Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been a part of the new comedy/drama Downhill pretty much since its inception. The project was brought to her by Fox Searchlight following their collaboration on the 2013 film Enough Said, and with plans to produce as well as star she was on-board as the script was developed by Emmy winner Jesse Armstrong, set to be directed by Oscar-winning duo Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, and cast Will Ferrell as her co-lead.
As I recently learned sitting down with the two actors as well as the directors at the film’s Los Angeles press day, however, one funny connection that was never made was between the basic premise of the movie and a classic episode of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ legendary sitcom Seinfeld:
The Seinfeld episode in conversation here, "The Fire," aired in May of 1994 as the nineteenth episode of the show's fifth season. The title comes from the plotline centering on Jason Alexander’s George Costanza, who finds himself attending a birthday party for the child of the woman he’s dating (extra bit of trivia: the entertainment at the event is provided by a pre-Swingers Jon Favreau as Eric The Clown).
During the festivities, a grease fire starts in the kitchen, and instead of alerting everyone and helping people get to safety, George instead opts to scream “Fire! Get out of my way!” and trample children, his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s mother, and an elderly woman as he makes his way out the door.
If you’re familiar with the plot of Downhill – which is based on the 2014 movie Force Majeure – you’ll already see the connections. In the film, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell play Billie and Pete, who are long-married parents of twins hoping for a chance to reconnect during a European ski vacation. Unfortunately, this plan gets intensely disrupted when a casual meal at a restaurant is disrupted by a scare involving a purposefully-orchestrated avalanche. Everyone winds up being totally fine, but what’s not seen as okay is that Pete’s response to the situation is to grab his phone and sprint away from his family.
As you can see watching the video above, I was apparently just the second person to bring the connection between Downhill and Seinfeld to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ attention, but it was something that never came up during the actual making of the film (Jim Rash and Nat Faxon were totally in the dark about it as well). Her totally reasonable explanation was that she doesn’t make a habit of watching the sitcom (plus it was a plotline that didn’t involve her character, Elaine), but at the same time there was an appreciation of the kind of stories that were told on the show and how it explored relationships and emotional conflicts.
There are, of course, key differences between the two stories, particularly in terms of tone. Because of details in its setup, centering on a rocky marriage instead of a new-ish relationship, Downhill has more latitude to dig into the seriousness of the premise. It definitely still finds the funny in the situation, but it also respects the gravity of it, and both Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell ultimately deliver two of the best dramatic performances of their respective careers.