Interview: Brian Volk-Weiss Talks Season 3 of The Movies That Made Us

Netflix’s The Movies That Made Us recently released a new batch of episodes covering the productions of RoboCop, Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Aliens, and Coming to America, which gave ComingSoon the perfect opportunity to speak with showrunner/producer Brian Volk-Weiss.

The Movies That Made Us looks inside the movies that have shaped generations and what it took to make them happen, telling the story of how these movies were made, the involvement of studio producers, writers, directors, and BTS tidbits shared by cast and crew. The show was created and produced by Brian Volk-Weiss and The Nacelle Company, the studio also behind Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us, Behind The Attraction for Disney+, and the Emmy Award-winning Down To Earth with Zac Efron.

Jeff Ames: How did The Movies That Made Us Come About?

Brian Volk-Weiss: You know, it’s a funny story. When The Toys That Made Us came about and Netflix was happy with it they asked me to come in and pitch a few different ideas. So, we spent I swear to God over one hundred hours making a sales tape for making what would have been The Video Games That Made Us. The day before the meeting — and I don’t know why I even thought of this — I thought it’s probably better to have two ideas instead of one. So, in an hour we took the traditional image of Bruce Willis in the wife beater in front of Nakatomi Tower from the Die Hard poster and photoshopped Frank Sinatra’s face on top of Bruce Willis because Die Hard — and a lot of people don’t know this — is a sequel to a Frank Sinatra movie that had come out in the early 70s.

So, I went to Netflix with this tape we had spent over a hundred hours on and a beautiful deck that we also spent over a hundred hours on that would have been The Video Games That Made Us and a poster in a tube. The rest is history — they went for the poster.

What I’ll never know is, if I had never brought the poster would we be working on the video games show or would we not have worked on either show … regardless, I’m very blessed, lucky, and happy that The Movies That Made Us was greenlit to put it mildly.

Where do you start with the production on each episode?

Well, it starts with a list of movies. We present that to Netflix, and they do their own research. We typically turn in five movies per episode, so if they order ten, we’ll give them fifty. They’ll reduce that list and then we really start digging in. There are a lot of movies that were really successful that were, for lack of a better word, really simple and easy to make. Sure, that’s good for the studio, but doesn’t work well in terms of making a documentary about that movie. So, that’s why we won’t do certain movies that might seem obvious — there’s no story.

So, once we’ve locked a list to twice what we need — so, again, if we have ten slots, we’ll break it down to twenty movies and really dig in to find the best stories. Once we are set, we go to Netflix for final approval, and then we start the research phase and do massive amounts of research. We start talking to people and put together a list of people we want to talk to — directors, producers, writers, actors, grips, special effects people, wardrobe, casting, you name it we call it. We see who’s willing to do it and then — and this usually applies to everyone except talent — we will do two pre-interviews before the main interview. We try to do as much pre-interviewing as possible because let’s say we’re interviewing for an episode people A through Z. If we interview ahead of time, we will know what Person A thinks of Person B and what Person L thinks of Person C. So, by the time we do the actual interviews, we can ask the questions so that we get it all at the right time when we’re actually conducting our interview.

Every now and then, and I believe this has happened at least once that I can think of, a movie we thought had a good story does not. And then we go to Netflix and be like, “Hey, we messed up, we should do X instead of Y,” and they’ve always been good about that as well.

Do you have a specific example of a movie that didn’t quite work out?

You know, I know what it is, I’m not going to lie, but answering these questions I’ve learned is what gets me in trouble. I will politely take the fifth on that one. [Laughs]

Fair enough. What I love about the show is that it focuses on a lot of the creative individuals working in the trenches. For example, the Jurassic Park episode focuses on Steve “Spaz” Williams, who created the CGI dinosaurs in the movie — there aren’t too many people who know this guy, despite his revolutionary work. Do you take a certain pride in shining the light on some of these behind-the-scenes workers who aren’t as well-known as they probably should be?

I mean, yes. Absolutely. If I’m to give you a more nuanced answer, I’ve long noticed that, going back to DVD extras, it’s usually just the actors, directors, and producers front and center. If you look at the Die Hard DVD extras, 70-percent of them are Bruce Willis. And God I love Bruce Willis, but one of the issues with being an actor, especially on Die Hard where Bruce Willis was literally just cast — they don’t know what’s going on. They’re not involved with writing the script, they’re not involved with pre-production, they’re not involved with post, they’re not involved with marketing. Very often, yes, it makes sense to interview the most famous person in an organization, but they usually, especially in the beginning of their careers, they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know the scoop.

When we were interviewing Sigourney Weaver for Aliens, I was asking questions based on things I had heard from the crew and even Sigourney was like, “I never knew that,” quite a few times. God bless her for being so honest, but it’s a big part of it. If someone is a fan of Die Hard, they probably know what Bruce Willis thinks about it but they probably don’t know what the stunt coordinator thinks about it.

Are you ever surprised by some of the behind-the-scenes stories you hear about?

I’m never really surprised because making movies and TV shows — it’s a very bizarre industry. If you think about it, even a mid-level movie these days costs $15 to $75 million. Dude, that’s a small skyscraper. If an airline is spending $75 million on an airplane, they’re expecting twenty years of use, and then they can probably sell it afterward for $3-5 million. If you’re a building developer, same thing, you spend $75 million on a building you expect that to be generating money for a hundred years or more.

On a movie, Disney can spend a quarter billion dollars in 16 months and pray to God that it’s Iron Man and not John Carter of Mars. It’s a very strange business and because of that dynamic — and the other thing is, to stay with my same analogy, if you’re an airline buying a plane from Boeing for $75 million, odds are that plane has been flying for ten to thirty years. So, you’re buying a product you know will work. An industry that spends tons and tons of money having no idea if people will like the outcome … the only possible comp is space exploration, but that’s a physics issue and not a popular opinion issue. Netflix will be the first people to tell you they’re shocked by the reaction to Squid Game. So, you have to really think about what that means. Here’s a company that spent a lot of money making a show and even they’re surprised by its success. That tells you everything about how crazy this business is.

So, no I’m never surprised by how crazy these shows are, but the surprise is how crazy it gets.

With Forrest Gump, I was shocked that [Tom] Hanks and [Robert] Zemeckis — at that point in their careers — were being messed with so much to the point where they had to use their own salaries to get what they wanted. I was absolutely shocked by that. I’ve been in the business for twenty-three years and it still surprises me that a studio head — a very talented studio head and somebody who made so much money for Paramount — it shocks me that the week before they’re supposed to start shooting Forrest Gump, she cuts the budget.

So, it’s never a matter of being surprised. The level of surprise comes from the level of craziness you uncover.

This season you guys cover Halloween, Coming to America, RoboCop, Aliens, and Friday the 13th, what are you most excited for fans of those films to learn from your show?

Well, RoboCop and Aliens in particulary are two of my favorite movies of all time. What we really tried to do was get what we refer to as scoop. We try to have some surprises and some scoop every three or four minutes in every episode and we got a lot of scoop on Aliens and RoboCop.

For Coming to America, which was something I wanted to do my entire career but never found the right opportunity — I finally was able to do Coming to America because we found out very early on that John Landis and Eddie Murphy got into a fistfight while making the movie. Eddie Murphy choked out John Landis in front of the entire crew, unconscious practically. But the most amazing thing was that we interviewed eight people who were there and saw it. I kid you not, we got eight different stories as to what led up to the fight and about five different stories about what happened after the fight.

I always wanted to do this Rashomon podcast where you could see the same story from different people’s point of view — I wanted to do that forever — and we finally got to do that with Coming to America. Even though it’s eight different versions of the same thing, it’s nevertheless shocking to hear that one of the most famous human beings to ever live choked out his director in front of the whole crew.

By the way, of the eight stories, I think two of them are similar and six of them are completely different from one another. Somebody thought Landis made a joke about Eddie Murphy’s mom, somebody else thought Landis was being disrespectful to the writers and that pissed of Eddie Murphy — every story was completely different than the other.

I assume you get a lot of requests from fans. What is the most requested film?

Well, the number one film everyone asks us to do is Star Wars. That’s easy. With The Toys That Made Us, it’s always Ghostbusters. That cracks me up, they’re the most rabid fanbase out there. Somehow, they’ve exceeded the He-Man fans, which is not easy to do by the way.

But to your point, it’s definitely Star Wars. We get requests every day and yes, we listen to the fans. About twenty years ago, Sam Raimi was in the midst of making his first Spider-Man movie and I’ll never forget this thing he said, I thought it was really brilliant and I try to live by it. He was doing an interview and at one point he said, “I just want to make it clear. I’m making Spider-Man. I’m not making Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.” And I really respected that, and I always try to keep that in mind. I’m very passionate about what I do, but I’m making it for other people. I’m not one of these directors that makes things for myself. I’m not gonna work on stuff I’m not excited or passionate about, I’ll never do that again. Before The Toys That Made Us, by necessity, I had to do that a lot. But I’ll never work on anything again I’m not excited about.

That being said, I’m making stuff for the public. I’m not a toothbrush manufacturer. I’m not a soap cleaning company. The goal is to make entertainment that entertains people. So, to answer your question, yes, we listen to the public. We take what the fans say extremely seriously.

What film would you love to cover?

First place is easy, 1989 Batman. Tied for second place would be The Terminator and the original Blade Runner.

Can I also suggest Rocky?

I heard the production on that was a bit … rocky. Ayo! [Laughs] But yes, so funny, every time Netflix tells us they’re going to order more episodes, Rocky is always on the list, and then for a variety of reasons it never gets past the finish line. I would very much like to do Rocky, that’s an amazing movie, first of all. Second of all, pretty bonkers story. I know enough about it, it’s a pretty wild ride.

At any rate, I’m still just happy people are interested in what we’re doing.


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