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“I’m somewhere in or near Grand Rapids, Michigan,” estimates “Weird Al” Yankovic from the back of his tour bus, his signature curls trying to escape from behind headphones. The singer-songwriter was definitely heading to Toronto, where his movie Weird opened the film festival’s Midnight Madness section on Thursday.
Weird, which Yankovic co-wrote with director Eric Appel (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Silicon Valley) and produced, stars Daniel Radcliffe as a subversive version of Yankovic, seen in the trailer shirtless, swilling whiskey onstage and entertaining Madonna (played by Evan Rachel Wood) in between accordion riffs. The film offers Yankovic, long considered the undisputed king of the parody song with hits like “Amish Paradise” and “Like a Surgeon” — sendups of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” respectively — the opportunity to spoof his own rise to stardom as well as the well-worn tropes of the music biopic.
Premiering Nov. 4 on Roku — over a decade after a fake trailer posted by Funny or Die, starring Aaron Paul as Al and Olivia Wilde as Madonna, became a kind of pseudo-proof of concept for the feature — Weird is sure to be one of the hottest tickets in Toronto. Ahead of the fest, Yankovic talked to THR about facing rejection (repeatedly), creating an onscreen version of himself and becoming an “accordion consultant” for Radcliffe.
Was it right after the Funny or Die trailer dropped that you and Eric Appel thought you could expand the idea into a feature?
I used that video in my live shows for many years because it’s a multimedia show. We would always show that video up on a big screen while I’m doing a costume change, and so many people over the years were like, “This should be a real movie!” And I was always like, “I’m glad you like it, but it’s already what it’s supposed to be.” It’s a three-minute-long trailer. It’s a funny bit. But that’s all it is. And then, in 2019, I woke up one morning and I thought, “No, this should be a movie!”
Weird is a music biopic, but it’s not a biopic in the same sense as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, right?
It’s a biopic in a very, very Hollywood sense. Those movies that you mentioned were what made me call Eric. Because I watched Bohemian Rhapsody and I watched Rocketman, and they both are mostly true, but they definitely play with the facts. As a fan of both Queen and Elton John, I was like, “Why didn’t you just get it right? Why did you have to change it out of artistic license? Why did you do that?” And then I thought, “Why don’t I do that?” Tell the story but just have it go way, way off the rails. Throw facts out the window.
How was it writing a version of yourself?
It is sort of an out-of-body experience. But we’ve been working on this for years, so after a while you stop even thinking about it. It’s just a “Weird Al” character in a movie.
Is there any creative crossover between writing a screenplay and writing a song?
It’s obviously a different process, but you still have to go to that bizarre area of your brain where the stupid ideas are.
However briefly, you are in the Naked Gun films. Was there anything you learned about comedy from those films that you used for Weird?
I just learned from watching those movies. I was a huge Zucker Abrahams Zucker fan. Top Secret is my favorite movie of all time. That sense of humor really inspired me, which you can tell by watching a lot of my music videos. A lot of gags are stolen whole cloth from some of their bits. (Laughs.) In the original Airplane!, Leslie Nielsen was super straitlaced, and that’s what we’re going for here. We wanted [actors] doing ridiculous things and saying ridiculous things, but with Oscar-quality acting.
What’s it been like to see this project come together?
I don’t think I realized it was actually happening until a week into filming. You have so many disappointments along the way, you never want to celebrate because you always feel like the rug is going to get pulled out. It’s just a miracle when anything is made. First, we thought, “We can just sell it based on that original Funny or Die video and say: ‘This, but it’s a whole movie.'” We pitched it everywhere and they’re like, “Yeah, no.” Then we thought, “We needed to explain what the movie is,” so we came up with a whole outline. We went everywhere again and we pitched: “OK, here’s the whole movie, what do you think?” And they’re like, “That’s really funny. Not interested.” Then we [figured], “We’ve got the movie, so let’s just write the script.” So we wrote the script and then we attached Daniel Radcliffe, and we thought, “OK, there’s going to be a bidding war. Everybody’s going to want this now!” There wasn’t a bidding war, but Roku did, in fact, decide that they wanted to make the movie. (Laughs.)
How did Daniel Radcliffe become attached?
It was one of those kinds of things where he said yes, and then we’re like, “He’ll change his mind next week.” Eric and I had a shortlist of actors who we thought could be in the movie. We were both like, “We should get Daniel Radcliffe: He’s amazing. He does comedy. He does drama. He takes on weird roles all the time.” There’s one scene in our movie, and after we shot it, I was like, “Is that the weirdest thing you’ve ever done on film?” And he was like, “Well, that and Swiss Army Man.” [In Swiss Army Man, Radcliffe plays a flatulent corpse.]
Did you also act as an accordion consultant?
Eric and I both told Dan, “You don’t really have to worry about it,” because we can cut around and make him look like he’s playing. But Dan made it a point of pride. He wanted to learn at least well enough that it looks like he’s actually playing. I gave him lessons on the set to make sure that he was holding his hand the right way. You’re not literally hearing him play, but he was actually playing along with the right notes.
Any challenges with Weird that you hadn’t experienced in your career thus far?
I’ve experienced some version of the problems. There were a lot of things that we wanted to do, which we either couldn’t afford to do or we had to think of a cheaper version. You know in Black Widow they have an emo version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? [Malia J covered the alt-rock classic for the Marvel movie.] One of the things I was trying to pitch was that we should get, like, Adele to do this emo version of “Smells Like Nirvana” over our credits. Then we found out the Nirvana estate wants six figures just to license the parody. We’re like, “Yeah, it’s a low budget.”
The first look and trailer both got such a massive online reaction. Were you expecting that?
Honestly? Kind of, yeah. (Laughs.) Which is why I was so flabbergasted when nobody originally wanted to buy this. Don’t you understand what this is?!
Has working on Weird spurred a desire to do more onscreen projects?
I’ve never stopped wanting to do onscreen projects in Hollywood. The opportunities just have not come up. Maybe this movie will open some doors. Hard to say. I’ve never walked away from Hollywood. Hollywood has just never answered my call. (Laughs.)
Would you ever be interested in making a straight biopic of your life and your career?
After this movie comes out, I’m not sure that there is gonna be interest in that. (Laughs.) If somebody wants to make that movie, God bless them.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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