Will Ferrell first became obsessed with the Eurovision Song Contest, the infamous international competition, about 20 years ago when he and his wife went to Sweden to visit her family. “It just happened to be the night of the finale and they all wanted to watch and as soon as I saw it I was like, ‘This is a movie!’” Ferrell adds. “I never acted on it because I was sure somebody was going to make it, at least in Europe. In the back of my brain, I was always thinking, ‘Why has no one made that movie yet?’”
About six years ago, Ferrell finally took it upon himself to co-write, with Andrew Steele, “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” a parody, homage and love letter to Eurovision. In the Netflix film, Ferrell plays an Icelandic dreamer named Lars, who has been obsessed with winning Eurovision, despite his limited talent. Rachel McAdams portrays his childhood friend Sigrit, who leaves offerings to the elves for their success. The two actually find themselves finalists in the contest. Soon they’re belting fun and catchy tunes like “Double Trouble” and “Husavik,” a sentimental tribute to their hometown.
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While the film is a comedy, the music is no joke. The songs not only feel right at home in a Eurovision contest, they’re genuinely catchy and vital to the story. The soundtrack itself has landed on Billboard charts all over the world and has now been nominated (along with compilation producer Savan Kotecha and music supervisor Becky Bentham) for best compilation soundtrack for visual media at the upcoming 63rd Annual Grammy Awards. And “Husavik,” performed by Ferrell and Molly Sandén (with music and lyrics by Kotecha, Rickard Goransson and Fat Max Gsus), is considered a frontrunner for a best original song nomination at the Academy Awards.
Variety spoke to Ferrell about the music of the movie and the one joke that nobody seemed to get.
Thanks to this album, you now have a Grammy nomination and I expect it to get an Oscar nomination. You already have an Emmy Award and a Tony nomination. Are you angling for an EGOT?
Well, I didn’t win the Tony, I lost to Liza. I mean, if you’re going to lose to anyone, that’s pretty cool. So I guess if I win the Grammy and the Oscar, I’ll have to go back to Broadway to get the “T” part.
Was the Grammy nomination a surprise? That had to be pretty cool.
Oh, yeah. There was a lot of things written saying: “Hold on everyone. These songs are actually good. They should be nominated.” Which were the tone of a lot of different articles. Which is great to be mentioned in that regard. But then to actually get the nomination for the soundtrack and to know that all these wonderful people like Savan Kotecha and Molly Sandén are getting credit — it’s so deserved. Comedy doesn’t get enough credit in general for being hard to pull off, but to thread the needle between these types of songs in this movie, where we wanted to pay homage to the camp of Eurovision and the style, but at the same time, we really wanted it to be a love letter to the contest as well. There’s an art to creating this kind of music and so to see that recognized is great.
Absolutely – these songs are funny and clever, but they also have to forward the story. Plus, they’re earworms. Where did you even begin? Did you have placeholders for the songs in the script?
Yes, we would just kind of leave these open sections of the script. And that’s where the collaboration began as to the types of songs and what we needed for each part of the movie. “Double Trouble” was one of the first songs I heard; I’d had this movie in my head for 20 years and I was with David Dobkin and Andrew Steele, our writer, who was with Savan, our music producer. They played me the first song. And no joke, I almost started crying. Because it was so emotional. It’s funny, it’s kitschy, it’s good and it’s everything that a Eurovision song is. I was like, “I think we’re going to be in good hands.” “Husavik” was also a really emotional song. Every time Rachel would perform, David would come up and ask if I was okay because I couldn’t stop welling up. It’s just so beautiful.
Did you ever imagine there would be such a response to “Jaja Ding Dong?” It’s such a simple song, it’s not even one of the centerpieces.
No. I mean, it was one of those songs that as we were shooting that scene, the crew is kind of bobbing their head along. I do remember talking to some of the Icelandic cast and they’re like, “Wow, this is good. The only problem is some of the songs are too good for ‘Eurovision.’” And so we had some sense that we were like in the ballpark.
Have you heard from anyone in Iceland about how popular the song is there?
I stayed in touch with this really nice guy who was driving me around in Iceland. He sent me a text saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s become now an anthem in the bars.” It’s fantastic.
I saw that you guys made the Icelandic Albums Chart. You peaked at number two!
Oh, I didn’t know that. I did know that Daði Freyr, the guy who was the entrant this year for Iceland in the real contest, did a really soulful electronica cover of “Volcano Man.”
Oh my god. That’s meta upon meta.
Completely. And the blogosphere was like, “Wait a minute, what’s going on?” Because he had this long hair like Lars in the movie. People were saying, “Was the fix in? Was the fix in for Iceland to win this year?” All this crazy stuff.
You do your own singing in “Eurovision” and you’re genuinely good. I also realized that you’ve made several movies where you singing is a plot point. Were you ever trained as a singer?
No, I just grew up in a bit of a musical family, just around music. My dad’s a musician and it was just always a fun thing to do. But no, I’ve never had any sort of formal training. Though in late May or June, Ryan Reynolds and I are actually doing a legit musical, it’s a reimagining of “A Christmas Carol” with Pasek and Paul writing the songs. I think music and comedy are kind of linked together. They share a lot of the same rhythms and you know, they almost share the same form of math, in a way. So they go hand in hand and I think I’m always looking for ways to interject music into things.
We have to talk about the real stars of the movie — the elves. Where did that come from? Was there ever talk of showing them?
No. I don’t know if people know, but in the research on Iceland, we just found that this is a real thing — that they have these little elf houses. People bring offerings. It’s a whole cultural thing. We figured it was best to not see them, but what a great thing to have a callback to at the end of the movie.
Wait, you’re blowing my mind. There’s real houses?
Oh, yeah, this is like a real thing in Iceland. Google pictures of it, they’re really fascinating.
I just love that you’ve made the world believe in elves.
You know what’s funny? Nobody got the subtext to that. We were trying to put in this bit about how Lars has issues with elves and elves are stupid and thought, “That’s going to get such a funny laugh because of Buddy the Elf.” But it just went over everyone’s head.
Oh my god, I can’t believe that I just got that now.
It was supposed to be such an obvious joke that we should have my character just hate all things elf-related, and I starred in “Elf.” And that just kind of flew by.
Did you ever consider a cameo by Bob Newhart or something?
Well, now I wish we had.
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