It is hard to believe that it was already 9 months ago when I first spoke with Grammy Award-winning comedy producer Brian Volk-Weiss about NETFLIX's new 8-part series THE TOYS THAT MADE US. However, Weiss is one seriously busy guy but I knew if the Junkieverse stayed diligent and patient, we would eventually hook up on the phone and get the inside scoop on the show that has all toy collectors buzzing. It was pure kismet that we were able to schedule something for the week of the big debut of the new show on NETFLIX that will be binge-ready by the time this interview goes up.
First off, if there ever was a qualified Junkie at the helm on a project like this, it most definitely is Brian. After 10 minutes of talking, it felt like that old opening SEINFELD bit (before they cut them in Season 8), where Jerry is on stage regaling what it is like to make a friend as a kid as opposed to adulthood. If you remember, Jerry goes on to say if there is someone standing on my front lawn, "they are my friend, that's my friend. You like cherry soda? I like cherry soda! We'll be best friends!" If talking to Brian was an 80's sitcom, at some point that classic dream sequence where the screen starts to get all shaky going to the past would have come up. It was just like talking to a regular AFJ member, except this one has a whole lot of clout in Hollywood. Enough so to produce what will hopefully be the start of the go-to streaming series for all Action Figure Junkies.
At first, I tried to use one of those transcription Apps that take your voice memos and transcribe them into written text. After $15 of wasted App purchases, as it turns out, I am so happy that I did it old school and spent 6 hours transcribing it all manually because it was a real stroll down memory lane. I am my worst critic but after finishing this piece, I was genuinely happy. In a very rare moment, I even said to my folks and business partner, "This interview and this show, THE TOYS THAT MADE US, is what makes all of the hard work and long hours of building AFJ worth it." I hope you guys enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed talking to Brian about his dream project.
JARRETT KRUSE: First, off Brian, thank you for taking the time to talk to AFJ. I know that you have a tremendous background in comedy but you originally came to Hollywood with a geekier sort of intent. Tell us about that before we dive into THE TOYS THAT MADE US.
BVW: I was inspired by STAR WARS, the way millions of other people were. I always say, "if it weren't for STAR WARS, I would be a lawyer or a doctor in Queens, NY like my whole family." I saw STAR WARS and I didn't know this word at the time, but basically from my point of view as a kid, I would now label it that I thought I was watching a documentary. I was so young when I saw it that I left the theater and said to my Mom, "I want to join the Rebellion! I want to fly an X-Wing!" And my Mom was like, "You know its a movie?" but I didn't get it.
And she bought me this book, which I still have, which was kind of like the kids book of the making of STAR WARS. I saw the X-Wing's and instead of being 80 feet wide, they were really just little models, and C-3PO with his head off showing Anthony Daniels and that was basically it from that moment on; I wanted to be in show business. So I came out here originally wanting to be a director but learned very quickly, about a year at the most, that what I had perceived as being a director was actually part of the director's job that I had done when I had made student films was actually producing. I really enjoyed just the producing aspect and did not enjoy the professional setting of what a director actually does. So I was like, "I'm gonna be a producer," and it will be 20 years in July.
JK: I have done lots of research on THE TOYS THAT MADE US since I first heard about the project back in March when we first touched base. You have worked extensively with NETFLIX over the years with major A-List comedy heavyweights but #TTTMU is a whole different beast. How did you sell the idea of a docu-series about toys to them?
BVW: You know one thing that I want to give you props for; you were literally the first person to reach out to us so I want to thank you for that. And second of all, also because you were the first person to reach out, I want to say that I appreciate your patience because as you know we weren't able to talk to you for a long time. So I just wanted to give you props and thank you for that.
I mean basically, you kind of hit the nail on the head, I have been producing stand-up comedy for NETFLIX for a long, long time. You know, about 5, 6 years and I know a lot of the people that work there. And to be honest, I really just kept bugging them. You know I tried to sell the show to other companies for years, at least 5 years, maybe more. I came really close a couple of times to selling the shows to other networks and didn't and finally what I call my "polite bugging" went on for years.
Finally one day someone said to me, "OK what are you thinking?" and I sent over what we had been working on for years. And in typical brilliant NETFLIX fashion, and this is what is so great about NETFLIX, you know, most companies would just say, "Nah, we don't like it." Or they'd say, "Hey, we like it, we'll buy it." But what NETFLIX did, they were like, "what you have prepared for us is not a show we want to do BUT, here is what we like about your treatment and here is what we don't like. And here is how we think this can work for NETFLIX."
So, we took all of that smart, dead on information based on those first notes we got. We made a tape on our own dime, about 5 minutes and it showed how we would do the show and it was kind of weird because we are this stand-up comedy company (COMEDY DYNAMICS) wanting to do a series documentary but they knew about my passion for toys. A lot of the execs had seen my personal collection first hand and I give them a lot of credit and a lot of thanks because they trusted us.
JK: Was it your choice or NETFLIX to do an episodic series versus a full-length documentary?
BVW: Yes. That's what I always wanted to do. I don't think that you can do this story justice in one documentary movie. Every episode is one toy and you really need that freedom to have that 50 minutes to focus on one story and one toy line per episode. Every episode is about 45 to 50 minutes long.
JK: So when you knew the project was a go, what was your original vision as showrunner & Executive Producer?
BVW: It was really for lack of a better word, organic. The process was really organic. I have a lot of friends who are experts, you know some in STAR WARS, some in GI JOE, some in TRANSFORMERS. It started with this very small group and this very small group made some phone calls and sent some emails and we got in this situation where we got a list of people. It was just like this old-school walking the beat detective work. We got a list of names that we had spent about 3 months doing research getting a list of the people that we needed to talk to and we started reaching out to them, then we started scheduling interviews and then we started interviewing them. We did interviews in Cincinnati, Tokyo, Denmark, Mexico--we went all over the world!
JK: Yeah, I mean, it was crazy to follow you guys on social media. You were really racking up those frequent flyer miles.
BVW: You know, to a point, we posted pics of the big things but you know we went to 5 cities in California alone. We went to San Francisco 3 times, we went to Palm Desert. We went to Seattle, Cincinnati, we shot in Miami, Maine & Vermont. You know we really went where the people that worked on these toys were and for the most part where they retired.
JK: Did you have a wishlist ready to go of companies and people in the toy industry you were ready to contact? You must have been psyched after getting the green light!
BVW: We got everybody we wanted with the only exception being George Lucas. For the entire series, everybody we wanted, we got. Michael Bay told us very quickly, he was willing to do it but due to his crazy schedule, we didn't even shoot the interview until about three weeks ago. Dolph Lundgren is another one that said "Yes" to us like a year ago but the guy is doing two movies, two TV shows. So people like him due to their schedules are really hard to get but we ultimately got them.
JK: As a fellow bicentennial baby and being only a few months apart, you and I literally grew up in the same toy worlds. You in Queens, me here in Jersey. It really was a magical time to grow up with such amazing and iconic toy lines, wasn’t it? STAR WARS, TRANSFORMERS, THUNDERCATS, MASK, GI JOE, HE-MAN, etc. What was your favorite toy line as a kid? The one that you had to have?
BVW: Tied for first place with STAR WARS is LEGO. Its funny after I turned 13 or 14, I stopped playing with toys but I still bought and built LEGO's my whole life. I was building LEGO's in college. I was building LEGO's 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, so LEGO, ironically is the one toy that I never stopped playing with. So I would say that LEGO is tied for first with STAR WARS and then tied for second place would be GI JOE & TRANSFORMERS.
JK: What was the first toy you went back and bought MOC, factory sealed?
BVW: I consider myself very lucky because this really helps my wallet. I don't really care about the boxes or the MOC stuff. So there are toys like, I never had the GI JOE HOVERCRAFT, I never had the COBRA HYDROFOIL. One of the things I have always wanted is the micro-line Millennium Falcon which had the cannons on the top and the bottom. So there are always I wanted but luckily, I don't care about the boxes!
JK: See, that's funny because it is an argument that we pretty much have to break up every day on AFJ. Its like people think you HAVE to be on one side or the other.
BVW: I don't judge anybody. I mean people are always like, "What's better, STAR WARS or STAR TREK?" And I'm like, "Who cares? Enjoy them both or don't enjoy them both. Its like peas and carrots. You want peas? Great. You want carrots? Great. You don't want carrots? Don't eat 'em! Who cares?!?" I mean I get it, a lot of the box art from back then was gorgeous. I completely understand why people do it. I just don't care, it's just not for me. Thank God, because as you know its so much more expensive.
JK: Were you surprised at the toy industry’s enthusiasm to see a show like this being produced? Social media really flipped once they got wind of the show being made.
BVW: Well, I'm like the most biased person in the world because not only am I a toy collector that's been doing it for almost four decades but I also created the show. So I really am literally the most biased person in the world! I would never create a show and try and sell it if I didn't think that people would like it.
The thing to your point which I find kind of funny is that for a long time, people didn't think that the show was real. We were getting tons of Facebook messages and stuff saying, "I've been reading about this show for a long time, when is this coming out?" People literally were saying, "I don't think this is on NETFLIX. I think they are lying." But everybody has been great.
JK: Building on that, the response on social media from fans, celebrities & Junkies has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Are you surprised by that or do you think that our generation is thirsting for this kind of nostalgia programming?
BVW: I mean I'm not surprised, I would say I didn't think about it ahead of time but now that it happened, I'm not surprised. As human beings, A) when you're young, you don't look at the world and see how dangerous and dark it can be. So when you are older and you know how dangerous and dark it can be, you're obviously, when you see a toy you played with when you were 8 and it gives you the reminder of what it was like to be 8 playing on your parents carpet you know, with no worries, it just makes you feel good. Just pure joy.
JK: What were you most struck by when talking to the toy industry pros that literally created the toys that made us? Guys like you and me. Who was the most creative person you met with while filming?
BVW: I mean, the stories that they told. You know you would look at a guy like Jim Swearingen who worked at KENNER on STAR WARS. He was literally the guy with the putty knife and the razor blade cutting up the figures that became the STORMTROOPERS, that became C-3PO. You know and I'm sitting there talking to him and I'm looking at his hands and I'm like, "Jesus, those are the hands that created the stuff that changed my life."
You know one of the things that was really cool about producing the show is, you know a lot of the people we were talking to are you know between their mid 60's and early 80's and you know a lot of the questions we asked were talking about the greatest days of their lives. We worked really hard to interview people that hadn't been interviewed much, or ever. So, you know a lot of the people we were talking to were talking about STAR WARS or TRANSFORMERS for the first time in their lives. Some of them started crying, some of them would call us after the interview and they'd remember another story. In fact, part of the reason we went back to Cincinnati was because so many people after the original interviews either remembered things that they didn't say or found some prototypes for us to look at. So we were like, "You know what let's go back and get this stuff recorded."
JK: Do you think that THE TOYS THAT MADE US can be the springboard series into a dedicated streaming channel devoted to toys? An all toy-related content channel. To be honest, it is actually kind of odd that it has not happened yet.
BVW: I don't know. I'm as biased as it gets. I mean I think you can do you know, I don't think you can do 500 episodes of #TTTMU but you could probably do 100 episodes, maybe 80 before you start to run out of toy lines. I mean there are a couple of toy lines that are very emotional and nostalgic to you and me that, you know, we don't get it but they were only around for like two or three years and they disappeared and never came back.
One of the rules that we made for ourselves as it relates to making the show was we only focused on toys that have basically been in production and never went out of production. And I know you can argue that HE-MAN went out of production for a while but you know what I'm saying. They make HE-MAN figures today, they made them 30+ years ago too. We deliberately did not go into; you know THUNDERCATS is something that we might do if we are allowed to make more episodes. But, I am very proud of the decision that we did not do THUNDERCATS in Season 1.
JK: Why is that? Just to have it for later seasons?
BVW: THUNDERCATS didn't penetrate the popular culture the way the other 8 toys that we focused on did. You know, every toy that we did has conventions. Every toy we did has people that dress up as the characters. You don't have that for THUNDERCATS.
JK: It's similar to MASK, there was a really voracious and rabid audience for it but it never quite caught on with the super mainstream.
BVW: Yeah, absolutely. If we get a second season and people know our show and they trust us, then I think its cool to do THUNDERCATS & MASK. But we had to earn, hopefully, we will earn the audience's trust as a brand and maybe we are covering a toy they don't care about but because they like the show and they trust our ability to tell a story, they'll enjoy a THUNDERCATS or MASK episode. Which I'm sure they will.
I was not a HE-MAN fan growing up. I did not own a HE-MAN figure until about 5 months ago. So, same is true for BARBIE. I was never into BARBIE, I didn't know anyone that was into BARBIE. Even the girls I grew up with weren't into BARBIE, at least in my neighborhood. But now, I am very passionate about HE-MAN. And I am passionate about BARBIE; I think BARBIE is one of our best episodes. I now own two BARBIE dolls. That's what I think we will be able to do if we get more episodes meaning that people like the first episodes.
JK: Was there anyone in the toy industry that you spoke to that gave you pause and you were a little star struck?
BVW: We did not, and I'm not just saying this man, if we interviewed someone like that, I would telll you but I wouldn't tell you the name of the person--everybody was great. In fact, one of the common problems we had with some people either directly or through their publicist or their lawyer would be like, "You can only have an hour (to speak with them)." And then we'd get to an hour, and I was trying to be honest and I would say, "Hey, I just want to let you know, its an hour." And EVERY SINGLE TIME, not once, not once did anybody say, "Oh its an hour? Great, see you later." Every single time, the people that told us that we couldn't have more than an hour at the hour mark said, "Do you have any more questions?" And I'd be like, "Yeah!" And they'd be like, "Keep going..." And we had multiple people say we could have an hour and we got two to two and a half hours. Not one person was a jerk. Not one.
BVW: It was great. I mean we did over 300 interviews so 300 people over the course of 14, 15 months all over the world. Not one jerk.
JK: How do you feel about the current state of the toy industry as opposed to when we were kids running into TOYS R US, KAY-BEE, CHILD WORLD hoping for the best to see what was on the pegs? Now it’s a whole different ballgame in the online world. With the recent news of TRU closing 100 stores and the extinction of KAY-BEE and brick and mortar stores closing left and right, plus today’s generation gearing heavily into digital content, are you worried about the state of the industry?
BVW: You know man, there are two TOYS R US's that I go to in LA and they are still open and are not scheduled to be closed. But I'll tell you, if they every close, even one of them, it will be a real dark, sad day for me. The opening credits of our show is this animated homage to the opening of the cartoons of like GI JOE, TRANSFORMERS, HE-MAN and you know its funny, we were trying to come up with what the opening credits would be and I kept trying to think, "What is the one thing, what is the thing that unites all the toys? What is the Temple of toys? What is the Church of toys?" And I suddenly realized, it was the toy store. I will be very sad if TOYS R US goes out of business.
JK: You wouldn’t trade those days of being on the hunt over just clicking a mouse and adding to a cart right
BVW: Oh God, no. God no, absolutely not. One of the greatest, I mean the greatest moment of my life is my kids being born then probably my wedding and meeting my wife and all that kind of stuff. So those are the top three. Within the next one through seven, in my top list of greatest moments of my life was when I was little, we were at a KAY-BEE TOY STORE and all I wanted was the RETURN OF THE JEDI Luke Skywalker.
I don't know if this is my imagination or not but dude I'm telling you, I believe, the entire, if you're looking at the store, the entire right wall of the store was covered with STAR WARS figures. And I started off on one side, my mom started off on the other, and we just went through every single figure trying to find the Luke. And my Mom and I were getting closer and closer to each other meaning that I hadn't found it and she hadn't found it and literally, when we were like less than two feet apart, my Mom found it and she showed it to me. And that moment, seeing her there holding it. I've been to Machu Pichu, I've been to Paris, blah blah blah. But my Mom holding that figure is in my top ten greatest moments of my life. And yeah, if the stores go out of business, that ain't gonna happen anymore.
JK: Since your experience in comedy is so prolific, as a part-time comic myself for years, would you love to see action figures of 80’s SNL Comics, and guys like Aziz, Gaffigan, Kevin Hart, etc?
BVW: Yeah, I've thought a lot about that man. Listen I don't know how they would sell. One of the cool things about making this show is that I got to meet Randy Falk from NECA, I got to meet Todd McFarlane. I keep telling Randy, "Do a Dave Chapelle figure man. Do a Seinfeld figure. See if you can get those rights." Again, I don't know how they would sell, I have no clue. But to your question, I think it'd be cool. Why not try?
JK: NECA is actually based here about 20 minutes from my folks here in Jersey and Randy was nice enough to give AFJ an all-access pass from 9 to 5 to hang out in their showroom for the whole day last year. It was one of my dream days; like a Make-A-Wish day for a toy Junkie. I was so blown away by everything I got to see. I just sat and looked at some of these artists work in awe, it was just amazing. Some of the stuff that never even got produced that I got to see. And Randy is so hands-on with the toy community, he's so active on social media, he answers questions. They are just a terrific company.
BVW: Randy is the best.
JK: I know you have a serious personal collection of your own but what is your Holy Grail figure that you are still seeking out?
BVW: There's not a Holy Grail figure, but there is a Holy Grail Playset. And that is without a doubt, the MEGO Bridge Set from the STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE movie. It's this gigantic white crazy thing that doesn't look anything like the set from the movie by the way. MEGO was already going through a lot of financial problems when they put those toys out. So they didn't make many, the quality wasn't great. And like I said, there's like a big bizarre submarine hatch next to the viewscreen that obviously was not there in the movie. But I want that so badly and dude, I've never even seen one. I've never seen one in real life.
There's another one that some random company made this extremely bizarre Starship Enterprise also for the motion picture. It had removable parts and slots all over the saucer section and you could literally make your own Federation Starship. I've never seen that and I want them soooo badly.
JK: A lot of guys on AFJ chime in quite often saying, "My wife or girlfriend says this, that and the other about my collection. What should I do?" What does Mrs. Volk-Weiss say about your collection and producing THE TOYS THAT MADE US?
BVW: You know my wife, Sheila, I can't say enough. She is the greatest wife, the greatest woman I've ever met. Not to mention a great Mom as well. She really has this live and let live attitude in life where she doesn't care what I do. As long as I'm a good father and a good husband and we can pay our mortgage, she just doesn't care. She's been very supportive of everything I've ever done, to put it mildly. I mean every now and then, as cheesy as this sounds, she's my best friend. Every now and then I'll buy something and be all excited about it and I'll go talk to her about it and you know she'll very politely say, "Oh, that's cool" or she'll ask a throwaway question. Its funny man, last week even, this show has really gotten me to buying stuff faster than I ever have.
You know like I said earlier, I had never bought a HE-MAN figure before until the past few months. Now I have five of them and there's a lot of stuff I have now and I'd say that my collection grew 1 to 2% a year until this year. But this year, it has grown 10% so its funny, I said to my wife, "You know what I want to start doing next year? I want to start writing down every toy I buy just to get a handle on how much money I'm spending." And my wife is like, "I never ask but how much are most of these things?" And I said, "Well 95-96% of what I buy is between $5 and $100. And every now and then some $200 thing." So my wife was like, "You don't drink, you don't do drugs, you're not out there partying. You're not spending money and just being an idiot. Why would you even track what you are spending? It gives you so much joy and if its a $100 at the most for the most part, who cares?"
JK: Lastly, a lot of the guys wanted to know if are you a member of the AFJ page?
BVW: I am a member, yeah. When you reached out to me and told me all about it, I joined and I do check it out!
JK: I really want to thank you, Brian, for taking the time to talk to us. The Junkieverse is very excited to do this piece for you guys and get the word out about THE TOYS THAT MADE US on NETFLIX.
BVW: Yeah man. You guys have been so supportive and I just want to say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you. And the other thing I'll say is you know after you see the show, tell me what you think. I want to know what you liked, what you didn't like. We worked real hard on it but I'm sure we missed a couple of things. Tell me what you think, I'm very curious!