If you were to believe everything you see in movies, you might be forced to think that Weird Al Yankovic was a booze-fueled, rocket-launching, accordion virtuoso who was the most influential parody rock musician of all time. And, in truth, you’d be about half right.

However, at the center of the new parody biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic story, is a not-so-sly joke that Al Yankovic’s story has been grossly overstated. Yet, in both Daniel Radcliffe’s heroic performance, and in the pastiche filmmaking of director Eric Appel and cinematographer Ross Riege, you’d almost believe it were all as true and beautiful as they portray it.

We sat down with the director of photography Ross Riege to talk about their filmmaking process and the unique challenges of telling a weird story in a cinematic way — as well as providing tips on working with a short production schedule, using the Sony Venice for tight shots and finding the right comedic and dramatic juxtaposition.


NFS: How did you first get connected to this project and at what point were you brought into the creative discussion as to how to bring it to life?

Ross Riege: So yeah, I’ve known Eric [Appel — the director] for years. We met back in the day doing some episodic TV stuff and some commercial spots together. I was actually finishing a project on the east coast and it was the last day of shooting when he texted me and told me about potentially doing this Weird Al movie — and that it might be happening very fast. We chatted about it before the start of the new year and by the first week of January we found it was really going to happen.

But yeah, it just all worked out. So Eric and I immediately jumped in and started talking about what his vision for the film was. I was familiar with the Funny or Die trailer that he had done years ago back when we were all babies, but he kind of just wanted to jump off from there and that was kind of how we got started. We looked around at a lot of references and of course I read the script where I was like — wow, this is even on the page. It was way more ambitious than what I knew we had to work with. So off that the challenge really because to see how we could elevate it. You know, to make it a real movie in essence versus something that you’re just trying to pound through in 18 days — which is what it ended up being.

NFS: Very cool. And that’s quite a quick production timeline! So for our audience too, I wanna ask this quick and early, but what cameras and lenses did you shoot on (and why)?

Ross Riege: We shot with the Sony VENICE, and this was right around the time that the Sony VENICE 2 started becoming available and we actually tried to get our hands on one of those, but to no avail. So we were stuck with the VENICE 1 (laughs), which was great. We had two cameras and did a little bit of Rialto stuff, and our lens package was Hawk ‘74 lenses which we supplemented a little bit on the wide end and the long end. Then I had a couple of telephoto sphericals that we used rarely for some long run stuff.

NFS: There were lots of fun musical scenes where we see Daniel Radcliffe sing, but hear Weird Al’s voice — how did y’all work to pull that off on set?

Ross Riege: Well yeah, we had Dan singing on set of course, like you would do in a music video. Typically he was singing and he has a great voice, but I’m not sure where or when the decision was made that they were going to use Al’s original voice, but that was probably before I came aboard even. It was probably one of the early discussions. So on set we just recorded him doing his thing and then used the audio later. However for the big stage and stadium performance stuff was all code based, so the bits that Dan was rehearsing were all to Al’s music with Al singing because we needed to use that for all of the lighting and stadium concert stuff which was synced to the time code.

But otherwise yeah, it was just seeing it on set and then whatever audio overlay used would be from Al’s stuff. Which Al actually rerecorded a bunch of stuff for the movie which was cool. So, for example in some of the scenes in the beginning where he came up with the bologna song, that timing was all re-recorded for the movie. So it was pretty cool to not just be making this movie Al, but to have him there with us everyday. And if Eric needed him to do something or adjust something, he was happy to help.

NFS: That’s awesome, I also wanted to ask about the challenges of turning a short video into such a bigger production overall complete with these musical numbers and even some shoot outs and other more cinematic sequences. How’d you pull so much off?

Ross Riege: Well, from the beginning the whole point of the visual approach was to, you know, take off with what they started with the teaser which was this fake movie trailer really, and see if we could take it more seriously as a film visually and where the comedy would play as more of an opposite. And so regardless of what the content of the scene was, the approach was always in the interest of giving it a dramatic angle.

For the fight scene in the diner for instance, that was more straightforward in terms of how we treated it visually. It’s a little bit more of what you would expect. Whereas some of the other comedic stuff, we tried to treat it where the camera was treating it very seriously and not to consider the kind of absurd content that we were capturing.

In fact, that made it a little bit more fun to give a very serious kind of epic treatment the way you would with your typical biopic. So we were just kind of brushing past the nonsense of what is the actual reality, which kind of made things… weird.

NFS: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story has a lot of characters and a lot of jokes per minute, how did you approach fitting everything in?

Ross Riege: As I mentioned before, you have to start with the framework and the challenges and limitations of trying to fit everything into an 18 day schedule. So you’d hope that you could shoot that cameo scene in particular in at least a couple of days… which we did not have. We had one day and it was February, so it’s not like we had a long run with the sun either. We knew also there was going to be a little bit of stuff that we’d have to shoot after we lost the sun, so we just had to kind of plan in reverse in terms of how we were going to cover it from a lighting standpoint. Because, again, we were in a small backyard with a pool and not a lot of room for us to bring in extra lights or anything.

And on top of that we had all of these cameos, which was kind of approached as the more the participants the better. So, from a production standpoint, we wanted to accommodate and support as many different people being able to make an appearance as we could find. And a lot of them being personal friends of Al’s and Eric’s, the scheduling became a bit wacky too. Like I think we only had Conan for an hour, and it was this specific hour so we couldn’t shoot the scene in linear fashion where we go straight through each person one by one in order of who’s there. We had to shoot a piece and be like, okay in two hours we’ll shoot the tail end then come back later to shoot when Gallagher comes in.

Weird_al_cameosCredit: The Roku Channel

NFS: You’ve worked on a lot of different comedy and comedy-adjacent projects over the years. How do you feel like modern comedy is evolving, and where do parody films like Weird: The Al Yankovic story which was based on a viral fake trailer fit into this genre?

Ross Riege: It’s interesting because I think that for a while now there’s definitely been more of an approach where comedy doesn’t have to be bright high key content. You know, there’s a phrase that a lot of people say in the industry that “comedy plays best in the wide,” which oftentime it does. But kind of when I started shooting more narrative stuff I ended up falling in with a handful of directors who were doing comedy and improv. And one of the first TV projects I did was a show called Mash Up on Comedy Central that Jordan Vogt-Roberts and TJ Miller conceived that’s basically what Drunk History was where you had a standup act then you cut away to visualizations of what they’re talking about.

So, from beginning with that style the first things we talked about was how do we shoot it so it doesn’t look like something from 2005 that you could pull up on Comedy Central. So we tried to kind of break apart these conventions that are considered a given simply because you’re shooting comedy and that’s how you always shoot it. And a lot of those things are built on convenience because they’ve been done before and they work, but I think the conversations on how we can depart from those tropes in a way where production can still support us but we can also make new images became important.

Just talking about the way comedy is going now though, off the top of my head, films like Tropic Thunder are a great example of a movie that you wouldn’t expect to feel so grand and epic despite it just being a comedy. I think that’s what people are finding; that you can make things look — for lack of a less cliché term — cinematic and it can still play in any genre.

NFS: To wrap things up, in general what advice would you give to up-and-coming DPs or directors looking to break into the industry?

Ross Riege: One thing I always say is shoot as much as you can. And don’t be afraid of failing, or trying things and seeing if it doesn’t work. I didn’t know for sure that I wanted to be a cinematographer when I was in college. I went to film school and was interested in media, TV and movies, but I was mostly interested — and still am — in still photography. And I still do a lot of it on my own just for fun. I think if you come with a mindset of a photographer it helps transition into motion photography in great ways. So, if you can’t get your hands on a crew and a project to do something big, you can still make images.

From there it’s practice, practice, practice and to find people to get weird, down and dirty with. There are so many tools available now that aren’t expensive. When I was in film school, which was right before HD, if you wanted to make something like it belonged you had to rent the equipment and get the lights and everything else — but now you have super sensitive cameras and can shoot stuff on your iPhones. So the more you shoot the better, and just keep being prolific and making weird stuff.