This story about “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” first appeared in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Opening night of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival culminated with one of the wackiest and, yes, weirdest screenings imaginable. Premiering at midnight, Roku’s “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” left a capacity TIFF audience in stitches at the almost wholly fictional saga of young Al’s rise from a kid whose passion for accordions and Hawaiian shirts shamed his parents to a global superstar who found time to romance Madonna and take down a Colombian drug cartel.
The film was inspired by a Funny or Die video that director Eric Appel made in 2009, parodying rock biopics in the same way that Yankovic’s songs (“I Love Rocky Road,” “Another One Rides the Bus,” “Eat It,” “Like a Surgeon,” “Amish Paradise”) gleefully distort rock hits. Expanded from a three-minute trailer that starred Aaron Paul as the Weird one into a 108-minute romp with Daniel Radcliffe in the title role, the film has sex, violence, drugs, temper tantrums, lots of accordions and as many celebrity cameos as “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” which could as well have been an alternate title.
Yankovic and Appel spoke to TheWrap during a photo shoot for our Limited Series/Movies awards magazine.
About 35 years ago, Al, I interviewed you to write your record company bio for the “Dare to Be Stupid” album.
Weird Al Yankovic: Oh, my goodness. Wow.
I don’t remember what I wrote — but after watching the movie, I’m thinking that I just should have made s–t up.
Yankovic: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s always easier to just make it up.
Eric, this movie started more than a dozen years ago when you made a trailer for a non-existent movie. Was there any part of you that thought it could be a pitch for a real movie someday?
Eric Appel: You know, at the time I was making some fake trailers for other fake movies. And the goal was, if people believe that these are real movies, maybe someone will let me direct a real movie. (Laughs) But with this, no. It just existed as a three-minute comedy sketch, really. It wasn’t until a decade later that I randomly got an email from Al that was like, “Maybe it’s time to turn this thing into a real movie.”
Al, at what point did you start thinking it was more than a trailer?
Yankovic: For the longest time, I thought, “It is what it is: It’s a Funny or Die viral video.” I showed it in my live concerts for about a decade, ‘cause I do a lot of costume changes on stage, and it always got a huge reaction. And after shows, people would be like, “When’s the movie coming out? This sounds amazing.” And I’d have to explain how it’s just a bit.
It wasn’t until about three years ago that out of the blue I emailed Eric and said, “I think it might be time.” ‘Cause “Bohemian Rhapsody” had come out — famously not accurate in a lot of ways, but it won a lot of awards and is very, very popular. And I thought, it’s time to puncture the biopic genre once again.
I would think, though, that it’s a challenge to take a really funny five minutes and turn that into a funny hour and a half.
Yankovic: It was. We didn’t want to get criticism like, “Oh, this should have stayed a three-minute video.” So when we were writing the screenplay, we made sure to…
Appel: To give it a really strong dramatic arc and not just make it a parody of a specific biopic. We sort of take that whole genre, everything we love about that genre and everything that’s hilarious about it. It’s a fake story, but it works.
Yankovic: We want it to be a comedy, obviously, but we want it to play like a very serious standard Hollywood biopic.
So what is true in the movie?
Yankovic: (Laughs) Well, one of the true things in the movie is I took accordion lessons because of a door-to-door salesman. He came around trying to drum up business for his music school. They offered accordion lessons and guitar lessons, and my parents of course knew that the accordion was gonna take over the world, so they gave me those lessons. But my dad did not beat the daylights out of him. That was something we added to make it more cinematic.
Appel: We took a lot of true events and used the facts as inspiration for the movie. Like the Madonna thing. (To Yankovic) What’s the Madonna story?
Yankovic: She was somewhat responsible for me doing “Like a Surgeon” because, apparently, she was talking to a friend of hers in New York one day and just wondered aloud, “Oh, I wonder when Weird Al is gonna do ‘Like a Surgeon.’ It wasn’t like she wanted me to do it or was requesting it. It was just like, “This is gonna happen, isn’t it?”
Appel: So we took that little nugget of truth and in our movie, Madonna will stop at nothing to get Al to parody her song.
The offbeat-celebrity party around Dr. Demento’s pool must have been wild to cast and to shoot.
Appel: Casting it, I basically relied on Al’s Christmas card mailing list (laughs) for a lot of our cameos. We wrote all these late ’70s, early ’80s weirdo celebrities that we wanted to have at this party. And then Al provided me with a list of people I could reach out to personally. And we sort of just selected names. It was a shock to say, “Yeah, let’s go out to Conan O’Brien for Andy Warhol,” and 20 minutes later Al texts me, “Conan’s in.”
Yankovic: Conan tweeted something and made a joke about the movie. I didn’t know him well enough to ask for a favor, but since he tweeted that, I was like, “Hey Conan, since you mention it, you wanna play Andy Warhol in the movie?” I can’t believe we got everybody that we did because not only are these major stars, but we had to do it on a very specific day. The whole pool scene was shot in half a day, maybe. On the coldest day of the year.
Appel: Yeah, we couldn’t put anyone in the pool. (Laughs) Whenever the camera is not showing the pool, I put splash sounds to fool the audience into thinking that maybe there’s people swimming.
I mean, the whole shoot took place over 18 days. That pool-party scene fell on a week where Monday we shot the pool party, Tuesday we shot all of the concert footage, the big Jim Morrison meltdown and the fight with the band down in the tunnel in the arena. And then the following day was the Grammy Awards for the entire day. That’s what a typical week on our movie looked like.
Why Daniel Radcliffe? Because he doesn’t look like you?
Yankovic: Well, that was part of it. (Laughs) “Who doesn’t look like Al?” wasn’t one of our criteria. We just loved him in terms of his acting chops, because he’s great at comedy and he is also amazing at really serious dramatic stuff. We needed somebody who could do both because we wanted to hit the dramatic beats in the movie, but its sensibility is a comedy. So we wanted somebody that was aware of comedy and knew comedy and could play the comedy within the context of being very serious.
On the set, were you off to the side giving him Weird Al lessons?
Yankovic: Yeah, I was sort of his accordion tech. I gave him a couple of lessons and sent him some videos of me with my fingers on the buttons and the keys. I’m like, “This is what you do for “My Bologna” and “I Love Rocky Road.”
The only notes I really gave him were accordion-related. ’Cause that always bugs me, when I see people in movies or TV shows and they’re obviously faking it. And Daniel did a great job. (Laughs) I mean, for the three or four people that know, he’s actually playing the right buttons on the accordion.