through a series of cleverly designed one-take sequences, The Climb chronicles a complicated, and oftentimes toxic, friendship over the course of several years, as it experiences triumph, tumult, and everything in between.
Flickering Myth had the opportunity to sit down with Covino and Marvin (dubbed ‘The Climb guys’) and dig deeper into how they executed the film’s more complicated one-take sequences, the praise they received from top-tier Hollywood talent, how they folded unexpected musical numbers into the narrative, and more…
You guys have been on such a long journey with The Climb. As two independent filmmakers, who have been at this for a long time, what has it been like to see critics and audiences’ overwhelmingly positive response to this movie?
Michael: It’s always just a bit surprising, not because we don’t believe in the film, but when you make a film you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop a little bit. You’re always thinking that the tides are going to turn and everyone’s gonna all of a sudden hate it. But that’s sort of a joke because the truth is, we love the film we made and that’s the only compass we can follow. We like it, we think it’s the type of film that we would want to watch. So, when people respond strongly to it, it just is a really reassuring, fun surprise.
Kyle: We love every film we make in its own way. The love and appreciation and effort that goes into it never changes, but it is nice to have a different response from people.
Michael: And for just people to see it. Of any of the films I’ve made, it’s getting out there the most. It’s getting the most feedback and response, and that’s just a really gratifying thing because you’re making art that’s communicating with people and is affecting them. It’s why we do it. To communicate with people.
Is there anyone in particular who you respect in the industry that has reached out to say nice things about the movie?
Michael: Judd Apatow, right away, was really supportive and wanted to meet with us. That was very cool because he’s someone who’s really defined, at least an entire decade of comedy in America. He created this whole new brand of comedy and broke some of the best comedic voices of the past 20 years.
And sharing it with people. I made [News of the World] with Tom Hanks and sharing it with him and having him respond really warmly and saying how much he liked it. That’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened. You’re one of the best actors to ever live, and you’re giving me a compliment about this film I made.
Kyle: [Sarcastically] Maybe my uncle who’s like a firefighter in Idaho, him calling up and saying he really loved it was maybe one of the biggest surprises.
Michael: Because he’s never been impressed by anything you’ve done.
Kyle: The movie’s playing in Boise and all of a sudden my Boise, Idaho family is like, “You’re a movie star!”
Of course, you both starred in the short film for The Climb, so it made sense that you starred in the feature, too. Before you started production, however, did you ever consider bringing in someone else to play these roles? And for yourselves, why did you think it was important to portray these characters?
Kyle: [Sarcastic] Oscar Isaac and John C. Reilly.
Michael: I think we considered it for a second, but also not really. Because that’s a whole other challenge to go get movie stars. The thing we felt very comfortable with is that we could embody these characters and we could execute this film in a way that would carry the emotion and the tone that we wanted to straddle of this bittersweet comedy. So, when we went out to pitch the movie as a feature, we wanted to raise the money, we never really made it an option. We just always said, “No, this is the way we’re making it. Do you want to do it with us or do you not?” Just for the sake of giving people something to react to and for selfish reasons because we wanted to act in the film.
What struck me about the one-take shots in this movie is how despite some scenes only being confined to one location, the scenery, the mise-en-scene is so dynamic and the same location, visually, never becomes boring. Within these long, sweeping takes, how did you go about keeping them interesting from a visual standpoint?
Michael: That was a conversation we had, with Kyle and our cinematographer [Zach Kuperstein], and it was always about what’s the camera motivation and what’s motivating movement or stagnation at this moment in time. And why are we looking at it from this vantage point? And out of that, it was about how do we reveal comedy with the camera? How do we hide information with the camera? How do we use the camera as this tool to tell this story that elevates it above a bit more of a cinéma vérité, slice of life, fly on the wall aesthetic approach?
We were heavily inspired by certain films that really felt like a celebration of life and cinema, and we were really excited about the idea of just going for it and not holding back and being a bit bolder with some of our choices. And maybe making choices that could alienate an audience in some areas — like, there’s a shot where the camera stays outside as a character goes inside [a house] and that was a very big choice that we had to discuss with our financiers. [We said], “Look, this is the way we’re shooting this scene and this is why.” And there were a ton of creative reasons behind it, but I think at the end of the day, what audiences like us are looking for in films is just a fresh perspective and something that feels new and has a point of view. We were always having a discussion about mise-en-scene and blocking and movement and how this entire thing comes together to tell a story.
Kyle: I think also, the benefit was that all the scenes were really asking the audience to be proactive in their experience of the movie. Once that blocking and mise-en-scene and structure were there, it was like, how can we fill the frame at every moment with even things like pictures or how the decorations are outside or all of these little pieces that will continue to give the audience things to draw information from. That was part of the fun, too. Once we knew what was happening, it was placing enough stuff in there to always keep you aware of things around you.
What was the hardest one-take to pull off on a technical level? Was it putting a camera underwater?
Michael: Yeah, that was tough. But that was just tough from a physical level for Kyle because he was sort of submerging under a frozen lake when we shot that. Not sort of, he was. He was submerging under a frozen lake.
I think the opening bike scene was very challenging because of the many variables that we had to get right. I think that became the real learning curve. The thing we learned as we went was limiting the number of variables will allow us to just get to performance. The more technical variables we introduce into a take and what we’re trying to accomplish, the more those can go wrong and not leave room for us to just focus on performance. The performance can be great, but if the technical thing falls on its face then it doesn’t matter. We definitely pushed the limit on that, but we were always figuring out, can we nail all the technical stuff with enough time to give ourselves at least half a day to get a take where the performance works?
How did you decide to fold in these totally out-of-left-field musical numbers to sort of put a bowtie on some segments of the film?
Michael: I think the film needed it. At the script stage, we were very conscious of pace … [and] as we were experiencing the film as we read it through and we’d write it, we’d say to ourselves, “Ah, I don’t really like this scene butting up against this directly. There needs to be a buffer, there needs to be a palette cleanser.” It came out of necessity at first when we were writing, but we also had this really long playlist of music that we loved, like French songs and …
Kyle: Gospel songs, country songs.
Michael: We were building this playlist that had an emotional commonality that we loved, and we started just playing with songs and seeing how they would feel in between scenes. And then, we just loved this idea of this celebratory synchronized dance and biking and musical interludes where we broke the fourth wall. Because a lot of the films that we love from the past kind of incorporate those things. It felt right for this film to constantly remind the audience that they’re watching a film and to not get lost in the immediacy of these single takes. It was like, it’s OK. Take a step back. This is a movie. Now, let’s go on to the next scene.
In the movie, the friendship between Mike and Kyle is at the forefront, and of course in real life, you two are longtime collaborators and friends and have worked on commercials and short films for years together. What were some of the unexpected benefits and challenges of making a feature with someone you’re so close with?
Kyle: I think the benefits are pretty obvious, in that we have a shorthand, especially when we got into production. Of being able to rely on each other and know how to compliment each other. And also, just how we like a set to work, in terms of the dynamic … it’s nice to have collaborators who are all on the same page from that standpoint. Challenges?
Michael: We can’t get away from each other [laughs]. And again, it’s just a lot. It’s a long period of time working very intensely with one another, so — it’s like the challenge of getting too close and spending all your time with anyone is you get annoyed with each other or whatever. But, I think we’d already been through a lot of that in the past, by working together for so many years. This is way more intensive, and I think our relationship has evolved and grown, especially with having some success on this film, because we’ve been on the road and done the festival tour and presented the film so many times. So truly, I think it’s mostly positives [that] have come out of this. With the exception of maybe … brief periods where we’re like, “Let’s just not talk for a week.” But, I don’t think that’s had anything to do with anything other than, “Let’s just take a break.”
Gayle Rankin, who most people probably know from GLOW is so good in this movie. You both have such a specific cadence in your writing and acting, and considering that she’s the third lead, Michael, how did you go about giving her direction on her performance to get her on the same page as you and Kyle?
Michael: Gayle’s a way better actor than us. All we had to do was just … try to stay with her [laughs]. For the most part, Gayle has this uncanny ability to just be honest and truthful and believable. We trusted our casting directors in casting her, but we really lucked out. She brought so much to the film that is so subtle and you might not notice, but this film falls on its face if she doesn’t hold up the third leg of it, in a way. She really needs to embody her character and go toe to toe with my character in order for you to feel the messiness of this thing and to feel balanced. Because of how alienating my character can be … [it] would just turn an audience off to where they probably wouldn’t want to watch it, if Gayle didn’t come in at the moment she comes in and also be a counterpoint to that, in her own way.
This movie has a lot to say about friendships, especially long-lasting ones that are borderline toxic. What do you think it is about friendships that makes them so durable and able to withstand turbulence and tumult in a way that more romantic relationships sometimes can’t?
(minor spoilers for The Climb follows)
Kyle: We talked about this a lot, and I think one of the key things is that when you’re forming your identity at a young age, if you’re finding out who you are and defining your self and you do that along with other people … the people that are in that Crucible with you tend to just be people who you have this foundational understanding and shorthand with, that never goes away. You don’t see someone from high school for 10 years and then you’re walking through a grocery store aisle and you see him, and there’s this instant rapport. Even if maybe you didn’t know each other that well. There’s this really strange connection that hits and that’s a beautiful thing.
Michael: And with romantic relationships, obvious challenges can always be jealousy and fidelity, that people can’t get over because they feel this sense of ownership over the sexuality of another person. A co-dependency in a platonic relationship can in some ways last a lifetime because there isn’t that same amount of pressure to live with the person and be with the person all the time and create a life with that person. Why Mike and Kyle survive in this story is because they can not talk to each other for a year and a half, but then they still have the same understanding of their relationship and who they are. So when they do come back together, and Kyle forgives Mike, they can go back to where they started. Their relationship can last a long time, even if it stops for moments and it goes on pause.
Kyle: I do think good friendships are based in love. I think people can be bad friends to each other, but generally, they do it out of a true belief that they’re doing the right thing. And maybe it’s shortsighted, but I think a lot of times we forget that people generally try and make the right decision and do that from a place of love. Even if it ultimately is the completely wrong thing to do.
The Climb also stars Talia Balsam, Zina Wilde, Judith Godrèche, George Wendt, Meredith Holzman, and Todd Barry.