Julia Louis-Dreyfus And Will Ferrell On ‘Downhill’ And Swapping ‘SNL’ War Stories
It’s hard to believe, but Julia Louis-Drefyus and Will Ferrell met for the first time in October 2017, more than two decades into their respective reigns atop the comedy pecking order. Both are “Saturday Night Live” alumni, but somehow their paths hadn’t crossed until Ferrell took a meeting with Louis-Dreyfus about a project she was developing: “Downhill,” an American remake of the immaculate 2014 Swedish dark comedy “Force Majeure.”
Their newfound friendship will pay off this weekend when “Downhill” hits theaters. Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell play Billie and Pete Staunton, a married couple attempting a little relationship rehab by vacationing with their two young sons in the Austrian Alps. While eating lunch outdoors, an avalanche comes hurling toward them. Billie shields the kids, but Pete grabs his cellphone and flees. Upon returning, he refuses to admit his lapse. From there, Billie and Pete’s domestic dilemmas slowly seep out in a war of words and emotions.
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also made “The Way, Way Back” together and won an Oscar for co-writing “The Descendants,” “Downhill” is a profile of a marriage in semi-crisis. The supporting cast includes Miranda Otto, Zach Woods, Zoë Chao and “Game of Thrones” actor Kristofer Hivju, who also appeared in “Force Majeure.”
At the Sundance Film Festival, where “Downhill” premiered last month, I sat down with Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell to talk about the snowy shoot, how the movie tackles gender conventions and their shared “SNL” history.
When did you first become fond of each other’s work?
Louis-Dreyfus: I was a huge fan of Will from “SNL.”
Ferrell: I remember watching you on “SNL.” And I remember thinking, “They don’t use her a lot.”
Louis-Dreyfus: Oh god. Yeah! They didn’t.
Ferrell: And then I remember seeing “Seinfeld” and thinking, “That’s the girl they never use, and she’s funny.”
Have you guys swapped “SNL” war stories?
Ferrell: We have. [For] anyone who was on “SNL” in any sort of capacity, at a certain point the conversation just becomes those people talking about the experience, whether positive and negative. It’s like you’re combat veterans. You then proceed to bore everyone else around you.
Louis-Dreyfus: It’s a fraternity. It’s amazing.
You feel that way even though you were famously underused on the show?
Louis-Dreyfus: Yeah, but I was there! I was in the cast! We were there in different regimes and completely different time periods. I didn’t have huge success there. I had a tiny bit of success, and I learned a shit ton. It’s the training that you get.
Ferrell: Did you watch Eddie Murphy host?
Louis-Dreyfus: Yeah. Wasn’t that amazing? I was really rooting for him.
Ferrell: Yeah, same. Just, like, boom, right back in there. Even his Gumby on “Weekend Update” had a special, extra thing to it. It’s just super cool.
I love “Force Majeure,” so going into “Downhill,” my one apprehension was whether it would devolve into the slapstick comedy that American movies tend to prefer.
Ferrell: The “Vacation” version?
Exactly. Were you ever concerned with needing to up the antics to better appeal to a commercial audience?
Louis-Dreyfus: I never approached it that way. Ever. My approach to it was to be inspired by the film, to adapt it so that it’s an American family traveling abroad and to really make this a grounded drama with a lot of comedic moments in it. But I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have because I was an acolyte, shall you say, of the original. I wanted to make sure that that was honored.
Ferrell: Which was so refreshing, to come aboard and know that that was your intention.
One particularly trenchant idea in “Downhill” and “Force Majeure” is that we think of the man in the family as the protector. But these movies strip away that conventional, masculine, patriarchal trope. The man chooses not to be the protector. The woman has to rise. It feels like that’s even more pronounced in this one.
Louis-Dreyfus: That is a fundamental of the original. What we wanted to do was open up both characters maybe to get a little deeper understanding of the how and the why with Pete. Then also to see Billie maybe misbehave [in the aftermath of the avalanche]. That was important so that she wasn’t the angel who did the right thing and he was the devil who did not.
Ferrell: To make the tennis match much more interesting.
The cringiest and best part of this story is the allegiance shifting that you do as an audience member.
Ferrell: Even though there is a part of you that’s like, “Come on, Pete.”
Louis-Dreyfus: “Just do the right thing. Own it.”
Ferrell: “Just do the right thing. Just go, ‘All right, yeah, you got me.’ But he just keeps digging that pit a little deeper every time. “If I dig it deep enough, I’ll dig a tunnel to the other side. We’re back home! Let’s just get back to work.”
Will, you’re known for playing the so-called man-child. Do you see some of that in Pete?
Ferrell: I know exactly what you’re talking about. I think there are shades of that, but he’s not a child. He’s a successful businessperson. He’s leading the trip up to that point.
Louis-Dreyfus: That’s right. He’s very alpha.
Ferrell: He’s organized a hella skiing trip. He’s like, “Hurry up, let’s go. If you guys don’t want to ski with me, I’ll ski by myself.” He’s typically male in that grown-up regard. I think he’s really symbolic of how we are all at times struggling to just tell the truth. Whether it’s in media, whether it’s in interpersonal relationships, we’re just I think developing an unfortunate habit of, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.”
Louis-Dreyfus: “I didn’t say what you just heard me say.”
Ferrell: “Here it is.” “OK, so I said it. What’s the big deal?” I think that’s what he’s more a manifestation of as opposed to a man-child.
Julia, “Enough Said” is a movie that I adore. It was such an acclaimed film and came right on the heels of “Veep” launching, as well. I have to assume that you saw a spike in the movie offers that you were receiving around that time.
Louis-Dreyfus: Yes. Is that a question?
Ferrell: Huge spike!
Louis-Dreyfus: Huge spike!
Louis-Dreyfus: Hm, I would say maybe 32%, maybe 31. Something like that.
What did you make of those offers that you were receiving? You obviously didn’t take any of them, but you must have gotten a sense of how you were being perceived as an actor.
Louis-Dreyfus: It’s always just material-driven. To be honest with you, “Veep” was a very demanding schedule. Albeit it was only 10 episodes a season, it took practically an entire year to get that done. So something had to be absolutely beyond outstanding for me to think about putting my heart and soul into another project. I don’t know what to say. It didn’t really come along, the right thing, until this project. By the way, I should say, funnily enough, ever since I finished “Enough Said,” this project came along and I’ve been working on it for five years.
But did you feel a certain gratification in that moment, knowing that you’d launched a hit show and movie and were at another peak in your career?
Louis-Dreyfus: I don’t really think about my life like that. I’m really happy to work and I love the jobs that I’ve been able to get, but I’m not so self-pleased, shall we say. I’m more project-oriented.
While developing “Downhill,” was it important to you to immerse yourself in something that was sort of the anti-”Veep”? Compared to Selina Meyer, this character is far less acerbic and more emotionally grounded.
Louis-Dreyfus: The appeal of it to me was not the fact that it was not like “Veep,” but I certainly don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again. The appeal to me was that it was not like anything I’ve done before. Maybe slightly “Enough Said”-ish, but not even that. I wanted to exercise a dramatic muscle, which this gave me an opportunity to do.
I understand that you guys had some inclement conditions while making this movie. What were the “Downhill” cast hangouts like when you guys had to shut down production?
Ferrell: Definitely the disco. Right?
Louis-Dreyfus: Yeah. And there was a Neiman Marcus around the corner.
Ferrell: A disco in the Neiman Marcus.
Louis-Dreyfus: We never shut down because of weather; we just changed our schedule. We shifted because sometimes that inclement weather worked for us. The last scene in the film, that’s all real snow. We were in the middle of that snowstorm. Then there were days where it was clear. There’s a line when we are on the chairlift, and it was me and Rosie, played by the wonderful Zoë Chao. When it first starts out, I say, “Wow, it looks like the sun’s really poking through.” We threw that in because we didn’t know what the weather was going to be. It was starting out really overcast and then it looked like it was going to get sunny, so we wanted to cover our asses just in case.
Ferrell: Everyone had to do a tap dance between locations that were promised to us as having the whole place and that not being the case at all.
Louis-Dreyfus: We were actually told they were going to be shut down.
Ferrell: Working in a hotel that was still operating and functioning in peak season ― things like that. We just would giggle. It’s just something about being on location. It’s this band-of-brothers feel.
Louis-Dreyfus: Yeah, and fortunately it was a very amiable bunch of people. There wasn’t a bad egg, honestly. Can you imagine if there had been, under the circumstances? That could have gotten real bad real quick.
Ferrell: I think it’s coming back to “SNL,” full circle, where it’s like, “Hurry up and do it. Don’t overthink it.” “Wait, do we get lunch?” “Here’s a cracker.” You know? All of that worked in concert and, in a weird way, helped us.
Until Zach Woods came in and mucked it all up.
Ferrell: Oh, thank you for that.
Louis-Dreyfus: He’s so egomaniacal.
Ferrell: He’s a monster. You can quote that. Underline it.
Louis-Dreyfus: All caps!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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