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Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus were finishing each other’s sentences by the end of Downhill

The comedy legends loved playing a long-married couple in the upcoming American remake of Force Majeure.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell appear in Downhill by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance Institute

I had to take a funicular up a steep mountain slope to a luxury resort hotel to talk to Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell about their new movie, Downhill. Appropriately, the film premiered amid the snowy peaks of Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival. It felt a bit like I was being fully immersed in the movie, which centers on an American family of four who travel to Austria for a ski vacation.

Downhill is a remake of the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure — which, years after its premiere, still sparks arguments at certain sorts of parties over whether it is a drama or a comedy. (It’s a comedy, obviously.) The tale of a couple who bring their children on a ski trip, nearly get swallowed by an avalanche, and then watch as fractures in their marriage become gaping maws won the hearts of both critics and people who love very darkly funny movies, and Downhill retains some of its predecessor’s weird humor while injecting a sensibility of its own.

Louis-Dreyfus has been attached to Downhill from the start, when Fox Searchlight executives approached her and Enough Said producer Anthony Bregman about remaking Force Majeure, which was then a recent release. They spent the next five years trying to get Downhill made. The film went through several iterations, but in its final form it boasts a screenplay by Succession’s Jesse Armstrong and writer/director duo Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (who also made The Descendants and The Way, Way Back).

Force Majeure’s director, Ruben Östlund — who in 2017 won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his subsequent film, The Square — makes pitch-black comedies about the absurdities inherent in human societies and relationships. The film won a loyal following for its starkly funny, hilariously uncomfortable take on a marriage on the brink of disaster.

Downhill is a different animal, of course, not least because it stars two comedians with loyal American followings among audiences who wouldn’t necessarily be attracted to a bleak Swedish movie. Downhill follows similar story beats as the original, but with a slightly different feel; it’s not quite as grim as Force Majeure, and it’s more focused on the married couple as characters rather than types. By phone, Rash and Faxon told me they thought of their movie as more of a “riff” on the original — it’s an “homage” to Force Majeure.

Despite being two of the most famous comedic actors on the planet, Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus had never met before they got together to talk about Ferrell joining the project. But their portrayal of Pete and Billie, a long-married pair with two teenage sons, feels lived-in and familiar. As in Force Majeure, an avalanche, and Pete’s reaction to it, lights a fire under a long-simmering pot of resentments and disappointments. And Pete and Billie keep exploding at each other, in the presence of both an uncomfortably friendly stranger named Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and Pete’s work friend Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao).

Once I found my way from the funicular, Ferrell, Louis-Dreyfus, and I chatted about the long road to making the movie, their experiences juggling family and work on set in Austria, and what they ate for lunch on the country’s snowy slopes. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

There must have been a lot of laughter on this set.

Will Ferrell

We would pile into these crazy Sno-Cats. We got on some laughing jag coming down one of them.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

We did?

Will Ferrell

Didn’t we?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Probably.

Will Ferrell

It must have been a loopy, punchy end of the day. I don’t even remember.

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, when you’ve been shooting for 18 hours …

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

We didn’t have hours like that, because we were very dependent on sunlight. But what we did have to do was get up super early in the morning.

Will Ferrell

Oh! It was those lovely Irish hairdressers.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Yes, Orla and Lynn.

Will Ferrell

Orla, that’s what we got on a laugh about, because she’s like, “Did, you bring your cap widja?” Widja — “with you.” And I’m like, “No. What’s a ‘cap widja’?” She’s like, “No, widja, with you, with you.”

You can start your story with that. “If this is any indication of what to expect in the movie …”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

“Of the intellect …”

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, I did actually want to start by asking about comedy in this movie. It definitely resembles the film it’s based on, which is arguably a comedy, but not exactly the kind that people laugh at. It’s bleak. I laughed watching Downhill, but it’s still pretty dark. You’re both comedians — how did you think about that comedy/drama divide?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Well, I think of it more as a drama with comedic elements, comedic beats.

Will Ferrell

Yeah.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

So that’s why it was so appealing to me to take this project on. I think Will feels the same way. We really wanted to exercise that muscle. There are plenty of comedic moments within, but it’s driven by drama.

Alissa Wilkinson

So do you prepare for a dramatic role differently than a comedic one?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

It’s not different.

Will Ferrell

Even in the broadest of broad [comedy] we’ve done, we always approach it from sincerity, from a truthful place. And that makes it even funnier in a way. So with this, we approach it the same way; it just happens to be more “real.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Right.

Will Ferrell

And more awkward, and more tense. So depending on who you are, you’re going to be like, “Hahahahaha, I’m laughing because I don’t like it.”

Alissa Wilkinson

I feel like a lot of the laughing you do watching this movie is kind of rueful, like a laugh of recognition. I’ve been married for 13 years, and I was like, I recognize that.

Will Ferrell

Yeah. You identify.

Alissa Wilkinson

So were you both drawing on your own experiences for this?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

We both know what it’s like to be in a marriage over a long period of time, and we both have children, so we could draw on that, sort of.

Will Ferrell

Shared turf there, in terms of the day-to-day working dynamic of a couple. Fortunately, we’ve never had a horrible fight like that in either of our relationships. Right? You haven’t had, right?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Sorry. I was just thinking about the scene where we’re in the bedroom, and we’re sitting there eating fries, and drinking wine. I don’t remember when in the schedule we shot that, but that to me felt very real: a married couple treating themselves to room service, on the bed.

Will Ferrell

It feels indulgent to them.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Yeah. And it’s cozy.

Will Ferrell

They’re on vacation. It’s cozy.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Will and I got to know each other very well over this period of time. We were sharing stories of our lives together. We were lucky it worked.

Will Ferrell

I would commiserate often with Julia, because my wife was manning the fort while I was gone, and I’d get calls. I’d be like, “Listen to this: Our high schooler wants to do X.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

My kids are older, so I’d be like, “Yeah, we’ve been there.”

Alissa Wilkinson

How long was the shoot?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

A couple of months.

Alissa Wilkinson

I couldn’t quite tell whether the shoot would have felt cozy or whether it was a physically demanding movie to shoot.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

It was so physically demanding.

Will Ferrell

Yes.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

We were outside the bulk of the picture. A lot of times we were on skis, with an incredibly nimble athletic second unit who was following us and skiing backward with hydraulic cameras on their backs. It was crazy.

Will Ferrell

Not breaking for lunch sometimes. Or you get like a 15-minute lunch, and that would be like a hot cup of … [mimes spooning food out of a cup]

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Holding a thing and eating it.

Will Ferrell

Very much a European portion lunch.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Trying to stay warm.

Will Ferrell

Some sort of stew?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

I have pictures on my phone of us sitting in folding chairs set up in snow. There was no trailer.

Will Ferrell

It added to the experience.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

It was kind of super fun.

Will Ferrell

You knew what you were signing up for, and that was the beauty of it.

Alissa Wilkinson

Were you both competent skiers coming into it?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Yes, we were.

Alissa Wilkinson

The actors playing your kids as well?

Will Ferrell

Ammon [Jacob Ford] was learning for the first time. Julian [Grey] knew how to ski. And Ammon picked it up so quickly that he actually had to …

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Dial it back.

Will Ferrell

In that scene where we’re waiting for him to ski down the hill, he had to act like a bad skier, because at that point he was actually ripping down the same runs as everyone else.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Part of what I love about that shot is that it’s wide.

Will Ferrell

By the way, that’s a moment where it felt like we were a couple ...

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

... Because we were finishing each other’s sentences.

Will Ferrell

We’re both like, “Jesus, hurry up.” “You got it, buddy.” “Looking good.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

“Don’t make a big deal out of it …”

Will Ferrell

“Keep him in the game.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

“Please don’t indulge him.” We both have boys, and we know the dynamic.

Will Ferrell

If you say one thing the wrong way …

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s always on family vacation when all your worst fights happen as a family.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

They can.

Will Ferrell

They sure can.

2020 Sundance Film Festival - “Downhill” Premiere
Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus at Sundance.
Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

This movie is similar in some ways to Force Majeure, but of course it’s different. It’s more American, and the story beats are different. What would you say is the most notable difference?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Well, Force Majeure is an absolute work of art, obviously. [Force Majeure director] Ruben Östlund was very excited for us to do an American adaptation, and knew that we would be sort of riffing on what he did.

Will Ferrell

But it’s definitely different by virtue of the fact that we are an American family in Europe, so we have to deal with that element right out of the gate.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

The fish-out-of-water thing.

Alissa Wilkinson

But it never becomes National Lampoon’s Ski Vacation, or anything like that.

Will Ferrell

No.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Good. That was very intentional.

Will Ferrell

The original is very stark, in an effective way and in a beautiful way.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

And it’s very Swedish, in a wonderful way. This film is not. I think also this film opens up the character of the wife to make her more of a flawed human being, which was also very intentional.

Will Ferrell

And Miranda [Otto]’s character, also.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Yeah. Kind of a whacked-out German lady. [Note: Otto plays a mysterious woman at the ski resort who befriends Billie and challenges Billie’s self-image.]

Will Ferrell

Is she just an apparition? We didn’t even know. At the end it’s almost like, “Did she exist? Where does she work? Does she work here? What is happening?” Those are all the things that were messed around with.

Alissa Wilkinson

I also feel like there’s a sweetness to Downhill that maybe isn’t as present in Force Majeure. I had a little more hope that this family would make it.

Will Ferrell

Whereas in the original, they’re left on a road to nowhere.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Although I don’t know that it’s a definite thing at the end of our film.

Will Ferrell

That’s true.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

I think there’s an ambiguity in place. I can see how you might walk away from this film thinking, “Hmm.”

Will Ferrell

Like, is [what happened between the couple near the end] just a stopgap measure?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Troubles ahead.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you feel like you learned anything from this experience that you’re taking with you into future projects?

Will Ferrell

I remember talking to my manager literally after the movie wrapped, and he was like, “How’d it go?” I was like, “It was like the perfect creative thing to do at this point in my life. It just felt like it was a great group of people. It was so much fun. It was super hard at times, physically, mentally, all of the above. But wow, it was just one of the cooler things I’ll ever get to work on.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

That’s so nice, Will.

Alissa Wilkinson

Julia, you were also a producer on Downhill, right? That seems like a lot, when you’re also starring and you’re on skis all the time.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Yes, it is.

Will Ferrell

In addition to also — [to Julia] if I can brag about you — working a 12-hour day, and then also looking at cuts of [the final season of] Veep and giving notes.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Oh, yeah. I forgot about that.

Will Ferrell

I was just eating a cheeseburger back in my room. That’s too hard. I don’t know how she did that, but she was incredible.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Hey, don’t sell yourself short.

Will Ferrell

She was incredible.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

I had never produced film like this before. I produced a documentary once, but with Downhill I learned a lot about pre-production and post-production — although, to be honest with you, I knew a lot about that already, because Veep was essentially half-hour films, and I was very much involved with all of that.

But it took a lot of stick-to-itiveness to get this thing done. There were, frankly, over five years, a number of sort of false starts. Are we going to do it? It looks like we’re going to do it. No, we’re not. So you had to sort of power through those frustrations and see them through.

So I guess I have a heartier sense of stick-to-itiveness than I did before. I thought it was firmly in place before, but now even more so.

Alissa Wilkinson

Five years is so long.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

It is long. But that happens to a lot of films. It’s not an anomaly.

Alissa Wilkinson

I imagine it also isn’t the easiest movie to pitch to people — to explain what it is and how it’s different from the original.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Right.

Alissa Wilkinson

So if you could pick another movie that you think would be great as an American remake, what would you pick?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

[long pause] Oh, god.

Will Ferrell

Well. One of my favorite foreign films of all time is Cinema Paradiso. As an American remake? I don’t know. You could.

Also, we’ve gone down the road with this, though I don’t think it’s going to happen now, with a remake of another movie. It was a book that was made into a movie called The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and we were going to try and do an adaptation here. But it’s not happening.

I think what we’re trying to say is it’s just really hard to get anything done.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

To get anything done.

Downhill premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, and opens in theaters on February 14.

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