Will Ferrell stars opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus in their first ever on-screen pairing in the biting comedy-drama Downhill. In this distinctly American take on Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s original story, Force Majeure (2014), a married couple is thrown into disarray after barely escaping an avalanche during a family ski vacation in the Alps, forcing them to reevaluate their lives and how they feel about each other. Downhill is directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and written by Faxon, Rash, and Jesse Armstrong.
Pete and Billie Stanton are, on the surface, ready for seven days of snowy, family fun with their two boys in the Austrian Alps. While enjoying lunch at a mountainside restaurant early in the trip, the Stantons find themselves in the pathway of what is, unbeknownst to them, a controlled avalanche that appears frighteningly out of control. Each family member has a drastically different response to the seemingly life-threatening incident, but it’s Pete’s reaction, seemingly abandoning his wife and kids while saving his phone, that stuns the family and throws the rest of their vacation into chaos. What was poised to be a delightful week of skiing and togetherness becomes a series of awkward and emotionally fraught moments in which Pete and Billie have to be honest with themselves and each other in ways they hadn’t expected.
Pete Stanton (Will Ferrell) in Downhill (2020)
Comedy legend Will Ferrell stars as the husband and father, Pete Stanton, a real estate developer who often struggles to find time for his family in his busy schedule. Then when he finally puts his phone away and unplugs from his career for a time of reconnecting and relaxation, he makes the regrettable, knee-jerk reaction in his family’s moment of need.
“[Pete] behaves in a way that is not the best version of himself,” says Ferrell. “And it raises the question, ‘Is this really who he is as a person?’ Or is he just hoping that no one will notice and that it’ll just disappear, and he’s really not that bad a guy? But it just keeps snowballing.”
Ferrell’s lovable and appealing persona was critical to the role of Pete, because, otherwise, it would have been easy to write off his actions as unredeemable. Co-director Nat Faxon says, “Will has such a wonderful vulnerability in the role, which proved to be an incredible asset. It helped us create this sense of empathy for Pete. And as a result, the audience is left at the end of the film debating whose side they are on.”
“I like how pathetic Pete is in his own way,” says Ferrell. “Yet I think when you watch the movie, you’re also kind of sympathetic to him at the same time. He’s made the most egregious error he could make, and he’s so sorry, but he’s just too childish to admit it.”
Billie Stanton (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in Downhill (2020)
In addition to her producing role, fellow comedy legend Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as the wife and mother, Billie Stanton, a self-assured, accomplished attorney who is eager for the family trip and sees the need of quality time together following a rough year.
“When this horrible event happens, [Billie] is so shook up by it that she doesn’t really know how to digest it,” says Louis-Dreyfus, “and is questioning if she even saw what she saw.
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss brings her characteristic warmth to the role of Billie, a role that requires a wide range of emotions. “Her grounded performance and emotional depth allow us to witness her myriad reactions—confusion, impatience, and resentment—from such a close and personal perspective,” says Faxon. “She also has the enviable ability to communicate so much without really saying a lot. That’s fun for a director, because a reaction can say as much, if not more, than a verbal retort. It’s this restraint that elevates her phenomenal performance.”
“There are no good guys or bad guys in this movie,” says Louis-Dreyfus. “Maybe there are good people making bad decisions, but even then, they’re questionable decisions… Billie ultimately feels a great deal of sympathy for her husband because she understands the shame he feels for what he has done.”
Pete Stanton (Will Ferrell) and Billie Stanton (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in Downhill (2020)
At the center of Downhill, Will Ferrell sees the classic quandary “dinner party kind of question: What would you do if you were faced with this sort of event? How would you react?"
“I think we all kind of have the place in our minds where we think we would do the right thing,” says Ferrell. “But in that moment, you never really know.”
Julie Louis-Dreyfus was immediately interested in the premise of the story and how a shift in perspective can have profound emotional effects.
“What appealed to me about the story was the idea that a person can be viewing their life through a certain lens, and what happens when that lens is taken off,” says Louis-Dreyfus.
“I’ve been involved with this project for several years. It was a great opportunity for me, not only as an actress, but also a producer.”
“I hope the audience goes, ‘Oh this should be fun, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, this should be funny,’” says Ferrell. “And then you get to go on this journey, which is even kind of heartbreaking and a real dramedy.”
Downhill opens at select Regal locations this Friday, February 14th.