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Inside Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Five-Year Climb to Existential Sundance Drama ‘Downhill’

An avalanche isn’t the most desirable image to show packed movie houses at the base of a mountain in Utah, but it’s used to great effect in “Downhill,” an American riff on the Ruben Ostlund film “Force Majeure,” set to light up the Sundance film festival this week.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell team for the first time on the project from directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“The Descendants,” “The Way, Way Back”), with a screenplay from the pair and “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong. The pedigree is not by coincidence, as Louis-Dreyfus has been at work on the film for five years with her “Enough Said” producer Anthony Bregman and Searchlight Pictures (no more Fox).

“It was daunting, except to say that we never would have done it if we didn’t have Ruben’s blessing,” Louis-Dreyfus told Variety in a conversation ahead of the festival.

“Force Majeure” was a well-received 2014 family drama that has found enduring life thanks to social media. A pivotal scene where a family on a ski vacation realizes that a far-off avalanche is rapidly approaching has become a forever meme, one that indicates blind panic and impending doom.

The premise of the first film remains deliciously intact: a nuclear family, with mom and dad and two kids, are sitting at a picnic bench when a crush of snow descends. The group has no choice but to brace for what feels like death, with mom wrapping up her children on their side of the table. Dad, on the other side, grabs his cell phone and flees the scene. When the family emerges with no more than a light dusting of snow, there are hard questions to be asked and answered — about instincts, priorities and memory.

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“We’ve all had ‘Force Majeure’ moments in our lives,” said Bregman. “We’re all subject to doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, and that becoming larger than the thing itself. It’s the very idea that something like the avalanche could be extrapolated into something much bigger.”

Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell had never even met before shooting, which was done on location in Austria where cast and crew got dinged up on the slopes on their off days.

“The original film is sort of iconically a very Swedish film, so the idea of injecting an American sensibility into this European universe was intriguing to us, as well as opening up the gender roles even more so,” said Louis-Dreyfus.

Ostlund sees “Downhill” as a confirmation of the original film’s impact, and even expressed a bit of envy at watching Louis-Dreyfus breathe new life into the film.

“As soon as I thought they had managed to solve a scene better than we did, I felt genuinely happy — and jealous at the same time,” Ostlund said. “But I’ve decided for myself to embrace the differences and look at it like when they put on classic plays in the theater: It’s the differences in the reading that are a big part of what makes it interesting.”

Despite grand landscapes and luxurious interiors, another feat the film achieves is to let two comedy heavyweights revel in small moments. When a confounded and furious Louis-Dreyfus has to share space with Ferrell after the incident, it’s very easy to expect the wrath of Selina Meyer in an expletive-filled tirade from the pages of “Veep.”  Louis-Dreyfus never gives it to the audience, creating a delirious claustrophobia and heavy existentialism. This is by design, she says.

“I’m always looking for something that is not like what I’ve just done. I wanted to exercise those muscles. I have admired Will’s dramatic chops since ‘Stranger Than Fiction,’ and the game of this for us was to keep as much judgment out of this story as possible. To not go down a rabbit hole of shaking a shameful finger, because it becomes less interesting,” she said.

Louis-Dreyfus and Bregman said they hope audiences appreciate their approach.

“In all respect to the original, we wanted to do a riff on it the way Joe Cocker does on The Beatles, the way Warhol does on Da Vinci,” said Bregman. They certainly have the backdrop on their side in Park City.

“This movie was born on a ski slope, and it will come to the world on one,” Bregman concluded.

“Downhill” premieres Sunday, January 26 at Park City’s Eccles Theater.

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