Like many Americans, David Dobkin had never heard of the Eurovision Song Contest. But when the script for “Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga” from Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele landed on his lap, the director of “Wedding Crashers” immediately fell in love with the characters. Soon he was diving down an internet rabbit hole to learn all about Europe’s biggest singing contest and signing on to direct the movie, which is now streaming on Netflix.
For those who aren’t already fans of the supremely kitschy annual event, every year since 1956, pop singers and groups from all the countries in Europe (plus Israel, Australia and several others), have convened in a different country to vote on each other’s competing songs. The contest helped launch the careers of acts including Abba and Celine Dion.
Ferrell stars as Lars alongside Rachel McAdams who plays Sigrit; together they lead a duo called Fire Saga with a dream of representing Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Dobkin talks to Variety about making a love letter to the contest, his important opening scene, making the film accessible to a global audience and casting McAdams and Dan Stevens.
What did you know about Eurovision before this film?
Before I had read the script, I didn’t know it existed. I was completely in the dark. I read the script and loved the characters, and then I went onto the internet and was blown away.
I can tell you, in trying to pull off anything close to the real contest was such a huge feat. I had no sense of how big it was. It’s not a TV show, it’s huge. It is so distinctly European. It’s so special in how it was created, why it was created to bring people together, and to where it is today. Europe has a real culture around this contest; the seriousness and the not so serious, the intensity of the contest, it all blends into this specific tone that I had never seen before. It’s so unique and so special.
Why did you decide to open with ABBA in 1974?
It was so important because it sets up the movie. And the moment ABBA sang “Waterloo,” Eurovision turned into something different, the world changed.
Will and Andrew wrote that scene and wanted to show how that moment pulled the young boy watching out of his grief. It’s something that gives him joy and he can’t help dancing. He transmutes his grief into joy and he decides his mission.
I didn’t want to make fun of Eurovision and wanted to make it a love letter to the whole thing. I know people who love Eurovision will love the movie and I made it for them. I read the trailer reactions and people cared about if I got it right.
What went into the casting with Will, Rachel McAdams and Dan Stevens?
Well, we have Will at the front. I loved that he created this character for himself. We were trying to find someone opposite him. I wanted a high powered actress who could also handle the comedy. I thought of Rachel because we had worked together and she’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. She could be opposite the Elephant Man and you believe it. She creates chemistry with everyone.
She was scared of having to learn, to sing, to have to learn to play the guitar and learn to play the piano. But I know her, she’s such a hard worker and a perfectionist that I knew if she said yes, she was gonna dive into it.
Dan Stevens. I remember being at breakfast in Tel Aviv at Eurovision. I have always loved him and we all love him in “Downton Abbey.” He’s just a monster of an actor.
How did you find a way to make it accessible for those who aren’t familiar with the contest?
There was a lot of conversation and we wondered if we needed a prologue to explain it. We tested it to see if there was confusion. Were they following along? Did they understand the rules? In America, we tested it three times, nobody had any questions and there was no confusion. I guess there are so many contests that they followed along. They’ll never get the joke that nobody votes for the U.K., but it doesn’t matter because the core of the story is a universal one about love and following your dreams and how it can blind you if you don’t open your eyes. I think people will follow the character story and go along with the rest of the story.
What was your favorite song to shoot?
The Song-A-Long with everyone singing “Believe,” “Ray of Light,” “Waterloo” and “I Gotta Feeling” was incredible. Just the experience of trying to coordinate and choreograph that whole thing was a monster, but there was a big satisfaction with that number. That involved big long live takes but everyone nailed their part.
The semi-finals were a beast too just in time and staging. All the different bands were coming in and out for that. We shot the full songs too. The best thing was that I had my cameras and cranes in the exact place as in the contest, so it felt like I was directing Eurovision itself.
And, that last song is very special to me. It was one of my favorite moments of making the film. When we did the first take of the song, we asked the audience not to applaud at the end. They got so lost in it and the performance and they went insane. That moment brought a chill to my spine.