Everyone remembers their first time listening to a Weird Al Yankovic song. For first-time feature director Eric Appel, his Weird Al fascination started in 1984 at just four years old. While most were watching Sesame Street at that age, Appel fondly remembers his mother letting him watch MTV and hearing Al’s “Eat It,” the parody song to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” From that moment on, the director said he was “hooked” on Weird Al’s distinct brand of comedy and the unique science behind parodying the most popular hits of the 80s and 90s.
Decades later, Appel went on to sharpen his comedy skills and sensibilities, writing for The Andy Milonakis Show, Crank Yankers, and sketches for UCB and Funny or Die. The latter eventually became an opportunity to work with his comedy hero on Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, a 2010 short for Funny or Die, starring Aaron Paul as Weird Al. The parody trailer started a decade-long friendship between Appel and Yankovic, and now they’ve teamed up to remix the biopic with a delightful feature-length film of the same name.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is as grounded as it is insane; it’s witty and, at times, royally absurd and even downright silly. The movie features Weird Al and Madonna in a “fling” at the height of her fame, high-stakes action sequences, and a level of sincerity grounded by Daniel Radcliffe’s impressive level of commitment and heart. While some actors would play every beat up for laughs, Radcliffe never misses an opportunity to dial up the drama of an unlikely hero’s journey. In short, director & co-writer Eric Appel made sure Al Yankovic’s DNA was baked into every piece of this movie.
Director and co-writer Eric Appel sat down to talk to AwardsWatch about his first outing as a feature director, his writing experience with Weird Al, and the many influences behind this wild parody.
Niki Cruz: Before we get into Weird, which I loved, I wanted to thank you for bringing PaceyCon into the world.
Eric Appel: Wow, PaceyCon. That’s a deep, deep cut.
NC: It is a deep cut, but 90s teens, older millennials, thank you.
EA: That was a blast to shoot at Comic Con.
NC: Moving on to Weird. I loved the film. It looked like a blast to make, and as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but think, wow, Weird Al’s DNA is so baked into every morsel of this film. It was just great to experience as a fan of Weird Al.
EA: Thank you so much. Yeah, it was so crazy. My comedic sensibilities were shaped by Weird Al. I’ve been a fan for so long. It’s crazy collaborating with him on something like this. It’s like the student and the master team together.
NC: Everyone has their own nostalgia when it comes to weird Al’s catalogue. I can pinpoint moments listening to “Bad Hair Day” and going to the record store to buy that CD. What was your initial Weird Al moment?
EA: I distinctly remember my mom showing me “Eat It” knowing that I would think that it’s funny even as a four-year-old. And I was hooked then! I think “Fat” came out when I was in second grade and everyone at school was obsessed with it. I made my grandpa take me to see UHF as a nine-year-old. The first album that I owned, was Off The Deep End and I got it in like sixth grade. My favorite song on that album was The White Stuff [parodying] The New Kids on The Block. I love the food-based parodies but being so narrowly about one specific food.
NC: You and Al really remixed the biopic with a witty bombastic biopic parody. Coming from the Funny or Die and UCB worlds of comedy, I imagine having him say yes was a dream for you.
EA: Yeah. I did this fake trailer for Funny or Die and that’s when we first connected. All of these biopics play so fast and loose with the facts and they’re typically about someone who’s been dead for a couple of decades, and it’s a little bit harder to fact check. So, I had this idea to do a fake trailer for a biopic about someone who’s still alive and then also make the story up completely.
I had this idea to do it about Weird Al. We had a mutual friend in Patton Oswalt so I reached out to Patton, and I was like, “Hey, can you like get Al’s blessing for me?” Within minutes, Patton emailed me back, saying Al loves this idea. He wants your email. That evening, I was sitting across from Weird Al Yankovic at a coffee shop, watching biopic trailers and dissecting them and it was so incredible. That started our collaborative process.
We stayed in touch over the next decade. He randomly reached out to me in February 2019. He said, with Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman coming out, I think maybe it’s time to do this and I just jumped at the opportunity. Our comedic sensibilities were so in line. It was a joy to write this script with him and it was a lot of laughs.
NC: As I was watching it, I couldn’t’t help but be transported back into the same joy I felt when putting on a Weird Al record. How was writing it with him? Was it a thing where you would improv and then you wrote the scene?
EA: It’s funny. I come from the world of improv and just like throwing a million ideas up against the wall and seeing what sticks. Al has a much more mathematical brain than I do. He’s very meticulous. We both have similar work ethics, but his approach is different from mine. It wasn’t such a crazy free flow; it was us kind of sitting around in deep thought [Laughs] One person pitches the other. If something I pitched and it wasn’t a great pitch, it would kind of get just a little nod from Al [Laughs]. If it was like something worth spinning off into something else, we would pitch back and forth on it.
We heavily outlined this movie. We spent a couple of months really working hard on coming up with this 20-page, detailed outline, and then we split the script up into 20 different chunks. We kind of went off on our own and every day I wrote the first five pages and then I sent them to him. He revised those five, he added the next section, I revise those 10, and added the next section. We just kept bouncing the script back and forth. It was just such a fun process, and we ended up with a script that we both loved so much.
NC: You played with so many biopic tropes we’re all familiar with. We’re at the point where the biopic has become its own genre and some of these movies feel like they’re hitting all the same beats. How was it deconstructing that and playing with those tropes?
EA: It was a blast. We had this great template to go off of, because that’s what we originally did with the trailer years ago. If biopic movies are formulaic, geez the trailers are like a million times. There’s a moment in every biopic trailer about a minute and 40 seconds to like a minute and 55 seconds in. Typically, where it says like “this fall” or “summer” where there’s a tone shift. The emotional music comes in, and all of them just feel exactly the same. Similarly, the movies all kind of have the same story structure, and even the fictional biopic, which we drew from as well like Forrest Gump, Boogie Nights. The character’s journey in that story all hit the same beats. There’s going to be this rock-bottom moment, there’s going to be this phoenix rising from the ashes. We didn’t want it to feel like we were parodying a specific biopic but this genre as a whole. We wanted to come up with something that people would be surprised by where we go with the storytelling.
NC: It worked. I honestly didn’t know where this movie would go from one place to the next. You have the Pablo Escobar show down, you have the LSD trip. In this movie, Weird Al is a hero, he’s a rock God, he’s an assassin, he’s an outcast. He’s all of these different shades. I think it works so well because Daniel Radcliffe really transformed and goes for broke, which he’s done in movies like Swiss Army Man. How was it working with him?
EA: Incredible. He’s my favorite person. He’s so committed. He really got the assignment. We wanted to cast someone who was a great dramatic actor and a great comedic actor and would really get what we were going for and not trying to push the comedy. The comedy in this movie works best when it feels, oddly enough, grounded drama with absurd words. It’s like a Weird Al song. The Weird Al song sound exactly like the real song. We wanted this movie to feel exactly like a rea emotional biopic, but the words are different. Dan just leaned into that so hard. There’re moments where I was watching a take, and said, “Dan has real tears in his eyes here.” Julianne Nicholson is another one [Laughs]. She was just coming off an Emmy win for Mare of Easttown which is just so dramatic and dark, and she just played this so grounded.
NC: We have to talk about the Madonna of it all. Evan Rachel Wood playing a skewed Madonna at the height of her rise to fame was genius. She nailed it! [laughs]
EA: I know! We were so excited when she said yes to this [laughs]. And she was so excited that we approached her. I really wanted to give her artistic license. I was like, “You’re not playing the real version of these people, so I don’t want it to feel like an impression.” I said, “Embody Madonna in the way that you feel fit, but you’re playing this heightened version of her that’s kind of an arch villain.” This is like what my grandma probably thought Madonna was like.
NC: And then you have all these great cameos, too. The thing about Al’s brand of comedy is that he influenced so many people, like Lin-Manuel Miranda. His cameo got huge laughs at my screening.
EA: Oh my god. Yeah, and he reached out to Al. As soon as the movie got announced, Al forwarded me a text from him, that said, “Here are the dates I’m going to be in LA. Please put me in your movie.” And we’re like, alright, let’s find something for him. And luckily it turned out to be the role that it was, which is a very, very fun, way to reveal him.
NC: This was 10 years of your life to make so, what do you want to spend the next 10 years of your life on as a director?
EA: Probably 10 different movies. This was my first! This is my debut feature. I’ve directed a lot of television, throughout the last decade. This is my first thing that is truly my own that I’ve saw from the seed of an idea all the way through to where we are now doing press for it. It was just such an amazing experience. I’m excited to see what comes next. I’m currently on the lookout for what the next thing is going to be.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story will be released exclusively on the Roku Channel on November 4.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.