It’s mid-February in the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl and one of the only families in town is patiently waiting for their turn to board the gondola. If you didn’t see the cameras and lights, you might not notice that two members of the family are Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, casually blending in to the line of skiers, which is composed of both hired extras and actual vacationers.
The vacationers aren’t having the delays, which happen when directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon call “Cut!” and ask for another take. Nor are they impressed that a Hollywood film crew and a bunch of actors are trying to complete production on “Downhill,” a remake of Ruben Östlund’s 2015 Swedish dramedy “Force Majeure.”
“At first, it seemed like we were at the mercy of a lot of things we couldn’t control,” Faxon says of making a movie in a working ski resort. “The weather really does change so drastically here in such a short amount of time. We’re shooting in a place without a lot of familiarity in terms of filmmaking. There are a lot of different variables that I think were unpredictable.”
“We have to keep everything open,” Rash adds. “And we can’t stop the gondolas. We were riding up and down those things all day. The challenge was to be as not present as possible, which is a Herculean task. And, of course, people have to pee, so you have to stop the ski lift for that too.”
It’s not chance that brought “Downhill” to Ischgl, a destination that is known as the “Ibiza of the Alps” (and which boasts the terrifying slogan “Relax, if you can”). The adult atmosphere of the town, where European visitors party late into the night after descending from the slopes, provides a comedic — but also disconcerting — fish out of water context for this new American version of the story, which was adapted by “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong. (Faxon and Rash also receive screenplay credit.)
The film details the fallout after Pete (Ferrell) abandons his wife, Billie (Louis-Dreyfus), and their two kids when an avalanche appears to threaten. Louis-Dreyfus was approached by Searchlight in 2015 after working with the studio on “Enough Said.”
“We wanted to work together again and they asked me what kinds of stories appealed to me,” the actress says. “I happened to say, ‘Oh, I really like stories in which you’re looking at reality through one lens, and then, that lens is taken off and suddenly reality shifts. What you thought was one way is another.’ They had just seen ‘Force Majeure’ and said, ‘Oh, my God, you need to see this movie.’ They screened it for me and that’s where it began.”
Louis-Dreyfus, who executive produced “Downhill,” reteamed with “Enough Said” producer Anthony Bregman and the pair tapped Armstrong to pen the script — all with Östlund’s blessing.
“One of the appealing things about the job is that structurally, it’s incredibly robust and getting a structure to work is, I think, for most screenwriters, the hardest single thing,” says Armstrong, who knew Louis-Dreyfus from writing on the first season of “Veep.” “Having a good plot to express the lives of your characters and that is compelling to an audience in itself is a struggle to find.”
The screenwriter was initially unsure about writing another version of a film he loved but responded to Bregman’s idea that a film remake is similar to a cover version of a song: a new interpretation of a beloved thing. “The ambition is to have some new flavors, some different takes on the characters and explore some other ways of looking at that situation,” Armstrong adds. “It’s a particularly interesting and difficult process when you admire the original so much. There has to be a balance between changing a lot because you want to do something different and then loving it and going back to it.”
Beyond making the family American, the filmmakers wanted to expand the role of the female protagonist. Whereas “Force Majeure” centers on how the husband deals with his reaction and possible failings, it was important to Louis-Dreyfus, as well as the directors, to ensure Billie got her due.
“Making it more feminist wasn’t exactly the goal,” she notes. “It was just to make her more active as a character in the movie, as opposed to reactive … It was also very important to us that there’s an ambiguity here. There aren’t good guys and bad guys. That was an important idea that we wanted to keep in place in making this film.”
Surprisingly, “Downhill” Louis-Dreyfus’ first collaboration with Ferrell, who notes that the pair have a very similar sense of humor. The actors originally met in the fall of 2017 to discuss the film and Ferrell was quickly on board. He read the script without seeing the original movie and was struck by how the concept offered an original way of exploring a relationship.
“I hadn’t seen that before,” he says. “And also [it was] the opportunity to play something much more grounded, something that was comedic but then dramatic. I loved the tone of the movie and how it changes gears in such a way where you don’t see it coming.”
Both Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus were already skiers, and Louis-Dreyfus pushed for the production to take place in the actual Alps, rather than substituting in a North American location for Austria. Faxon and Rash scouted numerous resort towns around the country, eventually settling on Ischgl and nearby Fiss, which stands in as the family-friendly resort where Pete takes the kids for an afternoon. Some interiors were shot on a soundstage in Vienna, but most of the film brings you right to the chaotic energy of Ischgl itself.
“Challenging is an understatement,” Louis-Dreyfus says, reflecting on the experience a year after production. “First of all, we were outside in the mountains in the snow for hours and hours every day. That was taxing in and of itself, albeit beautiful. But there were many times in which it had a kind of run and gun quality. We’d have to get a shot done quickly so people could load up onto the chairlifts because they were getting pissed off and they needed to get on with their vacations. But honestly, it was an incredibly exciting and honestly exotic undertaking in so many ways. I still can’t believe we were there for months on end shooting this thing.”
“You’re on an active chairlift and the camera is just rolling, and you get maybe two takes before you get [to] the end of the run and you have to go back down,” Ferrell adds. “Those things you think would be hindrances actually give it a certain momentum and energy and vitality that you don’t have when you have the luxury of time. And I think, for both Julia and I, working on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and in TV where you have to shoot a lot in a short amount of time, we were up for that and ready to go every day. I loved it.”
For Faxon and Rash, there are several justifications for remaking a beloved and critically acclaimed film, one of which was the opportunity to put actors such as Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus in these awkward, tension-fueled scenes. Tonally, it’s a careful balance between grounded comedy and emotional drama, one where both actors felt they could not go as big as they are known to do. Looking at the story objectively, the directors suggest everyone can relate to the ideas that underscore the plot.
“At its core, there’s something that’s very identifiable,” Faxon says. “Do you know your partner or your spouse as well as you thought you did? And what are those questions that come in this high-stakes situation? What would you do? Just by nature of us taking on the project, it became American, in a sense, but it wasn’t necessarily ‘How do we get the film to be more American?’ I think it was more a result of how we were setting up the film and who was in the film and that this was an American family. But a lot of the same themes run throughout the movie that are very universal to begin with.”
“This is a slight re-imagining of it without losing its spirit and what makes it so great,” Rash says. “We didn’t want to lose the great cringe, the awkwardness, the comedy coming from a very dramatic place.”
It was such a striking experience that a year after production Ferrell is still considering the ideas brought up in the movie and reflecting them on current events.
“What the movie forces you to sit back and think about is that we all operate under this notion that life is predictable,” Ferrell says. “And it really isn’t. That may sound simplistic, but I think it reminds that this is also the case. [It’s] a kind of a study in how far are you willing to suppress the truth and not be honest with yourself and with each other. It just feels like we’re operating in a massive truth deficit right now, whether it be Trumpian or whether it’s information right now on the coronavirus. That seems to be a pattern that is happening all over the place.”