Michael Covino‘s comedy The Climb was the funniest film I saw at Sundance this year, and the director stopped by the Kia Telluride Supper Suite in Park City with his co-stars Kyle Marvin and Gayle Rankin for a few more laughs before making festival history later in the day.
The Climb is based on a short film that Covino and Marvin made that was at Sundance in 2018. “The idea was simple,” said Covino. “It was [about] two guys riding bikes up a hill. One of them is out of shape because he just went through a breakup. The other one is in shape, and he reveals that he’s sleeping with the other’s ex. So Kyle starts chasing me up the hill, but he can’t catch me because he’s out of shape, and it’s all done in one shot. With the feature, we basically just took that scene and expanded upon it, and then followed the journey of this friendship over the next 13 years or so while they continued to go through the same cycle of destructive behavior, and Kyle continues to forgive my character,” said Covino, who co-wrote the script with Marvin.
The duo first met a decade ago in New York while working in commercials. Marvin actually cast Covino in a commercial, “and then we hit it off so well that we started a commercial production company together. That was like, 10 years ago, and we’ve been working together ever since.”
Marvin said that when he and Covino brought the short to Sundance back in 2018, they already had a good take on the feature, so “we literally spent our entire festival pitching and pitching and pitching, hoping someone would jump onboard. At the end, we had a couple opportunities, and we went with Topic Studios.”
Now, in the short film, Kyle was newly single, but in the feature, he’s engaged, which means that he and Covino needed to find an actress to compliment their comic chemistry. Enter GLOW star Gayle Rankin, best known for playing Sheila the She-Wolf on the popular Netflix series.
“I read the script and it was extremely unique, and I’d heard from casting directors Jess Kelly and Rebecca Dealy, who are incredible over at Chrystie Street Casting, and they were really enamored with the boys and the script. It was super funny, extremely original, and it’s very much up my alley, in that it’s an arthouse-y cinephile film, but at the same time it has a mainstream-ish comedy vibe to it. And when I met these guys, it was a no-brainer,” said Rankin. We FaceTimed when I was upstate doing an experimental Chekhov play, and then we met in the city…
“It could’ve been a regular Chekhov play and we would’ve cast her,” joked Covino.
The Climb actually made history at Sundance this year, as it was selected as the festival’s very first simulcast, which means its premiere in Park City was broadcast to theaters in 10 different cities around the country. They all started playing the movie at the same time so that audiences in faraway lands like Tempe, Arizona and Buffalo, New York could watch the post-screening Q&A live on their local big screen.
“It’s a great way for independent cinema to really get out into communities that wouldn’t always get to see them in this format, so it’s really cool and we’re excited to be a part of it,” said a proud Marvin.
It was at this point that I had a confession to make. I’m a Todd Barry superfan, so when I saw him playing Kyle’s uncle, I knew I had to ask the guys about how they wound up casting the comic.
“You just email him and he goes ‘wait, work?” Covino said with a laugh. He and Marvin were impressed with Barry’s hustle during production, as they noticed that he managed to book himself a gig at the local comedy club to maximize the use of his time while stuck in upstate New York.
“Todd is the absolutely best,” said Covino. “You can’t really fully communicate his personality. I thought I understood dry humor until I met Todd Barry in person, and then I was like, ‘oh, you’re taking this to a whole different level.
“I think he says some jokes and pays them off 4 years later,” noted Marvin.
Covino and Marvin then described their writing process, with Covino insisting that The Climb isn’t based on real events. “Have I slept with his wife? No, not yet.” He continued, saying that “the writing process on this was great, because we’d take the scenes and put them up in an acting class. So we’d write all day, and then we’d take the pages and go for three hours, and at the end of the class, we’d put up the scene, and then we’d tweak it and come back the next day. It was like this really fun theater process where we were workshopping it to get it to the place where we wanted it. And because we were acting in it, we kind of had the luxury of really testing out the material before we went into production.”
I asked the guys about touring the festival circuit with The Climb, and whether Sundance held any extra significance because it’s where they premiered their short film. “They’re all different, and in amazing ways. It’s just been a constant surprise. If we had premiered at Woodstock, we would’ve been stoked. this is special because of the history of American independent comedy. This is the spot where that stuff happens, and there’s this heritage of American comedies being made outside the studio system that exists here, and that’s a really cool thing to be a part of.”
Marvin echoed those sentiments. “When you’re a programmer, you take a chance, so they took a chance on the short, and coming back here with the feature just feels right,” he said.
“We wouldn’t have made the movie if we didn’t have the short here. It never would’ve happened. We wouldn’t have had the opportunity. There’s no chance we would’ve stopped everything we were working on to go try and make the feature of this if we didn’t have the short here,” added Covino, who just wrapped a supporting role in Paul Greengrass‘ next movie News of the World with Tom Hanks.
“I don’t even understand it still,” said Covino, who couldn’t believe his luck. “I was in Santa Fe shooting for a month, riding horses and shooting guns. I play a villain. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and it was a big surprise. It was a thing I auditioned for and got, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna go do this to the best of my ability.’ I think it comes out Christmas this year,” whereas The Climb will pedal into select theaters on March 20 before expanding nationwide the following weekend.
As for what’s next, Covino said he and Marvin wrote a TV show together, which they’re going to try and sell soon, and they’re also writing a new movie together that “explores relationships between parents and kids.” Covino is also a “humble producer” on a project called The Quench, which Marvin wrote prior to The Climb. If it’s anything like their first film, I can’t wait to see it.
Watch the interview above, and stay tuned to Collider for our Sundance supercut, in which dozens of artists offer their theories on the death of Cliff Booth’s wife in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and which categories they’d like to see added to the Oscars, as well as the TV shows they most recently binged, and the ones they’d love to guest star on. To watch the trailer for The Climb, click here.
Finally, we have to thank our presenting partner, the Kia Telluride SUV, which was recently named the 2020 North American Utility Vehicle of the Year. Additional thanks to support sponsors Glenfiddich Scotch, Peroni Beer, Marbl Toronto, mou footwear, ic! Berlin sunglasses and clothing lines, Laundry by Sheli Segal and Orginal Penguin.