Eric Appel had much to celebrate the morning of July 12, when his film Weird: The Al Yankovic Story picked up eight Emmy nominations. The Roku Channel film earned a nod for best TV movie, plus individual notices for star Daniel Radcliffe’s lead performance as “Weird Al” Yankovic as well as for Appel and Yankovic’s script. The film, which tells the incredibly untrue story of the parody musician’s rise to fame and fortune — before becoming manipulated by a devious Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), who plans to use Yankovic’s stardom to her own advantage — began as a 2010 Funny or Die fake trailer starring Aaron Paul as Yankovic. After years of hearing from fans that they hoped for a real Yankovic biopic, the musician reteamed with Appel to produce a full-length version filled with celebrity cameos and, surprisingly, a lot of heart. Appel spoke with THR about his collaboration with Yankovic and how they worked to get the comic elements just right.
The film received eight Emmy nominations, including for best TV movie. Were you expecting this at all?
I thought we were going to get one nomination for best TV movie, and that’s it. It’s amazing to break through in some of these other categories. I was blown away that we got the writing nomination. I never in a million years thought that was going to happen. You hope that what you make is going to resonate with audiences and that, at the very least, not end your career.
Yankovic said that for years, fans asked if the Funny or Die video would be expanded into a film, but he was hesitant. Were you one of the people nudging him to make the film?
This was one of three or four fake movie trailers that I made. My thinking back then was: If I can make these fake movie trailers that potentially fool people into thinking that they are real movies — real movies that they would want to see — then maybe someone will let me actually direct a real movie. The trailers led to me getting more TV meetings than anything, and directing television over the years has been great. I remember right after the trailer came out, emailing Aaron Paul and Olivia Wilde; the three of us were like, “This should be a real movie.” I remember bringing it up to Al at the time and him kind of laughing it off as a joke as well. But when Al emailed me out of the blue one Tuesday morning in 2019, I’ve never responded to an email faster. The two of us got coffee the following morning and immediately [started] brainstorming ideas for a real movie.
What was your collaboration like?
It was nice that we weren’t actually telling the true story of Weird Al — I had to do zero research. I took what I knew from being a fan of Al’s. I think why we were such a great partnership is because he’s maybe a little more joke-forward than I am. I direct mostly comedies, but I wanted to make sure that the movie has enough heart and that the emotional beats were really earned.
A good example is the Pablo Escobar sequence. In our very first meeting, Al said, “I would love it if I become an action hero, like John Wick in a Hawaiian shirt. Maybe I go up against Pablo Escobar.” He had just finished all of Narcos. (Laughs.) We had to figure out how to get Pablo Escobar in this crazy sequence. Al really wanted it to come out of the blue. It was my job to justify why. We had to plant a couple Pablo Escobar references in early; [the audience will] still never see it coming, but we had to know that Pablo Escobar exists in this world. At the end of the day, there’s nothing in the movie that we didn’t both agree should be there.
A lot of biopics and documentaries lately are produced by their subjects, and you imagine they want to ensure they still appear in a positive light. But Weird Al seems to have wanted this story to be as insane as possible.
We started playing everything for comedy’s sake. What naturally started emerging from that was this really sweet story, and Daniel Radcliffe was such a huge part of making that aspect of this work so well. He’s such a fantastic actor, and he’s so great at playing a sympathetic character you want to see succeed. This is a sweet story about someone who’s rejected for being who he is, who then realizes that being your true self is the key to happiness. That wasn’t necessarily calculated; it naturally emerged from following the biopic structure, and we leaned into it really hard.
A lot of people compared Weird to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the Walk the Line spoof starring John C. Reilly. Was that film in the back of your mind while you were working on this, or did you try to avoid it?
It’s something I wasn’t that aware of until people started making the comparison. For whatever reason, I never saw Walk Hard. I’ve seen clips from it, and it always felt to me like a more direct parody of Walk the Line. That may have informed the choice to make this not a parody of a specific biopic. We said this from the beginning, that we wanted it to feel like a real story that exists in a heightened world. I didn’t want it to feel like a Zucker brothers movie like Airplane! or Hot Shots! or even like the Scary Movie films — those are played straight, but there’s a barrage of visual jokes that prevent you from getting invested in the story. I’ve always said that our film exists in a heightened universe like Wayne’s World, Anchorman, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar or Austin Powers.
There’s a certain level of logic to the comedy in those movies.
There were a lot of jokes we pulled out from the movie. [For instance,] in the pool party scene, which was also in the original trailer, Al asks if anyone has an accordion, and three accordions are suddenly thrust into the frame. I always said, that’s not our movie — the cartoon logic of three accordions appearing breaks the physics of our reality. I feel like a spoof movie would do that, but our movie can’t do that. We had to create our reality and then ground everything to it.
That’s fascinating to hear, how much you needed to modulate the absurdity of the Weird Al story.
It’s tough, and it’s what makes comedy so hard. You’re making a drama, but you’re making it funny. Your story has to work before you put the funny things in there so it doesn’t break the drama of it.
What about Daniel Radcliffe made him the perfect Weird Al?
Obviously, like everyone, I was a fan of his from Harry Potter. His post-Harry Potter career has been full of bold, interesting, fun choices — Swiss Army Man, Horns, Guns Akimbo. I was like, “This guy must love comedy and weird things.” And he played those roles very seriously. He treated them as dramatic roles, and that’s the main thing I was looking for. We have moments that are very sentimental, but it’s sentimental about something silly.
Evan Rachel Wood plays Madonna, which might be the toughest role — capturing her presence from a very specific era while also playing her as the film’s manipulative villain.
Evan is a serious actor with a great sense of humor. I had seen a couple of her episodes of Drunk History, where she plays very serious while lip-syncing the dialogue the drunk narrator is saying. I basically told her that I wanted her to create her own version of Madonna. This shouldn’t be an impression, or even like the real Madonna. What would Madonna look like as a Bond villain, playing four-dimensional chess and always being 12 steps ahead of Al. And my God, she had so much fun with it.
Julianne Nicholson might be the biggest surprise, playing Weird Al’s kindhearted mother. It’s also funny that this is her second maternal figure in a 2022 biopic, as she also played Marilyn Monroe’s abusive mother in Blonde.
Julianne doesn’t even have to say anything. I would watch her takes, and she was so present. Her eyes say so much, and when she’s sitting at the dinner table across from her son, the sympathy [she feels for him] and her own feelings of being stuck … Getting to watch that, my God I felt so lucky. Her saying a line like, “Your dad and I want you to stop being who you are and doing the things you love” — it’s just so real the way she says it, and it makes it a million times funnier.
The film has a ton of cameos. I read that Lin-Manuel Miranda reached out to Weird Al directly when the project was announced because he wanted to be in it. Was there anyone else who surprised you by wanting to be a part of this?
There’s someone like Toby Huss [who played Yankovic’s father], whom I’ve been following since the mid-’90s when he did MTV promos, which I would recite at school with my friends. Conan O’Brien came out for a cameo [to play Andy Warhol] and spent a couple of hours with us, and I couldn’t believe he was coming to do a little bit. Jack Black [as Wolfman Jack] — he couldn’t be more of an A-list comedy star. The funniest, most random one was Josh Groban, who came in to do one line as a waiter in our movie. It just goes to show how beloved Weird Al is.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This interview was coordinated with Eric Appel’s personal PR in accordance with a WGA ruling after the writers strike that began May 2.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.