American Un Certain Regard entry The Climb has fast become one of the hits of this year’s Cannes, generating a raft of reviews so good it’s like they’d been written by the filmmakers themselves. No need for that, though, because Michael Angelo Covino’s directorial debut feature, which he co-wrote with his co-lead Kyle Marvin, lives up to the praise. A hilarious and—surprisingly—heartwarming comedy about the toxic friendship between two men over the course of several years, The Climb assembles a patchwork of one-take vignettes as a pair of old friends butt heads but can never seem to bring themselves to quit one another.
Covino and Marvin, who first worked on commercials together and have produced features including Kicks and Hunter Gatherer, developed the script off the back of their short of the same name, which premiered at Sundance in 2018. There, the title referred to a bike ride, and a revelation between two characters that disrupts the otherwise tranquil ascent of a hill. Expanded to feature length (and the longer version also starts with a bike ride), it takes on a larger meaning, as we get deeper into why Mike and Kyle—played by Covino and Marvin themselves—remain friends despite a string of seismic betrayals and misbehavior, mostly perpetrated by Mike.
It’s riotously funny, and, as I found when I sat with them this morning, at least partially based on their real-life friendship. Thankfully, given the extreme discord of the film, only partially.
Momento and Endeavor Content are handling sales on the ground here and it’s hard to imagine they aren’t fielding plenty of calls about this true festival treat.
The Climb started as a short. How long have you been developing this idea?
Michael Angelo Covino: The short came about because we wanted to do something that was simple; just the two of us talking. I ride bikes a lot, and it was one of these ideas that just sort of clicked. And we hadn’t really been planning on doing another short, because we were producing features for a while, but it was one of those things that we were like, “We kind of just have to do this. It would be a really fun, simple, contained idea, and if we pull it off…”
When we got into Sundance with the short, we realized there could be a platform to turn it into a feature. We hadn’t thought of it as a feature before that. It was just sort of an idea. So we spent some time fleshing it out, asking ourselves, “What is it we really like about it? What’s special that we might be able to expand upon?”
What we really stumbled on was the feeling and the tone. That was the core of what we liked; this bittersweet quality of finding humor in tragedy. That was our guiding light. And then we fleshed out probably 12 different versions of this thing before we landed on this one. I think this one ended up being the truest to that tone.
Was the relationship between these two characters something that came easily to you as you wrote?
Kyle Marvin: It did.
Covino: Surprisingly, yeah, because we wrote the thing in like a month and a half. And only because we outlined it really well. We kind of just understood what the film was.
Strangely enough, our pitch for the film is extremely close to the finished product, in terms of structure, and what ended up happening on screen. So it came together in a very organic way, strangely, but I think it was because we really understood the characters, and understood that line that we wanted to toe between dramatic and emotional, and absurd and comedic.
Your characters are named after yourselves. I feel like a jerk for asking how close their relationship is to your own…
Marvin: He slept with my wife, yeah, yeah [laughs].
Covino: There’s not a single thing about my character that is different from me personally. I am that character. You’re talking to the guy in the movie.
No, it’s one of those things where there are certain character traits that either we see in ourselves or see in each other. So we’d say, “Let’s make Kyle’s character like this,” knowing that he has it in him to play those things. And then we just thought it was funny to keep our names in there so that we’d get questions like this [laughs]. The lines are really blurred between reality and our characters. We thought it would be funny if people thought I was an asshole, and that he was a big pushover.
Kyle, this is your chance to share a cry for help.
Marvin: I’ll whisper it into the tape. Please help me.
Covino: I mean, you see how much I’ve let Kyle speak so far [laughs].
The film feels incredibly honest and, at least to me, incredibly familiar. Don’t we all have those friendships that can be simultaneously toxic and beloved?
Covino: Absolutely. And Kyle’s character is not necessarily a victim here.
Marvin: Not in any way.
Covino: I think there are these friendships, or family members; these people in our lives that sometimes we’re sort of stuck with. It’s not that we’re stuck because we can’t make a rational decision that this person isn’t good for us. Oftentimes, I think, it’s because they represent our past, and the shared experiences we have that are so essential to our identity.
It’s almost like letting go of that is giving up on your dreams, or giving up on your past. Acknowledging that life moved on, and you didn’t really have a say in where it went, or what happened.
You know, when we talked about what type of movie we wanted to make, and why we structured it in a way where it sort of spans more years than maybe one would expect when you come into the film, I think it’s because of that. That moment where you wake up in your life, and you go, “How did I get here?” And there’s a beauty in that, and a nostalgia, but also there’s a sadness in that.
I think the people that we know the closest, for the longest period of time—the people that we experienced our formative childhood years with—are, oftentimes, the only people who understand who we were, and who we are, and that’s something that we struggle to let go of.
Marvin: I do think there’s a little piece of Mike’s character and of Kyle’s character in everyone. We all have relationships that, to some less or greater degree, this is the dramatic and comedic version of. I think the idea of overlooking other people’s flaws is something we do a lot. Or saying what you need to say because you feel like it’s the right thing. Those elements are in each of these characters, and I think they’re in a lot of people.
Covino: Right. They’re deciding what they think is best. The hope is, anyway, that the characters are making decisions that they feel is the best course of action for them. We would always say, “Can this character do this, or will they be unlikeable?” But it was like, who cares? That’s the decision the character thinks they need to make, even if it’s flawed or it’s wrong. It’s still right from their point of view.
The film is a series of vignettes. Am I right in thinking they’re all in real time, and mostly in a single take?
Covino: Technically there’s a cut between the upstairs and the downstairs in one scene, and it’s a time jump. From the moment she flicks his dick to when we go downstairs, time has passed.
That’s really Kyle’s dick, by the way.
Marvin: I’m legitimately lying naked on that bed.
Covino: I’m on the record with that. The piece can read, “Mike volunteered, unprompted, facts about Kyle’s dick.
Marvin: The record will show… [laughs]
How long have you guys worked together?
Marvin: About 10 years. We started out in commercials, producing and making them. And then we stumbled into feature films.
Covino: Just stumbled [laughs].
Marvin: We were producing feature films for a while, and then this is obviously his directorial debut.
And you’re in Cannes.
Covino: I know. It’s incredible.
Marvin: At the screening, [Thierry Frémaux] said he had to convince Mike to come to the festival.
Covino: Yeah, some French speakers came up to me after and they were like, “Was he really talking about you? You’re a first-time American filmmaker who made a comedy, and Thierry Frémaux said he had to convince you to come?” I was like, “Oh, sure.”
Well, it’s a bit intimidating.
Covino: Exactly [laughs]. I mean, I think I cried when I got the call. It was a weird one. I was laying in bed, early one morning, and you know how you pick up your phone to check the time, and you see an email? It said “Cannes,” and that we were invited, and I just sort of put it down. But then I was like, “Wait…” I just started crying. It’s a moment you never imagine will happen. I mean, if I were to tell you, “Oh we’re going to make a movie and it’ll premiere in Official Selection at Cannes…”
I’d think you really were the Mike from the movie.
Covino: Right [laughs]. Look, this is a dream. It wasn’t on our mind at all when we shot this movie. And we shot it down here. You know, this is my seventh time at this festival, and I love it and the movies it plays. I love all the pomp and circumstance, and the whole thing. Like, they don’t let you on the carpet unless you’re wearing black shoes. That’s absurb. But at the same time, that absurdity is what makes this place special.
Describe the premiere experience.
Marvin: I mean, it’s just surreal. The whole thing is absolutely surreal, you know what I mean? The scale of it is enormous. We’ve been working on this film up until the last minute, so we’d been buried in this thing. Finally to have the surreal experience of sharing it with an audience was just wild.
What are your ambitions for the future? Will you keep working together, or are their solo plans on the way?
Marvin: Do you want to just stop the tape so the two of us can have a big fight?
Covino: [Laughs] You know, we’ve been working together for years, and I think we’ll continue to work together. We have a shorthand, we get along, and it’s fun. And actually, we already are working together again. We’ve got a lot of other things in development. It’s kind of stuck at this point.
But call me in a year [laughs].