Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell discuss their 'flaw-fest' Downhill
Between the unstoppable force that is Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Veep and the immovable object that is Will Ferrell in his best-known studio comedies like Anchorman, it’s hard to imagine anything other than clamor and chaos resulting should the two clang together. And yet it’s in the awkward, quiet negative spaces that their new film Downhill (in theaters Friday) really hums. In what Louis-Dreyfus calls “a drama with comedic moments in it,” an avalanche at an Austrian ski resort hurtles toward an American family on vacation at a mountain resort; dad Pete (Ferrell) flees the scene as mom Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) tries to protect herself and their two children from an imminent snowy doom. Pete spends the rest of the movie trying to bury his monumental cowardice, which Billie can’t and won’t let slide.
Downhill — Louis-Dreyfus’ first feature film credit as a producer — is based on the Swedish film Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund’s pitch-black 2014 comedy, but it’s not a note-for-note remake. The new film adds a horny resort manager (Miranda Otto) and sexpot ski instructor (Giulio Berruti), a death in Pete’s family, more cringeworthy scenes of Pete’s middle-aged cluelessness, and more dialogue for Billie spelling out the family’s crisis. What it does share with its inspiration is space, some silence, and skis.
Ferrell, 52, and Louis-Dreyfus, 59, spoke to EW, appropriately enough, from the edge of a snowy slope in Park City, Utah, home to the Sundance Film Festival, where Downhill made its debut.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you actually good skiers in real life?
WILL FERRELL: She is. She’s a natural. Me, I am self-taught. But if there’s a run called Devil’s Crotch Hair, I’m not going out there. I’m sticking to Sesame Street, Main Street, all the streets, but none of the runs with the word Devil.
You two had never met before this film. Julia, as the producer: Why Will?
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, that’s what I’m asking myself. [Laughs] I’ve always been a massive fan of Will’s and of everything he’s done, which includes [the film] Stranger Than Fiction, which I adored. When I heard that he was interested in playing this, I was thrilled. I had a feeling that this would be something in his wheelhouse we could explore together.
Will, why did you take a cold call from Julia?
FERRELL: Outside of, obviously, the opportunity to work with Julia, it was the premise. I hadn’t seen the original before, and Jesse Armstrong’s script was so well-written, weaving humor throughout such a serious kind of thing. I don’t get to do movies like this that much. I’m not usually offered this kind of thing. It was exciting to play a real couple. We both have families and kids and have been married for a long time. Fortunately, nothing like this has happened to each of us in our marriages, but there’s still a lot to draw on from family experiences and raising kids. I was just happy to be asked.
You’re not known for subtle comedies. Is this the type of film you’d like to do more of in the future?
FERRELL: I would love to. It’s such a luxury to get to play moments, as opposed to the pressure of riffing funny lines. It’s nice to play with silence and pacing.
There were things you did and didn’t want to do in adapting the original film. What were you definitely not going for?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I was not going for the big, broad comedy version of Force Majeure. I wanted to do good by the original. I want it to have an authenticity.
FERRELL: There’s a scene with Pete and [his work friend] Zach [Zach Woods] on their ski day, where a woman comes up to Pete and tells him that her friend thinks he’s attractive. Which, like, what is he going to do with that? He says, “What do we do? Should we send drinks?” And then she comes right back and was like, [in a heavy Austrian accent] “Actually, I wasn’t talking about you. Just so you know,” with that European frankness. The “out” of that scene in a paystub comedy would be, “Oh, there’s the laugh [snaps fingers], get out of the scene.” But then we just live in the misery of it. There’s a scene when he’s come back from his day with the kids and she’s come back from her day with the ski instructor, and they’re both in the bathroom brushing their teeth and both of them are really not saying what happened that day to each other. There are pauses in there that are heavy pauses…
LOUIS-DREYFUS: …that some people would be tempted to tighten up. Also, in terms of the poster shoot and things like that, we wanted to make sure that the marketing was true to the tone as opposed to…
FERRELL: …as opposed to us in our ski gear posing back-to-back.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: With two funny faces. Exactly. “He messes up — and she’s mad at him!”
FERRELL: I think that’s true for the trailer, too. There are plenty of funny moments in the film, but we didn’t want to highlight that in the trailer so that the expectations were…
LOUIS-DREYFUS: …super-slapstick or super… super.
I think a lot of people assume that if you work in comedy, your sensibilities will be simpatico. What do you feel is the mark of a good comedic collaborator?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Oh, I think somebody who is a good listener. [Both sit quietly, smiling]
FERRELL: I think that and someone willing to play, regardless of how ridiculous the words are, that it’s played completely real and…
LOUIS-DREYFUS: …finds truth all the way through.
Julia, you have a pretty emotionally intense scene where you describe, in front of strangers, what happened during the avalanche. You bring in your kids. You’re crying. What went into shooting that?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: It was a thrilling and, at the same time, incredibly arduous couple of days that we had shooting that scene, which was about 12 pages long. We shot it as one piece, a play that we kept doing over and over again for two and a half days. That was a very effective way to approach this particular scene, because if you were stopping and starting, you could not get into the zone. I don’t know what else to say — it was about being a mother, abandonment, separation, all sorts of things.
I feel like this film also plays with gender a lot more than the original did. As a producer, was that something you wanted from the top?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yes. It was an equal-opportunity flaw-fest, that our wife-mother character would also make mistakes in light of this crisis. They both make big mistakes in this movie. And then, how do they come around? It’s left a little ambiguously.
This movie is short — 86 minutes! Do you have opinions on how long movies should run?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I’m a fan of “less is more.” I think everything’s really long these days — albeit there are plenty of stories that support length, but I’m a believer in “get out while the getting’s good.”
FERRELL: Leave them wanting more.
Todd Phillips, who directed Joker after having directed movies like The Hangover, told Vanity Fair it’s hard to make comedies now because of “woke culture.” Do you feel that way, that comedy is too PC?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I actually don’t feel that way. I don’t know Todd Phillips, but I think when people say it’s too PC, it’s too safe, that always concerns me. I believe in a certain kind of political correctness. I don’t mean I don’t want to rattle the cages, so to speak. And I don’t mean I don’t love irreverence or irony or sarcasm. Do you feel differently?
FERRELL: There’s a self-help book that I remember my mom showing me as a kid, What You Think of Me Is None of My Business. That stuck with me from being a little kid to being a comedian. I don’t feel it’s my job to even comment. I just do what I do and let the marketplace figure that out. I have my own kind of internal gauge. I’m just going to keep plowing ahead, and if the mayor of show business calls me and says, “Thank you for your time, you’re out,” so be it.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: You’re lucky the mayor calls you at all, because I never hear from him.
FERRELL: He’s actually not a he.
FERRELL: It’s a she, but she dresses as a he.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Well, it’s all cool. Everything’s cool.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.