In Netflix’s oontz-pulsed disco-comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Will Ferrell takes his career’s work — the continued unpacking of arrested-adultescent male idiocy — in an Icelandic direction. The six-foot-three funnyman portrays Lars Erickssong, a shaggy-haired ne’er-do-well with delusions of pop-music grandeur. He teams up with singer Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams) to make an improbable run representing their country at the movie’s titular competition: an annual battle royal watched by as many as 600 million people worldwide, where entrants perform absurdly magniloquent original songs for votes on live TV.
Turns out the film’s director, David Dobkin, has been an enormous fan of Eurovision for years and had long dreamt of directing a movie homage to the beloved music contest. Actually, that’s not true. Like most Americans, the filmmaker behind R-rated comedies Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up had never heard of the Eurovision Song Contest before working on the Netflix project. In fact, he promptly turned down an offer to direct the movie before he learned that Ferrell had co-written the script and was the passion project’s driving force.
Speaking from his home in the hills of Los Angeles, where the filmmaker — who in recent years had branched out from comedy, writing and directing the 2014 Robert Downey Jr. drama The Judge, executive-producing The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and penning the script for Warner Bros.’ King Arthur: Legend of the Sword — remained in quarantine, Dobkin was in a reflective mood. Ahead of his movie’s streaming premiere, he discussed his initial reluctance with Eurovision as well as the “uprising and cultural reshifting” that is fundamentally rewriting the rules of what can be funny in 2020.
I understand this movie came about because Will Ferrell’s wife is from Sweden — that he watched the Eurovision Song Contest on TV over there, and it was so bonkers he wanted to make a movie out of it.
Yeah, 18 years ago. That’s what was crazy: He’s been wanting to make this movie for almost two decades. He started showing up to the contest — he’s been there four, maybe five times. He got the rights to make the Eurovision movie and brought it to Netflix. That’s how into this thing he was.
What was your first response to the material?
I did not know what [Eurovision] was. I finished the script and still did not know what it was.
So your initial response to this being proposed was basically, “Forget it.”
Look, when my agent first called me and said, “Hey, there’s a music contest movie,” I was like, “No way. I’m not doing that.” He was like, “Well, Will’s asking you to read it.” Will and I have been trying to do something forever. The script at the time was really short. It needed to be fleshed out a little; there needed to be some character work done, which we did together. But overall it was really funny. Just, like, the Iceland of it all and how they get into the contest and the absurdist tone to the movie. But also a lot of heart.
One of the funny things about the movie is that the contest, as you present it, is barely fictionalized.
I mean, I finished the script and had to be told this was a real thing. The whole idea that this contest was created out of the ashes of World War II to create some sense of camaraderie and community amongst the European nations was amazing. That and the fact that it had gone on for this long and become this big and almost nobody in America has heard of it.
As I’m sure the thinking goes, if Netflix can get a fraction of the hundreds of millions of people who watch the contest to stream the movie, you’ve got a hit. But in reality, those performances are totally over the top — the way people dress, the background dancers are nuts. So as a filmmaker, you have to present all that with accuracy while also having some fun. How did you strike that balance?
The tone was very specific. There’s a huge audience that loves this contest. There’s a campiness, but there’s also a high level of performance, of dancing, visual. They put it on live in front of 20,000 people. Tonally, I knew I did not want to make a parody. I did not want to make fun of these people or the contest. I wanted to just tell a funny story with that as the setting.
When I spoke to Will, I said, “I think of this along the lines of what the Coen brothers did with Fargo.” The characters speak like they’re from that part of the world. They’re funny. They have their limitations and strengths because they’re from that part of the world. But they’re never looked down upon by the filmmakers. I think you can see from the movie there’s a lot of love for the event and a lot of love for the characters in it. Nobody’s up there being dumb about it, because that would be insulting.
You started out directing music videos. That must have come in handy.
I went to NYU. I wanted to make movies, but at the time, there were all these videos coming out that were incredibly cutting-edge. And I figured, “Well, maybe I can do that.” My first paid gig was for a rapper named Tupac — who was not incredibly well known at the time. But the videos we did blew up and became big hits. I ended up in a career in music videos for quite a number of years and loved it. I’ve always wanted to make a music movie. I have a fastball that suddenly showed up.
Your best-known movies — Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights, The Change-Up, now Eurovision — are two-handers: films with two stars. What’s the trick to making sure each character gets enough development so that each serves the plot equally and has a real stake in the payoff?
Rachel’s character [in Eurovision] needed a lot of work when we got the script. It’s that thing where you have to make sure both sides of the story are arcing. They can’t be going through the same story. They have to be going through different things, but they have to somehow land together. And you have to get through it in an authentic way or it doesn’t work.
The trick to all these movies for me is, even though it’s a comedy, to try to tell a real story that has some resonance to the cultural time that you’re in. I always look at Nancy Meyers’s movies because she is so good at finding a moment in a character’s life that you could actually see in the world that we are living in: a mother after a divorce who ends up with an empty-nest moment, a guy who has lost his wife but isn’t done working and becomes an intern for a younger woman. She is so smart in finding those dynamics.
Something funny or surreal that’s grounded in reality.
I don’t direct comedy scenes for laughs. I direct them dramatically, and the laughs come from the situations and the delivery. I’m directing it as drama because I want there to be a real base to it. This script [for Eurovision] was so absurd. The whales jumping — it’s insane. And I was like, “Oh, I love this. Can we make these into real people so it just feels funnier and a little bit warmer and a little bit more relevant?”
The culture is changing very quickly these days, and so is comedy. During awards season, Todd Phillips said he felt he couldn’t make films like The Hangover anymore. He went into Joker after deciding movie comedies had become untenable because current social mores are so strict, you can’t get a laugh anymore. Is there’s a kind of humor that you think used to be funny that you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole anymore?
As far as what Todd said — and I know he’s gotten attacked for this and he’s a buddy of mine — but I have to back him up. I have always considered myself to be an equal-opportunity offender. I think that we should be able to laugh at anything. Now there are cultural wounds and things that are not nice and that hurt people, and it has taken me a lot of listening and a lot of learning to understand that there are certain jokes that probably are inappropriate.
I would never make a joke that I thought was racist. But I look at something like 48 Hours and I realize how mind blowing my experience was of that movie because the story is about a guy who is racist becoming friends with a guy who is Black. That story and the ability to laugh at what Eddie Murphy does in that honky-tonk bar was incredibly healing for not just me but for the Black members of the audience at that time.
Nick Nolte’s character in that movie is racist, but Eddie Murphy’s character was this new archetype who was going to give as good as he gets, despite the power dynamic of being in handcuffs.
Dude, exactly. And as an R-rated director, you’re usually pushing the irreverence button. That’s what Richard Pryor did. That’s what Lenny Bruce did. That’s what Eddie did. There’s always going to be a difference of opinion about these things, but I do believe art should be able to be art. Yeah, you do get to be criticized. It’s okay for people to tell you you’re being insensitive. But it’s also okay for you to take the swing and see if you can do it as long as it’s coming from the right place. And I do think that comedy is in a very interesting moment right now, because, by the way, the world is in an interesting moment. We are in the middle of an uprising and a cultural reshifting. Resetting that is going to be confusing for comedy for quite some time.
People are trying to figure out the rules.
Especially for white men. I’m a white guy. Todd’s a white guy. God bless Jordan Peele. He could do whatever he wants and should be able to. Same for what Tiffany Haddish does, what Kevin Hart does. There’s a reason that Louis CK can’t do what he used to do. This is a different conversation, but I’m a huge Louis CK fan. I really wish that he hadn’t done what he did. At the same time, I respect that he came out and said, “Yes, I did those things.”
He doesn’t seem to have learned from it, but he was able to confess it. It’s going to be confusing, man. I do think that the movie studios probably looked at scripts like The Hangover and anything that was similar to it for a while and thought, “This is a little bit dangerous.” Unless you are making a Bridesmaids and you have women writers and women creators being able to say, “Hey, this is our experience. This is where we’re sharing the humor from.” That’s where it kind of elevates.
By the way, we want to hear those voices. I’m frankly sick of hearing white guys’ stories. They’re boring. We’ve been watching them our whole lives.