NYCC 2022: Brian Volk-Weiss Talks ‘Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons’
by Brendan M. Allen
I had a chance to sit down with Brian Volk-Weiss at the Nacelle booth at New York Comic Con 2022 to discuss the new series Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons and Nacelle’s new action figure lines, including Sectaurs, Robo Force, Legends of Laughter. Mostly, we chatted about the series and Sectaurs. This ended up being enough material for two parts, so in this first part, Brian and I talk about the show, and I’ll drop the second part (where I nerd out to Sectaurs A LOT) in a separate piece.
Brendan M. Allen: Hi Brian, the second season of Icons Unearthed is about to drop, and this season, you’re really digging into my childhood with The Simpsons.
Brian Volk- Weiss: It already came out! Wednesday, on VICE TV. Episode two is next week.
Allen: Oh, cool. So you’re doing this whole throwback thing. You have the throwback toys, and with Icons Unearthed, you’re kind of exploring nostalgia through toys and television. I understand that The Simpsons came out on The Tracey Ullman Show in the late eighties, but it’s still an ongoing series. How does it fit the bill for Icons Unearthed, being simultaneously nostalgic and current?
Volk-Weiss: It’s funny you say that, because that’s kind of all we do. And it’s very subtle, so if you’re confused, don’t feel bad. One of our rules for subjects that we look into is that they have to be in perpetual and current production. So, Transformers… My son, who’s seven, plays with Bumblebee, just like I did. My daughter plays with Power Rangers, just like I did.
It’s the same thing with The Simpsons. It’s the same thing with Star Wars. Star Wars is still going, and it’s bigger than ever. When I was a kid, there were three movies. Now there are nine movies, TV shows, whatever.
To me, The Simpsons wasn’t any different in that regard. It’s nostalgia that’s still getting made. The difference, for us, that we’ve never done before is that we’ve never done animation. You might be saying to yourself, you’re kind of nitpicking. But it’s not nitpicking, because there are no actors. Voice actors, of course, but no physical actors. There’s no crew. There are animators and writers, but you can’t interview the cinematographer, or a second AD. All the people we normally go to, to get the real story, we can’t go to, because it’s a cartoon.
Allen: That’s a great point. There’s a whole different level of cohesion between the cast and crew, because they’re rarely in the same place at the same time. So where you have interactions and chemistry on and off camera in live action, Yeardley Smith may go in to record her lines on a Monday, and Hank Azaria could be in the studio on Wednesday, and they never even run into each other.
Volk-Weiss: Exactly right. Now, on top of that, not only do they not see each other, there’s usually a six to nine month gap between when the writers finish and when the first rough cut comes in from Korea. So, how do I cover that?
What we did was we really looked into the business story. We don’t get into things like, why does Bart look like this, who are the top five favorite Simpsons characters… We don’t do that. My joke is that the series could have been called Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons… The Rise Of FOX, because we really cover the impact The Simpsons had on FOX, and what FOX would become, for better or worse.
Allen: I hadn’t really thought of that angle. I know that when I was coming up and the Simpsons first came on, my grandparents (who raised me) HATED it. I was just upstairs listening to Darryl McDaniels at his panel on creative synergy, and he was saying it’s important to listen to your critics, because while they’re saying a bunch of mean things about your creation, they’re paying attention. The attention, good and bad, really made The Simpsons, and, in turn, FOX.
Volk-Weiss: It’s funny you say that. Whenever people ask me, ‘Hey, I’m a writer, I’m a director, I’m a this, I’m a that… What are your tips?’ I always say, maybe not the first thing, but usually the second or third thing I say is ‘Has anybody read your script?’ And they usually say, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ And then I ask, ‘Are any of them your enemies?’ They always look and me and laugh, or they ask, ‘Wha…?’
And I tell them, ‘Forget about your friends. Pick the person who you think dislikes you the most who you can still talk to. Hand THEM your script. Give them your rough cut. Get THEIR opinion.’
I always say this, and I’ll tell you where I got it from. I got it from Sam Raimi. He was doing an interview about 22 years ago when he was doing his first Spider-Man movie and I’ll never forget when he said, ‘I am making Spider-Man. I am not making Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.’
I really respected that, and that’s what I try to do when I direct. I’m trying to make a show that the public wants to see.
I’m a big Trekkie. I’m not going to say I’m a ten out of ten, but I’m maybe a seven point five out of ten. If I made the show for myself, one that I would watch, we would have never worked again. Icons Unearthed works, because Center Seat worked. And all these networks worldwide trust us because of Center Seat.
That show was made so that for my wife, who is NOT a trekkie, it wouldn’t be painful for her to watch the series. I’m at that point where I read all the comments that I can find. Some of them hurt. I mean they REALLY hurt, but if you see one person being an asshole it’s like “Fuck you.”
Allen: And you can definitely tell the difference between someone who’s just being an asshole, or had a bad day just taking it out on you in the comments and someone who has a legitimate gripe.
Volk-Weiss: That’s true. Right. And I do pay attention to that, but what I also pay attention to is volume. If we have 1000 comments about a show, and 20 or 30 are saying the same thing, you’ve got to pay attention to that. You’ve got to look at it and say, ‘All right, did we mess up?’
We had a narrator for two episodes of Movies That Made Us that could not have been less popular. And part of me is like ‘Fuck you, I’m gonna hire who I want,’ but then luckily my Sam Raimi quote comes back to me and I’m like, you know what? I’m trying to entertain people. I’m trying to take people who may have had a bad day, maybe their mom is sick, or their son is sick… I’m trying to distract them from that or maybe nobody’s sick and they just fucking love the topic we’re covering.
I’m making it for them. I’m trying to add value to their time. That’s the other thing. It’s always something I’m very cognizant of. I know that if somebody hits play on something we made, they’re giving us an hour or two that they’re not giving to something else. I don’t just mean another TV show. It could be a video game. Could be fixing the car. It could be running an errand. It could be doing anything else.
I want to reward those people for their time, and if I made shit for them that I’m really making for me, they’re not going to feel rewarded.
Allen: If you were a painter, and you personally love every painting that you’ve created, but they’re sitting stacked in your garage…
Volk-Weiss: Exactly. And I WANT people to see our stuff. Maybe that makes me a whore. I don’t know. I’m not making stuff for myself. Other directors, if they do that, and I know a lot of them do, I respect them for being them, but it’s not for me.
Allen: Doesn’t there have to at least be a little bit, maybe even just a kernel, of interest for yourself, though? To make something that’s going to be interesting for someone else to watch?
Volk-Weiss: We won’t do anything we’re not excited about. We just turned down a seven figure opportunity because the studio wanted us to make something that I hated. I mean, I literally HATED it. I can’t stand it. I knew that either I would make a show that people would hate, and it would destroy my relationship with the studio, or to keep them happy, I would have to make a show that I would not like.
Allen: And the audience can tell when you’re phoning it in.
Volk-Weiss: With me, in particular, they would, because I can’t do it.
Allen: Jumping back a little bit in the conversation, one of the things about the Simpsons that continues grabbing public attention is the whole predictions thing. There are so many memes out there showing a screen grab from the show that have these amazingly accurate predictions of future world events. It’s such a funny phenomenon, because if you have seven thousand episodes of something, that’s a HUGE sample size. Throw enough shit at the wall, and some of it will stick, right?
Volk-Weiss: Yes, but there are many examples of predictions that are made with incredible precision. They really deserve MORE credit for those predictions. What’s the name of the action hero guy? The Schwarzenegger guy?
Allen: Rainier Wolfcastle. McBain.
Volk-Weiss: Yes. He literally runs for president. Everybody’s laughing at him the whole time. Nobody thinks he can win. He doesn’t think he can win. And he wins. That sound like anybody you know in 2016? But no one talks about that. The fact that that is not talked about, and it still has a reputation for predicting the future? It’s pretty impressive.
Allen: Right on. Thank you so much for hanging out with me today.
Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons is available exclusively on VICE TV, and the second episode drops next Wednesday.