How Eurovision Song Contest director recreated the annual extravaganza for Netflix movie
Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams and Dan Stevens star in the comedy that pays tribute to the wonderfully wacky, yearly European competition.
When Will Ferrell came to Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin to ask him to work on Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga —a movie about the annual international extravaganza — the filmmaker agreed, on the condition that the movie would be a "love letter" to the event, not a parody.
Why does a competitive singing show you've probably never heard of deserve such respectful treatment, we hear you ask? Here's some context: Of all the cultural treasures to come out of the continent (Leonardo da Vinci! Jean-Paul Sartre! Pizza!), the annual Eurovision Song Contest isn't the most well-known to Americans, but it is the most sequined. Think American Idol — singing, outlandish costumes, and antics aplenty — but with multiple languages, geopolitical voting, and enough dry ice to keep the industry in business indefinitely. Vocalists from European nations — and Australia (don't ask) — converge in the previous year's winning country to showcase wild, wacky, and wonderful performances — there's even been a few familiar faces along the way: ABBA, Celine Dion.
With standout performances come hardcore fans — clearly, Dobkin had his work cut out for him. "We wanted it to be something where people that love the show go, 'Oh my God, they got it right,'" the director tells EW. "I remember Will and I got on the phone and I was like, 'Millions of people love this thing. I don't want to make fun of it. I'm not interested, that doesn't work for me.'" Doing it right meant doing his homework and Dobkin, who had never even heard of the contest before, quickly became a dedicated student, watching Eurovision finals from decades ago (it's been running since 1956) and even traveling to the 2019 show in Tel Aviv. "I fell in love with Eurovision," says Dobkin. "What's amazing about the show, as campy and fun as it is, it's also incredibly well-produced. It's the highest end of production. There is nothing on television in America that is put on at this level."
We chatted with Dobkin to find out how he recreated the inimitable magic of Eurovision for the glittery Netflix romp that stars Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as Icelandic competitors, Fire Saga.
To capture the eccentric adulation of the contest’s audience, Dobkin opted for the real deal, flying to Tel Aviv for the 2019 final. “We were planning on just going to look at it for me to understand it, to experience it," says Dobkin. "All of a sudden I was like, 'I need to bring cameras. I need to shoot this because I'm never going to be able to recreate this specific crowd, the way they look, the way they are.' Eurovision performances are dynamic and unexpected. The scale is huge and the crowd unique." Convinced he needed to shoot there and then, the director played a reconfigured version (to avoid leaks) of Fire Saga’s performance of the song “Double Trouble” to the audience and filmed their reaction. "This is like a full-on concert in an arena, and a live television show at the same time," he says. "I knew I had to deliver something that looks and feels like Eurovision to this audience that loves this, or they were going to be disappointed."
To add even more authenticity, Dobkin called up Irish TV host Graham Norton, who serves as the commentator for the U.K. broadcast of the real-life event, to enlist him too. "I love Graham and I was really worried I was going to have to talk him into it," says Dobkin. "He gets on the phone and he goes, 'David, you know you can't use anybody else but me.'"
To avoid extensive dialect coaching, Dobkin cast actors of the nationality they were playing: “Thank God I didn’t have 15 people at a table read, all speaking Icelandic in different ways.” Of course, Ferrell, McAdams, and Dan Stevens (who gives his character’s Russian lilt a wild added spin) were the exceptions. "I knew Dan would nail the Russian accent," says Dobkin. "But he also brought all kinds of strange language things to the role. Lines like, 'Fact of truth,' was all Dan. All those weird things he says like, 'Oh, I thought you were over,' he put in the thing."
Foil tracksuits, spandex bodysuits, and horned helmets: Eurovision is a costume designer’s psychedelic dream. Dobkin brought in repeat collaborator Anna B. Sheppard to add some extra “color and craziness.” "I brought her to Eurovision in Tel Aviv to watch," says Dobkin. "She just kept looking at me, and she goes, 'This is so fun. This is so crazy.' She's a genius." In addition to the wild onstage outfits, Dobkin wanted to make sure that the clothing worn by McAdams and Ferrell were authentic to their characters' background. "Their costumes did take a long time to nail down," he says. "Will had his big ideas, Rachel had big ideas. Trying to get it to all make sense and how to portray them as these fish out of water from a little Icelandic town, without it being cliché or ridiculous, took a while." Luckily, when it came to the performance costumes, more is always more on that stage. “You can’t out-Eurovision Eurovision!”
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is available to stream on Netflix, June 26.
Eurovision Song Contest