Nov 04, 2022
By Kyle Mullin
Photography by Courtesy of Roku
How weird would it be to play “Weird Al” Yankovic? The “Eat It” and “White and Nerdy” singer is so renowned for hilariously reinterpreting hit songs, how could an actor possibly reinterpret this singular satirist in a big-screen satire? Or how about portraying Madonna, the icon of all icons, as a treacherous love interest and nemesis of the humorist who rejigged her chart topper “Like a Virgin” to “Like a Surgeon”? Seeing as actors Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) and Evan Rachel Wood bear little resemblance to those real-life big names, it might come as a surprise that both are being praised for playing them in the new film Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.
Director Eric Appel is pleased to subvert such expectations with his boldly cast film. Appel has been a friend of Yankovic’s ever since he first dabbled in the idea of a Weird Al biopic by making a trailer for such a then non-existent film when he worked at Funny or Die. Now that he has actually made the movie (it streams starting today on the Roku Channel), he tells us about how Radcliffe and his castmates are making audiences laugh at biopics to the same extent that the movie’s main character has made us laugh at hit songs.
Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): How would you describe the film?
Eric Appel: It’s a satire of biopics. Not a straight up parody like Scary Movie or Naked Gun. Or even Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. They’re more joke forward and gag forward. Our goal with this movie was to satirize biopics by telling a grounded story that exists in a very heightened world. And have the story really work. So none of our jokes defy logic. We hit emotional beats and make them land. And we wanted it to be able to sustain a whole movie and not come off like an overly long comedy sketch. Part of that was leaning into the drama and having our actors give grounded performances, and not wink at camera. And I’m happy with how it turned out.
On paper, Daniel Radcliffe might not seem like a perfect choice to play “Weird Al.” What makes him the right actor for the job?
This whole movie hangs on Daniel Radcliffe as “Weird Al.” He is the audience’s view into this world we’ve created. We couldn’t have landed a more perfect actor. He’s used to that, because Harry’s eyes are your window into the wizarding world of the Potter films. Just the way he emotes, and the way he gets comedy and gets what’s funny and what’s absurd. His emotional intelligence, and letting the comedy come through the script—he really nailed it.
Tell us about what the actors bring to the film.
I also loved casting Julianne Nicholson as his mother, because she’s such an incredible actress. She was just coming off an Emmy win for a very dramatic performance in Mare of Easttown. We were shocked and delighted that she agreed to play the mom in our movie. It needed that—the way the mom looks at her son, while his father, played by Tobias Huss, is berating him for making up funny words to a song. It feels so real. I remember watching the dailies of her performance, and thinking “This so silly, what we’re doing. And I can’t believe she’s playing it so straight. It’s really working, and I really feel for this kid!” The more the emotional beats land, the funnier the scene will be. It’s this weird alchemy.
And Evan Rachel Wood—her version of Madonna is so arch, which is by design. When we get to her and Dan, she’s playing such an evil version of Madonna, but keeping it grounded. We’re clearly not portraying the real-world version of Madonna. If you watch the movie in its entirety, it’ll be clear by the end that we are stepping away from reality a bit. No one is playing the accurate real-life versions of their characters.
Another great member of the cast: Rainn Wilson as Dr. Demento. Though I’ve read Patton Oswalt was initially tapped for that role, which is now hard to imagine.
Yeah, and he broke his foot a week before we started shooting. So Rainn was our choice to replace him, and he thankfully dug the script and stepped in at the last minute. We had Rainn on a list for other roles.
What other challenges did you face?
Our budget was around $8 million, which is pretty low for a music biopic. And we had to make it look retro because it was set in the ’80s. So there were so many costumes. There are tons of characters in the script, and almost every day we were shooting in a new location. And COVID of course costs money to deal with. We wanted to shoot the movie in 22 days, and the script was 100 pages. So we had to do a lot in prep to make sure we were able to make the days. I had to be very economical, and know what my shots were going to be. And all the cast was extremely prepared. We were able to rehearse all the musical numbers and action sequences before. And we shot the movie in 18 days, though by the end of the shoot we were shooting 10 hour days.
It must have been satisfying to pull that off?
Yeah. There were days where I left thinking, “I’m 95% sure I got everything I needed to get.” And when I got into the editing room, that’s when I was truly relieved. The editing was really quick too—five weeks to have the movie cut. I think we quickly realized in post what we had. I think our partners at [streaming service] Roku then started seeing what the movie could be. Because it’s not really spoofy. It’s not what you’d expect. And that was Al and I’s goal all along—to do something more interesting in the biopic form. And I’m glad that it’s now registering.
Daniel’s post-Potter career has also been about defying expectations.
Yes, he has really good taste and picks really cool projects. Swiss Army Man and Guns Akimbo were such awesome movies, and the fact he chose them is one of the reasons we went for him. I was honored that he was so excited by our script. He put so much into it, and had so much focus. I couldn’t ask for anything more.