The ‘Eurovision’ Songwriters on Their Surprise Oscar Nomination
Usually, the Oscar nominations for Best Original Song are pretty predictable: There’s almost always a Disney torch song, a pop star trying to break the mold, and a tune by Diane Warren, who has been nominated 12 times now with no wins so far. But this year, among songs by H.E.R., Leslie Odom Jr., and, of course, Diane Warren, there’s a surprise contender: “Húsavík (My Hometown),” a schmaltzy Europop parody sung in faux-Icelandic accents by Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in the Netflix comedy, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
In the movie, Ferrell and McAdams play small-town Icelanders who form a duo called Fire Saga and vie to win the long-running Eurovision Song Contest, the world’s premier songwriting competition since 1956. Although seriously schmaltzy songs sung by Abba, Lulu, and Celine Dion have claimed the top honor at the event, the most memorable contestants are the ones who go totally over the top — a phenomenon that inspired Ferrell to dream up the Eurovision movie in the first place. But, of course, to make a movie about Eurovision, you need a Eurovision-worthy soundtrack, so filmmaker David Dobkin brought in executive music producer Savan Kotecha, who has co-written tracks for the Weeknd, Britney Spears, Demi Lovato, and many others, to oversee the music.
For the showstopping “Húsavík,” Kotecha worked with Swedish songwriters Fat Max Gsus, who has collaborated with Tove Lo and Pink, and Rickard Göransson, whose credits include songs for Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, and Avril Lavigne. The script didn’t offer them much to go on, as far as the song goes, so they dug deep into their Eurovision fandom to compose the tune and all its sentimental glory, including lyrics about gentle people loving whales and one impossibly high “spirit note,” which was sung in actuality by a real-life former Junior Eurovision Song contestant Molly Sandén, who goes by the name My Marianne.
In the film, Ferrell’s character, Lars Erickssong, plays the piano in a dirty rain slicker (he almost didn’t make it to the competition since it’s, y’know, a Will Ferrell movie) while McAdams’ character, Sigrit Ericksdóttir, musters all the natural grace she has to win over the audience.
Following the film’s debut on Netflix last year, the song won a trophy at the Society of Composers and Lyricists Awards, earlier this year, and even Broadway legend Andrew Lloyd Webber toasted the track, calling Eurovision “one of the funniest things I’ve seen since School of Rock.”
But when I asked the songwriters in a recent Zoom interview if they expected the song to get such a warm reception when they wrote it, they all answer at the same time, “Oh, no, no, no, no.”
“I feel like David Dobkin knew,” says Kotecha, who’s at home in Stockholm for the chat (Max is also in Stockholm, while Göransson is in L.A.) “When they were filming it, he was texting me, ‘Man, wait ’til you see this.'”
He may have been onto something. Now that it’s up for an Oscar, can “Húsavík” — a song that was written to win an award in a movie — actually win an award? The answer will be revealed Sunday night when the Oscars air on ABC at 8 p.m. ET. Before then, though, the songwriters shared a lot of laughs remembering how hard they worked to make sure the song hit the right note.
How did the three of you get involved in the film?
Savan Kotecha: I was executive music producer of the movie and I’m the only non-Swede that’s in this Swedish sort of songwriting collective with studios in Stockholm and L.A. So when I got the gig, I obviously went to the camp and said, “Hey, who wants to do this? It’s a crazy idea, but it’s a great movie about Eurovision.”
Rickard Göransson: And I said, “I’m in.”
Fat Max Gsus: Our hands went up fast.
How is the song described in the script?
Kotecha: Well, there was constant talk about the “spirit note” in the draft that I got. So we knew it had to be a ballad and we had to hit a big note at the end. When we three sat down and I described the story, we knew that it had to be Sigrit’s journey. So all the answers were in the script because all she wanted was Lars. But what Lars wanted was these flashing lights and to be seen and adored by the world. He didn’t see that he was adored by her. She just wanted him and their hometown, and this was the moment she got to say that.
Göransson: I remember always coming back to the “hometown” thing. The concept of that was something that I felt like, “This can probably speak to a lot of people around the world.”
Max: There are a lot of people out there with hometowns.
How did the song take form?
Kotecha: It was originally going to be a comedic scene but then they wanted to make it more dramatic, so we changed the lyrics and the production. There were so many versions. Max, do you remember how many?
Max: It might have been 69. Definitely 60-plus.
That’s a lot. I’m sure it’s not like you did a country and western version.
Max: Well, basically [laughs].
Kotecha: It had very different lyrics in the beginning and a couple of drafts of melodies in the beginning.
Max: The [film] writers weren’t sure if Lars was going to be a guitar guy or a piano guy. So there is one version that’s no orchestral parts, just electric guitars with delay pedals and just fooling around with that as well.
Kotecha: It was shaping how the vision of what the stage was going to look like in the film for this song. It was, like, versions with drums and versions with no drums, remember?
Göransson: Yeah. The movie adapted to the song and the song was adapted to the movie. So I think that’s what makes it so special. It’s not like we saw this scene once and [said] ‘OK, here’s the song.’ It was really a relationship happening.
What makes for a good Eurovision contender in real life?
Göransson: Growing up in Sweden, Eurovision has always been a part of our culture. So it has a special tone to it. And Savan, who has spent a lot of time in Sweden, knows the same thing. But another important thing was we didn’t want to make fun of the Eurovision competition; we wanted more to pay tribute to it. So the important part was to have songs that were really like real songs.
Kotecha: If you listen to all the Eurovision stuff, of course, there’s the quirky stuff. And we did that in the movie with, like, “Coolin’ With Da Homies” and stuff like that. But if you listen to the songs in Eurovision, the melodies are actually quite fantastic, and it’s the production and then the lyrics that are usually pretty over the top, so it was so important that these melodies were super, super strong.
Göransson: It’s very similar to writing pop songs, and we know how to do that. So we use some of that and then some of the tone of Eurovision.
Max: Yeah, if the goal was to send it to the contest, we probably would have done it. The production is done to fit in the film about Eurovision and not the actual contest, but as far as the songwriting goes, we shot our shot.
Kotecha: We thought it would win. That was the thing.
How did you balance that kind of schmaltzy Eurovision-winning sound with something that could be funny but also sincere?
Kotecha: Well, I think it was pretty clear that this moment had to be Sigrit expressing herself. And Lars stepping back. Lars’ personality in the movie is that he just can’t help himself. He just has to be the star. I think it’s funny that he gives her her moment, but there’s just those few moments he just has to do something in the song. So I think for this one, it’s so heartfelt.
Göransson: Yeah. And then add Rachel McAdams’ performance, and when everything came together, it was just the perfect thing.
Max: It’s a comedy movie, and Eurovision can seem really goofy and fun and colorful and weird, but it’s such a huge event in the world and it’s so accepting with the LGBTQ+ [community] and acceptance of all the people. So [the movie has] a really deep respect for the whole thing at the foundation of it all. So you want to also pay respect to that while being fun.
Kotecha: I think to the outside world, it can sometimes seem kooky, but [Eurovision songwriters] really believe it. And again like Max said, this is their serious music. Lars sees himself as a serious musician. Like, “Volcano Man,” with that scene — remember when Ross from Friends was playing keyboards? He was like really into it. That was the goal of it as well, like, not to make fun of it but to go under their skin. Like, “What are they feeling?” I think what connected about this song, particularly with those lines with the whales and all that is that Sigrit is so sweet and so optimistic and naïve, so she would put the whale line in there because she believes it.
I love those lyrics: “Where the mountains sing through the screams of seagulls/Where the whales can live ’cause they’re gentle people.” How did the words come together?
Max: A lot of people forget, the next line after is “in my hometown.” So it’s basically the one sentence … where the whales can live, because they’re gentle people in my hometown.
Göransson: But the original line is that whales can live there because the people that live there are gentle people [laughs].
Max: Exactly. I was just going through my mind and imagining Húsavík. Whales were definitely one of the first things that would describe it, and then I actually found out afterwards that Húsavík is an actual whale city, like [whales] hang out there. They think it’s cool there, so it must be one of the most spectacular places.
The sentimentality is what sells it.
Kotecha: David Dobkin was like, “If the song wasn’t as strong as it became, they would have had to rely on the comedy.” It would have to make it a comedic moment, but because we were lucky enough to get a pretty good job of capturing what Sigrit’s character needs to say at that moment, they didn’t have to rely on the comedy; they could rely on the heart. So that felt really good, especially from being involved quite early on in the song, and it was always going to be this thing where you hit the spirit note and there’s an orgasm happening and then you feel like, “Oh, wow, this is here.” This was sort of this gift from the universe that changed things in the film.
How did Dobkin and Ferrell react to the song?
Kotecha: I remember when we first played the first demo, David was like, “Play that again, there’s something to that.” And I wasn’t there when Will heard it first. I think David played it to him. I heard he was crying on set when it was playing.
Max: He was actually crying?
Kotecha: That’s what he told us on a panel. He was, like, in tears because the movie was actually happening, but then also apparently the crowd and the audience kept clapping after the song. And Dobkin was, like, “You’ve got to tell them they can’t do that.” But every time they just got so emotional, they started cheering at the end. And it’s like, “Oh, fuck it. We’ll just use it.”
What was McAdams’ reaction to the song?
Kotecha: She seemed to really love it. When we were recording her [for the solo piano scene when the song is introduced], she was super nervous being in the studio, but she actually has a really nice voice. She’s a lot better than she thinks she is. And the funny thing was Molly and her have [similar voices]. So it’s a very blendable.
How was it working with Molly Sandén when she recorded Sigrit’s vocal for the finale?
Max: Some of the takes are just transcendental. You’re just like, “Wow, it’s really happening.” I couldn’t deny how it felt hearing it.
And obviously Molly hit the spirit note, which is very impressive.
Max: [Laughs] Yeah, well, I had to show her how to do it. I did it for her. [All laugh.]
Kotecha: Now you can no longer have children.
Since you’re all in the business of writing hit songs, why do you think the song has gotten so much recognition?
Kotecha: I would like to think it’s the melody and the connection. I think the lyrics are very relatable regardless. With Covid especially, we have realized that it’s our loved ones and the people close to us that matter. Nothing else really does. And that’s really what the song is about, right? … That, and Rachel McAdams played Sigrit so well.
Max: Yeah, Rachel’s performance is literally … it’s like it cracks my heart a little bit every time I see it.
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