One of Netflix’s biggest surprises of the past few years is the The Toys That Made Us. The documentary series has covered everything from G.I. Joe to Barbie, with dalliances with My Little Pony, Star Trek, Lego and more.
Now creator Brian Volk-Weiss is back today with the release of his third, four-episode season. We sat down for an interview earlier this week, and got a preview of the new batch, which covers favorite lines such as the Power Rangers, professional wrestling, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Volk-Weiss says it might just be some of his best work yet, but it wasn’t without its stumbles. In fact, one of the biggest issues was even getting permission to use much of the archival footage they found.
Out interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Polygon: Tell me about the licensing hell that went into the wrestling episode.
Brian Volk-Weis: I wouldn’t call it licensing hell. I’d call it “licensing following the rules of the road.” But it’s not the licensing, necessarily.
We have a great relationship with Hasbro, Mattel, Lego, whatever. So, almost anything of theirs that we would use we were OK to use because we had a relationship with them and they loved the show. The thing where it gets interesting and complicated is if we want to use a commercial, say a G.I. Joe commercial from 1982. Let’s say we’re using it for 10 seconds. There’s a whole part of that clip that deals with music. That’s one law firm. Then they’re getting the rights to those children. Because they were children, that’s a whole different law firm. And then there’s the thought, “Do we have to track them down and get their blessing? Yes or no?” “Does somebody own that commercial? Yes or no?” So, that’s where it gets very interesting.
We have an entire infrastructure now at the company that we had to build for Toys The Made Us, and now we use it for a lot of our shows — including, of course, Toys That Made Us and [the upcoming] Movies That Made Us and everything.
What are your favorite parts of this coming season? What are you really looking forward to folks seeing?
I’m very, very, very, very proud of the [Teenage Mutant Ninja] Turtles episode. Without getting into too much detail, we were interviewing [co-creator] Peter Laird. It was about a four-to-five hour interview. I like doing long interviews when it’s logical, because what you get out of somebody in hour four is very different than what you usually get out of them in hour one. In hour one they kind of give you what I like to call the Teddy Ruxpin quotes [...] When you talk to somebody who has been very successful, but has also been talking about the same thing for 30, 40, 50 years, that first hour you got the Teddy Ruxpin stuff. In the fourth hour, you tend to really start to get the new stuff.
Peter Laird told us something — a tiny, tiny, tiny detail — about his deal when he sold Turtles to Viacom, and that tiny little detail he gave us became the spinal column of the entire episode. Based on some preliminary hearing from people what they think, I’ve been hearing some people think it’s our best episode.
One of the coolest things about the Power Rangers episode in particular was getting to meet and get to know Margaret Loesch who, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I had no idea who she was until season three got greenlit. I would argue she’s one of the most important people in all of pop culture.
She’s directly responsible for Power Rangers, Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men: The Animated Series, Muppet Babies... She had a big part in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode. We’re actually doing a documentary right now only about her. Getting to know her only happened because of Power Rangers.
The other thing about Power Rangers was, you know, Haim Saban — the guy doesn’t do a lot of interviews to begin with. He almost never talks about Power Rangers. His people told us, “You only have an hour. You only have an hour,” And we were in there just shy of three hours. It was just beautiful. I mean, it was just beautiful getting to meet all these people.
From my perspective, looking at the whole of the arc of The Toys That Made Us, the wrestling episode seems to be kind of the least cohesive. You know what to expect from the Lego story and the G.I. Joe story and the Transformers story going in. You’re almost rooting to find these different threads that you’re expecting to crop up and see how they interconnect. But, how did you manage to find your way with the wrestling storyline and how does it differ from the rest of the episodes?
It was very similar to the Star Trek episode in terms of structure in that, you’re absolutely right: Transformers has always been owned by Hasbro. Star Wars has always been owned or controlled by Lucasfilm. So wrestling, just like Star Trek, did not have a continuity of brand. Because of that, in some ways it was a very challenging episode, and in some ways it was very easy episode to make.
It was challenging because we didn’t have, for lack of a better expression, the one stop shopping that we did with Transformers where it’s like all we had to do was talk to Hasbro and Takara and Marvel and that was kind of it. With wrestling, we had to talk to everybody. Not only did we have to talk to everybody — again, similar to the Star Trek episode — but more so, a lot of the companies are out of business.
When we went to Takara headquarters in Tokyo, we had to keep bugging them to go into the basement and find stuff that we needed. But, essentially, they did that and they found what we needed. It’s very hard to do that when some of these brands that were doing the wrestling figures 30, 40 years ago because their quarters are gone. There is no more basement. So, we have to track people down, see what they had in their garages, and then usually while they were going to their garages they would find something that would remind them of somebody else, and then we’d have to go to their house and go through their shit to find what we were looking for.
A lot of the principals are dead. The majority of the employees, most of them we couldn’t even hunt down. Which was a first for us, by the way.
They’re not on LinkedIn, right?
Exactly. They were all characters, though. That was the really interesting part of that episode. The people at these companies that, by the nature of their personalities,. were attracted to wrestling? They were characters. With Star Trek, that tends to attract a calmer, more logical person, because most Star Trek fans love Spock. But with wrestling, if you’re convincing your boss to do wrestling toys, that means you love wrestling. If you’re the boss and you’re the one green-lighting an entire line of wrestling toys, that means you love wrestling. And wrestling, wrestling’s crazy! You know, it’s grown men and women — back then only men, really — jumping and smashing each other with chairs and whatever. So the personality that’s attracted to that kind of entertainment, usually it’s an awesome personality to interview for a show.
Season 3 of The Toys That Made Us is out now on Netflix