Et Tu, Bro?

Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin in The Climb.
Indie strivers Michael Angelo Covino & Kyle Marvin notch a breakthrough with The Climb, a seriocomic look at friendship and betrayal.



To understand the offbeat vibe of The Climb—an indie bromance written by and starring Michael Angelo Covino & Kyle Marvin, who play characters named Mike and Kyle—envision the opening scene. Mike, lean and motivated, rides a bicycle up a challenging incline, coaching his best friend, out-of-shape Kyle, to keep pace on his own bicycle. The goal of this grueling exercise? Get Kyle in shape for his impending wedding. But partway through the climb that starts The Climb, Mike confesses that he slept with Kyle’s fiancée. What happens next encapsulates the dramedy’s sensibility. Kyle struggles to pedal faster so he can catch up with Mike and kick his ass, but Mike easily outpaces him—just like he planned. You see, Mike’s the kind of guy who’s only willing to face the truth if he doesn’t have to face the consequences, and Kyle—well, he’s the kind of guy who’d have someone like Mike for a best friend.

Kyle Marvin

Throughout The Climb, Covino and Marvin juxtapose humor with humiliation, exploring fault lines running through the lifelong friendship that binds the fictional Mike to the fictional Kyle. Directed by Covino (marking his feature debut), the movie employs a rigid structural contrivance, because each of the movie’s sequences comprises one long camera take—notwithstanding some hidden cuts and a couple of hard edits that were imposed during post-production. The storyline tracks the Mike/Kyle dynamic from its lowest moment to a final reconciliation years later.

Slated for an October release, after a successful festival run and ensuing pandemic-induced delay, The Climb represents a significant leap for Covino and Marvin, each of whom has credits sprawling across web content, short films, and indie features. In fact, The Climb began as a 2018 short film of the same name.

“It was always the idea to make it a feature,” notes Covino. “The inkling from the very beginning was this very simple idea of a friend who reveals on a bike ride that he slept with his best friend’s girlfriend. We loved the characters we developed, so we shot the short, and [for the feature] the idea was to explore this love story about friendship over 12 or 13 years.”

During production, the crew alternated between rehearsal days and shooting days. Each scene received a full day’s worth of prep to finalize dialogue, block actors, and plan camerawork. On the next day, the fully prepared scene was performed and filmed multiple times. “Any improvisation would take place on the rehearsal day. Once we got into shooting the following day, the script became more precise.” – Michael Angelo Covino

The filmmakers’ paths first crossed when Marvin (who transitioned from his first career in advertising to a second one in commercial production) hired Covino (whose background includes acting and directing) to perform in a commercial. Bonding over shared comedic sensibilities, they began working together on ads, which eventually led to making short films and web content.

Michael Angelo Covino

“We would shoot commercials, and then we would take advantage of the equipment and sets and things,” Marvin recalls. “We did a bunch of short things just to mess around. Even the short film of The Climb, we shot on the weekend between two commercials.”

“We only started writing together four or five years ago,” explains Covino. “We’d worked together for six years prior and had never written a script together. I think only then did we start having those conversations like, ‘What are our influences?’ Monty Python and the Holy Grail is, like, Kyle’s favorite movie, and it’s one of my favorites. We watched all of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and then we talked about my biggest filmmaker influences—the Coen brothers are sort of the holy grail of filmmakers for me, because they have the ability to create tension and then bring comedy out in a way that no one else really quite nails. All of a sudden, we found ourselves more aligned than we expected.”

Soon after, they found a writing groove. Marvin often powers through quick first drafts to get material on paper, whereas Covino is more deliberate about revising as he goes. This ability to balance spontaneity with precision was especially helpful for writing the feature version of The Climb, because the long-take feel necessitated a disciplined approach.

“We would put together a scene the way we thought it was best,” Marvin says, “then go to an acting class that we had, which was very open and freeform, and put the scene up on its feet. That was the time for us to feel the energy of the scene and decide what was working and what wasn’t working. That enabled us to discover things or to throw things away as we were writing.”

During production, the crew alternated between rehearsal days and shooting days. Each scene received a full day’s worth of prep to finalize dialogue, block actors, and plan camerawork. On the next day, the fully prepared scene was performed and filmed multiple times. “Any improvisation would take place on the rehearsal day,” Covino says. “Once we got into shooting the following day, the script became more precise.”

Marvin describes their process further: “The self-imposed limitations of this idea of single takes, and choosing scenes that aren’t the peak, pinnacle moments that filmmakers would normally focus on in a film—that really allowed us to stretch and push our sensibilities.”

Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino on the set of <i>The Climb</i>.

“Saying that we’re only going to live in these long moments and tell the story in a bit more of an elliptical fashion really made us question where—in a traditional screenplay—we might have written scenes to bridge the gaps between moments,” Covino adds. “We found ourselves with a Thanksgiving scene where an entire family needed to be introduced in a matter of seven or eight minutes, so it was about finding the most efficient way to articulate, in a non-expository fashion, who these characters are—but to make it feel like they’re real, living, breathing characters. Those challenges opened us up in a different way to writing.”

As for naming the film’s leading characters after themselves, Covino and Marvin say the choice began as a matter of convenience while making the short, yet they acknowledge that real-life sensibilities informed certain character decisions. As Covino remarks, “I don’t think we really thought, ‘Hey, this is an aspect of my personality,’ or, ‘You’re like this and I’m like this, so let’s write the characters this way.’ We wrote the characters and then inevitably found things we could relate to.”

Realizing the comedic aspects of The Climb sometimes required the actors/filmmakers to perform cringe-inducing scenes they had written for themselves. “That was an ongoing conversation,” Covino says. “Where is the line? Are we pushing past the line? And if we do push past the line, how do we redeem the character? It really just came down to instinct for us, and then finding that balance. Is this moment believable? The other thing we did was we got a couple options on the [shooting] days, so if we made a big choice—like me crashing through a table at the end of a scene—then we also got an option where I didn’t crash through the table, or you didn’t see the crash happen.”

Marvin elaborates: “The litmus test was, ‘Is this honest to the character?’ So even if Mike falls through the table, or even if I do a strip scene in a basement, is this an honest thing our character would do, or is it just there for the sake of an absurd moment? If it was something the character would do, then we were willing to risk it.”

Shooting a scene from <i>The Climb</i>.

Another risky aspect of The Climb is the portrayal of Marissa, the picture’s female lead. Presenting a difficult woman as the wedge between two everydudes is a provocative choice for male filmmakers.

“We were very aware of the landscape of cinema, and what the conversations are around cinema,” notes Covino. “To make this sort of a love story about these two men, we knew that, structurally, the antagonist had to be this female character. So the conversation was how to make all her decisions and motivations and the foundation of who she is as truthful as possible. We did as much as we could on the page, and then at a certain point it came down to having deep conversations with Gayle Rankin, who ended up playing that character, and trusting her to bring that character to life. Some of those questions were like: ‘Is this too much?’ ‘Does this feel a bit convenient?’ And Gayle would say, ‘No, we need to double down on this.’ Her viewpoint was, ‘I don’t accept that women can’t be assholes in movies, and that I can’t play a character who is just as broken as Mike’s character, or that my character has to be watered down for the sake of not making her a villain in this male-oriented story.’”

While The Climb is stylistically unique, the storyline echoes the mainstream paradigm of characters overcoming obstacles and learning lessons. “This has that sort of traditional plot structure,” acknowledges Covino. “That was intentional. But I think if you’re looking at the indie movies that break out today, there’s some level of subversion. Something fresh and new, even on these tried-and-true stories. It’s a bit tough to define the word independent right now, because every other day, some computer company becomes a studio. It’s really about the spirit of independent cinema. When you look at Altman and Cassavetes and the French New Wave, these filmmakers were responding to things they had seen over and over and over again and saying, ‘I want to try telling this story in a different way.’”

Or, as Marvin puts it: “The spirt of independent film is, ‘Let’s push the boundaries.’”

In that vein, Covino shares a memorable anecdote from a screening of The Climb at Sundance in January. “A filmmaker who saw the movie came up to me, and he was like, ‘I’m gonna call one of my friends who I haven’t talked to in a while.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s so amazing—you’re gonna rekindle your friendship.’ He was like, ‘No, I’m gonna tell him to go fuck himself! I’m gonna tell him that he’s the worst, and tell him all the things that I’ve left unsaid.’ It was this really funny, surprising thing.

“We didn’t really have a message we were making with the film,” Covino concludes. “All we were trying to do was capture relationships that we understood, and were true to us, and maybe start a conversation about those relationships in our lives that we keep even though we shouldn’t, and why we do—how we find acceptance of the things we don’t like about people.”