'Downhill' makes audience referee Will Ferrell vs. Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Julia Louis-Dreyfus executive produces and stars in "Downhill." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI | License Photo
Jim Rash (L) and Nat Faxon wrote and directed "Downhill." File Photo Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo
Left to Right: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash work on a scene from "Downhill." Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Left to right, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash work on a scene from "Downhill." Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Feb. 14 (UPI) -- In Downhill, Pete Stanton (Will Ferrell) abandons his wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and children in an avalanche during a ski trip. The film's writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash said they want audiences to debate whether Billie or Pete was right after they leave the movie.

"It's so easy to say I'm hunkering down, I'm running to the aid," Rash said in a phone interview with UPI. "We hope to be that person. I'd probably say that we aren't all that person."

The Stanton family survives the avalanche. It turns out to be a mild dusting of snow after a controlled blast. When Billie sees her husband run, however, the psychological damage lasts longer than the physical terror.

"We all want to be the Billie," Rash continued. "You're always going to want to be the person who recovers and fights the good fight together, but I think we all enjoy flawed characters making bad decisions."

Ferrell was game to present a character more unflattering than his lovable goofballs in Elf, Anchorman or Talladega Nights. The directors struggled to present Pete honestly, without making him the villain of Downhill.

"One of the challenges throughout both the writing and the filming and then a lot of work in the editing room was just evening the tone," Faxon said. "[Ferrell] was very gung-ho and eager to play a part in that."

Downhill is an English-language remake of the Swedish/Norwegian film Force Majeure, so titled because a force majeure is an unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract. A situation need not be as overwhelming as an avalanche to provoke force majeure debates.

"There are other force majeure moments out there. Seinfeld had one with George Costanza when he ran away out of that party," Rash said, recalling an episode in which Jason Alexander's character trampled children to escape from a fire at a birthday party.

"Whether it is a marriage or a friendship or any kind of relationship, to be in a situation like that together is interesting to sort of play out that debate," he continued.

Both Force Majeure and Downhill have the avalanche -- a husband/father who runs and a scene in which the married couple argues in front of another couple. Downhill added some more uncomfortable moments to the adaptation.

After the avalanche, Billie goes to the mountain safety office to complain about the controlled blast that set off the avalanche without warning. An agent (Force Majeure star Kristofer Hivju) refuses to acknowledge they did anything wrong.

"It's a very ugly American thing to do, to need some kind of validation or vindication or justice when something like that happens," Rash said.

Rash said that Billie wants someone to validate how she feels about what happened, since her husband hasn't.

Louis-Dreyfus produced Downhill with Fox Searchlight, now renamed Searchlight Pictures under Disney. The creator of Force Majeure also was on board.

"Ruben Ostlund, the original writer/director, was excited at the prospect of an American version, [with] different cultures taking on this theme and what that would look like," Rash said.

Some scenes were omitted from the American version of Force Majeure to stay true to the characters in Downhill.

"I think we wanted to stay focused on Pete and Billie in our journey," Rash said. "We just wanted to be able to stay with them."

Faxon and Rash also gave Downhill a different ending than Force Majeure. It resolves Pete and Billie's debate while remaining on the mountain, instead of during the bus ride down the mountain in the original film.

"I think they're connected in a lot of ways in the sense that there is hopefully a debate that happens after you see the film," Faxon said. "Do you ever really truly know the person that is possibly closest to you? And do you ever truly know yourself and what you would do in that situation? We are all selfish people. It's just a matter of when that presents itself."

Also, Force Majeure is presented more from the husband's perspective. Faxon and Rash wanted to balance Downhill with more of Billie's perspective, and that required a different ending.

"It's not black and white with our ending, but because we took a journey that's slightly different and we really got into the head of Billie," Rash said. "Then you have this moment at the end where they both look at each other and sort of scoff. In fact, what Billie knows is everything is not black and white."

Downhill opens Friday.