Press Conference with actors Daniel Radcliffe and Evan Rachel Wood, director/executive producer Eric Appel and writer/executive producer Al Yankovic
Q: Eric, what was the process of reaching out to Al and how it came to be of you working on the script together?
EA: This whole project started out as a fake movie trailer that we made over a decade ago for “Funny or Die.” I had this idea to do a [biopic]. All these biopics play fast and loose with the facts, and traditionally, the subject of the biopic has been dead for 20 years so it’s a little hard to fact-check. I was like, “It’ll be really funny, I think, if we did a fake biopic trailer about a person who’s alive now, and then completely make the story up.
I had never met Al before. We had a mutual friend in Patton Oswalt, and I reached out to him. I said, “I feel like it’s an idea that Al may want to do himself. I just want to get his blessing to do this.” Patton wrote me back and said, “I spoke to Al. He actually loves the idea and wants your email address.” Later that day, I’m at a coffee shop with Weird Al, watching biopic trailers on a laptop. That’s how this whole thing started.
Q: It speaks to the power of what you’ve created as an artist and person. What does it mean knowing this story is going to be out to the fans, but also, more broadly, the idea that you could literally do it in the [most] perfect way possible by making it a parody movie?
WAY: I can’t think of any other way I could have done this movie. There are some interesting things that have happened in my actual life, but not anything interesting enough that would merit a Hollywood biopic. So we figured that we needed to spice it up a bit, take a few artistic liberties, and make it a little more interesting. That’s what we did. We tweaked the facts just a hair, here and there, to make it more palatable for audiences.
Q: All of it’s imagined and very broad. But there are real aspects of your life that you re-created. Was there one particular moment that you saw that really brought you back to the moment when it happened in real life?
WAY: There are a couple of moments of actual truths sprinkled in among the biopic things that people who aren’t familiar with my story may not actually be known as true. There was, in fact, a door-to-door accordion salesman that came along in my neighborhood, offering music lessons. I did in fact record “My Bologna” in a public bathroom. I did it by myself at the time, so I didn’t have a whole band with me. But just to be there on set, trying to recreate “My Bologna” in the bathroom — that was an odd thing for me. And it was odd to see Daniel Radcliffe playing me doing this bit of me in college because yeah, there were little moments from my life…
Q: Daniel, you were leaning into everything weird about this character. At this point, you can do what you want, so it would have to be something special — especially knowing that you’re doing a real-life person. What intrigued and attracted you to it?
DR: There was so much about the script that was exciting when I read it. First and foremost, the way I’m trying to prioritize my career now is by going, “What do I think I’m going to have the most fun making?” This was so very, very obvious that this would be an incredibly fun thing to shoot, because every page is… You got a fight scene, then a pool party, then a dance number and a song. To get to do something different every day and be pulling on all these different things, it was incredibly exciting.
I was a fan of Al before I got to read the script. I got the email first because it was like, “the Weird Al biopic and you’ll be playing Weird Al.” My first reaction was, “Oh, that’s incredibly cool! But, there’s got to be people that are physically closer [to him] than me.” Then I read the script, and a few pages into it, I’m like, “Oh! It doesn’t matter. That’s no [obstacle].” At that moment, it clicked, “Oh, great, I know what this is.” I was like, “Yeah, let’s do this.”
Q: Evan, you are incredibly hilarious, and having so much fun as Madonna but who doesn’t want to cosplay Madonna? Who doesn’t want to do that even for a minute? You’ve got to take it even broader because it’s like what we did as kids when we would dress up as Madonna at home.
ERW: I’ve been saying this all day: who hasn’t wanted to put on the early ‘80s Madonna getup? It’s so iconic. I didn’t want to take the wardrobe off at the end of the day. It never got old. I thought, “I wonder if it’s ever going to be like, [bored] ‘Oh yeah, I’m at work, I’ve got to dress up like Madonna.’” Never, not once. Always fun.
I danced around to the music all day. People called me Madonna. When I came to the set, it was like, “Madonna’s on her way,” “Madonna’s in her chair,” “Madonna needs a sandwich.” I could see people getting visibly flustered, and I was like, “Wow, this really is like being able to wear her skin for a few hours out of the day.”
Q: With this version of Madonna, more than any other character, you have to make her a character to really embody her. She’s not Madonna as we see her, even like, who would know her that well anyway. When did she become real? Because with so much heightened reality of what Eric wrote, if you aren’t careful, she can’t be that. Even though you are doing absurd things, the relationship between these two characters felt so real.
ERW: Good. That’s what we were going for. We knew it was a parody, but we still wanted to give good [vibes]. I’m speaking for myself now but I think everybody was fully committed and still wanted to give really good performances. Eric and I discussed what the tone was going to be, but I told him up front, “I’m going to take this very seriously. I’m going to give you my best Madonna — the best I can do” with the amount of time that I had. I knew that if I could hook the audience in the beginning and really root that in reality, it gave me room later on to fly completely off the rails with her. So that was my approach.
Q: Daniel, you got to know Weird Al and he wrote the words that you’re saying. He’s a person in his own right. But then you play a version of him that’s heightened. How did you adjust to that? Was it “weird?”
DR: It’s impossible not to use the word “weird” — we all discovered this. No, it’s very, very similar to what Evan is saying. If you can establish a character that’s recognizable at the beginning even if events are changed, the essence is the same. Then when you go truly off the rails later, you’ve earned it and the audience can go with you.
The thing about Al in the movie that’s closest to the real Al is Al’s sweetness, sincerity and kindness, particularly at the beginning. There’s a point in the movie when obviously those qualities fade away slightly, and he becomes a very different person but I draw on them using the real Al for inspiration.
Q: Al, was it flexing the same muscles writing a parody film, or were these totally different muscles that you and Eric worked out together as you were writing this? What was your guide for this to make it feel like a Weird Al parody. It has to feel that way, even though it’s a film.
WAY: I like to think the comedic sensibility is the same, the sense of humor is the same in writing a parody film as opposed to writing a movie; yet they are very different media. There’s a story, an arc, there are characters and a lot of things being beyond what you would normally have to flex while writing the songs. There was a lot going on here, and thankfully, Eric was the greatest writing partner in the world. We had such a blast writing the script. Writing is usually my least favorite part of my job description. But it was so fun writing with Eric. As soon as we finished writing the script, I was like, “Let’s write another one right away” and he was like, “Let’s film this one first.”
Q: So there’s a sequel?
EA: The first biopic with a sequel.
Q: Eric, you had a runway with this before Al got involved. Were there things before you guys actually started the process of writing the screenplay that you knew you wanted to highlight in this? Or did you really start with a blank page and say “What beats do we want to have in this?” What were you deciding which parts of his legacy as a musician and the things he did were going to be featured here?
EA: Working off that trailer, we were trying to reverse-engineer a movie that started with a fake trailer that was made 10 years earlier. Then we veered away from that and really, we were open and the story took us to different places. Obviously, we had the songs that we wanted to highlight, and the Dr. Demento relationship. But the way that we portray those things was not the way that they happened.
I was saying that I think I’m the first director in the history of biopics who had to do absolutely no research about my subject. It was just, “let’s get creative with it.” Obviously, as a fan I knew a lot about Al going into it. We had the freedom to see where the story took us, and we wanted to highlight the tropes. The story beats that you’d see in a traditional biopic [are there], but takes those in surprising directions. So this didn’t feel like a direct parody of a specific biopic; it’s more like a satire of an entire genre that’s full of surprises.
Q: Daniel, when you were going about this particular performance, what were the things that you wanted to make sure that you did do with the accordion playing? Was it the performance aspect? What parts of becoming Weird Al were the things you had to approach with that, or did you just say, “Hey, let’s have fun with it?”
DR: I think on a shoot that was this quick, a huge amount of my preparation was, honestly, like learning the fight choreography, the dance choreography, and doing the stuff with the band. That was a lot of the actual prep and rehearsal with those things so that we wouldn’t be losing time for them on the day when it came to it. Other than that, I think there’s a certain amount that you learn by osmosis by being around Al. And particularly in the second half, you definitely have what the film is and the structure. It gives you total license to go, “Okay, how far can we push this, and how crazy can things get?“
Q: Evan, you’re playing a sociopathic Madonna. [laughter] There’s no other way of saying it. And this is what’s weird, for somebody with your filmography. Going back to the Vampire Queen [“True Blood”, 2009-11] and obviously your character in “Westworld,” you seem to be these people who present, but don’t necessarily know, the machinations that they’re doing and they seem to be the smartest people in the room. So was that what attracted you more than the Madonna part of it? Just the fact that she is really doing the desperate villain. This is like old-school, like twirling the mustache villain stuff.
ERW: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It’s got like this Natasha and Boris from “Rocky and Bullwinkle” feel to it [that] I love, so I took that approach. It made playing Madonna more appealing because I think it would be too pressured to be her in like a straight biopic. Although I am excited to see that, I personally don’t think I could do that without having a panic attack. This was like, “Oh wow, I get to play Madonna, but I get to be a little loose with it, I get to have a little bit of fun.” So that made it very appealing, yes.
Q: Weird Al, you get to talk about the moments that these songs that are part of the movie came to be, and the inspiration behind them. Its’ about your legacy of being “Weird Al” for this long, and having this moment with the fans. Have you already had those moments, like at TIFF and elsewhere, where you speak to people after they’ve seen the film, and have them re-contextualize, even now while you’re on tour?
WAY: As we speak, I’m backstage somewhere in Florida and I think, “Yeah, it’s amazing to hear from the fans and to hear their reactions to the movie.” The thing with this particular movie — and we knew this going in — any time we do this kind of a parody, or something with irony, there’s always going to be a small percentage of people that believe it. No matter how ridiculous or outlandish it is, there is going to be a small percentage of people that go, “Oh, I guess that’s the way it really happened. This is canon now. I’ll put that in Al’s Wikipedia entry.”
In fact, Eric and I were laughing about this. The day after the trailer came out, if you did a Google search for “Weird Al,” the first thing was “Did Weird Al date Madonna?” — like everybody wanted to know. That amused us to no end.
Q: That’s the best part of the writing, and Eric, it’s a testament to what you guys did with this, because it is funny and absurd. But you’re still with everyone from the beginning. It starts with the opening line: “Your life is a parody of your favorite song.” What do you think could be the parody song to parody for your life?
DR: Is this a song that already exists that we will use as a parody of our life?
Q: Yes. Basically the idea is that your life is a parody of your favorite song. So what’s your favorite song? And how would that favorite song parody your life? It needs to be a favorite song that feels like your life.
ERW: I’m trying to think of what my favorite songs are.
EA: I know, it’s a lot of pressure.
WAY: I don’t know if I’m allowed to pick my own song, but I’d probably pick “White and Nerdy.” It’s a very autobiographical number. I had to draw from a lifetime experience for that song.
Q: And you made that an anthem for a lot of people.
DR: I was literally talking to a white nerdy-looking journalist earlier and he was like, “That’s one of my favorite songs growing up” and I was like, “Yeah, me too.” And then I was like, “Yeah, no wonder, what a surprise.”
EA: I’ll go with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
ERW: I think mine would have to be “All I Really Want” by Alanis Morissette.
DR: There’s a song by Tom Lehrer called “We Will All Go Together When We Go.” I’ve always been pretty morbid, so we’ll go with that one.
Q: There are a lot of people who have spoken so highly of Weird Al, and all of you have first experiences with him. Daniel, what was it like the first day you two met? Were you already going to be doing this, or was it in the early days? What was that first conversation like?
DR: The first conversation with Al and Eric was on Zoom a while back. As we got close to the movie happening, I would send videos of myself trying to learn the accordion so they could see where I was [at]. And we’d catch up every so often. The first time we met was when I was going to the studio to have an accordion lesson with Al. I think we had two or three before we started, to let me watch how he played certain parts that I couldn’t. I was a very blank canvas as a student, let’s say, but he was very, very kind, and patient. I will take that to my grave with me, that I had accordion lessons with Al Yankovic.
I do think everything everybody says is true: he’s lovely, supportive and kind, and he’s very funny but without the energy of comedians that are like, “I must be the loudest and funniest person in the room at all times!” Al is not that, wonderfully.
When this film was announced, it was announced just after the announcement for the “Harry Potter” reunion on HBO Max. And when I say that I got more texts about this [“Weird”] than [“Harry Potter”], it’s not close. It was a wide gap of interest between those two things in my life, specifically. So that was cool.
Q: Al, what was that like for you, teaching Daniel the accordion?
WAY: It was surrealistic, to say the least, to walk into a building and think, “Who’s your appointment today?” “I’m giving Daniel Radcliffe accordion lessons.” It harkens back to one of my first jobs as an accordion teacher, a part-time job between high school and college. I would teach little kids how to play the accordion. Dan caught on much quicker. But it was good getting back in the old rhythm. Dan was a quick learner and I still can’t believe how well he pulled it off. He didn’t need to do that. Eric and I told him, “We can cut around you. You don’t really need to learn how to play the accordion.” But it was a point of pride for him. He really wanted to make it look like he was playing. Because I told him I’ve seen a lot of people in movies and TV playing the accordion and I can tell it’s fake. He wanted to really make it look real, and for the three or four people that know, he’s actually playing the right buttons.
Q: Evan, what was your first meeting with Weird Al?
ERW: I don’t think I knew that he was going to be on set my first day. Daniel was dressed up like Weird Al, but then I was seeing this other Al, like out of the corner of my eye, and I was like, “Is Al here?” And they said “Yeah, Al’s here every day.” I had no idea this was happening.
And so it was surreal, because I was dressed like Madonna, and had just gotten through watching the interview that he edited with another interview with Madonna. It was like this meta-weird thing that was happening between the two of us.
It was great, because at the end of the day, he came up to me after we had finished our scenes and said how great it was and how well everything was playing. That was the best feeling, to know that he was there, and he was loving everything that he was seeing. It was also very reassuring that we were doing a good job. Then I took my child to see him in concert, and it was my kid’s first concert. It seemed very appropriate.
Q: Eric, can you tell us what that midnight screening at TIFF was like?
EA: It was an incredible experience, getting to premier it in that room with all those people and their excitement to see it. The reaction was better than we could have ever asked for. It felt like being at a Weird Al concert. It was wall-to-wall laughs. It was so amazing just to be in that room.
Q: Al, you’ve played the biggest stadiums in the world. I saw you that night, and you seemed like that was a very emotional evening for you in the best of ways, and in the happiest of ways.
WAY: Well, it was. I’d seen the movie maybe a hundred times on my laptop along the way because of all the editing and the iterations. But I had never seen it with any kind of an audience. I always thought, and hoped, it was funny, but until I heard the peals of laughter throughout the entire movie — it was so validating and wonderful to hear.
There’s a flash mob — an army of Weird Als out in the street when we were doing the red carpet. They were doing a choreographed routine, and the whole line was crazy and out of my dreams. It made it one of the best nights of my life.
Here’s the trailer of the film.