PARK CITY, Utah – In “Downhill,” out Friday, a family’s ski vacation in the Alps goes south after an avalanche momentarily imperils their luxury resort — and father Pete (Will Ferrell) abandons wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and their kids amid the chaos.
Co-director Nat Faxon has endured his fair share of family retreats, but he wants to make it clear he didn’t draw too heavily on personal experiences to make this dark comedy of errors, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Take its Alps resort setting for example. Though Faxon grew up skiing, the Manchester-by-the-Sea native considers himself more at home on the hard-packed slopes of New England.
“We would hit all of them,” Faxon reminisces at the Chateaux Deer Valley, a ski resort a few miles up the road from where “Downhill” premiered the night prior. “My dad grew up skiing, so he’s a terrific skier, and my mother’s very good as well, so we would go all throughout, from Cannon to Waterville to Sunday River, Sugarbush, Sugarloaf, and Okemo.”
Faxon is fresh off a trail on nearby Bald Mountain, which looms above the hotel; he’s wearing a dull-orange ski jacket, with little flecks of powder still on its sleeves. A few close relatives flew out from Manchester-by-the-Sea to attend the “Downhill” premiere and stuck around to savor the Park City slopes. Faxon can’t blame them. “When I came out west and realized there was powder, it was a totally different experience,” he admits. “That said, I don’t think the basis of my skiing skills would have been forged without some good, Northeast black ice.”
But when approached by Fox Searchlight (now simply Searchlight Pictures) to make “Downhill,” a remake of Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s acclaimed “Force Majeure” (2014), Faxon says he and co-director Jim Rash never considered shifting the film’s setting from the French Alps to, say, the White Mountains.
Partly, this was down to timing; by the time he and Rash came aboard, the project was well into development. Louis-Dreyfus had been keen to work on a remake, as was Östlund (credited as an executive-producer). An early draft of the script was penned by “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong, though Faxon and Rash put their own stamp on it once hired.
“The genesis of the story was an American family going on a ski vacation," explains Faxon. “It felt important that it be a fish-out-of-water experience for them. Jim and I talked a lot about the vulnerabilities you have on vacation, that you’re not on your home turf, you’re more exposed, and that that’s amplified even more so when you’re in a foreign country.”
Faxon was a fan of the original film’s unique mixture of comedy and drama, and its unflinching look at the existential questions of character that can arise in times of crisis. He and Rash operate in a comparably bittersweet vein; their Cape-set directorial debut “The Way, Way Back” (2013) saw its young protagonist escaping a tense, suffocating family life at a water park, while the pair’s Oscar-winning script for Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” (2011) explored the messy fallout of an injured woman’s infidelity to her husband (George Clooney), discovered after she falls into a coma.
“Jim and I are drawn to flawed characters who make poor choices,” he says. “We’ve always felt comedy should be derived from drama, that drama should come first and comedy is then released from that tension. That’s how you live your life. There are moments when tragedy strikes, and then others when you have to laugh through it.”
Faxon’s eager to spend his next vacation at home, frequenting Nick’s Roast Beef in Beverly and reading the Globe’s sports section. “I try to always come back in the summer, because it’s a nice time of year to visit,” he says. “Sometimes, work pulls me back there, which is always extremely welcome. It’s a great way to be back home — you know, when you’re not having to pay for it.”