Q&A: Brian Volk-Weiss on the magic of ‘Behind the Attraction’
When it comes to telling the stories of Disney’s iconic theme park attractions, there aren’t many stories that die-hard fans haven’t heard before. So the task fell on executive producer Brian Volk-Weiss and the rest of the team of “Behind the Attraction” on Disney+ to not only make the familiar tales interesting, but exciting for everyone to watch.
Check out our interview with Volk-Weiss below, as conducted by our reporter Carly Caramanna:
By Carly Caramanna
Before we get into your new Disney+ series “Behind the Attraction,” we have to go back to where the style originated: “The Toys that Made Us.” Would you say that your extensive comedy background is what inspired this unique entertainment-meets-education formula?
Yes, it absolutely did. Though, I fully admit it is kind of interesting because it was done on purpose but also by accident. When “The Toys That Made Us” was greenlit by Netflix, it was in the single digits of their first unscripted original shows. When it got greenlit, I just hired the people that I always worked with, because at that point in my career, we had done 100% pure comedy, [so] obviously the people I was comfortable with had comedy backgrounds.
The accidental part was when I got the first cut and gave my notes. I found out much later our editors were like:,“We loved your notes […] because every other place where we’ve worked, we’ve pushed the comedy as far as we can then we send it to the director and we always get it pushed back and whittled down.” They are usually scared it’s too edgy or too funny. I didn’t do that. I loved it. If anything, I said there should be more comedy. The way we describe it […] I’m stealing this quote from Craig Ferguson […] he taught me this brilliant saying, and I feel like this describes the way I direct: “We like to wrap our spinach in ice cream.” That’s pretty much how I view our style. There’s a lot of information, and sometimes it’s pretty serious, but we do it in a fun way.
That series eventually spun into “The Movies That Made Us.“ With a wealth of material to choose from, what was that process like with Netflix selecting which films you’d include?
Netflix will tell us how many episodes they are ordering. I’ll get a list of about 120 films and we will then boil it down to about 48 films. Netflix will then check their data and give us their opinions. We’ll cut it then down to 24 possible options for episodes. Then we start really digging into the stories […] where we actually start the research process. Of the 24 options, we’ll pick the 12 best stories. Believe it or not, some movies get greenlit, they shoot, they come out, they’re a hit, but there’s no twists, turns or drama. It’s good for those people but we have to avoid movies like that for our show. There is one exception to this, and that is “RoboCop.” Netflix very, very, very nicely allowed me to do “RoboCop.”
Before [“Behind the Attraction”] was greenlit, I would say that I thought I had a PhD in Disney. About a month after the show was greenlit, I would revise my opinion to say that I had an 8th grade education in Disney. I love Disney and I’ve gone [to the parks] at least once a year probably since I was 5 years old. Disneyland is my home park, both logistically and emotionally, because of my Grandfather. Here’s another way to tell you: As you can imagine, I have a gigantic toy collection. When “Behind the Attraction” was greenlit, I had half of one shelf for Disney stuff. I now have two full shelves.
The first time I ever went to Kansas City was 2007 and I was there for a shoot. The first thing I did when I woke up was I got a taxi and I gave the driver the address of the original Disney Studios. He dropped me off, and you know, it’s falling apart, it’s completely dilapidated. There was a brick that had fallen off the building and it had looked like it had exploded. So, I took a piece of that brick, I took a picture of the building, and I have a frame in my office of the picture of the building with the rock. When the show was greenlit, it was a really interesting process because Disney+ had to greenlight it, but then all of the other departments had to sign off on it — Imagineering, Yellow Shoes. I brought that picture with me to every meeting as a way of starting the conversation off by saying, “Listen, I ain’t a Disney fan [from] six minutes ago — look at this.” That played a big part in getting the show greenlit.
As a creative mind, were there any challenges in working with the Imagineers who are also creative minds but may approach things differently?
They 1000% approach things differently. That’s because they are qualified and trained — in many ways I am not, I am self-taught. There was nothing challenging about it, the word I would use is “rewarding.” After the show was greenlit, it became very apparent that my crew and I needed crash-course training from not just the Imagineers, but from a lot of different departments. We had about a three-hour meeting with Imagineer Dave Durham, and during that meeting, for the first time in my life, I said to myself, “This could have been a career path I would have enjoyed as much as the career I have.” It’s the only time that’s ever happened.
They were so nice, so generous, and so, so, so smart. When I say generous, I mean generous with their time and generous with their knowledge. Imagineer Tracey Eck, who we interviewed in Disneyland Paris […] we were scheduled to have an hour interview with her. The interview was so good that the first one lasted three and a half hours long. She then allowed us to interview her two more times over the following two days. Here’s someone who is really, really busy, and important, giving us eight hours of her time.
Was there anything that Disney asked you to avoid?
You know, there’s the usual stuff, like don’t talk about Walt Disney being in a cyrotank, but we wouldn’t have done it anyway — because it’s not true. Other than stuff like that, no. I’ll be honest with you, they didn’t give us any rules. I thought we would get a lot more notes just by the nature of the show. It was very minimal. Any time we pushed back, they always listened and they were always respectful. About 95% of the time, we were able to find a way to get what we wanted. The 5% where we didn’t, it made tons of sense why we couldn’t.
How did you strike that balance between appeasing the hardcore Disney fans while still entertaining the casual fan?
You know, it’s always a balance. We are tweaking that balance even after we lock cuts. It’s very, very hard and very, very time consuming to do the editing style that we do. Because it’s time consuming, it’s also extremely expensive. You just pray to god you get it right. A lot of how we find the tone changes episode to episode.
When the series was greenlit, was there one particular attraction or Disney destination that you thought we must include in this series?
Mission To Mars, it’s a running joke between the Disney people and myself. The two things that were running jokes in the whole production, which was close to two years, was Mission to Mars and “The Black Hole.” I am obsessed with “The Black Hole.” When I got my Disney+ account, it was literally the first thing I watched. I was able to get two tiny “The Black Hole” jokes into the Star Wars episode but alas, there’s only a very brief image of Mission to Mars. I knew we were not doing Mission to Mars.
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror episode didn’t mention an often-sighted story that it was originally pitched to Mel Brooks as a funny attraction. Was that intentionally left out?
It was intentionally left out, and the reason why is [that] we couldn’t verify it. We found tons of snippets, but we found a couple people that if the snippets were accurate, they would have been aware of it. We were able to get a hold of a couple of them and none of them could confirm it. If I had to guess, there’s some truth to it, but as with many Disney theories, it’s barely true, but not 1000% false. We researched that one quite a bit. I can tell you that a lot of the stuff surrounding that theory is made up whole-cloth.
With five more episodes recently dropped on Disney+, is there a moment you absolutely can’t wait for or a particular episode you’re excited to have out in the world?
It’s actually my favorite moment in the whole series, so far. We were at Disneyland Paris and we had a cast member that worked on “it’s a small world” give us an amazing tour. Everything was great and we spent about two and half hours with her. She had a French accent and she was so passionate about the attraction. We did an interview inside the attraction and then I asked her if she would be willing to do a second interview in front of it. She said sure.
So, we set up our cameras and she’s standing up on this tiny little hill right in front of it. I asked her for about 10 minutes a bunch of questions and I don’t know what made me think of this, but I said to her, “Let me ask you something, and feel free to say no; I understand why you would say no. You’re listening to this song all day, can you sing it?”
She did not hesitate. She sang it. I am not exaggerating when I say this to you, I wasn’t balling but I was absolutely crying. I had literal tears racing down my face. I wasn’t embarrassed but I was like “Oh, this looks weird.” I look around at the crew and everybody is tearing up, everybody. I asked her to do it a second time and I filmed her with my phone. I then texted the video to the editor, who I knew was working on the episode, and I said to her “This is the spinal column.” I always say, “We gotta find the spinal column” of this episode. It’s the thing that’s the running story and/or theme and then everything meshes with the spinal column.
Has working on this project had an impact on your own family visits to the parks?
I was at the “Jungle Cruise” premiere, which they held in Anaheim at [Disneyland]. I’ve been to the park probably 10 dozen times minimum. My wife and I were walking through the parking lot, as I have a trillion times, and I saw the top of Space Mountain. For the first time in my life, I got goosebumps and I actually teared up a little bit. That’s definitely a new feeling for me.
You can stream all 10 episodes of season one of “Behind the Attraction” now on Disney+, and check out our review of the series here, as well as the top 10 things we learned from the show.