Towards the end of Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin's The Climb, anti-hero Mike goes to see a movie by himself at an arthouse theatre doing a repertory screening of Pierre Étaix's Le Grand Amour. The scene quoted in brief is part of the film's framing device in which the hero, played by Étaix himself, is about to be married, an event which causes him to ruminate on past loves and the series of events leading up to this moment. In speaking with Mr. Covino and Mr. Marvin, I misremembered a Jerry Lewis quote about Étaix, thinking he'd said he had met two geniuses in his life: himself and Étaix. In truth, what he'd said was he understood what genius was twice, the first time when he looked up the word in the dictionary, the second when he met Étaix. The truth paints Lewis in a better light, but it's not as funny. Lewis went on to cast Étaix in his self-suppressed Holocaust melodrama The Day the Clown Cried.
This was the last interview I conducted in person before the year's first shut-down order--literally days, perhaps hours before. News was trickling out about how bad this could get, and we spent time talking about how surreal it felt; could it be possible we would actually shut it all down? It didn't seem real. It seems all-too-real now. Even with that shadow looming, talk of the fulsomeness and promise of the theatrical distribution model dominated part of the conversation. How naive, how quaint and even sad this exchange looks now, in retrospect.
I met Mr. Covino and Mr. Marvin in the lobby/restaurant area of Denver's lovely The Four Seasons hotel (not a landscaping office), right in the heart of downtown Denver. I learned they had been taking advantage of the city's bike trails and our then-unseasonably warm weather, and that the ski sequence in The Climb was shot up the road in Winter Park. Mr. Covino and Mr. Marvin are very much like the characters they play in their film, which the former directed and they wrote together: Mr. Covino intense, Mr. Marvin more laid back, spending the bulk of our chat turned sideways in his chair. Both were warm, engaging, and obviously passionate and smart. They're going to be all right.
I wanted to start off by talking about Pierre Étaix and Le Grand Amour:
KYLE MARVIN: Land of Milk and Honey is what we should really be talking about!
MICHAEL ANGELO COVINO: We actually discovered his films late, as I think most of us did because they had disappeared. But it was strange, it sort of timed out amazingly, where when we were incubating the idea for this film, [the now-defunct] Filmstruck had released all his films, and it was this amazing sort of like, well, what did we just stumble into? He's this missing link in some ways in terms of congealing everything we had thought about French cinema of that time in that he was combining these playful, Tati-like physical gags but also rooting it in real emotion and character in ways that, you know, someone like Claude Sautet did.
KM: It's amazing how he'll jump from, like, oh, here's a real emotional moment and then immediately subvert it with this clown bit. It was really a revelation.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I see him in the way you use your camera, too.
KM: Oh, man, he treated the camera in a way that was very Keaton-esque--like the camera was in on the joke: sometimes the straight man and sometimes the gag man. He used it to his advantage to repeat scenes or change perspective on things that would be the joke in itself. He used the camera as a multi-functional tool to time out gags, to reveal punchlines. It was such an education and inspiration for us.
A conspirational quality--like an aside to the audience.
MAC: So true--like the opening of Le Grand Amour where Étaix is like, "It was Paris and I was at a cafe," and then, no, actually we're inside at a table, and then we're inside but then he thinks maybe it was outside after all, but somewhere else, and while we're at this the waiter just breaks and screams at him to "make up your mind!" I was, like, I so want to steal that and put it in a movie and probably could get away with it and only you will call me out on it.
KM: It's pure innovative genius.
He was well ahead of his time: Land of Milk and Honey.
KM: It's just such an interesting end for his career. He was trying so many subversive things, really blazing trails in terms of how we tell a story in film, what's permissible.
MAC: It's so subversive that I don't know if it even seems subversive to a modern audience, because it's so definitive of what we know now about film language.
KM: Right--but it was 50 years ago!
MAC: Yes! We were building out these [scenes] with the goal of inserting physicality and form into the way a character's processed emotion. We didn't want to rely on script, you know...
MAC: And holding that restriction in our head sometimes that led to scenes like, you know, like my character pounding alcohol and crashing into a table at the end.
Or Kyle stripping to a Kyle Mullins classic.
KM: (laughs) Or falling through the ice.
MAC: Or, you know, them just revealing something about who they are on a long ride up a hill. We wanted to let the physical elements get in front--for that to be the primary lens through which we got to know these guys. In creating our characters, we wanted to meet them in the process of something: they were on their way somewhere or processing something that was just revealed before we start the camera. Our goal was to achieve this sense that we were catching them in the middle of something. We were always guided by that.
KM: Yeah, we wanted to portray sort of the funny tragedy of physical pain. Some of our favourite actors, at least the ones who really impacted us as young kids, were the people who were big with their physicality but still grounded their characters. Like Will Farrell does it or Jim Carrey does it. All these guys, they would go big with their characters, but at the same time you felt like they felt the pain and the awkwardness and, you know, they really felt the emotions of those but they're also pulling from the traditions of like the Buster Keatons and the Charlie Chaplins and these original clowns that were on screen who had to use physicality.
KM: Totally. You go back to those movies and find that they're so pure in their execution of story and of comedy because physicality was the only way to get it all across. There's such beautiful simplicity to the way Étaix approaches those things, too--there's a simplicity to the setup and execution of those things that sort of disguises how complicated and planned-out everything needed to be to make it seem so effortless.
MAC: We were always looking for simple setups and simple ways to nail jokes.
In W.C. Fields and Norman McLeod's It's a Gift, there's a gorgeous scene on a porch where he's just trying to have a nap. It couldn't be more simple, but the level of invention there is overwhelming.
MAC: As we wrote this film we were navigating all these influences. We have our down-the-middle filmmakers that we are most inspired by that have informed why we're doing this, and then for this film we dove head-first back into a specific period in French cinema--even the tragedies, like those by Sautet or the character pieces by Eric Rohmer.
KM: Re-watching a lot of movies and also watching a lot of stuff for the first time and hoping some of that seeps into the work, too. It can't help but influence us subconsciously, is the hope, but also sometimes overtly putting references in the film.
Tragedy often leads to comedy.
MAC: They can be indistinguishable in terms of structure because people just sort of learn the lines according to what tone you are going for, but right, yeah, I think also, you know, comedy can be a relief of pressure.
KM: We were really conscious about when and where we leaned on comedy and what function it could serve and then the same for more emotionally heavy moments. It was a real conversation we were having during the writing process.
MAC: Yes, and it seeped into the direction where we would get there and say, "No, no we can't do that joke here," so we would just maybe throw it away, you know, and preserve momentum towards this greater moment where we can really just throw the floodgates open. It was super challenging. Like, how do we watch someone grieve the loss of their wife and then add laughter throughout the funeral and at graveside even?
"The sex just kept getting better."
MAC: (laughs) Yes, is that crossing a line? Is that too far? Does Mike saying to Kyle--you know, the sex life got crazy--cross the line where now the character's emotional journey is not believable?
Or, if believable, we're no longer invested in it because he's such a dick.
MAC: Absolutely. That was always the tightrope act we were balancing.
KM: We felt like really easily, it could go too far if people aren't on the emotional journey with the characters both leading up to that and then coming out, so there were some jokes where we felt like we're on that line, so we either removed it or we dialled it down so maybe they became a throwaway line or something.
MAC: Yes, sort of buried in the mix, right?
One of my favourite jokes in the film is like this: it's when the stripper walks by on the ice and offscreen you hear this really faint, "Hey, you guys have an extra rod?"
MAC: (laughs) That stripper was added that day before we shot that scene! She's a friend of ours and we were like, hey, we need to have her because we had lines where it was, like, oh, we're gonna, have a stripper, so when these guys are out there, why isn't there a stripper walking in?
It plays into this Étaix conversation, too, this use of camera--and off-camera--space to amplify the joke. The musical interludes, too.
KM: We used those for a lot of reasons. Timing as you say, but also I think if you arrange this relentless series of scenes stacked right up against each other it can be overwhelming emotionally. Plus, you're also jumping around in time, and so we wanted something there to indicate that.
They sort of work as a palate-cleanser as well.
KM: Totally--sort of like a little bit of ginger between bites to pull you out before you move on to the next bite, so functionally they were always there. We always knew we needed something.
MAC: Also, those musical numbers were informed by music we were consuming while we were writing. We put together playlists and that became part of the DNA of the piece as we thought it through and shot it. The music was really important for us because music is how we hold on to a period in our life, or our memories of a person in our life. It's like we hear a song and it throws us right back into that moment in time, and so we scattered these moments throughout the movie for the characters to digest what's come before and where they're off to next. They have about them, too, this Romanticism of, you know, these relationships they had and their behaviour in them.
I love that you use "Romanticism" in this way, not as a term about "romance" but as a kind of self-deluded melancholy.
KM: Specifically if we were to go through each of the interludes and, you know, examine why we chose each of those, I think, however they're ultimately interpreted, they were meant to provide some emotional context in the film in terms of the scene that we're about to be in or the one we're leaving.
MAC: They could also function to bring the world of the film to life a little bit. For instance, the end of the cemetery sequence, and it's been made very clear like it's a union cemetery where you can't touch the equipment--which is a real thing that I experienced one time at a funeral--and, you know, it was fun to show this solidarity between the cemetery workers singing in celebration of what they're doing. But for as much as we wanted to have some sort of parallel thematic commentary going on in there, really the priority was to be playful and maybe to remind everyone they're watching a film and of course that we're paying tribute to the type of cinema we love.
"It's a different experience absolutely from when it's on a laptop and you can glance off at a dog peeing outside your window or you get distracted by your phone every once in a while."
Talk a little about notions of forgiveness.
MAC: We were aiming for something that felt honest to our experience of our relationships with other men, but also our relationships in general and how we react to and interact with each other.
KM: Our experience was definitely not the kind of relationships we were seeing much of in mainstream American cinema, and that, I think, was something we always wanted to deal with. How these characters are broken but then so honest with each other, and we'd find pathos and empathy I hope through that in their brokenness. We wanted there to be an obvious sensitivity to the characters and how they communicate their feelings.
MAC: We wanted to capture the rawness of when the brokenness and the sadness of some of these people comes to a head--or up against others in the same arrested place as they are emotionally, so even when someone's habitually making the wrong decisions or doing the wrong thing, beneath that is some level of sadness that maybe you can identify with. We hoped at least that we can look at these imperfect, maybe unlikeable people and go, "Okay, I still don't like that character, but I understand."
KI: ...that they're human and, all right, I understand this misbehaviour comes from pain or, I don't know, from somewhere.
MAC: I think part of it was sort of us exploring and trying to make sense and understand ourselves.
My day job is raking over my regrets.
MAC: (laughs) Yes, we wanted to evoke relationships that we have in our lives not just with each other but in general, like either we're on one or the other side of the equation and trying to unpack our failure rate and through that to gain empathy for others. My character just does and says very reprehensible things, and yet somehow, we hope, it plays as a reminder that human beings are basically good.
KM: You see Mike sitting [sadly] in a car drinking, and his life is sort of he's got nothing and you as an audience will hopefully be like, "Oh, I feel bad for him even though he's a terrible person."
MAC: You hope eventually it's like they snap out of it or hopefully come around to at least acceptance of themselves, perhaps even through the process of trying to understand someone else. We're at a place now, collectively, I think, where so many people are in pain, are truly suffering.
KM: We're all dealing with loss.
MAC: There's something fascinating about being able to travel distances with a character and watch not necessarily their character growing in the traditional redemption-arc sense, but maybe growing in their acceptance of themselves and others. This was the entire jumping-off point for me with this movie. These are the characters and this is who they are. If any of that changes--as I think we've all seen in our own lives--it's going to be very incremental. They're always going to sort of be this to one another and this will always just to a greater or lesser degree be the relationship.
KM: You know, Kyle is never going to be dominant and imposing his will on Mike.
MAC: It's always going to be this other version of, you know, I take a bit more than I give--but twelve, fifteen years go by and they still stay with the same people in roughly the same dynamics.
KM: But what does change for the characters is they become slightly more accepting of the other person[.] Mike is a bit more understanding of Kyle and how he's just always going to be Kyle. And Kyle comes to accept the fact that his friend is an asshole and he's just always going to be kind of an asshole.
More than acceptance, you come to value your friends for their imperfections and not in spite of them.
MAC: Yeah, you know, that's what you are you and you hope you find people who will love you in spite of who you are.
KM: (laughs) I think we can draw benefits from other people, even reprehensible people, in our lives and that's the fun thing to explore in cinema, and maybe something that's a little under-explored.
My wife and I appreciated how you didn't villainize Kyle's wife in the film [played by Gayle Rankin].
KM: That was definitely our intention. Full credit to Gayle who plays Marissa. She's extraordinary. I mean, the nuance of what she does is just like... It's mind-blowing to me how the simple little choices and things she does when she's acting illuminate and add texture and layers to things that we couldn't have possibly imbued it with had we known to try.
MAC: She's a three-dimensional character. She has all this backstory without our ever needing to provide it for her in the dialogue. Gayle plays the character, and she does one little thing and you go, "I get where she is and who she is. Immediately."
KM: We were just so lucky to get to work with someone of her calibre, because you know she really, really understood Marissa, and she fought really hard for us not to get scared and try to make her character likeable and try to make her character, you know, have these redeeming moments. But she was, like, "No, she can be shitty just like Mike can be shitty and just like Kyle can be a pushover."
MAC: They all have characteristics that probably could use improvement, but that's what makes them slightly more real.
The timing of your film is interesting to me, as it seems a manifesto about nuance and human imperfection.
MAC: Yeah. I mean, what would people think of Mike with only just a sampling of this behaviour? It's ridiculous. At what point were we all expected to be fully-formed human beings with fully-formed thoughts?
KM: And that's the fundamental thing: if you make an error when you're younger, even when you're older, the whole point of growth is recognizing ignorance, making a mistake, learning and evolving. Now, I don't know if you feel comfortable saying something for fear it's wrong and trust that you'll have a chance to make it right. It's like, oh wow, yeah, I had the wrong perspective on that one, I'm so glad we had this conversation about this. That's not my perspective anymore.
MAC: Right. And should I continue to do it, fine, then I'm a malicious person and I'm doing it intentionally, but if I did something in the past out of ignorance or something, with no context provided for it and no room for apology or redemption...
For me, it's about the conversation and about finding the real value of making new mistakes.
MAC: It's the fundamental issue of our time. The more we feel like we can't communicate to other human beings about things we're most ashamed or afraid or ignorant of, the worse shape we're in. Whenever we cut off conversation, we get into trouble as a society.
KM: Well, here we are. We have become those school boards banning Huckleberry Finn.
MAC: But let's be clear: books don't exist anymore in the public discourse. Websites do, Twitter does, and likes and posts do. I mean, the expression of ideas used to be books, just books, and it was newspapers, radio, yeah, but now publications are few and far between.
And where they exist, just like newspapers did with the advent of television, they're mimicking Twitter and social media.
MAC: Right. People are not expressing themselves where you would release a book and then that would be the full context of their ideas. Now people have to do it in 240 characters and then apologize probably when what they said couldn't encompass the breadth of their context.
How did you resist those pulls and pushes to be something else? To condense, to make your characters more conventional and your structure more familiar?
KM: As we got into the final days of this and started screening it for filmmakers and producers... Those things can go south really quick, and it's a real gut check. You have a choice to stick to your guns or not on this thing you're trying to have a conversation about, because it's not going to be for everyone and there's also a million different perspectives, and so that was the biggest test.
MAC: You take it all in and it can be overwhelming, but we were there for each other to pump the brakes and say, "Let's go make the movie we set up." It took a lot of confidence, and up until it found an audience, whatever audience it's found, we were afraid. But we held true to this compass of, Is this a movie we'd love to see? And if we would see it, hopefully there's a couple other people out there who will feel the same way and, you know, in that way the movie might have a life. But yeah, you're flying blind.
It's a tired conversation--I'm tired of it, I know--but your film really seems like it needs to be seen without distraction, given the number of visual gags and timing jokes in it.
MAC: We're like really optimistic right now when we talk about the landscape of movies. I know it's not fashionable to be optimistic, but we are. I think that there's something going on. I think there are a lot of filmmakers out there all tapped into some disruption in our culture and trying to do different things, and I really like the direction that a lot of filmmakers are going. We had this mumblecore thing happening in 2004 that was really I think derived from Cassavetes--you've got these groups of artists who come together in this way, like the dogma 95 [movement] that organically or inorganically grew out of that. Then we have the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg and Lynne Shelton--all these people making films that were really honest in emotion and performance and truthful, told in a style that was very loose in their structure and the way they're shot, and now I think we've got this really interesting thing happening with a new wave of relatively young filmmakers trying to double-down on the traditions of cinema with a capital T.
KM: Let cinema be a visual medium explored to the fullest extent.
Bringing us full-circle around to Pierre Étaix.
KM: Yes--carrying the torch for these old masters of cinema. There's this rumour that cinema is dying and people aren't going to theatres, but also we as an internal community have the ability to affect that. If everyone demands it--if everyone chooses to go with a theatrical release over a non-theatrical release--guess what? The theatrical model is alive and well. We had a choice with our movie: we could have gone with someone who wasn't gonna release our film theatrically, who could maybe offer us way more money, or [we could] go with someone who would release the film theatrically, and we decided to go theatrical because it's important to us. Now we can make our next movie with Netflix or who the hell knows, but I think that decision must come with an understanding of what your film is and how it should be consumed.
MAC: The idea so many comedies are playing on Netflix right now is so crazy to me because, like, I get it, because Netflix wants movies that people can turn on without a lot of pressure: if I miss a scene, it's okay because I'll still laugh at the next scene. I get why it is the best thing for Netflix, but also comedies are the best thing you could possibly watch in a theatre. They're better than big-spectacle superhero movies because there's no experience like sitting in a theatre and laughing with people.
KM: You can't underestimate the importance of a black room to the viewing experience, where all you can do is sit in your seat and listen to one thing and see one thing. It's a different experience absolutely from when it's on a laptop and you can glance off at a dog peeing outside your window or you get distracted by your phone every once in a while. Suddenly great moments, entire films pass you by, and, you know, it doesn't hit in the same way, because you don't have the pressure to look away from your phone.