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‘The Climb’ was a hit at Cannes in 2019. Almost two years later, will anyone see it?

Director writer actor Michael Angelo Covino, right, and writer actor Kyle Marvin
Kyle Marvin, left, and Michael Angelo Covino show off their bikes on the French road where they shot their film, “The Climb.”
(Stephanie Cornfield/For The Times)

Somewhere in another universe, two dudes were trying to navigate their way up a French mountainside in fog as thick as pea soup.

“We’re gonna murder you, sorry,” one of them, Kyle Marvin, joked. He anxiously tried to peer through the window of the Peugeot Traveller, which was ensconced in clouds. He seemed to be relieved that his friend, Michael Angelo Covino, was the one who had been tasked with driving the van up the Col de Vence.

The winding road, a six-mile stretch that contains little more than roaming cattle, is one of the French Riviera’s most famous cycling routes. In 2018, Marvin and Covino filmed the opening scene of their film “The Climb” here. It was now May 2019, and that movie was premiering at the nearby Cannes International Film Festival to a warm reception. On this very drive, in fact, the men were lamenting their lack of cellphone service, because they were in the midst of negotiating a deal with Sony Pictures Classics to acquire the comedy.

Within days that agreement would be cemented, with the movie set to make its way to American audiences in March 2020. Even that release date seemed far off back at Cannes — but the filmmakers had no way of knowing then how long it would actually take for “The Climb” to come out.

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This past March — after a tour of other highly-regarded festivals including Telluride, Toronto and Sundance — Marvin and Covino were doing full-court press to promote the film. Café du Cycliste, a cycling fashion brand, had outfitted them with custom bikes and Lycra outfits bearing the movie’s title.

This is probably a good moment to explain that, yes, “The Climb” is about biking — but it’s also not at all? The film starts out with two friends, played by Marvin and Covino, riding up that mountain pass in the south of France. Kyle — yes, they use their actual names in the movie — is about to have a nearby destination wedding. He and Mike take their bikes out to clear their minds before the ceremony, but the out-of-shape Kyle is lagging behind. This is when Mike chooses to tell Kyle that he has been sleeping with his fiancée.

Michael Angelo Covino, left, and Kyle Marvin rest on the side of the Col de Vence during the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
(Stephanie Cornfield/For The Times)

The revelation, of course, causes a rupture in their friendship. But throughout the course of the film they find their way back to each other, leading to questions about how — as Marvin puts it — we “walk that fine line between treating life and relationships with a level of gravity, yet are able to laugh at the absurdity of it all when things go wrong.”

OK, so back to March: The guys are on the promotional tour, riding into morning television studios in their elaborate cycling get-ups in a dozen cities. And then, slowly, their segments start getting bumped because of news about COVID-19. They had an event scheduled at the Google offices in Chicago, and when they turned up, there were only two people in the auditorium. A company-wide email had been sent out 20 minutes prior barring employees from attending social gatherings.

So, like dozens of other movies this year that have been moved around the release calendar, “The Climb” had its opening postponed. Unlike many studios that have pivoted to streaming, however, Sony Pictures Classics — a prestige indie distributor that has backed “Call Me by Your Name” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — decided to stick with its original theatrical release plan. Which is why “The Climb” is finally launching this weekend in over 350 theaters nationwide.

Michael Angelo Covino and real-life greatest pal Kyle Marvin play two best buds who find their relationship tested after an act of betrayal in “The Climb.”

The timing is, frankly, not optimal. COVID cases are spiking across the country, and many multiplexes remain shuttered — including in the key markets of Los Angeles and New York. (Covino actually contracted the illness while living with his family in Connecticut earlier this year.) And the guys — who are both 35 — admit: The fact that it all worked out this way is a bit of a bummer.

“We were on this real upswing with this film. We had this big splash at Cannes, and it was like, ‘Everything is great! The release is gonna be amazing!’ And then the rug was sort of pulled out from under us,” Covino said, Zooming from his parents’ place last month. He was there recovering from a long-put-off shoulder surgery he decided to finally get when it seemed the movie might not come out this year. Usually he lives in New York City, and Marvin splits his time between L.A. and Portland, Ore.

Still, the guys aren’t feeling too sorry for themselves. What if, for instance, “The Climb” had tried to play Cannes a year later, when Cannes got canceled?

“We’re releasing the film, and people aren’t going to movie theaters, really, but we can hope for the best and that the movie finds an audience if not right away, then down the road,” Covino said. “We’re sitting here in limbo, but we’re kind of learning to cope, which has been a lovely, humbling experience with our first film.”

Marvin, left, and Covino sport the tuxedos they wore to the premiere of "The Climb" at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
(Stephanie Cornfield/For The Times)

Covino and Marvin met a decade ago in New York, when they were both working on a commercial for a now-defunct bill-splitting application. Covino had only recently abandoned his dream of playing professional football, transferring from Fordham University to Occidental College to study filmmaking. Then he was cast as the on-screen talent in the ad, whose creative director was Marvin.

On set the guys hit it off, forging a friendship around their love of similar films: “The Big Lebowski,” “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” About a year later they decided to form a production company together, working on ad campaigns to make ends meet and putting the money from those gigs into their passion projects — one of which was a short film that eventually expanded into “The Climb.” (They co-wrote the movie, and Covino directed it.)

The idea was born more of a feeling than an actual storyline, a sentiment Covino described back on that French drive as “happy but a little sad.”

“It’s a love story, but it’s between two friends,” he explained, weaving up the switchbacks. “These are the type of male friendships that we understand more implicitly. We’re really overly-emotional, vulnerable creatures that pretend not to be.”

In the film, Mike is the alpha to Kyle’s beta. Not only does he have an affair with Kyle’s would-be wife, but he later tries to dissuade his friend from marrying another woman whom he dislikes. Where Kyle is accommodating and meek, Mike is brash and assertive, third-wheeling it on Kyle’s couple getaways and ruining the trips with his drunken antics.

Gayle Rankin, Kyle Marvin, center, and Michael Angelo Covino in a scene from "The Climb."
(Zach Kuperstein/Sony Pictures Classics)

The characters’ dynamic is rooted in truth, both men admit — albeit dialed-up for the film.

“I don’t think I’m quite that big an a—,” Covino said.

“And I don’t think I’m quite that big a pushover,” Marvin added.

“Have I slept with his wife? The answer is: Not yet,” Covino said, laughing.

Marvin got married in his early 20s and he and his wife, Jamie, have two daughters (9 and 10). Covino has been in a relationship for three years, but opted out of “the shotgun COVID wedding that people are doing.”

“I’ve heard a lot of people be like, ‘Eh, whatever, let’s just do it. Save money,’” he said. “I didn’t feel that was appropriate.”

One thing they have leaned into during quarantine? Cycling. Covino, who was already a self-proclaimed “obnoxious biking person who wears skin-tight outfits,” got Marvin into the sport a few years ago. When he’s in town, he and Marvin share a Silver Lake office and take hour-long rides over Griffith Park if they’re stuck in a creative rut.

“It’s a great time to focus,” said Marvin. “We’ll be debating something or talking about a certain scene we’re jammed up on, and it helps us process.”

So when their friends jumped on the biking bandwagon mid-shutdown, the guys found themselves serving as informal cycling consultants.

“Everyone’s like, ‘I’m getting a bike, I need you to advise! This one or that one?’” Covino recalled. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but I did not go to school for this.’ And now we’ve gotten numerous friends fitted with bikes. We’re friends with a lot of people in the bike industry who are like, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this, we can’t keep anything on the shelves.’”

They’ve also used 2020 to work on new scripts — writing opportunities they were offered after the success of “The Climb” at Cannes.

“It strangely worked out really well in that we can’t do anything but write right now, so we’ve kind of written the next three or four years of work for ourselves,” said Covino.

"The Climb" creators Michael Angelo Covino, Kyle Marvin and actress Gayle Rankin at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival
“The Climb” creators Covino and Marvin with actress Gayle Rankin at the Sundance Film Festival in January — one of the many stops along the long road to the film’s release.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Not that the friends plan to be partners on every project. Covino is keen on continuing to act and landed a supporting role in Paul Greengrass’ upcoming “News of the World,” opposite Tom Hanks, after three auditions. But after going through the ups and downs of “The Climb,” the men feel bonded to each other on a deeper level.

“I think it’s strengthened our friendship, which had already gone through the crucible of making a film together and came through stronger,” said Marvin. “Having traveled together so much, we definitely have more of a shorthand.”

“Yeah, I think we’re closer now, because we’ve shared this really intense experience,” said Covino. “I think we’re finding a bit more patience. Before it was like, ‘Let’s go, go, go!’ One of the things that can happen if you have a little bit of success is that you jump into opportunities because you never had them before. Kyle, to his credit, is really good at breathing and reflecting. We’re not going to let our relationship be affected.”

As for this weekend, it remains to be seen whether moviegoers will feel safe actually turning up to see “The Climb” in reduced-capacity theaters. The filmmakers are comfortable letting people make that decision on their own.

“I don’t think we have a choice at this point,” Covino said. “The only potential upside is that we’re going to be releasing on way more screens opening weekend than we would have been otherwise for a small film. And if people go, I hope it offers a 95-minute reprieve from everything going on. I’m a big believer that a movie can shift our viewpoint on things for a slight moment, give us a chance to catch our breath and go: ‘Everything is going to be OK.’”


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