How the 'Downhill' Team Gave This Swedish Hit Some 'Good Ol’ American Elbow Grease'

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star in 'Downhill' by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon.
Sacrilege or salient? Faxon and Rash tell No Film School how (and why) they made an adaptation of Sweden's massive hit, Force Majeure.

Where did the idea come from to remake Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s 2014 iconic film Force Majeure? It all started with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and screenwriter/producer Jesse Armstrong...and the understanding from directing partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Community, The Descendants) that working with Dreyfuss on a remake would be freaking cool. “We were, like Dreyfuss and Armstrong, all fans of Force Majeure,” explained Rash to No Film School at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. “We started to discuss the possibilities of how you create your version of that, and what the study of characters would be of Americans in Austria.”

For those hardcore fans of the original, know that it’s not a shot-for-shot remake. It features different character development, and it's decidedly American. At the Sundance premiere, actor Zach Woods made a joke when asked if the cast had been fans of the original Swedish film. “We thought Force Majeure sucked and we needed to fix it,” he said to resounding laughter from the room. “We thought it needed some good ol’ American elbow grease,” finished Will Ferrell.

Co-directors and writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon sat down with No Film School following the premiere to share their process making Downhill, which comes out in theaters on Valentine's Day.

NFS: What was your process writing this adaptation? The two of you have a really successful way of writing that’s landed you an Academy Award. What was the process for Downhill, along with the third writer, Jesse Armstrong?

Jim Rash: It started with Jesse. He had begun tackling the adaptation, and subsequently, we were working with him as the directors and gave our thoughts on the draft. And then Succession went into their writer's room for Season Two, and so the timeline of the possibilities of getting Downhill off the ground made became complicated.

So, Nat and I sort of jumped in to get to the finish line of it all. Our process has always been very collaborative. We came from improv, so we've always worked together in that capacity. So screenwriting is really how we operate to that. We were mostly targeting character and tonal shifts and moving things out. But for the most part, we've been basically doing it the same way we were doing improv.

NFS: There were some jokes made about your style of co-directing at the premiere. And Julia Louie Dreyfuss said she had never worked with co-directors before. What is your strategy for co-directing together and deciding how the film would be told?

Nat Faxon: Well, I think Zach was really on point last night [at the premiere] when he said one of us works very hard and one of us is very effective.

Rash: Yes.

Faxon: So as the effective one, I can say...

Rash: Ha!

Faxon: ...that much in the way Jim described our writing style, our directing style is somewhat synonymous. We really try to be of the same mind. We converse with each other. But, having known each other for over 20 years and worked really closely, we have the same sense of ideas about tone and the approach. I think we maybe have the very first symbiotic minds. We are very much alike and give each other the space for that.

So it's a very collaborative experience. We work as a unit, and if we need to have a discussion before we talk to our actors to make sure that we're on the same page, we will. But really we try to be of one mind so that we're not contradicting each other and confusing the actors. And that really is in every facet of the filmmaking process, from talking to actors to working with our crew, all the way down the line.

Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, directors of 'Downhill,' an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

NFS: Did you feel compelled to emulate Force Majeure in terms of how that film looked visually? Did you look to Force Majeure for say, a storyboard?

Faxon: Not exactly. I think we had a different approach in some ways to how we were going to shoot it. We were taking a different approach with our characters in Downhill. For example, what they do a lot of in Force Majeure are these really cool all-in-one takes from afar. We see that at the table with the avalanche approaching. For Downhill, we got in there for more coverage, to be closer with our family and to take that journey with them from the inside. Obviously, just like in Force Majeure, the use of the environment, being the mountains, the machinery and stuff like that, was an important tie-in from the original as well. And it was great to have Kristofer Hivju in the film as a little nod on the casting front.

"We came from improv, and so we've always worked together in that capacity. "

NFS: There's a small number of Americans who have seen Force Majeure compared to, I'm assuming, all the Americans who will see Downhill. What do you hope the reactions will be for both those who saw the original and those who have not?   

Faxon: If people have seen the original, the hope is that they'll have an open mind, and they’ll recognize this as a riff or an interpretation, much in the way that any art is re-thought. Like songs that are covered or plays that are re-done several times in the theater. The remake should bring attention to the themes that are in a story, and what the differences are between the interpretations, to have a discussion.

And for those who haven't seen the film, hopefully it spurs a conversation or a debate, much the way the original did. What you might do in that situation and how you would react? If it was you, or if it was your partner, or somebody close to you, how do you operate as an individual and also as a unit? That would be the hope for people coming back to it or seeing it for the first time.

Actor Kristofer Hivju plays the role of an unwavering Austrian ski resort complaint manager of sorts in 'Downhill,' as a nod to the original 'Force Majeure.'

NFS: Having met back at the Groundlings and then having somehow found this great collaboration flies in the face of this idea that film is all about one person's directorial vision. What’s your advice on how to find this lifelong creative partner?

Faxon: Well, I mean, Jim I'm going to speak for you. I think it's just your admiration, respect, and looking up to me that really is what glued us together, right?

Rash: Yeah.

Faxon: I think infatuation, should we call it?

"Don't let the job make you lose sight of how it all began."

Credit: BTS on the set of 'Downhill'

Rash: I hear you. I’m not saying yeah I agree. But yes, there could be. I admire him so deeply into my core. I do think there's something to having similar sensibilities, and what you're attracted to in storytellingthe type of stories. We came from the same backgrounds, doing character work, and so our sensibilities link up that way.

It's not easy for anybody. Everyone's got opinions. But I think you have to be cooperative. You'll have times where you are in sync with one another and on the same page, and they'll be times when you disagree. In those times of disagreement, I think you sort of just have to take a beat to listen to each other. Sometimes let the other person take the lead with a thought or something they feel strongly about. You just have to try.

It's not easy. But if you're looking for somebody that you want to collaborate with and spend time with, it's important that you respect each other. If it starts with a friendship and turns into working, then you want to make sure you protect how it started. Don't let the job make you lose sight of how it all began.


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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