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Discomfort Abounds: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell on Downhill

If you have already seen “Force Majeure,” Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s intriguingly comedic tale of a marriage that goes in crisis mode at a ski resort in the Alps, you won’t need much hand-holding through “Downhill,” its remake of sorts from Oscar-winning duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (with a screenplay penned by the two, plus Jesse Armstrong). But in case you haven’t (you should fix that ASAP), the premise goes like this: a European family of four enjoying their ski vacation gets subjected to a frightening avalanche, to face a cowardly move from the husband/father. After this set up, the film settles into an increasingly uncomfortable tone with shades of dark humor and questions around masculinity and bravery.

“Downhill” takes that premise, and puts an American spin to it, with husband and wife leads played by comedy icons Julia Louis-Dreyfus (also a producer) and Will Ferrell. Having world-premiered at the Sundance Film Festival over the past weekend, I sat down with co-stars (who did their own skiing in the film) for a brief chat at the St. Regis Hotel, reached by a short funicular climb. We discussed the unique beats of the new version as well as building a couple dynamic that feels truthful.

I have to say, it was kind of meta going uphill to speak about “Downhill.” 

[Laughs from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell]

I am not the first journalist to make that joke, am I? 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus: No, no. You’re the first one.

Will Ferrell: You actually are the first one.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Nice!

Yes! So … Julia, this is your first producing credit on a feature film. I'm wondering, what was it about “Force Majeure” that made you want to do this; to bring an American spin to it?

JLD: Well, I think fundamentally the film “Force Majeure” appealed to me because it was a story about viewing reality through one lens, and then that lens is taken away and all of a sudden the reality you thought was one way is now quite altered. And that idea, which is the building blocks of the story, is what appealed to me so much. I thought the original film, “Force Majeure,” was spectacular. And when Ruben was excited about the idea of an American adaptation, I thought, "Oh, I'd like to get in on that." So it was a real opportunity to explore this story with an American sensibility.

And were you also a fan of “Force Majeure,” Will? Or did you watch it after you'd come on board? 

WF: I watched it after ... Yeah, I'd read the script of this version, initially, and we sat down, met each other-

JLD: For the first time.

WF: For the first time.

JLD: We had never met before.

WF: And Julia was like, "What do you think?" And we're like, "Okay, but... I think the tone should be this way." And you were like, "Exactly." And we compared notes and we were like, "Good." And then Julia was like, "You know what though? You should watch the original, just to make sure."

JLD: That you're down for this.

WF: Yes. And I loved it, and saw exactly what she was talking about. And so that was it for me.

It’s a very uncomfortable sort of humor, right? Lots of darkness to it.

WF: Yeah, cringey.

Has Ruben Östlund seen the movie?

JLD: He has. He really liked it, I'm happy to report. Yeah. And he's given a few quotes about it. I don't have the quote. I'm not going to paraphrase it because I don't want to butcher it, but he had really good things to say.

WF: Two thumbs up.

One of things I love about this story is, both characters live in a certain reality and that reality gets invalidated. For Billie, it’s the security she thought she had. For Pete, it’s the fatherly masculinity. How did you get into that fish-out-of-water headspace?

JLD: It's tough. It’s scary, to tell you the truth. The idea that, "Wait a minute. That's not the man that I thought you were." That's terrifying. And the only, in my view, the only redeeming thing for her is that he wishes that he was not that man too. And so, okay, that's an area that we can …

WF: At least possibly rebuild.

JLD: Rebuild from that place. But she doesn't tell him the truth at the end when that guy walks by, the instructor.

WF: And, just as an actor, from a technical standpoint, it's so much easier when what you're reading is well written. And the person you're playing opposite to is connected in a way that makes you feel full of shame. So all of that helped immensely.

And you had amazing co-directors too.

JLD: We sure did.

WF: They were in lockstep with Julia, in terms of really wanting to honoring the original movie, the tone. And just an amazing ability to go back and forth from the comedy and the drama, and handle equally both. Either a really funny note or a really great note to play a scene in a dramatic way.

JLD: But always born out of a truthful, earned place. That was crucial. Absolutely crucial.

The other dimension that I think this version introduces, the family aren't European. So there's also that alienating aspect of it; they are already outsiders.

WF: 100%. Yeah, a whole other level to get to play.

JLD: Its discomfort abounds.

How did you two build this very believable couple dynamic, of both awkward silences and confrontations?

JLD: I think we lucked out, to be honest with you.

WF: Because we didn't have a ton of rehearsal, necessarily.

JLD: Yeah, right. I mean we talked a lot, I would say, leading up to it. And we liked each other a lot from the get go. And I think that our point of view on the material was very similar. Actually, to tell you the truth too, I think we have a sensibility, even in terms of approaching comedy or drama, of play and trust that was similar. And that worked in our favor, for this particularly.

Did the real-life experience of marriage help at all to understand Billie and Pete?

WF: I mean, neither of us have experienced what this couple goes through.

JLD: [Not] this kind of crisis.

WF: Nor have we had, luckily, an intense altercation like this with our spouses. But I think in just having breakfast or going out to dinner, or just chatting in between, we would just trade stories of like…

JLD: Raising our children.

WF: Exactly. Or, "Have you been through this before?" "No. Yeah." And that built this little catalog. Whether you draw on it specifically or not, it was just a touchstone for us.

JLD: I think we knew how to play at being together as a married couple in a way that was believable because we've been in a relationship for a very long time. Even the shower scene, when you come in and he says, "She told us to celebrate,” and she says, "I knew you'd pick up on that." And this is a couple who have been having sex for a long time. They know each other's bodies really well. And, I don't know, I don't know how else to say it. Right? 

WF: I just remember when we were doing something and you were asking about… I just remember… This won't be a good example because I can't remember exactly what it was, but you said to me, "Oh, now I really feel like I'm married to you." Because I was doing something [specific].

JLD: You started to say something and then I knew what you were going to do?

WF: Or it was something I was doing.

And then she finished that thought for you.

WF: Yeah, it was like, "Oh my God." It was kind of cool.

I loved that this version expanded on the female characters. There is a sexual frustration that comes out of Billie.

JLD: Yes. Well, it was very much intentional to open up the character of the wife in this piece. And it was very important to me that she was not drawn necessarily as an angel, that she would make some bad decisions herself. That was pretty important because that's reality. And particularly when you're in a crisis, bad behavior abounds. It's everywhere, and so is good behavior, but we're all so fallible and I wanted to make sure she was well-rounded.

What was it like to shoot that avalanche scene? 

WF: It was crazy. It was really cold.

JLD: It was cold, man. It was really cold. And we shot it in two days.

WF: You had to sit out there.

JLD: Sit out there with the snow cannons.

WF: I got to run away.

JLD: He got to run but we had to stay there with that. They were shooting ice and snow at us.

WF: But, I have to say, even with a piece of green screen up there, these snow cannons and stunt people falling, people screaming, it was not hard to put yourself right in that moment.

JLD; Totally. Yeah. You could go to a scary place.

What was it like to be next to children while you were in that scary place? I am wondering how they engaged with the material.

JLD: They were on board for it. Yeah, they were absolutely true-

WF: And so devastatingly hurt and filled with shame when Julia brings them out of the room. Talk about bad behavior. Right?

JLD: That was a bad choice.

WF: But it was all I could do to look them in the eye. It was such a powerful thing.

JLD: Yeah. Even when you just say that …

WF: I know, even right now, I'm like … I felt so terrible in that moment.

And they're both incredible actors too, because they really just feel uncomfortable and embarrassed to be in front of this.

WF: They were great. Ashamed of their dad and uncomfortable that their mom's putting them in this position.

JLD: And there's just family shame. Just family shame. It's just bad, man.

So, watching both “Force Majeure” and this version, I actually did think, “do we really know how any of us would act in that situation?” We’d like to think we’d do the right thing.

WF: I think that was the goal of the movie is to make you question within yourself and to show that, even after everything they've gone through, you still don't know what ... The mini avalanche that happens as the last shot is kind of a nice, ambiguous way to articulate what you're saying. But, I mean, in terms of it literally happening, I'd like to think I would stay with my family.

That's what I would like to think for myself, too.

JLD: I would like to think the same. Yeah.

So now that you've been through this experience and met each other, and did a wonderful film together, do you think there will be another project in the future?

WF: I would love it. Yeah.

JLD: Oh, I'm not going to work with him again.

WF: [Leans over to the voice recorder] You know what? Strike that from the record. I agree. I second that! [Laughs]

JLD: Well, I'm very, very hopeful that we will find some project to work on together. We haven't found that project yet, but I think maybe in about 10 or 15 minutes we're going to come up with an idea.

And Will, you must have enjoyed the idea of being married to a Veep.

WF: Of course. Yeah, yeah. Power.

JLD: It's irresistible.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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