It’s a harrowing time for many, and many of us are looking for whatever comfort we can find to get through this tough time. Two shows are comfort-watching par excellence, bringing forward the stories behind the best memories of our earlier years: The Toys That Made Us and its companion spin-off series, The Movies That Made Us, both on Netflix.
I spoke to the series’ creator/producer Brian Volk-Weiss about both popular Netflix series, why nostalgia is so popular, and other projects in the works.
JE: To start out, tell me about The Toys That Made Us and what inspired the show?
BVW: It’s one of the few times in my life I know exactly when and where I was to answer a question like this. I was in a Borders bookstore eight or nine years ago, and for some reason I was looking for a book about the history of The Transformers… I don’t remember why. There was literally not a single book in the store about the history of The Transformers, and I remember there were about 1,000 books about the War of 1812, it just didn’t make any sense to me. So that was the original inspiration. I tried to sell the show and got close to selling the show before, it all took seven years.
JE: Nostalgia has been so hot these days, particularly in the last half-decade. Why do you think that might be?
BVW: I think that every generation thinks the prior generation was better. One of the things that a lot of people forget about Walt Disney is that Walt Disney in the 1950’s was very nostalgic about his life in the 20’s and 30’s, it’s not new to care about nostalgia. The thing that is new is that, unlike Walt Disney who only had parks or movie theaters…now, thanks to YouTube, Netflix, texting, and social media, it’s just a lot more in-your-face.
The thing that’s interesting to me about nostalgia is that… I adamantly disagree that the prior generations were better. The best way I thought to explain this is that it’s not really about the era in which you grew up in, it’s about how old you were in that era. When I was a kid, we had to do duck-and-cover exercises where we would have to hide under a desk in case the Russians, you know, launched ICBMs.
What I find interesting about that scenario is, as a 10 year old, I really enjoyed not having to do work and schoolwork, and getting to hide under a desk and goof around and pass notes to my friends. I didn’t understand what an ICBM was. If you look at it from the perspective of a 40 or 50 year old teacher, an ICBM was not nice or funny. So even if she thought there wasn’t going to be WWIII, she was probably very annoyed that she had to stop teaching to do these stupid exercises when being under your desk wouldn’t even matter.
It’s all about who you are. When you see an Optimus Prime, Cobra Commander, or a certain Barbie doll, like it might not even be that you’re like ‘Oh my god, I love Transformers,’ or ‘Barbie’, it’s that seeing the physical manifestations of your youth reminds you of a time when you didn’t know what AIDS or cancer were, you didn’t know what credit card debt was. That’s what I think it’s about.
JE: How did the deal with Netflix finally happen?
BVW: They knew me[…] from stand up comedy. As I mentioned, I’d been trying to sell the show for a long time. There was an executive that I worked with for stand-up comedy who basically was moving to Netflix and getting into unscripted. One of the biggest problems that I had with selling the show was that producers, just like actors, get typecast. I was typecast as a comedy producer, so it was very hard for me to sell shows that were not comedy.
What ended up happening was, luckily, this guy knew me, and because he knew me he knew that I was a huge Toy Collector. I just kept bugging him about it, and then one day he called me up and he was like, “Hey, man, I was thinking about your ‘toy show’, here’s how Netflix would do a show about toys.” He basically gave me some great guidance about how to do that. We made about a five minute tape based on what I thought the show should be, and also the notes that he had given me on what they wanted. He saw the tape and then he bought the show.
JE: How did the spin-off The Movies That Made Us come to be?
BVW: It’s a funny story, after we knew The Toys That Made Us was working we asked if we could pitch a spin-off. We actually spent a significant amount of time and energy and money making a tape for The Games That Made Us and then, at the last minute, I thought ‘we should do something about movies’.
All we did was take that very famous picture of Bruce Willis from Die Hard, the one where he’s wearing a tank top in front of the Nakatomi Tower holding the gun, and we used Photoshop to perfectly replace his head with Frank Sinatra’s head. A lot of people don’t know this but Die Hard is a sequel to another movie [you can find the history of this in the Die Hard episode of The Movies That Made Us]. So I went into a meeting with Netflix with this great tape and a deck and probably 50 hours of work for The Games That Made Us pitch and this one poster for The Movies That Made Us, and The Movies That Made Us is what was greenlit.
JE: With your background in comedy, I know this last month you’ve been promoting women in comedy, and I know that’s very important to you. Let’s talk about that.
BVW: I mean, it’s obviously very important to me personally, my company, and I think the country and the world. We’re obviously going through, as a society, an embarrassingly, and in my opinion bizarrely, long overdue course-correction. Any thing that we can do to help encourage that [is good], which by the way, I am proud to say, we’ve been doing for over a decade.
We did Ali Wong’s specials, we did Eliza Schlesinger’s specials. There were many years where we were doing more female stand up specials than any other company. We’ve always been more than 50% female employees. […] I remember, at 10 years old, being there can’t be like, there’s no women X-wing pilots? No Tie Fighter pilots? There’s a whole GI Joe army with just three girls?It never made sense to me. So if anything, I am just very glad it’s happening. It’s so crazy it took so long.
JE: Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
We’re doing a doc right now all about Margaret Loesch, the executive at Fox Kids that single-handedly greenlit Power Rangers, Batman The Animated Series, had a lot to do with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and many other animated series. How is it 2020 and nobody did this before us? That’s what I find so weird. I’ve seen documentaries in what I like to call the ‘pop history space’ that are on people that are significantly less important and it’s really weird. […We’re also working on] a show for BET+ called All the way Black which is a very, very deep dive into African American vintage pop culture history.
Brian Volk-Weiss is an extremely busy producer, director, and series creator with a number of projects on the horizon. Be sure to check out The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us on Netflix (and the second season of the latter was greenlit by Netflix in February 2020).
They’re also working on a new series Behind the Attraction for Disney+, and be sure to catch All the way Black on BET+ and the forthcoming Margaret Loesch documentary when they’re available!
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