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Weird: The Al Yankovic Story Director Eric Appel on Finding the Truth Among the Parody and Why He Cast Daniel Radcliffe

For over 40 years, “Weird Al” Yankovic has been entertaining the masses with his song parodies — first on the Dr. Demento Radio Show, and then on MTV, which helped Yankovic break out in a big way back in the ’80s. And yet, for everyone who sings along with his hits, “Eat It,” “My Bologna,” “Amish Paradise,” and others, few people know the true story behind Yankovic’s rise to fame.

And that will not change with Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.

Co-written by Yankovic and director Eric Appel, Weird is a biopic parody that stars Daniel Radcliffe and follows the world’s most famous accordion player from childhood, when he had to contend with his disapproving parents (Toby Huss and Julianne Nicholson), to his early encounters with Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), all the way up through his steamy romance with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood). Again, all of it has been fictionalized for the sake of laughs, of which there are many.

Weird marks Appel’s feature film debut after two decades of directing television, and it will also be the first original film to stream on the Roku Channel, which is just another thing that makes the film unique. Weird had a rousing premiere back in September as part of the Midnight Madness lineup at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Yankovic has been promoting the movie heartily while on the road with his latest tour.

Above the Line spoke with Appel via Zoom a few weeks back.

Eric Appel
Eric Appel

Above the Line: I wasn’t that familiar with your television work, although I’ve seen some of the shows you’ve directed episodes for, like Silicon Valley and New Girl. How did you go from that to making this movie with Al Yankovic and co-writing the script with him?

Eric Appel: It started as a fake movie trailer that I made at Funny or Die, like 12 years ago. All these biopics come out, and they all play so fast and loose with facts. Typically, at least back then, the biopics are about someone who’s been dead for 20 years, so it’s a little harder to fact-check them. I had this idea, “Oh, it’d be really funny to do a fake movie trailer for a biopic about someone who is still alive and to just completely make the story up, and it’s clearly not true.” I was like, “I think the funniest person to do this about would be Weird Al.”  It’s fitting because he’s like the king of parodies himself, and also, because, he leads this famously squeaky-clean life. He doesn’t curse. No drinking, no drugs. Very supportive parents. Just a very smart guy, valedictorian of his high school.

We had a mutual friend in Patton Oswalt, and I reached out to Patton to get Al’s blessing. I was like,  “I have this idea I want to do for the website. It feels like an idea that Al may want to do himself. I don’t want to step on any toes. So make sure he’s cool with this.” Patton gets right back to me, and he says, ‘I talked to Al. He loves the idea. Can I give him your email?’ Within minutes, I had an email from Weird Al, who I’d never met in my life — I was just a giant fan of — and he said, ‘I’d love to collaborate with you on this. It’s a great idea. Want to meet up for coffee tonight?’ Hours later, I’m sitting in a coffee shop with Weird Al, watching biopic trailers on a laptop, and finding all the similarities and tropes, and coming up with a bullet point list of, ‘Here are the moments we should put in this trailer.’

He showed this trailer at his concerts for about 10 years, during a costume change in the middle of the show. He does meet and greets after all his shows, and it was like a decade of people coming up to him and saying either, “Please make this movie, we really want to see this” or “Where can I see this movie? I can’t find it anywhere,” thinking it’s real. In February of 2019, Rocketman was announced — I think Bohemian Rhapsody had just come out, a slew of biopics, as they were back in the zeitgeist, and Al emailed me out of the blue: ‘I’m looking for the next thing. I recently released a career retrospective box-set. I’m thinking maybe the next thing is we turn this trailer into a real movie. Would you be interested? We could write it together, and you can direct it,’ and that was the jumping-off point.  

I immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s meet for coffee.’ We started batting around ideas, and [there were a] couple of months meeting at my office, or I’d go to his house; we’d sit in his living room, and talk about all the directions we could take this thing in. Our comedic sensibilities are so similar, partly because he helped shape my comedic sensibilities. I’ve been a fan of his for as long as I can remember. The process was incredible — we worked really well together. It was like very smooth, and it was just a joy to write this thing with him.

Daniel Radcliffe in Weird/Roku Channel

ATL: It’s funny going into the movie not realizing it’s a parody, because I didn’t know about the Funny or Die trailer. I just knew that Dan was playing him, and I assumed it was a serious biopic until I started trying to figure out the timeline from when his songs first played on Dr. Demento, and then I figured it out.

Appel: I’m happy you got that experience. That was the experience Al and I hoped people would have. We were sort of tickled by the fact that everyone that watches this – especially going in fresh – is going to have a different moment in which they realize… I mean, by the end of the movie, no one in their right mind will think that it’s real, but everyone’s going to have a different moment where they say, “Oh, okay, clearly this didn’t happen,” and it will make them question everything that happened before that. We welcome the confusion.

ATL: I assume Al knows Madonna, and he obviously knows Dr. Demento, but did he have to go to them and get permission to satire them? Did either of you want to get just a nod of approval before going into a feature version of that trailer?

Appel: No, he typically doesn’t ask for permission with these things. In the movie, even with Madonna. Madonna plays like an arch-villain in this movie, but we’re not punching down or being mean to her. It’s this heightened version of the idea of Madonna and who she is. We’re not really trying to be cruel to anyone, so I don’t think people would have a problem with anything. Hopefully, if and when Madonna sees this, she finds it funny. Al doesn’t really know Madonna, but when he parodied “Like a Virgin,” he heard that Madonna said, “When’s Weird Al going to parody my song?” That’s how that started, and that was kind of the jumping-off point for her character in the movie. It was like, “What if we take that to the extreme?” Not only does she want him to parody the song, but she’ll stop at nothing to get him to do this.

ATL: There are a lot of fun things about this movie, but casting has to be key. I’ve known Dan for some time, and he’s great at comedy, because he’s hilarious, but there were others, like Evan, I didn’t recognize until the end credits. How did you go about casting around Dan, or around Al, or both?

Appel: In a movie that is a satire of the biopic genre, you would think that we’re gonna cast all comedians. Our goal with this movie from the beginning was to fill the cast with dramatic actors that understand comedy. It started with Radcliffe. He carried an entire movie franchise for a decade. He’s a fantastic dramatic actor. He’s a fantastic comedic actor. The choices that he’s made post-Harry Potter have been just so bold and interesting and weird. He’s really funny and gets it.

In our initial conversations with him, he asked the same question, “Why me for the Weird Al movie?” We really wanted to lean into the drama, and let the comedy come from the absurdity of these things being performed at the top of your emotional intelligence, and really taking things seriously. Almost like a Weird Al song. It sounds exactly like the original… but the words are different. For the most part, we wanted this to feel like a dramatic biopic, but the words are different. Starting with Dan, that’s how we fleshed out the rest of the cast.

Evan, I’m a huge Westworld fan, and she’s also popped up in episodes of Drunk History on Comedy Central, so I know that she’s funny. She gets comedy, but she’s thought of, traditionally, as a dramatic actress. Julianne Nicholson to play Al’s mom. She was just coming off an Emmy win for Mare of Easttown, which is such a gripping, emotional, dark drama. It was the same conversation with her. “Here’s why I’m going to you for this, because you’re so grounded. You’re so real. These scenes, I don’t want them to just feel like goofy comedy scenes. I want to play the emotion underneath it, and I think that’s what’s going to make it funny.”

Weird
Quinta Brunson as Oprah with Radcliffe/Roku Channel

ATL: Dan’s a consummate professional who puts everything into all that he does, so did he learn to play accordion, too? I think Al does most of his singing, right?

Appel: From our very first conversation, which was about a year and a half before the movie got made — we attached Dan, and we just had a script. The first thing he said after, “Yes, I want to do this movie,” he asked Al, “Can you recommend an accordion for me to buy, because I want to start practicing now, so by the time this thing gets made, hopefully, I will have learned enough accordion, that I could realistically fake it on camera.” I was like, “We can shoot around you,” but that’s his approach as an actor. He’s so fantastic, and so committed. Right from the beginning, he was like, “I really want it to look like I’m playing.”  I mean, he did great. He took accordion lessons, Al gave him some lessons, and it was amazing how real it looks in moments.

ATL: Has Dr. Demento seen the movie yet? I loved Rainn Wilson’s version of him.

Appel: I don’t think that Demento has seen the movie yet. I think he’s actually seeing it this coming week; I heard he’s going to be at a screening that we’re having, and I’m excited for him to see it. Rainn, like all of our cast, is not playing the real Dr. Demento — he’s playing our bizarro movie version of Dr. Demento. In our film, the relationship between Demento and Al is more like the relationship between Jack Horner and Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. He’s like a kingmaker, he’s a father figure. There’s just a lot more drama in their relationship than I think the real relationship between Al and Dr. Demento. Demento is a very important part of Al’s journey and his career, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it is in our film.

ATL: I wonder how many younger people, who see this, will know that there was a real Dr. Demento with a radio show who played Al’s parodies long before he was on regular MTV rotation.

Appel: That’s the interesting thing about the movie, too, that people’s knowledge of Al… I think probably a lot of our audience is really gonna know nothing about Weird Al. He’s such an iconic performer, and he spans so many generations, everyone has a Weird Al song, at least. “Oh, I love Amish Paradise. I love White and Nerdy. I love Eat It,” but they don’t really know anything about his actual life, which is what’s really funny to me about the fact that everything in this movie’s made up. Those are the people that are really going to be thrown for a loop when it starts getting bonkers about halfway through.

Weird Evan Rachel Wood
Evan Rachel Wood as Madonna in Weird/Roku Channel

ATL: I have to ask about the pool party, which is a rogue’s gallery of comic actors, showing up as famous icons. It’s an amazing scene, but you made this during the pandemic, so how did you get all of those people in the same place? What was involved with putting that together?

Appel: We were really lucky with COVID during our shoot. We didn’t really have any COVID cases in the crew and with the cast. Except, the only bummer [was], Aaron Paul, who played Weird Al in the original trailer that we did years ago, he was supposed to show up and do a cameo, and the day he showed up for his fitting, he came in and tested positive for COVID, Thankfully, he made it through okay, but unfortunately, we couldn’t put him in the movie. The pool party scene, I mean, so many great cameos, and everyone kind of came from Al’s personal Rolodex. He’s such a beloved entertainer, and he’s made so many friends through the years of comedians that looked up to him. All those people that are in the movie, at some point, started as fans of Weird Al before they eventually met him and became friends. We had all these cameos to cast, and Al gave me a list of names. It was basically like, “Here’s my holiday card list, who I send holiday cards to every year,” and he personally reached out to all these people. It’s amazing how fast they said, “Yes.” Sometimes, ten minutes after he’d asked somebody, I’d get a text, it’s like, “They’re in. Where do I show up?”

ATL: Did they each pick who they were going to portray? Did they have to have someone they thought they could pull off or was it you and Al going, “Can you play this person?” Who came up with who should play whom?

Appel: We would have a role, and it would be like, “Hey, are you available one day this week? Would you want to play this role? It’s gonna be a real short thing. It’s gonna be super fun. There’s a bunch of other fun people doing this (in the case of the pool party).” We shot that in like half a day. I mean, we shot the whole movie in 18 days, and that scene, in particular, ended up being a really blustery February day in Los Angeles, like the coldest day of the year for what was supposed to be this summer pool party. We couldn’t even put anyone in the pool, because it was too cold to put actors in there. And juggling all that talent was definitely a challenge, but it was also really fun being there and watching all those great comedic performers – people that I was a fan of going into it, some of whom I’d met, some who I hadn’t. It was such a fun, joyous scene to shoot, and they all said “yes” to this, because they’re friends of Al’s, but watching them all come to the realization that they’re part of something that’s really fun and special was awesome to see.

ATL: I know this is coming to the Roku Channel, but I got to see this at TIFF, and it plays so great with an audience. Is there any chance that it might play at the Alamo Drafthouse or other theaters for a few nights?

Appel: I don’t think it’s gonna have a traditional theatrical. Over the course of the next month leading up to the launch, there are several festival screenings that we’re doing and specialty screenings. It’s gonna launch on the Roku channel on November 4, but I could see a world in which this becomes a midnight movie, like a Rocky Horror Picture Show or Wet Hot American Summer, something that pops up in theaters around the country where people get dressed up in Weird Al costumes. ‘Cause the vibe in the Toronto screenings that we did, and the Beyond Fest screening in LA, the vibe in those rooms, it felt like being at a rock concert. It was so fun seeing fans show up and really show support for it. It was just such a loud, boisterous crowd experience of people cheering and clapping along with songs. I would love for more people to have the opportunity to experience it that way.

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is now streaming on the Roku Channel.

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