Almost a year ago, Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was about to have its art-imitating-life winning moment. The cast of Will Ferrell’s 20-years-in-the-making Eurovision spoof — accompanied by the real-life Eurovision alumni who appear in the film’s central “Song-a-Long” medley — was preparing to descend upon the actual EVSC finals, which were scheduled to take place in the Netherlands on May 16, 2020. The stunt would serve not only as an introduction to the movie, which was premiering the next day, but as an introduction to 2020’s supposed great Nordic pop hope.
“The funny thing is, our marketing was going to be that Arista Records was ‘signing’ Fire Saga. We were going to release the announcement,” Eurovision director David Dobkin tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume with a chuckle. “Scooter Braun was going to ‘manage’ them. We were going to launch the best ad campaign. The whole thing was going to be, ‘Here comes Fire Saga!’ — never mentioning Rachel’s name or Will's name — and then have them go be the musical guests on Fallon and Kimmel and Saturday Night Live.”
Fire Saga, as we all now know, is the fictional Icelandic pop duo of Lars Erickssong (Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams), residents of the tiny non-fictional town of Húsavík, who in Dobkin’s delightful movie musical represent Iceland at the Eurovision Song Contest. But in an unintentional instance of meta-marketing, Iceland’s actual Eurovision 2020 contestant, Daði Freyr, was also set to become the country’s first-ever EVSC winner, with his frontrunning electropop entry “Think About Things.”
But then… COVID happened, and Eurovision was canceled for the first time in its 64-year history. “That’s my greatest sadness of this entire experience,” says Dobkin. However, in 2021, everything is aligning once again. Freyr has been invited back to represent Iceland at next month’s Eurovision 2021 competition, where his new entry “10 Years” is still a favorite to win. And Fire Saga’s “Húsavík (My Hometown)” is representing Iceland in its own way at this weekend’s COVID-delayed Academy Awards ceremony, where it is actually Yahoo Entertainment’s prediction to win for Best Original Song. (In another synergistic development, this year also marks the 20th anniversary of when Iceland’s greatest pop export, Björk, ruled the Oscars’ red carpet in her iconic, infamous swan dress, an outlandish outfit that wouldn’t be out of place on the Eurovision stage.)
Dobkin largely credits “Húsavík’s” surprise nomination to a grassroots campaign, funded by the residents of Húsavík, that included a viral video starring a fictionalized version of the town’s mayor, "Óskar Óskarsson," and Hannes Óli Ágústsson, the Icelandic actor who plays Olaf in the film. “It's funny — one of my producers said to me, when we finally got the OK to shoot there, ‘This little town will never be the same again. If your movie does well, it's going to be flooded with tourists!’ But they really embraced it,” says Dobkin. “When we came in to shoot there for four days, we took over the place, as movies do — even in your best intentions, you still walk like an elephant through the garden. But they were really so accommodating and sweet, and the mayor gave us gifts and we ate all kinds of dried fish and things.” Dobkin says the local children now perform “Húsavík” in their school choir, while T-shirts bearing the title of another track from the Fire Saga soundtrack, the sea shanty “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” are sold at numerous Húsavík gift shops.
The fact that the 2,300 proud residents of Húsavík were so eager to rally behind their eponymous Oscar theme proves that the Fire Saga film got the music right — which was extremely important to Ferrell and Dobkin. Ferrell had been a longtime Eurovision obsessive, but Dobkin sheepishly admits that until he was brought on to the film project, he was entirely unfamiliar with the EVSC phenomenon — even though the Eurovision Song Contest, basically the United Nations of talent competitions, has been going strong since 1956 and is viewed annually by an average global audience of 180 million. Once Dobkin educated himself with a Eurovision online crash course of sorts, however, he knew he had to take the soundtrack seriously.
“I love music. I'm a big music video fan and a music video director, and so music's always been a really big part [of my career]. But I’d never heard of the contest,” says Dobkin, whose credits include videos for 2Pac, Blues Traveler, Coolio, Elton John, and Maroon 5. “It's so weird that when I actually was sent the script, I was like, ‘There's no way I'm doing a singing contest movie.’ I passed on it! But my agent called me back and said, ‘You know, Will's in it, and he really wants you to read it.’ I read the script, and it was so charming and I fell in love with these characters, so I called back and said, ‘It's really funny. But we have to change the title. It's a terrible title. Eurovision?’ And my agent was like, ‘You know this is a real thing, right?’
"I hung up the phone and I Googled it, and I spent the next four hours going through just the last decade of finalists, thinking, ‘This is insane!’ It's way bigger than the Super Bowl. I mean, it's World Cup-size. For something like that to exist that I had never heard of was shocking to me. It was like the dark web opening up. As I got deeper into it, it seemed weirder and weirder and better and better to me. And by the way — there's nothing in the script that really prepares you for how weird the real thing is.”
Dobkin quickly realized that his "first priority was that the music sounded good. I also didn't want to parody the event. Like, you can't ‘out-Eurovision’ Eurovision. And the whole thing is, this show goes from being incredibly campy to incredibly heartfelt. And the production value is world-class. It is live in front of 20,000 people, in a full arena, no commercial breaks, and it runs for hours and is so well-produced. So, I was trying to figure out how I was going to pull this off, so that it looks real to the people who love Eurovision. I didn't want it to be a bad, hokey version. I didn't want to be the lame American that looks down on it or makes it into something that's stupid, because I don't think it's stupid. I think it's a very, very intelligent, brilliant, well-put-on show. So Will and I spoke about it and I said, ‘Look, we have a movie that takes place at Eurovision, but let's do Eurovision for real. I feel like we should be making a love letter to the 180 million people who know this thing and love it.’”
That was when Dobkin, Ferrell, and Ferrell’s co-scriptwriter Andrew Steele set about finding a composer who could come up with “an amazing song, but it couldn't be cheesy, but it had to be good enough to be cheesy. I don't know if that makes sense, but it had to be good-cheesy, like great-cheesy — you know, like Titanic or something, an iconic song that could land the emotional ending of the movie,” Dobkin explains. “It had to be music that felt like it actually could compete in Eurovision.”
Enter Savan Kotecha, an Indian-American former boy band member who now resides in Sweden (the land of Eurovision’s all-time most famous winner, 1974’s ABBA) and has co-written massive hits for the Weeknd, Ariana Grande, One Direction, Katy Perry, Usher, Ellie Goulding, and Demi Lovato (who has a supporting role in the film as Fire Saga’s doomed nemesis). Initially Kotecha, who penned “Húsavík” with Fat Max Gsus and Rickard Göransson, submitted another song for the movie, “Double Trouble.” But Dobkin and Steele were so enamored when they heard that playback that they hired Kotecha to supervise the entire soundtrack.
“It was so accurate. I was sobbing, like, ‘How did you do this?’” Dobkin recalls. “I then went further and said, ‘Hey, can you come on as the executive music producer and help me do this? Because you've nailed something that's funny, but it's also good enough that people will know that we're not making fun of it.’” The Oscar-nominated “Húsavík,” however, took “months and months to craft and really get right,” since — unlike all of this year’s other Best Song Oscar contenders, which merely play over those films’ end credits — “Húsavík” appears in Eurovision’s climactic scene, in the final act. “It changed the tenor of the end of the movie,” Dobkin points out. “It treated the characters respectfully, as if they were real characters and not just in a comedy.”
And now, in another life-imitating-art moment, Molly Sandén, the Swedish pop superstar who did most of Sigrit’s vocals in Fire Saga and even represented Sweden in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest back in 2006, will be performing “Húsavík (My Hometown)” at Sunday’s Oscars — remotely, via satellite, from the town of Húsavík itself. This was Kotecha’s brilliant idea, and it could end up being the most talked-about moment of the ceremony. “Yes, that’s happening,” Dobkin says with a huge grin. “It’s all very exciting.”
And the Fire Saga momentum keeps on growing. For instance, Iceland's above-mentioned Daði Freyr recently covered another one the movie’s songs, the Eurodisco bop “Volcano Man.” (“He should cover the whole soundtrack, his own version of it, kind of the way Ryan Adams did Taylor Swift’s 1989 or something,” Dobkin laughs.) And with a real-life Stateside version of Eurovision, the American Song Contest, launching later this year, Dobkin is already semi-jokingly pondering a sequel (“maybe Fire Saga Comes to America”) that would finally give Sigrit and Lars that opportunity to perform on Kimmel and SNL.
As for whether “Húsavík” can actually take home the Academy Award this weekend, the director is reluctant to speculate, but he’s already proud of what Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga has achieved. “It's an underdog movie, about an underdog contestant, with an underdog song, that made it with an underdog singer [Sandén] that nobody in America has heard of,” Dobkin says. “And I have to say, the song really seemed to capture people's hearts, in the same way the movie did.”
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The above interview is taken from David Dobkin's two appearances on the SiriusXM Volume show “Volume West.” Full audio of those conversations are available on the SiriusXM app.