Nat Faxon and Jim Rash on Exploring the Theatrical in 'Downhill'

We chat with the directors about taking on a beloved Swedish film and delivering their twist on the material.

Downhill
Searchlight Pictures

After winning Oscars for co-writing Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, the savagely funny duo of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash delivered the goods on their first feature film, The Way Way Back, and directed some of the most uproarious moments of the TV series Community. Now they’re back at the helm for Downhill, the American remake of Force Majeure.

They love the original, and they saw an irresistible chance to splinter the concept into a new reality with a pair of unrivaled comedic talents. Downhill similarly depicts the brutally slow deterioration of a marriage after a controlled avalanche reveals Peter (Will Farrell) to be a terrified welp who abandons his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and their children at the first sign of danger.

While the concept remains in place, the filmmakers and performances radically alter the experience of the narrative. Faxon and Rash, who also co-wrote the English-language adaptation with Jesse Armstrong, maintain the uncomfortable schism between husband and wife while leaning a little heavier into the comedy and freeing the camera to flit about the locations.

Shortly before the Sundance premiere of the film, I sat down with the directors, along with my partner-in-crime, Lisa Gullickson (In the Mouth of Dorkness, After Movie Diner), to discuss why they were compelled to make Downhill. Our conversation begins with the remake status, veers into the difficulties of balancing tone, and concludes on which character is most deserving of our sympathy. We also discuss the great gifts that occur while scouting locations and how Faxon and Rash landed on their more kinetic visual language.

Lisa: So, what attracted you guys to telling this particular story?

Nat: Well…

Jim: It’s hard because the process started with Julia.

Nat: Right.

Jim: We came to it with a number of things that seemed appetizing to us. There is the fear of doing a remake of something that we’d already come to love, but then there was an intriguing idea that this can be told in lots of different ways. There’s a play-like quality to it.

Nat: Right.

Jim: It’s just different people are playing these parts, and different things will happen in different circumstances. An American couple is different than a Swedish couple, you know?

Brad: That radically alters it from the jump.

Jim: Yes. So that aside, to work with Julia — and obviously we’ve been in the Searchlight family — there were lots of little components that were very attractive just as a whole package.

Brad: What’s fascinating to me is the runtime. Just 87 minutes?!

Lisa: She’s tight!

Jim: She’s tight.

Brad: Right. It’s much tighter than Force Majeure. How did that happen?

Jim: A lot of condensing would be edit room condensing.

Nat: Yes.

Jim: Cause you know, obviously stuff didn’t make it into the movie. Do you want to [Nodding to Nat]?

Nat: No.

Jim: I keep hogging it [Laughter].

Nat: That’s okay.

Jim: I think some of that was discovery because the tone in this is an interesting balance. Force Majeure has a very specific tone, but it also has this quality that some people find hilarious, in a good way. Some people find it, “I was just so uncomfortable,” in a great way. They both work and that’s what that movie does, so we want to preserve that. We warmed it up probably a little bit more. Obviously, it’s a little bit tonally different than the original. We had scenes that were very funny, but then you go, “Is this funny?” Then there is the middle scene; the big fight scene was pretty much the bones that you need to work off of.

Lisa: And it’s also like a turning point.

Jim: When you looked at that in the editing room, you wanted to make sure everything that bookended that scene was in the same vibe. That’s why I think we got down to a place where this is the story to tell. This is where you cut it off.

Nat: I think we also didn’t want to lose the cringy awkward vibe that the original implemented so well. But there is again, sort of to just add to what Jim was saying, I think the Swedish version of the film was sort of a colder version, a starker version, and a much more distant version. Where you were observing them from afar and the choices they made with the camera and where to put it, it was all very away.

Brad: Yeah. Your camera moves.

Jim: Yeah.

Nat: Our camera moves and we were in tighter and we were trying to create a different fabric for the film. How the emotions and vulnerabilities of the characters would come through a little bit more. We didn’t want to lose the awkwardness and the silence and the stillness, but we did want to get close enough that we could really empathize, or watch through our fingers, at what they were going through.

Lisa: There was one shot that knocked the wind out of us. It was during the fight scene where Julia is walking away and she is blurry and then you rack focus as her rage hits.

Nat: Yes, yes.

Lisa: What was creating that moment like?

Nat: That scene, in general, was an absolute joy to witness and direct. It was an 11-page scene. It was shot over three days. It was uninterrupted, meaning that we would shoot the entire scene all at once and then give notes and then we would go at it all over again. The idea behind that was just to really feel her frustration and her anger and her venom. She had given him the benefit of the doubt. Early on she’s trying to process what had happened. There were moments where he could have said something and he chose not to. Then he doubles down on his defense and tries to justify it. So, that walk back, where we racked to her, was all of her frustration with him, and then she throws it all at him. I remember Julia had done it a few times, and then I think we gave the note of, “Let’s do one where you just punch him in the face with these words.”

Jim: And same to him, to punch that line at her.

Nat: Yeah, to punch her. Yes. Everybody give her a fucking round of applause, you know? Like really…

Jim: Just go for it.

Nat: Go at it like a heavyweight bout. She did a few after we gave that note that were so incredibly powerful that you’re sort of like, “Cut.” You’re just so emotionally invested and so enamored with her performance and his performance. I think at that moment we felt really excited about what they were doing and what we had.

Brad: I mean, that rack focus does act as a physical punch.

Jim: Yes.

Brad: How did you go about finding the visual language for the film?

Nat: Danny Cohen was our cinematographer, and a lot of the discussions early on were based on practicality and shooting on a ski mountain, shooting in tight spaces, on gondolas, on lifts. Needing to be nimble and flexible and quick with what we were doing with the camera. The first question was, “What kind of camera do we want to use to be able to achieve and to work in this environment?” We were filming in such an expansive, incredible environment with the Alps. There are all these people on vacation where they’re seemingly having the best time of their life. Where you’re sort of skiing and you’re joyous. Then this family is suddenly having the worst vacation of their lives amidst all of this joy. It was wanting them to feel like Americans in Austria like fish out of water, but also the sense of they were isolated by this terribly complicated incident that has driven them apart. Where the small cracks in their marriage become a huge crevice and wanting to feel the isolation of them in this enormous environment as well. Those were the things that we talked about with Danny and how to achieve those moments.

Brad: Do you think that also because it is an American family, you’re bringing an American awe to the Alps that may not be there with a Swedish family?

Jim: Yes.

Nat: Most definitely.

Jim: The Force Majeure is very modern, very sleek, clean line…

Nat: Angular.

Jim: Yes, angular motel-like resort. They have all of that, but then they also have what we would imagine a more traditional Austrian feel. We knew that when we were looking everywhere, we wanted to go traditional because it’s that American perception. Like this is how it is, you know? I think that was a big part of the difference.

Brad: And when they go to the Wonderland kids park…

Nat: Oh, yes, yes.

Jim: Well, that again was from scouting. We went there and then we built that into the script. How different the places were, and we just happened to be shooting in the two places that are very indicative of that. One was much more family driven. Those characters that are in the movie are their mascots and they’re everywhere.

Brad: Oh, yeah?

Nat: Berta and Murmli.

Jim: We were like, can we use Berta? And they go, “Can you also use Murmli?” [Laughter] It was important to them to have them both in the movie. And we’re like, “Sure!”

Nat: And the slogan “we are family” was the actual slogan.

Brad: Will gets in that scene, and it looks like his ultimate Hell.

Nat: As Jim said, we rewrote a lot of the script after we scouted, because we discovered so many incredible things. We love the idea that Will is subconsciously selfishly wanting a different vacation than what Julia is wanting. He wants to go to the more lively kind of party town.

Jim: Adults only.

Nat: And ski a ton.

Lisa: Yeah, he wants to live that hashtag life!

Nat: Right. He wants to live a single life in a sense or a bachelor’s life. Free from the constraints of children and responsibility. We sort of subtly layered that into his character based on the scouts that we had.

Lisa: We’ve talked about the expansive spaces. I want to talk about the intimate spaces. Particularly the space of the sink and how the sink is the symbol of division.

Nat: Again, another gem from a scout.

Jim: Well, Force Majeure has a lot of the bathroom, and it felt such a good place to see normalcy. But then when we got there, we walked into a bathroom in one of the hotels that had a sink split down the middle. Then we’re like, “Oh my God.” So we absolutely wrote that in, and then started to craft how the sink would change, when they were on different sides. We also love the idea that we as an audience can then see their mirror image looking in at themselves, which has a selfish connotation to it, and they’re in their own minds. Then this disembodied voice on the other side. What they’re saying is not how they’re feeling at certain times, and so we’re privy. It was important that we were both in their heads throughout this process. So that we could truly understand each one in the context of this divide. Quite literally divided between them.

Nat: And to really craft what they were probably wanting to say, but not saying. There’s that one scene where Will is so clearly on the edge of possibly saying, “Okay, I screwed up.” Solving the problem essentially, or at least starting the conversation, but he chooses not to. It’s all really through looks and expressions and internalization. I think we love that idea of showing the restraint and not vocalizing it, but just seeing it and witnessing it.

Lisa: Well, it feels like a lot of the time Will is doing it for the benefit of a third party. Like he’s going to make the other person comfortable. He’s undermining his wife.

Jim: Right.

Nat: Which is such a horrible…

Brad: Super relatable.

Nat: Yes. [Laughter]

Lisa: Who do you find more relatable? Do you find Will more relatable or do you find Julia more relatable? Because I’m going to put it out there, I’m with Will. Like, I’m a Will. I’ve been the person who has gotten in a car accident and gone, “I’m a terrible driver, how is this not my fault?” Do you know what I mean?

Nat: Right, right. Right, yeah.

Jim: Yes.

Nat: I think I probably would lean more towards Will as well because I am not a very good communicator and I don’t vocalize my feelings. I think if I feel that fear or that guilt, I tend to sort of go the other way. Maybe lean into it and use that as a force to explain where I’m coming from.

Lisa: Or that feeling like I think I can defuse this.

Nat: Yes! Or I can defend this action when it’s indefensible. So, sadly, I might empathize maybe with his character a little more.

Jim: Yeah. It’s hard, because like in Force Majeure, instantly I’d go to Julia’s side of things. But what I do understand from Will’s point of view, because we’ve all been in that place where we’ve said something, and we know that if we just apologize quickly, it would be a lot better than letting it go a week down the road.

Lisa: Yes.

Jim: Or how do I do this? How do I start this? I feel guilty. All those things I understand. I connect with when people are at that moment and apologize but don’t apologize. Which is what happens, and which is why Julia walks away. Will never says the word sorry. He just makes it about himself. I understand all the context of what you’re saying. I feel for where you are and how hard it is. How your kids feel, which is why she makes her choice. Because there’s one thing she understands in that speech, but we’ve also been on the side where we say, “I’m sorry you feel bad.” We all know that apology is an art and there’s a really…

Lisa: Yeah, but it’s a practice, too.

Jim: Right, it’s a practice, too. I’m not the person who has a perfect apology, but I understand her.

Nat: Conversely, as you said, you could say the one thing that will just sort of make this all go away and you choose to double down and go the opposite way.

Jim: Yes.

Nat: Just because you have this sort of ego and selfishness of, “I’m not going to back down. I didn’t do anything.”

Brad: I want to go back and discuss the tonal balance of the film. You talk about finding it in the editing room, but when you’re in the thick of it, how do you know when you’re nailing it or not?

Jim: You mean in the shooting process?

Brad: Yeah.

Lisa: Or is it just a matter of having a ton of options? You go, “Well, I’m going to do this 27 different ways and find it later.”

Jim: I think we were on the right path in the sense that we got in an edit room. We did it right and it depended on what we were shooting that day. You were able to say, “That was really funny; let’s get one that goes a little bit towards the opposite side.” Or if the improv felt too…

Nat: Broader.

Jim: This isn’t the right moment for this, but that’s a lot on the back end. I think because everyone really understood the story from beginning to end in this thing — if you were directing a play, you have to think, “Okay, where are we coming from? Where we are at this moment?” You do your best to stay in that area.

Nat: Yeah, and a lot of times, in those very dramatic moments, there is always room for a little release. Where you just want to laugh or take a breath. We’re always cognizant and aware of trying to find those moments. I remember during that big dramatic scene in the middle, at the end of it, where it’s just sort of left there, and Will is sitting there drinking his wine and everybody’s just sadly sitting there. Zach Woods improvised grabbing that carrot and chewing it, and that was a moment of recognition of, “Oh.”

Jim: That’s what we want.

Nat: It’s an honest, subtle, humorous way to help us relax a little bit from the drama that we experienced.

Jim: It’s a very real thing we all do.

Nat: Yes.

Jim: We take a sip, we take a bite, anything to avoid the moment.

Nat: Yes, the silence.


Downhill opens in theaters everywhere on February 14th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.