Interview: The Climb Filmmakers, Stars on Using Their Own Names, Building Off Their Short Film, and Inspiration from French Cinema
At its core, the long-delayed art-house comedy The Climb (which had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Coup de Coeur prize) is about the enduring power and pull of a lifelong friendship, even when that friendship seems to run counter to the rest of your life. The exceedingly and uncomfortably funny film is also the story of two real-life best buddies—director Michael Angelo Covino and co-writer Kyle Marvin—both of whom star in the film, playing characters who just happen to have the same first names as the actors.[caption id="attachment_82293" align="aligncenter" width="960"] Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics[/caption]
Divided into chapters of their lives, The Climb sees best friends Kyle and Mike share a seemingly unbreakable bond—until Mike sleeps with Kyle’s fiancée (Judith Godrèche). What results is a work about a tumultuous but enduring relationship between two men across many years of laughter, heartbreak, and an endless supply of rage. The film illustrates a profound look inside a rich, humane, and frequently uproarious relationship about the boundaries (or lack thereof) in all close friendships. Kyle remains the eternal optimist and something of a pushover with the women in his life, while Mike is the spoiler, whose life is perpetually down, so he decides to take a few people with him, including his closest pal. It might sound like a bit of a downer, but it’s actually a wellspring of laughs, probably because we all have or have had a “Mike” in our lives.
In Chicago, The Climb is playing theatrically at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. I interviewed Covino and Marvin in person (at a bike shop, no less; you’ll understand why once you see the film) on March 9, about a week before the city and the country began shutting down; it was, in fact, the last in-person interview I did in 2020, and probably marked the last time I took public transportation this year as well. It seems like an eternity ago, but I clearly remember that even then it seemed a little dangerous to be shaking hands with these up-and-coming filmmakers (come to think of it, that might have been the last time I shook hands in 2020). The film is a fantastic, unassuming debut; catch it at some point, whether it’s in a theater or when it pops up for home viewing. In the mean time, please enjoy my talk with Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin…
I can imagine that when you’re writing this and drawing from your own relationship that that might be a fairly simple way to tackle your first feature. But were the conflicts as easy to write as the friendship parts of this relationship?
Michael Angelo Covino: I think the only thing that was shorthand for us was the way in which the characters spoke to each other. It just flowed out of us, but before that, we had to build the bones and the structure and figure out what the story was and what turns it was going to take and how we were going to test the friendship. But was it hard was the question.
Kyle Marvin: I don’t think so. We were objective enough to the story that it was more fun to write the conflict really. That was the time when we could be creative with how far we could push things or how we would push the characters in particular.
The film began life as a short, which you turned into the opening chapter of the film. As far as movie openings, it’s one of the best I’ve seen in ages. It’s such a great conversation, and the way the camera moves between you is fantastic. From that point, you set the bar pretty high as far as what this friendship can endure. Was it tough to come up with a variety of conflicts that reach the bar you establish with that opening scene?
MAC: That’s a great point because it’s definitely something we thought about. We knew that, if we got it right, the ingredients for that opening scene would make for a really potent opening, so the challenge for us was what do we do now that we’ve set that bar and try to live up to that. And the answer was always “Does this excite us or scare us as much as that opening? Is this scene scary to shoot? Do we feel like we probably won’t get it in one shot?” And then we said “Maybe we need to rethink how this scene goes and add some more ingredients and figuring out how to make it more complicated or challenging in some way.” And not challenging as in being masochistic as filmmakers but for the sake of challenging the characters and the whole process.
Was that the most difficult part of transitioning from the short? Does this excite us about where these characters are going?
KM: It's what we weighed when going to Sundance with the short [in 2018], and we knew we had the opportunity to present the feature, and the conversation we had was “Is this better as a stand-alone thing that we leave, and we say this is tonally what we want to do and here’s a completely different idea?” But the challenge we gave ourselves was “Is there something there? Is there something in the DNA of the short that is worth exploring in a longer form?” And when we came upon the idea of this 12-chaptered relationship, that’s when it hit. So it was a bit of this DNA but spread out and pushed in different ways.
So was the vignette idea a key to unlocking the feature idea?
MAC: For sure. Structuring it that way, once we figured that out, it felt right. We decided to tell the story in this elliptical fashion: we’re going to come in and out of these people’s lives—sometimes a week or two apart, sometimes two years apart—and it will be up to the audience to figure out where we are and place themselves and carry along with the story, but we’ll reveal enough about what’s happened between the scenes by exposing it and reveal new information within the scenes. So you’re playing catch up but you’re also getting new character revelations that are happening, which was fun for us because it’s a more active, fun experience from a viewer perspective, so you’re saying “Oh, okay. They got married, she died. Got it, and now this other thing is happening in real time.”
KM: And it’s a great way for audiences to feel like the characters. In many ways, all the characters are entering a moment and gaining information as they’re experiencing it, so you’re very much in the moment with them, saying “Oh my god, this is all coming to this moment.”
It’s ingenious, because you made this killer short, and rather than simply expand it, you made 11 more killer shorts with the same characters, but you don’t have to worry about clean transitions. Let the audience do that work.
MAC: Totally, but what ended up happening is that they don’t really work as shorts on their own. What’s funny is that most of these scenes have earlier beginnings or longer ends, so they have more of a full-circle nature to them. Like that cemetery scene, we shot that in a way where after he walks away from me, he comes back with a shovel and hands it to me, then he runs off and steals a tractor and drives away with all of the cemetery workers chasing after him. So I get to walk up to the grave and put dirt on the coffin, and it was like he did this nice thing. But we decided we didn’t want to reconcile this relationship yet; we wanted to leave it on more of a cliffhanger.
For most people, they’re going to go into this not knowing who you are. Are you okay with people thinking “Okay, Mike is an asshole, and Kyle is a doormat."
MAC: [laughs] People can think whatever they want. That’s the beauty of movies.
KM: I think the name thing is something we definitely played around with consciously. You only get to do this once.
MAC: I’m sure if we didn’t name the characters our own names, people will still think those things about us. People identify actors with characters they play all the time, so I’d have a tough time readjusting that.
I’m guessing a lot of people are going to wonder why these two are still friends after all of this. But we all have family members or friends that we’ve had since we were little that are like this and don’t improve our lives in any way, but we need them there for some reason. What keeps these two together?
KM: When you share experiences at a young age, when your foundation of who you are and your identity is shared with another person, that defines a friendship in a really specific way, and it makes it so it’s hard to let go of those things that define you. Those people knew you when you were coming into your own, and that’s a hard thing to get rid of—it’s like letting go of a piece of yourself, and that’s something we all struggle with. But I do think that everyone has a Mike or Kyle in their life in some capacity
MAC: Maybe some don’t, but I think it was important for that person not to be a family member. With a family member, you could go “Well you can’t get rid of your brother.” They’re always going to be your brother. But to give him the option of getting rid of that friend, it’s a bit more complex because it’s an active choice to keep him in his life, because he is really his brother. They are the closest thing they have to brothers, and that is the beauty of it. They grew up together, and Mike didn’t really have a family—he was raised in Kyle’s house—and they formed a bond at an early age and they know each other better than anyone else does.
Was it difficult to lock down the tone of this, or was that where the short came into play? If you go too mean or too jokey, you lose what’s really special about this.
MAC: That was a day-to-day thing we were balancing. During the writing stage, we were very cognizant of it, and we gave ourselves the option of, say, Mike pulling down the Christmas tree at the end of this scene, and if it’s too big, we’ll cut it out. Or we’ll crash into a table or this will happen or we’ll make this joke here, but let’s do a version without that option or we throw away that joke. So we had a couple versions of that cemetery scene where the altercation is much bigger and more absurd and more playful, and I loved it, but at the end of the day, we said to ourselves, “This doesn’t serve the story in the way it needs to, even though it’s one of my favorite and funniest things.”
KM: From the writing process forward, we agreed that the character journey is the most important thing, and the jokes are secondary to that. We also asked “Is this something the character would do, even though it’s as absurd and crazy as putting on a helmet and falling onto a table.” If the character believed that was the right thing to do in the moment, then we agreed we could push it.
Did you have any touchstone films that you were looking at when you were considering tone?
MAC: Early Duplass Brothers stuff was really amazing because it was rooted in truthful performance and emotion, and I think everything they were doing was carrying forward the filmmaking of Cassevetes, in a way. We were looking more at Monty Python and the Farrelly Brothers, Italian and French cinema, and Mike Nichols. So when we were thinking about things in a very specific way, we were talking about things like Carnal Knowledge or César and Rosalie, which is this Claude Sautet film, or Le Grand Amour by this French filmmaker Pierre Étaix, which we actually put in the movie—these very playful but grounded dramas that also played as comedies. What Pierre Étaix did so well is ground the whole story in real emotion and character and then all his extras were clowns, and he’d do these wild clown bits. He was a bit like Tati, in a way. We were heavily inspired by that in a direct way, because we were trying to say “What subject matter are we dealing with?” It ended up being very serious, but everything ended up very farcical.
I love that these random people show up throughout the film—Judith in the beginning, George Wendt, and Todd Barry. How did these people get involved in your film?
MAC: We just went after each of them in a very specific way. Judith, we wanted someone who was a bit of an icon of French cinema and you could immediately understand why both of these guys would develop infatuations or love for her. Maybe it’s false; maybe it’s not even real, but they’re young and naive, and they’re both going to hold onto it like it’s the realest thing they’ve ever known. Maybe it was real; it’s not for us to say. George Wendt: we wanted someone the audience would immediately feel comfortable with as Kyle’s father as we enter his family world. George said yes right away, and we both knew it was the best outcome we could have asked for. And Todd Barry, we wanted someone who was weird and alienating [laughs]. No, Todd’s amazing. We wanted someone who could give that dry delivery on some of those lines and stuff we thought of for that character.
KM: All the supporting cast had to do so much work in such little time that finding the right people was really important, so that as soon as you saw them, you were locked into what they were.
Are you going to continue this partnership? You’ve been working together for a while as producers, but in terms of the more creative parts of filmmaking, is this something you’d like to keep doing?
MAC: I think so.
MAC: We’re already working on the next things together. We have since started a new company together and are figuring out how to continue to write and make movies together.
Did one of you just shoot the new Paul Greengrass film with Tom Hanks [News of the World]?
MAC: Yeah, I play a bad guy in a Western.
You can check a couple acting goals off of your bucket list with that one.
MAC: It’s funny, before we went into this movie, I was saying to Kyle, “I just want to make this movie, so I can finally start acting and be a bad guy in a Western.” And the first audition I got after this movie premiered was for this Greengrass movie.
KM: You only get to try to kill Tom Hanks in a movie once in your life [laughs].
MAC: If you’re lucky.
Gentlemen, thanks so much. Best of luck.
MAC: Great meeting you.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mr4MKhV5QVw
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.