Festival hit The Climb depicts male friendship as an old pirate’s curse

We spoke to Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin about their new film, an uncomfortable comedy about men who refuse to give up their toxic relationship.

There’s an article that has been making the rounds for the last couple of years about how men, for the most part, do not have close friends and rely mostly on their significant other (or even just sexual partners, if you want to get specific) for all of their social and emotional needs. One does not get that same notion looking solely at Hollywood films and television, where the protagonist invariably has at least one wacky friend who’s always ready to meet him at the bar at a moment’s notice and proffer characteristically wacky advice. Michael Angelo Covino’s The Climb is about a different kind of male friendship — one that might be more familiar than the high-powered attorney buddy who seemingly has nothing to do besides wait for you at the local bar. The Climb depicts a particularly kind of codependent male friendship that’s almost akin to an old pirate’s curse — a supernatural bond that survives despite being toxic for all involved.

“That’s the most articulate way anyone’s put it, that it’s a curse,” says Covino, interviewed when the film played TIFF in the fall of 2019. “I’m probably gonna use that and not tell anyone it came from you. (laughs) It really is that. You’re stuck with these people and, yes, you could get rid of them — but then you would be getting rid of part of your identity. You’d be getting rid of who you are. Without them, who are you going to sit down with and remember parts of your life? You’ll never do that again. You’ll never recall that memory that you only shared with that one person, and that in itself would be getting rid of who you are.

“Sometimes, painful memories bond us more closely than pleasant ones,” says Marvin. “When you struggle through something and someone’s there for you, those things last — sometimes longer than the pleasant time you had on vacation with someone.”

Covino plays Mike, who we first meet on a bike trip with his best friend Kyle (Kyle Marvin, who also co-wrote and co-produced). Mike is a bike fiend and alpha male; Kyle is his schlubby best friend, and things immediately come to a head when Mike picks this moment to reveal to Kyle that he has been sleeping with his fiancée (Judith Godrèche). This first scene (which is also the short film upon which The Climb is based) sets the tone for the rest of the film, which unfolds in seven distinct tableaus over the course of several years. Though the circumstances change and the tables turn, there’s one recurring theme: Mike and Kyle are seemingly pathologically incapable of being good for each other, spending their lives in a complicated game of one-upmanship streaked with masochistic self-sabotage that destroys their love lives.

Gayle Rankin, Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino in The Climb

“I think what we wrote from is our own experience of male friendship where it’s like, yeah, you can deeply, deeply love other men, and that allows us to be so bold and frank and honest,” says Marvin. “Because it comes from a place of fundamental appreciation for a person you’ve been through so much with, it allows you to go to the next level. It’s like a marriage, right? At some point, you’re out of romance and dating and you can be frank and honest with the other person because you have so much of a track record together, and that’s what you actually need to move forward or to change.”

It will probably not surprise you to learn that Covino and Marvin are friends in real life, although, by their own admission, their friendship is not nearly as fraught. Though The Climb certainly seems to come out of nowhere (a Cannes premiere for a movie starring two guys with relatively few credits on either side of the camera is uncommon, to say the least), it’s the result of a long working relationship. 

“We’ve been at it for a while,” says Covino. “We met in commercial production, making commercials together, and started a company together. I studied film in college, but it’s working on commercials that led us to spend a lot of time with cameras and then we produced a bunch of feature films. This is my sixth feature as a producer. And in doing that, you work with these brilliant directors who are doing different things and taking chances, so you learn a lot from being in the passenger’s seat. We’ve both always acted in various capacities — I’ve done a lot of theatre and improvisation… it’s just never been for too much money. (laughs)

“For us, it’s always been function first, because we needed to survive and eat food,” says Marvin. “It’s always been about being able to use cameras as much as we can and work in the industry and still survive. The short was shot between two commercials — we were shooting a commercial, had a weekend, and because we had the equipment , we planned it out so we’d have the time to make it before we had to make the next commercial.”

It’s not unheard of for features to be based on short films, but The Climb makes its roots doubly obvious by essentially using the short as a chapter. In other words, The Climb is constructed as practically a series of shorts, many of which are shot in a single roaming take. Despite appearances, the short was not made explicitly as a proof-of-concept for a longer feature.

“Initially, it was just a short and we didn’t have any aspirations to turn it into anything more,” says Covino. “It got into Sundance and we said to ourselves, ‘Well, if there’s something here that we’re inspired by and that would allow us to continue this story, we’ll do it.’ We came up with this idea and it seemed like something that would be exciting for us to spend a couple of years on. (laughs) So we came up with this story and built this series of vignettes where we’d live with the characters and move on. The idea we had from the outset is pretty much exactly the movie you see.”

French themes recur throughout The Climb, from casting Godrèche to setting the first bike trip in France and the use of classic French chanson on the soundtrack. For Covino, the influence was undeniable. “We were inspired by a lot of French cinema,” says Covino. “There’s this sort of artificial romanticism about love that is sometimes — specifically from an American perspective — tied in to French culture. I have spent a lot of time in that headspace and world over the last four or five years — I had a girlfriend who was French — but also cycling, which is a huge cultural thing in France. The foundation of cycling is French and Italian, more or less — I mean, it is and it isn’t. I think the bicycle was invented in France. It’s part of the culture and heritage, so I think we just really loved the idea of imbuing the film with this romanticized idea of what love is. Because it’s usually artificial and never lives up to what the expectations are.”

The Climb is available on VOD as of Tuesday, Jan. 19. For more details about the film, please visit its IMDB page. Watch the trailer below:

The Climb by Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin

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