An interview with Brian Volk-Weiss, the creator and executive producer of Netflix’s “The Toys That Made Us.”
G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–every iconic toyline was somebody’s favorite growing up. And it’s likely these brands’ figures, vehicles and playsets all left a major impression on kids in their formative years. Perhaps that’s why so many adults are excited to revisit their childhood via Netflix’s new documentary series, The Toys That Made Us, which premieres Dec. 22.
To learn more about this highly anticipated series, AiPT! got in touch with series creator and executive producer Brian Volk-Weiss who, through his production and distribution company Comedy Dynamics (a Nacelle Company), has also had a hand in crafting popular comedy specials featuring the likes of Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan and Kevin Hart.
AiPT!: So, how did The Toys That Made Us come about?
Brian Volk-Weiss: On the creative side, I’ve been a huge collector since I was 3 years old, when I was actually playing with the toys. I’ve been collecting for just a little under 40 years, and I’m also a huge history buff and I started to realize the origins and the stories of these toys that are either unknown or haven’t really been researched enough. So when I was doing all my Wikipedia-ing and Googling, I realized that there are very few icons as big as Optimus Prime or Cobra Commander or Skeletor, where you really don’t know where they came from or how they came together. So that was the creative inspiration, where I took my two loves and put them together to create a story. And then on the business side, I do a lot of business with Netflix in the stand-up comedy world, so I know a lot of the people who work there and I just kept bugging them until they started to really pay attention to the premise. Then they told me what kind of show they may be interested in, so on our own dime, we shot a five-minute tape we presented to them–which was the vision of how the show could work–they loved it and that’s what they bought.
AiPT!: And it’s eight episodes?
Volk-Weiss: Correct, that is correct.
AiPT!: And what toylines will you cover on these episodes?
Volk-Weiss: It’s a very simple format. Each episode covers one toy. So we did an episode on Star Wars, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Barbie, and also LEGO, Hello Kitty, Transformers and Star Trek. And there’s a misconception out there that we’re only focusing on the ’80s–that’s not correct. We are focusing on the beginning of the toy, which in a couple cases starts in the ’60s and ’70s and goes right up until the modern era. So, for example, the Star Wars episode starts when the movie was in post-production and ends with The Last Jedi.AiPT!: While making this series, did you develop an appreciation for any toy lines you never gave much thought to when you were younger?
Volk-Weiss: Oh, absolutely. Like, I’ve never been a He-Man fan. I didn’t have a single He-Man figure in my collection, which is hundreds and hundreds of toys. And as of about five or six months ago, I probably have at least half a dozen, maybe closer to a dozen He-Man figures and vehicles. Believe it or not, I wasn’t a big Barbie fan growing up, but now I have two Barbie dolls. And I actually didn’t have any Hello Kitty–my wife and daughter had a lot of Hello Kitty, but in my collection now, I have a couple Hello Kitty things.
AiPT!: I was never a He-Man fan myself, so hearing you say that really makes me want to see that episode.
Volk-Weiss: You and I are in the minority, because like, I would say maybe with the exception of Star Wars, He-Man seems to have the most passionate fanbase. It’s unbelievable to me.
AiPT!: I am a huge Transformers fan, though. Could you tell me what viewers can expect from the Transformers episode?
Volk-Weiss: Transformers was an amazing story and an a amazing journey. To make the show, we went to Japan, we met the men and women who launched Diaclone and all the original Transformers, who were not called Transformers at the time. The thing that was really amazing was we met the men and women in Japan who built what would become Optimus Prime and Megatron and everything like that, was that a lot of these people had never been interviewed. They didn’t say this, but a couple of the people we worked relentlessly to meet–they showed up like they might be the victim of a practical joke. Like one of the guys showed up who was literally responsible for all the Japanese versions of what would become the Transformers Generation 1 robots–he showed up the day before he was supposed to be there because he was suspect about the whole thing and he saw what we were doing and saw that it was real. And the next day he comes for his interview and he’s got this huge photo album under his arm, like 6-inch spine, and we go, “What’s that”? And this guy doesn’t speak a word of English, so he opens it up and starts going through this photo album and it’s the Polaroid pictures of the wooden models that would become Optimus Prime and Megatron and Soundwave. All of the original models were destroyed–literally thrown in a furnace–and no one even knew these pictures existed. Literally, I teared up looking at these pictures. It was like the Holy Grail.
AiPT!: And I saw you talked to comic book writer Bob Budiansky, who came up with the original Transformers’ names and wrote much of the Marvel Comics series.
Volk-Weiss: Yes, oh my God…
AiPT!: I actually had a chance to interview him earlier this year at a convention and had my own geek-out moment.
Volk-Weiss: We interviewed him in New York City. He took a three-hour train ride to come to Manhattan where we did the interview. He showed up and couldn’t have been nicer and sweeter. It was so emotional. I would say the first four Transformers comics really had a powerful influence on me, so it was amazing speaking to him. So we get him up in front of the camera, we’re interviewing him and talking to him. You met him, you know he’s a sweet guy. So at one point in the interview, we’re like, “Blah blah blah Starscream,” and he was like, “Oh, well Starscream, here.” And I hadn’t noticed it, but he came with a big pile of papers and he was holding the papers in the interview and he starts going through the papers–it’s yellow legal pad stuff–and he shows the camera, “Here’s the original Starscream character bio I did.” And after the interview, I said, “Bob, that pile of papers, is that all your original notes”? And he’s like, “Yeah.” I said, “Bob, you just sat on a train for three hours, you’re taking a train back for three hours. Do you think maybe you should put those in a folder or a bag”? They were probably worth half a million dollars or more with no folder or bag and they were literally sitting there. He let me touch them and read them. The problem with this series with me is every three weeks I was having the greatest moment of my career–touching something or seeing something or meeting someone. But that was definitely an amazing moment.
AiPT!: You mentioned your sizable toy collection. What kinds of stuff are we talking about and what are some of your favorite pieces?
Volk-Weiss: The only pieces that were mine that I played with are Star Wars and LEGO and I think I have a couple of Transformers from back in the day. The majority of the collection is Star Wars, G.I. Joe and Star Trek and then an honorable mention for Batman. I got a whole shelf just dedicated to Batman. So that’s the main stuff. And then I’m a huge collector of historical pieces. I’m obsessed with the movie Dune. A guy named Brian Stillman, who’s one of the people who worked with us, especially on the Star Wars episode–Brian got me into Dune toys. So I’m really into those. On the modern side of things, I’m really into NECA, NECA makes unbelievable figures. Also Robotech–I love Robotech. I’ve got a lot of Robotech. And then I guess I have to give another honorable mention, though it’s not so big, I probably have 98 percent of anything that was every made toy-related for Battlestar Galactica. So I have to give that a shout-out too. Then my favorite pieces are… I have a Star Wars [mint on card] Death Star Droid, I have have Return of the Jedi MOC Emperor and, this is very recent and the danger of making this show–I got an unproduced prototype of Wesley Crusher from the Galoob Star Trek line. And not only is it a not-produced prototype, but an art sample. So it’s Wesley on a Jean-Luc Picard card. That is definitely, without a doubt, the newest and craziest thing I have.
AiPT!: Do you have a white whale? A toy you’ve been chasing your entire life?
Volk-Weiss: There are a couple and, again, for lack of better expression, it’s not a real white whale. And I’ve tried to get a couple of these–it’s funny you used the expression whale, because one of them is the Killer W.H.A.L.E. from G.I. Joe. That’s one of them. I’ve literally bought it two or three times on eBay and it always shows up broken, so I only have one of those. I really want the micro line Millennium Falcon from the ’80s. I really want one of those, the problem is they’re so expensive. And then the other thing I want–that I’ve never even seen–Mego made a bridge of the Enterprise from the motion picture and I want that so badly, but I’ve never even seen one.
AiPT!: You mention the search for elusive toys–did you have any trouble tracking down the people you interviewed for the series?
Volk-Weiss: You know, the only person we didn’t get but wanted was George Lucas. That’s the only person where I’m kind of bummed out we didn’t get him. Every single person we wanted, we got. A lot of people we didn’t have to chase, but the reason we had to chase them is they’re extremely busy, ya know? Dolph Lundgren was working on two movies and three TV shows and he said yes to us six months ago, but it took forever to juggle his schedule and make it work for him. But everyone we felt we needed to cover the story correctly, we got.
AiPT!: You’ve worked with successful comedians such as Aziz Ansari and Kevin Hart on stand-up specials. I wonder if your passion for toys ever comes up, or if any of these comics share a love for toys.
Volk-Weiss: Yeah, when you produce a stand-up special, it’s a pretty intimate experience. It doesn’t go on that long–its only three or four months–but it’s very intimate. You’re talking almost every day by email or phone or something, and you’re in editing bays for awhile, so there are definitely some people I’ve worked with who are either into it themselves or find it to be a funny or weird thing about me. My favorite example is Bob Saget who, first of all, is the greatest guy ever. But Saget, who I don’t believe is a collector or a Star Wars buff, but because he knows I’m a Star Wars buff, I’d say 80 percent of his emails to me, he goes out of his way to include a Star Wars reference or two. Or he’ll text me a picture while shopping with his kids or whatever, a picture of a Star Wars figure. So that’s probably the best example I can give, but there are certainly more than Bob.
AiPT!: Are there any plans for a second season of The Toys That Made Us?
Volk-Weiss: It’s entirely dependent on how this season does. If season one does well, there’ll probably be a season two. If season one doesn’t go well, there probably won’t be a season two.
AiPT!: If there is a season two, are there any toylines on deck?
Volk-Weiss: The toys I’d like to cover, just off the top of my head, would be, of course, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony, Hot Wheels/Matchbox, Robotech, Power Rangers, Strawberry Shortcake–that’s a very interesting story, so is Cabbage Patch dolls–fascinating story. Like, there are certain toys that might not be as iconic as G.I. Joe and Barbie but they have stories that are just amazing. I have a huge list in my office. Oh, Thundercats and M.A.S.K. Those are two other great toys with great origin stories. And another thing I’d like to do, if given the chance, is one themed episode that isn’t about a specific toy. The No. 1 lesson I’ve learned from making this show is just how delicate success is. For every Star Wars and He-Man, there are dozens and dozens of failures. And some of the successes just have good luck, some of the failures have bad luck and this is the show I’d love to do if given the chance–“The Toys That Should Have Not Been Made.” Because every now and then we’d see a bunch of toys where it’s like, who would have greenlit that knowing what it takes to design, market, package and distribute a toy, and how many checks and balances there are to get toys on shelves, especially back in the ’70s ’80s and ’90s. There were literally some toys, I don’t care if the kid was jumping up and down screaming that he wanted it, his mom would never buy it. Dune is a great example–why on Earth were there Dune figures? Who were those made for? And a more modern example–and yes I loved the movie–who were Starship Troopers made for?
AiPT!: The show is called The Toys That Made Us. Who does the “Us” in the title refer to?
Volk-Weiss: “Us” is really anybody that in any way was inspired by toys. You know, a great example is [Todd] Beamer on 9/11. His last words were “Let’s roll,” which everybody attributes to Optimus Prime. My wife doesn’t know anything about Star Trek, but when she wants to leave a party, she goes, “Beam me out of here.” So it can be people like that or somebody like myself or you where the toys literally changed the course of my life. I think if not for Star Wars the movie, or without toys, in general, I’d probably be a dentist or lawyer in New York instead of a TV producer in California. So that’s really who it’s for. Ronald Regan named a missile-shooting-down system “Star Wars.” Was that after the toys? Eh, it was probably after the movie, but it’s part of the “Us.” This is a worldwide show and somehow, most people somewhere in their lives have taken inspiration from toys.
AiPT!: When I was a kid, I made movies with the family camcorder and my action figures were the actors. Did you ever do anything like that?
Volk-Weiss: 100 percent, yes. Unfortunately, many of mine got too close in proximity to fireworks or rubber cement that got lit on fire. But I did that, without a doubt.
AiPT!: Finally, what impact do you hope this series has on viewers?
Volk-Weiss: There’s a reason all the episodes are under an hour and not two hours-long, you know? The first cut of the Star Wars episode was close to two and a half hours long. So if we did our job right, for people like me who are crazy about Star Wars, it’ll give them new information and they’ll enjoy it. But that same episode for somebody like my wife, she will not turn it off. Because of my background in comedy, we tried to infuse a lot of humor into the shows, so hopefully someone like me–let’s pretend I had nothing to do with the show–I’ll enjoy it, but also my wife will enjoy it as well. Conversely, going back to Barbie and He-Man–two toys I didn’t play with as a kid–hopefully people will watch Star Wars, love it and give Barbie a chance. Even though they didn’t play with it, they trust the show, so let’s see what it’s got to say. My big hope is people trust us to find the story with every toy, and it doesn’t really matter if you played with it or not as a kid. They trust us that we found the story and they’ll enjoy the episode.
You can check out the first four episodes of The Toys That Made Us when it premieres on Netflix Friday, Dec. 22. The remaining four season one episodes will be released in 2018.