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Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams star as Icelandic Eurovision hopefuls in the comedy of the summer

How the director of Wedding Crashers made a fantastic Netflix movie about the world’s weirdest song competition.

A man and a woman in Viking-style costumes stand with keyboards between them in an Icelandic landscape.
Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
Elizabeth Viggiano/Netflix

Eurovision Song Contest: The Legend of Fire Saga is such a sublimely kooky title and concept for a movie that I didn’t really think it could work. It’s the story of Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), childhood friends whose greatest dream is to win the Eurovision Song Contest and claim glory for their tiny Icelandic hometown. The big problem: They’re not very good. Through a series of unexpected events, they actually end up representing Iceland at the competition, and while there they go on a journey of self-discovery and a whole lot more. The film’s other stars include Pierce Brosnan as Lars’s miserable father and a (truly fantastic) Dan Stevens as a wealthy Russian contestant.

Eurovision is wild and truly hilarious, and also the kind of movie you can barely imagine a Hollywood studio executive greenlighting in the US. After all, though Eurovision — an annual televised pop songwriting contest known for its high camp and larger-than-life spectacular performances — has its American fans, it’s still very much a European preoccupation. (The 2020 edition was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.) It’s equal parts spectacle, flash, and music, and it’s incredibly fun, but it’s easy to imagine a typical film studio declaring it just too weird or its premise too specific to land.

Thankfully the movie got made, in spite of itself. And the results are glorious. After years of watching mediocre studio comedies, I am happy to declare that I love this movie. I watched it several times before its Netflix premiere, reveling in the life-giving silliness and great music and, especially, the pitch-perfect comic performances from Ferrell and McAdams.

The driving force behind the film was Eurovision superfan Ferrell (who co-wrote the screenplay with former Saturday Night Live writer Andrew Steele), but it was directed by David Dobkin, who burst onto the movie comedy scene in 2005 with the paradigm-busting, R-rated Wedding Crashers. I talked to Dobkin by phone about how on earth Eurovision Song Contest got greenlit and the future of irreverent comedy, especially when the theatrical experience is taken out of the equation.

A man on a stage performs a song with four shirtless back-up dancers.
Dan Stevens in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
John Wilson/Netflix

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

Eurovision is so goofy and so specific — an American film with mostly American stars, but about a very strange and non-American event. It’s delightful. But about 15 minutes in, I thought, “I can’t believe somebody greenlit this movie.” How on earth did you get it made?

David Dobkin

I agree with you. I do think that Netflix had a very specific vision. They have a global market; they’re not just thinking about America. They’re thinking about the 180 million people who watch the Eurovision Song Contest every year. That’s a lot of people.

When I [came to] the movie, it was a script already. Will [Ferrell] had pursued it; he had fallen in love [with the idea] and wanted to make the movie for almost two decades, and had put a lot of thought and time into it.

I loved the characters, I loved the world, I loved the Iceland of it all. The music and the movement and all of it just seemed incredible.

I did not know about Eurovision when I got the script. I literally only Googled it when I finished [the script] and was like, “Okay, what is this thing?” It’s just such a strange, bizarre … I have a lot of trouble describing the tone. In America when we have a contest, the purpose is to win, right? I know all these [Eurovision contestants] mean to win, but some of them are very committed to some very weird stuff — which doesn’t mean they won’t win. There are all kinds of factors. It’s a songwriting contest, first and foremost, but there’s no question the presentation matters. There are vacillations from year to year in Eurovision; one year a solo singer will win with a very emotional song, and then the next year there’s a bunch of those. Then it’ll go the other way, to [Finnish heavy metal band] Lordi winning with these monster outfits, which we kind of did an homage to in the movie. That’s clearly not about the songwriting.

It’s just the Wild West of song contests. I had never seen anything like it. I understood immediately why Will was fascinated and in love with it. Even people in Europe who don’t like it watch the finals. It’s an amazing piece of culture that we’ve never been exposed to here.

Alissa Wilkinson

I feel like Americans who watch this film might decide they’ve got to watch the actual contest next year.

David Dobkin

I think so. By the way, Netflix has the rights to broadcast Eurovision in America for a couple years coming up. They very smartly locked that down. I can’t imagine once people see the movie they’re not going to be curious, like, “What is this thing?” Then when you get into it, it’s just as ridiculous and entertaining as the movie is.

We never set out to make a parody. You can’t parody Eurovision. Eurovision is its own weird thing.

Did you know about Eurovision before you saw the movie?

Alissa Wilkinson

I knew it existed, but I’ve never watched it. I know film critics who had no idea about it before they saw the movie. And that’s interesting, because there are real-world Eurovision contestants in the movie.

David Dobkin

They are. It’s a little bit of a spoiler, so I don’t want to say who’s in it — trying to keep that mystery alive. But in America, no one’s going to really know those people.

By the way, we tested the movie in Europe, and we tested the movie in America, just to make sure there were no confusions over rules or storyline or anything. One of the most amazing things is that in America, [one particular scene with a number of contestants] still ranked in the top three scenes of the film [with the test audience], even though they don’t know who the cameos are. In Europe, when the cameos came, they went bonkers. They went crazy because they obviously are like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute!” It’s really, really fun.

But even without knowing who that is, somehow that section of the movie is still so effective for people, which I think is amazing.

A woman stands on a stage, singing.
Demi Lovato in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
Netflix

Alissa Wilkinson

You really got your big break as a comedy director who took risks, and basically proved the R-rated comedy could have a huge audience with Wedding Crashers in 2005. I feel like over the last 15 years, studio comedies have become way less risky and far more boring on the whole, because they’re doing just the opposite of what you do with Eurovision: They don’t take any risks. With a few exceptions, they try to appeal to everyone and wind up kind of appealing to nobody. What do you think of the state of studio comedy now?

David Dobkin

For me, the risky stuff always came with a tone that was very warm. My films just have a certain warmth to them, so I got away with a lot with Wedding Crashers because you knew they weren’t “bad guys.” They were really sweet guys.

I think the same thing is true with Will, and very much so with Will and Rachel [McAdams] together. I mean, they’re so innocent. You’re rooting for them not to get eaten by the real world out there once they go out.

Comedy needs to take risks. What makes me laugh is irreverence. I can tone myself down to make a PG-13 movie like Eurovision work. I had an impossible time the one time I tried to make a PG movie [2007’s Fred Claus]. I didn’t know what to do.

Irreverent comedy is certainly getting harder, but I don’t think that it’s impossible. I don’t buy into this whole idea that something politically correct can’t be funny, or that something politically incorrect has to be offensive. There’s a taste to how jokes are delivered, and once you’re in the hands of [a movie] that you feel is confident and competent, you go along with [the jokes]. Some of the crazier jokes in Eurovision don’t happen until later in the film, once you know the characters, and then it starts to become inside of its own world. Ultimately, it’s a sensibility thing.

It is very strange that good comedy has left theaters. Anybody who was involved in comedy the way I am had to come to a real reckoning over the fact that unless you’re making a visual effects-driven comedy or an action-comedy, you’re probably not going to be debuting [in a theater]. Netflix has honored comedy in general by bringing the stand-up comedy special back to the world. You can go on Netflix and pick a comedian you’ve never heard of. You can dive in and out. I didn’t know a bunch of the guys that I know now except for that. They’ve been invested in comedy, and that’s really smart. It doesn’t surprise me that [Netflix head of original films] Scott Stuber, who I’ve known for a long time, was the one that finally got me to come to Netflix.

This movie would have been so risky to put in the theaters, but it’s a lovely movie. It’s delicious. It is, scene by scene, very special. The actors have done an incredible job. I think it’s among the best movies we’ve seen Will in in a long time, and it’s definitely one of my favorite Rachel McAdams performances. And Dan Stevens, who’s completely off his head and nailing it; sometimes when you cast people you have no idea how far they’ll exceed what you expected. Obviously, I thought [Stevens] was the best choice for the role, but what he did with it came off the page in so many different ways because he’s such a talented actor. You see all that stuff and you realize, oh, there’s just something really enjoyable about the movie. I’m going to spend two hours being really entertained or laughing or being moved or just singing and tapping my foot along with it.

Comedy is never gonna go away. But we’re gonna have to refigure out some of it for sure. My son is turning 13 and was like, “I want to see Blazing Saddles. I want to see Blazing Saddles.” I’ve got to be honest: 10 minutes into the movie, I had to turn it off because of my discomfort — my discomfort with the movie. And that is one of the amazing movies that I loved as a kid. Now I’m questioning, “God, what’s it gonna be like he wants to see 48 Hrs?” That was a really big movie for me, but I think I’m gonna have to watch it again before I can condone seeing that.

We’re changing. That’s really the most important part, frankly. But comedy will always be there.

Alissa Wilkinson

So what has changed? Aside from the arguments over what you can and can’t say, have audience sensibilities changed?

David Dobkin

The theatrical experience is a real heartbreaker for me. You make a movie because you’re making a movie, and you’re not thinking of where it’s going to be seen, or at least I turned off that button in my head. Then we got into a testing situation where we ran the movie in front of the audience. You’re in the theater, and people are laughing so hard, and the whole place is rocking, and you just forget that that’s the beauty of the communal experience. In some ways, comedy is more legit in a theater than most other experiences.

In the very first screening, I leaned over to my editor at one point because people were laughing so hard that they missed the next joke. I leaned over and I gave a note that I’ve given two dozen times in my career to my editor: I said, “Hey, we gotta open up that joke. Let’s put in a couple extra reaction shots before we come to that line so they can hear it.” He looked at me and said, “There’s going to be, like, four people in a living room. They’ll hear the line.”

I was like, “Ugh.” It was like a dagger to my heart. I could not get my head around it. I was like, “That’s crazy.”

I invited Rachel McAdams to a test screening because I was like, “You know, you’re never gonna see this with an audience, and you’ve never played a comedic role so front-forward in your career. I want you to be in an audience and hear it.” We snuck her in the back. When she walked out, she’s said, “I’m so glad you invited me tonight.” She was like, “I can’t even believe it. That kind of reaction.” I said, “Well, that’s where we’re at.” I do think there’s something sad about that.

A man and woman stand back to back in costume, singing.
Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
John Wilson/Netflix

I get that comedy has been relegated back to television from the big screen at the moment. But it’s sad! I think of all my favorite comedies: Bridesmaids, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, There’s Something About Mary. I remember being in theaters for Ace Ventura, or even more important comedies to me, like Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire. It is really hard to imagine having the emotional connection I have with those movies without the theatrical experience.

Nonetheless, I watch movies on streaming all the time. I just watched The King of Staten Island on Friday night and I laughed my ass off as much as I would have in the theater. Strangely, even though I am somehow nostalgic for the experience, I do get that there’s a bunch of people who don’t know the difference. What makes you laugh makes you laugh.

Alissa Wilkinson

I finally saw Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure last weekend for the first time and thought about that quite a bit.

David Dobkin

Yes!

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s so funny! But what a weird movie!

David Dobkin

It’s so strange. It’s so great. I remember seeing that movie in the theater.

Alissa Wilkinson

How do you even pitch a movie like that, right? It made me wonder what watching the new one [Bill & Ted Face the Music, due out August 14] will be like, especially if it is mostly watched on streaming.

David Dobkin

Oh my God. I don’t know! Part of me is like, “No!” But part of me is like, “Yeah, why not, let’s do one more.”

Alissa Wilkinson

I know you shot at the actual Eurovision contest. How did that work?

David Dobkin

That was insane. I’ll start by saying this: When I first said yes to the project, I did not understand that there were 20,000 live people at this television show. In my head, there was a television audience. So as soon as I got my head around that, I’m like, “Oh my God. We don’t have the kind of budget or the weight — we cannot pull this off like Bohemian Rhapsody, where it’s a fully digital crowd or arena. How are we gonna do it?”

... It took a while. I spoke to a couple visual effects supervisors. We changed our approach a few times.

Nearly all the audience in the movie is from the actual [2019] Eurovision contest [which was held in Tel Aviv]. There are some people in the foreground who are not, who are extras, but most of the crowds you see in it have been put together with visual effects.

But the thing that’s really amazing is that the lights and the energy and the stuff that’s playing on the crowd, like during [the movie’s song] “Lion of Love”? That is our lighting that we programmed with Ronan, the guy from Israel, to our song. In 10 minutes before the semi-finals and 10 minutes before the finals, they let us get on the stage. I got up there with a microphone, and I said, “Okay everybody, you’re going to be in a Eurovision movie next year. I need you to get excited,” and they just went nuts while we ran our songs.

We ended up with those amazing moments, and they glued together perfectly, because the lighting matched five months later when we were finally shooting onstage in London. We had the same lighting plan and the same lights and the same scaling, visually, to put it all together like a Lego. It was brilliant ... It’s a bit of what one would call a poor man’s process, but the result was amazing because it’s real, and you feel like you’re with a real audience.

Alissa Wilkinson

That sounds nerve-wracking.

David Dobkin

It was a little crazy. But we also just didn’t have time. I took the job, and we were like six weeks away from having to go to Tel Aviv, so we had to go do something. We hadn’t even started prepping yet. We all flew there.

A man and a woman in costumes.
Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
John Wilson/Netflix

The funniest thing is that the Eurovision people all know Will Ferrell. [Laughs.]

Alissa Wilkinson

Of course.

David Dobkin

No, they don’t know him because it’s him. The Eurovision people know him because he comes every year! It’s the weirdest thing: Will Ferrell has been stalking Eurovision for years now. It was really an amazing experience.

By the way, that was an amazing contest to watch that year. The fact that they pull this thing off with 25,000 lights inside of an arena … I’ve never seen anything like it, not U2, not Coldplay, not Imagine Dragons … They put more lights inside of an arena because they light the crowd from the front to the back. They light all the walls, the ceilings. Everything is lit. The floor is a huge LED screen. Plus, everybody’s wearing watches that light up; they give you wristbands that have colors. The whole thing is so well-produced. It’s on live television. There’s no commercials. It runs in real time. There’s an act on every minute. So they’ve got, like, 60 to 90 seconds to change the entire stage and the set.

I always think that what we do in America with television is so much more advanced than anywhere else, and I went and saw this thing, and I was like, “Wow. That’s an incredible accomplishment that they are able to pull this off every year.”

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga premieres on Netflix on June 26.