For a film that charts a quarreling friendship as it jumps years in a single cut, it’s lamentably fitting that The Climb has had such a long, winding journey to audiences. First premiering at Cannes Film Festival 18 months ago, where it picked up an Un Certain Regard jury prize, Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin’s dark, heartfelt comedy played at Telluride, TIFF, BFI London, Sundance, and more, but its theatrical release last March was promptly cut short due to the pandemic.
Sony Pictures Classics are now re-introducing the film as it is currently in limited theatrical release and we’re sharing a conversation we had with director-writer-star Michael Angelo Covino and writer-star Kyle Marvin about comic timing, one-takes, the film’s journey, and balancing abrasive characters.
The Film Stage: I feel like in the last few years, comedy in film has gotten a little stale. It’s really rare for a movie to actually make me laugh, but this one succeeds. Can you talk about threading in comedic beats through the dramatic arc of the film?
Michael Angelo Covino: I think that was the type of work from day one we were talking about. It was very important for the dramatic stakes of the scenes in the movie to be there at a baseline, so the film could play as a drama, and people would care about the journey we were going on. Our challenge at the outset was really, “how do we write in slapstick comedy and physical beats and jokes and these kinds of things throughout these scenes to add levity and break up the tension?” We wanted to take people a bit more on an emotional ride throughout, and not ever tip the scale too far one way or another. There’s always the danger that we are going to be too broad with a joke and take people out of the movie, and going to lose them for the rest of the journey. So we just had to use judgment throughout to say, “Let’s get rid of this joke. Let’s do this. Let’s not do this.”
Kyle Marvin: And also comedy is about timing. So we’re in a world where you slam as many jokes as you can in 30 seconds and the sensibility for us is that some jokes are going to take six minutes [to hit]. We’re going to set it up and it’s going to be six minutes before it pays off. So that was a big thing for us. To calm down.
Covino: It’s okay if someone doesn’t laugh in a scene. But if five minutes go by in the scene, and we get a really earnest laugh in this one moment, that’s way more gratifying to us. Because if you lull someone in and they are like, “I’m not laughing. I’m just watching this thing unfold,” it’s a surprising laugh five minutes in when you plant something later. That’s what was fun to explore for us.
Because of this one-take conceit, you really had to be prepared going in. It’s not like you can make snippets in the editing room, like adding or cutting a joke. Can you talk about the pressure with that?
Covino: Yes, the pressure was definitely high because we didn’t have a huge margin of error. Our approach was to have a day of rehearsal for every scene. We had a full day of rehearsal with the camera and the entire crew to dial it in, to see what the scenes felt like, and the pace of it, and then the following day, we would shoot and perform and we would have 10 hours to get one take.
Marvin: The stakes for the performances were really high because we were an independent film, and so we didn’t really have the leeway. So it was like, “this is our day to get that scene.” I think for the performance side, the stakes were so high and everyone really raised up. Even the people who were in it who had one line, they were like, “We can’t mess this up.”
I watched this film a few days after my own family Thanksgiving dinner and you really capture the specifics of such controlled chaos, getting the personalities of everyone. Can you talk about the genesis of how you wanted to get these family scenes?
Covino: That was one of the toughest components of the writing process. How do we be as efficient as possible with these characters and clearly defining who they are and what their dynamics are? We didn’t have the luxury that a lot of movies do where we get to add these in between scenes that add exposition. We structurally had to really understand Kyle’s family as a whole in seven minutes just by having a camera moving through the house. The characters had to say specific things that illuminate who they are and feel earnest to the conversation that was happening. That was probably one of the scenes that took longest to write because it took so much massaging.
I wanted to ask you a bit about the bro-mance throughout the movie that has been a bit of a staple for mumblecore movies. I’m thinking of Humpday and some other early ones. I’m curious if some of those early films influence you at all and did you want to bring something new to that.
Marvin: I think we were more influenced by the films of the 70s, if we’re being honest, the films that have the same themes as they do and those were the ones we responded to creatively more. People keep saying bro-mance because we’re two men, but for us, it was more about friendship and to tap into friendships with boys or girls or our parents. It didn’t really matter to us to focus on that one element. I think for us, we were more inspired by earlier cinema than contemporary.
Covino: That’s not to say for me that when I first saw The Puffy Chair that there wasn’t something special or magical or earnest about that. Same with Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister––a lot of those movies. I think the things that made those movies so special over and over again is that everything felt honest. The characters did things and there were clear conceits and set-ups for those situations, but they were performed and edited in a very loose way. The main thing those movies had going for them was their earnestness and their authenticity and the organic nature of the performances of the scenes. One of the challenges was stylistically because the aesthetic of those movies were not appealing to us for this movie for a number of reasons. We really wanted to explore more of a spectacle in terms of the orchestration and choreography of the camera with movement. Something that has always been very interesting to me is how do you use the camera to tell a story, but to also reveal comedy. If you go back to Laurel & Hardy or Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, they would just have a static frame and would play within that frame. And that frame would be where the comedy comes out of. That was something that we talked about very consciously out of the gate. We wanted to use the camera as our primary tool for communicating and adding comedy to this, but in the nature of these mumblecore films of the past fifteen years, we didn’t want to lose the authenticity of performance. That was where the theatre approach came in, we needed to cast theatre actors who can be really honest in these moments. And we needed to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, while still hitting marks and performing a dance.
Marvin: I think, unlike a lot of those movies, everything was really exact. There really wasn’t a lot of leeway once we started shooting like there was in the writing process and in the rehearsal process to find a few things. But in the performance process, everything had to be exact. The cameraman and the sound man had to know where we blocked, and what was moving through where.
I wanted to ask you about casting. Gayle Rankin is amazing in the movie. She’s a force. Can you talk about working with her and casting her?
Covino: Gayle is amazing. That role was our most challenging to cast because the movie sort of hinged upon the actor’s ability to embody this sort of complicated character and not allow for it to be two-dimensional. Not have it feel flat where it feels like she is just the antagonist to this relationship with these guys. The hope was always that if you shifted the lens to her perspective, that she would be the hero and my character would be the villain trying to destroy this relationship. That was always really important to us because it wasn’t about Gayle’s character being a villain. It was about these things getting complicated and everyone is looking out for their own self. Oftentimes, the intentions of the other person might be misrepresented and it just gets complicated when it comes to family and friends and significant others. So that was really fun to explore. Gayle got that right out of the gate. There were certain things where we were like maybe we will do this with the character, maybe we won’t. She was the one who came in and said “Yes, this is what we are going to do with the character.” She really gave a deep understanding of what was broken with her and what her intentions were behind it.
Marvin: From a performance end, she is just a great artist. At least for me, it really raises my performance.
I wanted to ask about the musical interludes that give breathing room to the story and gives a fantastical element to it.
Covino: The interludes were this really important thing out of the gate. We kept talking about color and music. We kind of imbued the whole score with this really obscure French music from the 70s. Music can really represent different parts of our lives and give nostalgia to a character. Oftentimes, music is the lingering thing of your time with a person. That was a really interesting subtext to give under the film. The musical interludes were also a really fun way to break up the chapters.
I know you guys didn’t plan this, but 1917 is sort of dominating the conversation about the one-take which I found kind of distracting while watching that movie, but in your movie you almost forget it’s happening. I read an interview with your cinematographer Zach Kuperstein and he said he looked at some one-take movies, but he also brought his own thing to it.
Marvin: He did. I think for us it was almost the thing we were trying to avoid. We didn’t want to be the “Oh, you shot it in one shot?” movie. For us, it wasn’t about that. It was something we were using to explore and achieve our goal. It was more about the method of how we got there than how the method is the gimmick.
Covino: We always had the option to cut if we wanted to, but we just kept finding these moments of immediacy with the characters.
Covino: I also think it was fun to try it with a comedy. I get it in a dramatic sense––sort of a relentless you-can’t-look-away kind of movie. But with a comedy, for us it was like, how do you do that?
In crafting the characters, how did you find the balance between them being endearing, but also kind of wanting to turn away from them at the same moment?
Covino: There was always this question of if we were stepping over the line or are we going to lose people with this character? It always came back to: are the character’s intentions pure underneath it all even if they are making the wrong decisions? I think the thing I was trying to find out with my character was—in his bat-shit roundabout way — trying to do the right thing.
Marvin: We were always trying to make sure we understood the character’s intentions so well so that when we were going through it on the day, it felt completely natural.
It’s rare for a movie to play Cannes and go all the way through to the fall festivals and now beyond. I’m curious what you guys think of the journey so far?
Covino: We’re not complaining. It’s like all the festivals you want to go to. It’s a wild, bizarre ride that was unexpected. Last year we didn’t even know where we would premiere. We didn’t even know if we would be at some random regional festival, which would have been great, but it wouldn’t have been a chance to sell the film in the same way. Then we got this out-of-the-blue call from Cannes and that changed our lives in a very unexpected way.
What are you hoping the takeaway from the film is?
Covino: We just hope that the movie can just make it out there. We love comedies, so for purely selfish reasons, we want people to be able to get out and enjoy it in theaters. But there is something really important for us that every single comedy to break out and succeed. We need a Napoleon Dynamite: a movie that comes out of nowhere and explodes because that is foundationally what American independent cinema is. If a movie comes out of one of these festivals this year and does that, we would be stoked because it means that more comedies will get made, and there is more of a chance for new comedic voices to be telling stories in different ways. This is the way to do it because you aren’t able to get to do it with a studio. It is a testament to our financiers who let us do it like that and said go for it, we believe in the vision. So that’s what I think the hope is. Whatever happens this year, that there is a comedy that is independently made and transcends.
The Climb is available in limited theaters now.