Telluride Film Festival Report: Film Review - The Climb

Christopher Schiller continues his film reviews at Telluride Film Festival with Sony's The Climb, which started out as a short film at Sundance in 2018.
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As a change of pace, I’ll attempt a full on review of the Sony Pictures Classics film The Climb for this day’s entry. (I am still making my TweeView mini-reviews over on Twitter so you can follow me there to keep up with those throughout the rest of the fest and beyond.)

The starting line

Usually when you learn of the backstory of how a film came to the screen, you hear of a long, arduous journey filled with starts and stops, trip-ups and restarts. You often wonder how the film ever made it through all of those obstacles and are amazed that, even though it took years, the film got made at all. This is not one of those typical origin stories.

We’ll start with a short, because that’s where this story truly began. Two friends and work colleagues, writer Kyle Marvin and writer/director Michael Angelo Covino, created an eight-minute short titled The Climb and entered it into the 2018 Sundance. It made a little buzz, actually quite a lot, being nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize. Production companies circled and soon it was determined that a feature length expansion of the short could be made.

Now here’s an opportunity to talk directly to the screenwriters reading this, pay attention. In a discussion I had last night with Ryan Heller, SVP Film & Acquisitions at Topic Studios who produced the film, he told me, “The script is what sold us on the film.” Hear that? Getting awards and attention is all nice, but a really good script is still the key sales and decision point for most executives.

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Mad dash, little time or money

In less than one full year from Sundance to completed feature film, the boys were able to shoot in multiple locations, from France to upstate New York. I even recognized the movie theatre location, The Crandell in Chatham, NY where I have seen many a classic film like the one playing onscreen as the The Climb unfolds. Additional complexity was added to accommodate some rather difficult production choices. Being that the narrative through-line of the film is woven together of long, single takes without edits, they needed ample preparation. They planned this out by provide a full day’s rehearsal for cast and camera for each days shooting.

Once the film was completed, like the thousands of long-shot films hoping to get into Cannes without connections, they put their film on a Blu-ray disc and sent it in. Lo and behold, their incredible run of luck continued because not only did they get into the hallowed French festival, they were actually nominated and won the Un Certain Regard – Jury Coup de Coeur, and were nominated, for the Golden Camera.

This brought the attention of multiple distributors. With multiple interested parties, Kyle Marvin says that instead of settling for the highest dollar figure on the table, even though they were broke filmmakers, they chose Sony Pictures Classics because the fit felt right. Sony seemed to have the sensibilities to know how to treat their little film and find its best audience and timing.

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The Substance

This comedy (or as Covino says, “if you don’t laugh, then it’s a drama”) is set around a few years in the complicated life relationship between two long-time best friends. Neither of the two are perfect, one a dweeb, one an asshole. But even as they fight their way through their issues at times, they do care about each other, and each strives to help the other achieve their best. Only they do so in the most awkward, wrongheaded and unsuccessful ways.

In a sort of subtle, modern Laurel and Hardy approach to first world, upper middle-class problems, they stumble through issues that can be easily understood by a broad audience. The filmmakers were strongly Influenced by French comic cinema where a comedic absurdity interrupts an otherwise emotional, dramatic moment.

The team used recurring themes to spur their writing and directing choices. They’d ask, “What’s the craziest thing would could do here? Well, let’s do that.” Covino relates that they like to delve into bitter sweet worlds, finding laughter in pain and sorrow.

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The Technique

They attempted to be stylistically creative with their approach to production as well with a bit lesser success. The long, single takes sometimes feel far too staged, stiff. Though sometimes, as in the Christmas segment, they achieve an almost operatic quality. Putting together a film with such long takes was a challenge. Their editor confirmed that there are only 54 edits in the whole feature. There are about a dozen extended long takes broken up by short somewhat incongruous interludes as a sort of pallet cleanser between them. Getting the performances right in such a demanding structure required a lot of takes. They had up to 36 takes on one of the shorter scenes and averaged 10 to 12 takes on each of the longer ones.

End Result

Even with the rough edges of their lower budget and technical demands, Covino and Marvin succeeded much more than they missed the mark. Considering every long shot bet they made with this film that paid off for them, cashing in on every “you can try, but it’ll likely never happen” lucky break, they should probably head to Vegas and put it all on black (or blue, more fitting in their case. And yes, I know there is no blue in roulette, but with these two, they still might win on it). With finding so much luck in this, their first feature film, there’s a bright future ahead of them. If they don’t kill each other first.

More articles by Christopher Schiller

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