sundance 2020

Julia Louis-Dreyfus on What She’d Do If Her Own Husband Bolted During an Avalanche

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Julia Louis-Dreyfus knew that filming a remake of 2014’s critically beloved Scandinavian ski satire Force Majeure was a major risk. But she and Will Ferrell went ahead and did it anyway — which is the polar opposite of what happens in Downhill, in which both play characters wholly unable to take any sort of action, brave or otherwise. Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell are Billie and Pete, respectively, a pair of Americans on vacation with their kids in the Austrian Alps. One afternoon, a controlled avalanche interrupts their lunch, and Pete yanks his cell phone off the table and runs away, leaving a terrified Billie alone with their two sons. Ultimately, they’re all fine — just a bit shaken — but none of them can unsee Pete’s abrupt abandonment. For the duration of the trip and the film, all parties involved try to figure out what to do with this dark bit of information (anything except actually talking about it), to occasionally comic and often deeply uncomfortable effect.

As Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri writes in his review, “Louis-Dreyfus is the heart of the picture … effectively [downplaying] the potential humor of her scenes, committing instead to her character’s trauma.” And it’s true: Louis-Dreyfus’s performance isn’t exactly comedic. It’s tense and full of raw emotion; one long monologue sees her painfully describe what’s just happened on the mountain to a couple she’s just met, pausing occasionally to let out an unruly sob. The cumulative tone of the film, similar to its European counterpart, is anxiety-ridden and awkward, shot through with just a little bit of Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell’s signature lightness. I sat down with Louis-Dreyfus right next to the ski slopes at the Sundance Film Festival, as she calmly ate a York Peppermint Patty, to talk about how and why she took on such a risky project, how she differentiates American comedy from Scandinavian, and whether or not she has ever been “Force Majeure-d” in her own marriage. First, though, we had to talk about our sweaters.

I love —
I love that sweater.

That’s what I was just going to say. Should we switch?
We should. That’s so cute. Can I feel it? [Reaches over and feels my arm.] Ugh, and with these shoes? Yeah. That’s really good.

Our sweaters are actually quite similar.
We’re very similar vibes right now.

So when did you see the original Force Majeure?
I saw it close to when it first came out. Searchlight screened it for me. I don’t actually think it was in theaters yet, in the States. They screened it at the studio because we were talking about the possibility of adapting it.

Oh, before you’d even seen it?
Yes. That’s right. And I loved it. I was positively thunderstruck by it.

What struck you about it?
The fundamental story of a reality being shifted after a certain lens is pulled off of it. And all of a sudden what you think is one way, is another way. A really extreme shift. That’s what was appealing to me.

So why were you thinking of remaking it before you’d even seen it?
Well, I’d met with some of the people in production and development at Searchlight, right after I’d made Enough Said, and they were talking about, “Well, what kind of projects are you interested in?” And I’m not kidding you, I said what I just said to you. I said, “I really like stories where there’s this one way of looking at something, and an event happens, and reality shifts.” And they’d just seen the movie, and they said, “Oh, you should see this film that we love. And if we can get the rights, if the filmmaker Ruben Östlund is interested in that idea …” — which he absolutely was, very keen. That’s how it began.

How soon after you’d seen it did you talk to Ruben about the whole idea?
I didn’t talk to him.

Believe it or not, I have not. [Laughs.] He’s seen [Downhill]. He loves the movie. He’s said some nice things about the movie. But we didn’t collaborate during the process. Sorry, I have to eat this chocolate. [Eats chocolate.] It was important to him. He wanted to let us do our thing. Adapt it for American audiences, I suppose. Though I wouldn’t say that’s what we were doing. It was an American family, blah blah blah. But I think he wanted to stay out of the way.

So who were you remaking it for, exactly? What was the conversation like in terms of your goal?
It’s a very quintessentially Swedish film, in the best possible sense of the word. The culture of it — it has a Swedish sensibility that’s absolutely marvelous. But I thought it’d be interesting to put an American family in Europe and have this family be a fish out of water, so they’re already in an unfamiliar place and then have something very strange and unsettling happen to them in an unfamiliar and strange place.

I also thought it’d be interesting to explore the role of the wife in our version, and sort of riff on that. I like the idea of her being very flawed, and making some bad decisions along the way. So it’s not just one bad decision — there are a couple.

She comes across as sort of a control freak. Is that what you’re referring to?
She makes some real mistakes in the film. You could certainly argue that bringing the children in to weaponize them, in the middle of the fight with her husband, is a particularly heinous move on her part. [Laughs.] As a mother, that’s my judgment on her, but I can understand why she did it in the moment.

What is quintessentially American about the humor in this movie, versus the original?
Zach Woods said this earlier today, and I think he’s right: I think there’s something very American about not talking about things. And not being truthful, to a certain extent. No offense to all of us. [Laughs.] I would say, repressing feelings, not discussing things that are hard to discuss, is a very American thing and cultural idea. Additionally, there’s a theme in this film where truth is not being told, and you’re being told: “What you saw, you did not see.” And that’s a theme of today. With fake news, and all of that kind of talk that’s out there right now, in our media and in our government. That’s a theme that’s very present today.

That reminds me of the comedy of Veep, a bit — skewering that American sensibility.
A different kind of skewer, but for sure.

What made you the most nervous about adapting something critically beloved?
That made me nervous! What you just said. I wanted to do it proud. I didn’t want to butcher this. I wanted to do a very respectful adaptation, an inspired-by take on that film. So that was important to me: Tone, tone, tone. We needed to nail the tone. And that started with the writing. Jesse Armstrong did a miraculous job on the script, as did Jim [Rash] and Nat [Faxon] — when they were hired as directors, they did a pass on the script as well. And frankly, that’s why I made it at Searchlight. They make movies that have an authenticity to them that I respect, and frankly, movies that I like to go to.

How would you characterize that tone? Is it different from its predecessor?
I’d say the tone of the film is that it’s a drama with comedic moments. I think in this one, the tone is a little more … hm … I don’t know. I don’t want it to sound … I think the comedic moments in this film are a little more evident.

Maybe a little less subtle?
I think so. And it’s not a pejorative thing to say, because I really thought that the comedic moments in the original were amazing.

Let’s talk about your monologue where you break down completely. What was the preparation like for that?
Well, that scene was about 12 pages long and we shot it over two and a half days. And when I say over two and a half days, I mean we shot that scene as a piece. We didn’t chop it into pieces. We played it like a little play, over and over and over again. It was very demanding. It was very arduous. But it was also thrilling. First of all, the actors I was with in that scene, all of them are really just sublime performers. Our directors were very much in tune to finding earned moments of drama and comedy, both, because they both co-exist in that scene.

It was hard. That was a really hard place to go. And in fact, there was one angle that they realized, Jim and Nat, that we needed, after watching two days’ worth of dailies. And we had to go in and redo a particular angle. And it was the one we ended up using. I thought we had it in the can and we had to go back in. I just remember trying to steel myself. I went into this tiny, tiny trailer and I gathered myself to pull that up again. And after a couple days of doing it over and over, there was a newfound area that was useful.

I heard you had never met Will Ferrell before making this movie. How is that possible? And how did you develop your onscreen relationship together?
It’s true. The fact that we’d never met before is so bizarre. We still can’t believe that’s the case. We’ve lived these parallel lives and we have people in our lives that we both know, that cross both of our lives. When we met, I was a huge fan of his, as I think almost all human beings are. But in addition to the big comedies he’s done, I was a big fan of Stranger Than Fiction. I thought he did an absolutely remarkable job in that film. And so I had a hunch that he would be able to rise to the occasion in this film, and he was really intrigued by the script.

We met and we immediately started talking about … tone! We were simpatico from the start in our approach to this film, and then we’ve gotten to know each other through this process and now we’re very good friends.

Do you see the ending as hopeful? Will they work it out?
I see the ending as being something that’s very ambiguous, and you can read into it whatever you want. I personally think this couple may have trouble ahead, but there are others who maybe do not feel that way.

Have you ever had any kind of Force Majeure moment in your life?
I have not. Thankfully. Have you?

Really? I don’t think I have.

What would you do if you found yourself in that situation with your own husband?
Well, I can tell you one thing: We’d talk about it right away. [Laughs.] But fortunately I’m married to a guy who I’m certain would never run away.

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