Brian Volk-Weiss, creator of The Toys That Made Us and Behind the Attraction, on making his own brand of Star Wars documentary and loving the galaxy far, far away.
Most Star Wars fans have dreamed of flying an X-wing. When Brian Volk-Weiss was five years old, however, he was a little more serious about it.
“I was young enough when I saw Star Wars that I really didn’t understand what a movie is,” he tells StarWars.com. “And I didn’t know the word ‘documentary,’ but if you looked at how I was acting after I saw the movie, you would think I thought it was a documentary. Whenever somebody would say to me, ‘Hey, Brian, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I would say, ‘Well, you know, I’d like to be an X-wing pilot in the Rebellion, and I love T-65s…’” Yet while this response was cute, his family began to feel a disturbance in the Force.
“My mom’s a scientist, and it was starting to really freak her out,” the Queens, New York, native continues. “She bought me this book [called Star Wars: The Making of the Movies] for five-year-olds that shows ‘The Death Star’s not the size of a moon, it’s the size of a beach ball! C-3PO’s not a robot!’ There was a picture of him with his mask off and you could see Anthony Daniels.” Thankfully, the nature of movies and moviemaking became clear, putting Volk-Weiss on another career trajectory.
“I’m very blessed that from the moment I got that book -- and understood what it meant, that it was not a documentary, that I could not join the Rebellion -- all I’ve ever wanted to do was be in this business.”
Volk-Weiss would get there, going on to create, produce, and direct the popular docuseries The Toys That Made Us, The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek, A Toy Store Near You, The Movies That Made Us, and Disney+’s Behind the Attraction. And he told real-world Star Wars stories along the way.
The pop culture that made us
Volk-Weiss’ journey to pop-culture documentarian was one that could not be mapped out. He studied communications at the University of Iowa, where he made some student films. Later, he’d land a gig as a production assistant on Castaway, which proved to be valuable in teaching him what he didn’t want to do. (“I remember watching Robert Zemeckis directing the Thanksgiving scene. He was talking about the foods, and the wardrobe, and the hair, and the motivation, and I remember watching it being like, ‘Yeah, that’s not me. I’m more into the business side of showbusiness.”) This led to Volk-Weiss becoming a manager of comedians and forming The Nacelle Company, building a library of standup specials. But he always held onto his love of pop culture and, armed with an equally fervent love of documentary filmmaking, had an idea for a show. After seven years of pitching, The Toys That Made Us was finally picked up by Netflix, telling the behind-the-scenes tales of the world’s biggest toy lines.
And the series kicked off -- season one, episode one -- with Star Wars in December 2017. The Star Wars episode opens with a recreation of the moment that Kenner designer Jim Swearingen visits Industrial Light & Magic to see this new space movie they’re making, and that he’d be making toys of. They’re shooting the sequence from A New Hope in which the Death Star pulls in the Millennium Falcon. Swearingen stands in awe as he sees the Millennium Falcon model, in front of a blue screen, for the first time -- a total audience surrogate -- before the show cuts to the real Swearingen, today, recounting his feelings. For a generation that loved Star Wars and Star Wars toys, it’s beautiful.
“It was magical. First of all, we shot in the real building where ILM was for A New Hope,” Volk-Weiss says, though he admits it wasn’t the exact location. “My joke about Toys That Made Us, the entire thing was an excuse to replicate ILM. Like, that’s all I wanted to do. The rest was a bonus.”
The episode would set the tone for everything Volk-Weiss would do after, mixing laughs and playfulness with real emotion, a complete love letter to everything he, well, loves. (A formula he calls “Robocop.” It references a scene in the film of the same name, in which the cyborg-officer’s point of view switches back and forth between his previous and current life, light moments and heavy moments.) It’s filled with great stuff: protypes, rare figures, old commercials, and interviews with collectors and the talents behind the toys. It ends on a particularly poignant beat, with Swearingen revisiting his old office in Cincinnati, followed by Kenner’s Dave Okada talking about the power of toys. “If a kid had a bad day at school,” he says, “Luke will be waiting for him.”
“It was just raw joy,” Volk-Weiss says of making the episode. “Meeting these people that inspired my entire life and career.” But it wouldn’t be his last trip to the galaxy far, far away.
With Behind the Attraction, which premiered July 2021 on Disney+, Volk-Weiss returned to Star Wars, this time chronicling the making of Star Tours and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in one episode. For Star Tours, an attraction that finds passengers boarding a Starspeeder and taken on a misadventure through the galaxy (and iconic Star Wars moments), the installment goes from the idea to approach George Lucas for a partnership, to ILM legend Dennis Muren revealing his tricks for the on-screen effects, to the various updates it’s had through the years. But there’s one amazing note in the story of Star Tours that stands out.
“What we do with all of our shows is, we start a two- to three-month research phase. And the thing that we’re doing in that research phase is what I call, ‘Looking for the spinal column.’ I like to find a simple story or a simple moment or a specific person that literally acts as the spinal column of that entire episode,” explains Volk-Weiss. “The spinal-column story was the Imagineers basically being told by George Lucas, ‘Yeah, we’re not doing a roller coaster.’ Six months, they were trying to figure out what it could be. [Then out of nowhere was] George, walking through the hallway, ‘There it is. What’s that?’”
As discussed in the episode, Lucas, while visiting Walt Disney Imagineering for a meeting on the yet-to-be determined Star Wars attraction, spotted storyboards on a wall. They caught his eye, depicting first-person shots of white-water rafting and flying in airplanes. Turns out they were from a research and development visit to London-based Rediffusion, who had developed a hydraulics-operated simulator. Lucas thought this could work for Star Wars. “And then these Imagineers shipping out the next day to England, to all get motion sickness, and then fly back home and figure out how to do this crazy thing.”
They would figure it out, of course, with this new tech forming the heart of the experience. Volk-Weiss loved this so much, he included an Easter egg within the unearthed footage of simulator tests. “It was literally them landing a 747 [on the monitor of the simulator],” he says. “We edited out the 747 footage landing at Heathrow [Airport], and put in the footage of the attack on Death Star II. So you literally see, through the window, these two British pilots trying to take out the Super Star Destroyer. My favorite moment. If you blink, you miss it.”
In telling the story of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars-themed land at Disney Parks, Behind the Attraction features testimony from the Imagineers who dreamed it up, as well as Lucasfilm legend Doug Chiang, who led design, recounting how the land evolved from idea to reality. The segment addresses why the team decided upon creating a new planet, Batuu, for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge; reveals the clever way that multiple groups of fans can fly that famous hunk of junk at once on Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run; and goes inside Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, including how its droid “narrator” hearkens back to Artoo and Threepio. But it leaves just enough magic intact, which was important for Volk-Weiss, who warmly remembers his first visit Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge during preproduction.
“Everything I want to say to you is so cliched. And I’ll say it to you because it’s true, even though it’s so cliched. I felt like I was in the movie,” he says. “I mean, I really did. Disney and the Imagineers use the term ‘immersion’ all the time. I don’t think that word has ever been fully accurate until Galaxy’s Edge. It was magical. It made me happy to be alive.”
The circle is complete
Volk-Weiss remains as passionate about Star Wars as ever. Maybe more than ever. He counts his favorite characters as Luke Skywalker, specifically from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and Ahsoka Tano, a combo that he sees as evidence of the saga’s long-last power and evolution.
“One character has been with me for, basically, 98 percent of my life. The other character has only been there for a little over 10 years,” he says. “That’s what George Lucas did so brilliantly. Just like the Constitution is a living document, I feel like Star Wars is a living canon.”
His ongoing love of Star Wars is also reflected in his greatest hobby. During our Zoom interview, Volk-Weiss sits in his office -- a very real background of shelves and shelves of toys behind him.
His toy collection contains over 3,000 items, a blend of old and new, with Star Wars taking prominence. There are shelves devoted solely to Jedi Luke and Ahsoka. He’s gotten into the rarities game, scoring original prototypes of several Hasbro Star Wars figures. And he still has his original Kenner R2-D2, which he made sure to include in The Toys That Made Us -- a tribute to his old plastic friend.
“As with any kid, my parents got me stuff, and that’s what I played with. Star Wars was different,” Volk-Weiss says. “I remember, like it was an hour ago, opening the wrapping paper and seeing the Millennium Falcon. Other than the birth of my kids, and my wedding, and maybe a couple of other little things, one of which is going to the Lucasfilm Archive, there’s no greater moment in my life than when I got the Millennium Falcon.” That might sound like hyperbole; but as his voice cracks with emotion, it’s clear that Volk-Weiss speaks from the heart. And it’s easy to understand how the five-year-old who wanted to fly an X-wing grew up to be the filmmaker he is today.