Here's “South Park” mastermind Trey Parker, on his way to the editing room in late August: “It's brutal. It's [expletive deleted] brutal.”
Here's “South Park” co-mastermind Matt Stone, a few minutes later: “I want my life back so bad.”
The notoriously frank Parker and Stone are famous for eschewing bland movie-PR pronouncements, but why are they so tired?
In a word: puppets.
The duo's new feature, “Team America: World Police” depicts an elite counterterrorism squad facing off against Kim Jong-il and a conspiracy of high-profile Hollywood liberals, including Michael Moore, Alec Baldwin and George Clooney. It has all the trappings of a Jerry Bruckheimer action film – right down to its Aerosmith-style power ballad (albeit an Aerosmith-style power ballad with a decidedly off-color title). What makes this concept unusually difficult to execute, though, is that the movie is performed exclusively by marionettes.
That's right, marionettes – puppets on strings – in a massively complicated homage to Gerry Anderson's camp-classic 1960s TV series “Thunderbirds” (as distinct from this summer's little-seen live-action remake). This means Parker and Stone have to maintain “South Park” levels of satire and comic timing in shots so technically complex that Parker says they “literally get like seven or eight shots a day. We're not getting anything that's not going in the movie, basically.”
They were still shooting in August. The movie had to be edited and in the can by the end of September. Here's what Trey and Matt had to say in August about “Team America,” “South Park” and the glories of the cheesy musical. Warning: Strong talk abounds.
HOW I LEARNED
TO HATE THE PUPPET
IN FOCUS: So I hear you guys are on triple shifts right now.
TREY PARKER: It's three units at the same time — and of course [they're shooting] three completely different parts of the movie. I can see why people don't multi-task. It's a bad idea.
MATT STONE: Yeah. We go from 7 to 8 or so, every day — and a lot of times, we have three, four or five cameras running at any time on the set, trying to get the stuff. I said that to my mom the other day: I've never worked this hard in my life.
At the same time, I'm really, really glad we have this horrible deadline — because it's a finite amount of time. We have to have the movie done by the end of September. If I was working this hard and I didn't know the movie was coming out, it would bum me out.
And you could argue that it removes any self-doubt filters.
MATT: Yeah. I'd say most things are overproduced. At the same time, even though it feels like this mad rush, we let the concept gestate for the better part of two-and-a-half years. But once you get the shit on film, just get it out as soon as you can. That's kind of our motto.
When you pitched “Team America,” were there Paramount executives who looked at you like you were on mescaline?
TREY: Yeah. I mean, they did not see any dollar signs with an R-rated puppet movie. [laughs] You know, they were basically like, “Well, [Scott] Rudin says it's a good idea, so we'll give you the minimum amount of money we have to give to make a movie.” [laughs]
MATT: We actually pitched “Team America” to Rudin first — and I don't know if we would have gotten it made without his clout. And, you know, I mean, Rudin is Rudin — he's a very complex man — but one thing he does have is pretty incredible taste in projects. He just gets things in a way that, a lot of times, other [executives] just don't.
When we were doing the “South Park” movie, Rudin really did get “South Park.” And the thing he got was: We wanted to tell a really big, good story. Everyone else at that time was just, you know, “Get Cartman on the screen, 90 feet tall, have him fart and walk around. It's a gold mine, guys! Just get it out!” And we were so interested in doing more — and he was the only guy who really got it.
TREY: But as soon as they started seeing [“Team America”] dailies…. They're pretty excited now.
MATT: Now everyone at the studio's fucking totally loving it, and the press that's come to the set has fallen head-over-heels. But when we first pitched this movie, it was like, “What the fuck do you wanna do?” And then, even after the first week of film, it was like, “Well, it's cool-looking, but….” But after the second week of filming, when Trey and I started cutting scenes together and figuring out what the movie was, people starting jumping on board. But it was really people going, “Oh, we trust Scott, Matt and Trey — because this is too fuckin' weird.”
What was the non-“South Park” project you guys were contemplating before you stumbled onto the 1960s-TV “Thunderbirds”?
TREY: There was something I'd written for Rudin way early on, when I'd first come to town, before “South Park” — it was this almost fairy-tale kind of story that took place in the Colorado Rockies. We were sort of kicking that around again, and kind of sitting there going, “Man, I don't know if I really want to make another movie.” It was so great working in animation and not dealing with actors, and being able to sort of just do whatever you want in animation — order up the Chinese Army if you want.
But then this idea struck us in the head and we kind of went with it. And now we kind of halfway regret it. But it looks good. [laughs]
Rumor has it, Trey, that you didn't even discover “Thunderbirds” until very recently.
TREY: When I saw it, I was definitely, like, “I remember this.” And Matt was the same way: We both kind of remembered it, but we weren't fans. And we realized a lot of our friends were in the same boat. And then once we started watching them, we realized the reason was: They couldn't even hold our interest when we were kids. They're so expository and slow — just dialogue and dialogue and dialogue, and it took itself really seriously.
And now I understand why, of course: It's easy to have a puppet sit there and talk. [laughs] At first, we were like, “Why didn't he do so much more?” And now we're like, “Oh. That's why.”
Has working on “Team America” given you new respect for Gerry Anderson?
TREY: Absolutely. I mean, actually, it doesn't give me any respect for him — it makes me think he's absolutely insane.
How you could do this and do it again, I do not understand. He did it for years and years and years — and I don't understand how. I mean, you could threaten to kill my family and I would not make another puppet movie. If my mother would die if I would not make another puppet movie, she'd be dead. I'm totally serious.
MATT: Music that sounds effortless? Sometimes it's really not. And I think some people will see this film and think, “Wow! That looks really easy.” When people come visit the set, they see what it takes to do it. And then you look at Gerry Anderson and you think, “Man, he did this for how many episodes?” I mean, the [“Thunderbirds”] episodes are really simplistic, movement-wise, but some of the stuff they did is pretty amazing, technically. It's kind of too bad that he didn't have better stories and scripts and characters, because it's a pretty amazing look. It's definitely what inspired the look of this film.
But honestly, I don't know what the hell's wrong with that guy. I mean, we're in, so we have to finish this fuckin' thing, but I hate it. I do. I hate it.
I remember that you guys were planning, before Sept. 11, to make a movie called, if memory serves, “George W. Bush and the Secret of the Glass Tiger”….
MATT: Hey, that's right. Yeah.
It was going to be an Indiana Jones-style adventure —
MATT: Yeah, I forgot about that. He was going to cruise around. It was going to completely ignore the fact that he was the President or a guy from Texas — anything real about him — and just make him an action hero. That was funny.
TREY: At the time, we were doing “That's My Bush!” And we just loved the cast and really loved the show. And it got put to us by Comedy Central: “Guys, we can't afford to do ‘That's My Bush!' and ‘South Park,' so you've gotta pick one.”
So we were like, “How can we do both?” And we started thinking, “Let's do a ‘That's My Bush!' movie.” [On TV,] “That's My Bush!” was making fun of sitcoms — so we'll do it completely different, where we're doing an action movie, still starring Tim [Bottoms] as George Bush. That's still a pretty sweet idea. But it was ahead of its time, actually.
How many ideas from that have been subsumed into “Team America”?
TREY: I don't know. Probably in the back of our minds, a lot of them.
MATT: I think that “Team America” kind of became its own thing. But that's a really good idea for a movie. We should do that.
Would “That's My Bush!” have proven more successful had it starred marionettes?
MATT: No — that would have failed, because we wouldn't have gotten past two episodes on that.
I have to ask you about the recent Drudge Report item, where an anonymous “White House official” charged that “Team America” was trivializing the war on Terror: Why does the White House respond to a teaser trailer for a movie starring puppets, but not to “Fahrenheit 9/11”?
MATT: Well, first of all, I think “Fahrenheit 9/11” was … well, it was a different kind of movie. I just wonder how real that “news” really was. That's all I'm gonna say.
I mean, “an anonymous White House staffer”? Drudge said “a senior Bush administration official,” and when we got on the radio with him, it was “a junior staffer.” What is it — junior or senior? What are we talking about here? Who knows? It might have been the janitor.
It was free publicity, so it was fun for us.
TREY: Yeah, exactly. It's funny when someone responds with, “Oh, well they think this is funny?” No, we just think that everything's funny. We think that “funny” is a great thing and “funny” is a great way to think about things and deal with things.
People who don't have great senses of humor think that comedy is that you just think something's trite and stupid and you don't care about it. [They think] if you're laughing, it's because what you think you're laughing at is stupid — because that's about as far as their sense of humor goes. People don't realize that it can be something a lot deeper than that.
Oh, sure. One of the most interesting things about “South Park” is that the right and the left sort of claim it as their own.
I don't know if you've heard about this, but there have been essays written about the concept of the “South Park Republican.”
TREY: Yeah, we have seen that. What we're sick of — and it's getting even worse — is: You either like Michael Moore or you wanna fuckin' go overseas and shoot Iraqis. There can't be a middle ground. Basically, if you think Michael Moore's full of shit, then you are a super-Christian right-wing whatever. And we're both just pretty middle-ground guys. We find just as many things to rip on on the left as we do on the right. People on the far left and the far right are the same exact person to us. [laughs]
Are there any good guys in Team America?
TREY: Yeah, they're all good guys. That's sort of the misconception. This isn't about “them” the government and “them” the terrorists. It's about “us,” the people who have to sit here and say, “Fuck— everyone kind of hates us right now. How do I feel about that?”
Really, all the Team America members are people you're supposed to like; they're kind of mess-ups and they get it wrong sometimes, but gosh-darn it, they're tryin'. [laughs]
Just like everything we do — and the “South Park” movie was this way, too — [our scripts] always start off being about 120 pages of politics and basically expository crap. And then you whittle it down and whittle it down, and you start to look at stuff, and then you realize, “Okay, the funniest stuff is watching a puppet falling out of a car — and that's what the movie's really about.” [laughs] You weed it out and let the politics take a back seat. Because I know I'm sick of politics. It's more about fuckin' up puppets.
Who do you think wants you to shut up the most: the right or the left? Putting it another way: Would Janeane Garofalo or Sean Hannity tell you to shut your yap faster?
TREY: Janeane Garofalo wouldn't do that because she'd know it would be hypocritical. The left never really tells you to shut up. The right just likes to think the left is stupid and the left just likes to think the right is evil. [laughs]
Any thoughts on the fact that you may have ended up making a more reverent homage to “Thunderbirds” than Jonathan Frakes did?
MATT: Oh, no — we definitely did.
TREY: I sure hope so. God. I mean, if you aren't using puppets, then you ain't got nothin'. They sure didn't have a story.
MATT: I would have said this before it opened so terribly, but what a terrible miscalculation. What an awful thing to do with that franchise. The only good thing about “Thunderbirds” was the artistry of the puppets and the look — it's really what made it “Thunderbirds.” The concept and the characters and the stories are pretty mediocre — but what's made it last is the time and care that the people who did that show put into the marionettes. I mean, they really formed an entirely new niche of filmmaking — and fuckin' Universal or some idiot somewhere, some exec, decides it has to be a “Spy Kids.” That's just Hollywood in a nutshell.
TREY: I'm pretty confident that we can beat “Thunderbirds”' first weekend out. All we have to do is make 2 million bucks and we've won. For about half the price, too. [laughs]
Now, you'd originally discussed doing an all-puppet version of a major Hollywood script like “The Day After Tomorrow.”
TREY: Yeah. We thought “Day After Tomorrow” would be great with puppets.
Now that the summer has worn on, are there any other movies that deserved the all-puppet treatment?
TREY: I think you could take any Bruckheimer movie and do it with puppets, and it would be screamingly funny.
MATT: The whole movie has that kind of feel. We ask this question about four times a day on the set: “What Would Jerry do?” We're gonna get bracelets made — like the “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets. Because we'd ask, “What would Jerry Bruckheimer do?” when we were trying to figure something out. “Jerry would put this kind of song here,” or “Jerry would do this kind of move here.” “This is the way he would introduce the team base.”
How important is it to get this movie in theatres before the November elections?
TREY: It actually has nothing to do with the election. In fact, it was actually supposed to come out sooner — and then it just took so goddamn long. I don't think anyone will be coming out of this movie going, “Oh! I think I'll be voting for so-and-so!” At all. It really is just about: We have to be back at “South Park” on Oct. 20 — and so the 15th was about as far as we could push the movie. [laughs]
Are you turning this around in such a short window because the deal came together so late?
TREY: Yes — and because everything just took a lot longer than we thought.
MATT: We got about five or six shots today on second unit and we were like, “Whoa! That was a pretty good day!” Our third unit got two that they'd set up last night and three or four shots today…. And there are between 1,500 and 2,000 shots in a normal film, I think.
It's really hard to get into a creative groove, because you do one little piece, and then three hours later, you do another little piece, and then later you do another little piece that's four weeks later — and you just don't get into a normal groove of “Let's do a scene! Let's get crazy!”
The nightly edit sessions would help with that, I'd imagine.
MATT: Even if this movie wasn't coming out until next year, we'd edit at night. After the first week of filming, we edited all weekend — and we completely changed the script. Now, not all the plot elements, not all the characters — but we completely changed the tone of the script after the first week of shooting. Because we knew the film had to be kind of serious in tone to be funny, because it's puppets — but we didn't even know how serious it had to be. And it wasn't one of those things where you could go shoot a bunch of film for 12 weeks and start editing, because we would have ended up with a shitty film. Especially when you're doing something like this, in a new medium.
I don't understand how anyone could do a film and not want to edit while they're doing it — because that's when you know what you're getting. Shooting, or animating, editing, songwriting, voicing — you do it all at once. I don't understand how people go, “First we'll do this, and then we'll do that, and then we'll edit, and then we'll be done!” Because it just doesn't work that way.
A film emerges very organically from the process.
MATT: [kind of sarcastically] That's a good euphemism for “controlled chaos.”
George Clooney, one of the “limousine liberals” being mocked in the movie, loves you guys — he even played a gay dog on an early episode.
TREY: Yeah. We're, like, light friends with George. We've hung out with George. But the thing is, he was on that list, man — he was on that MoveOn.org. So we weren't gonna be hypocritical and be, like, “Well, let's not pick on George. He's our friend.” We're like, “Nope — fuck you, George. You went on the news shows, too, and talked about Iraq like you knew what was going on. We're taking you down, buddy.”
Did you talk to him before you did it?
TREY: Oh, no. I don't know if he even knows right now.
Do you fear that Tim Robbins is gonna sucker-punch you at the Oscars?
TREY: Oh, I'll kick his fuckin' ass. Are you kidding?
and ‘SOUTH PARK'
I interviewed Sam Mendes a year or two ago —and he declared “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” “the greatest movie musical of the past 20 years.”
MATT: Wow. That's great.
He called the movie “sophisticated” and went on to say, and I quote: “That pastiche of ‘Les Miz' is one of the great pastiches ever written in the musical theater — and anyone who has any mixed feelings about that show is going to be rolling in the aisles.”
MATT: [laughs] Well, you can't pastiche unless you're a huge fan — and Trey is a huge fan of “Les Miz.” It's funny, because everyone thought we were brilliantly satirizing musicals — and in some ways, we were satirizing the Disney musical formula — but the truth is, Trey loves musicals so much.
TREY: I love cheesy musicals — the more cheese, the better. I mean, I've seen “Les Miz” tons and tons of times; I once went, in London, by myself, and just sat there and cried. [laughs] I'm that cheesy.
The worse the idea, the better. Remember “Titanic: The Musical” a few years ago? That was great. Right before the curtain went down in Act One, they had a little tiny model Titanic that runs into an iceberg. [laughs] It sort of inspired this movie.
I grew up in the mountains, away from everything, and one of the only things we had to do was [to go watch] the Evergreen Players — which was basically this group of, you know, the teacher and the gas-man…. Basically, it was “Waiting for Guffman.” But the highlight, every three months, was going to that 35-person theater to see their new play. That was when I fell in love with musicals. And then I saw the big-stage versions — and I didn't like them as much.
MATT: I can't say I'm a lover of musicals like Trey, but I'm definitely an appreciator of musicals. What I appreciate about them is that I'm all about idea and concept — and musicals are so dense. You can pack so much into them plot-wise and emotion-wise; there's just an immediate depth about them that I really like. I don't think I would have appreciated that without making a few, if that makes any sense.
The great thing about your song parodies is that they're not just Weird Al-style mockings, but rather sophisticated parodies of entire genres and vocal styles.
TREY: We love writing a good song. In “South Park,” we'll spend like 10 minutes on the story and two hours on the song. [laughs]
How much of that is you and how much of that is Marc Shaiman?
TREY: For the [“South Park”] movie, I would do sort of what I did for the show: I can really only play piano, so I'd sit down and do everything on piano, and just have a piano and vocal track, and then give it to Marc: “Here's the song — here's the verse and chorus, and here's all the chords.” And he would just Broadway everything up.
Now, this is probably a question you guys get asked all the time, but why haven't you made a “South Park 2”?
MATT: You know, just no burning desire to, I guess. Trey and I don't have a very well-managed career or very well-architected career or whatever you want to call it — we just do what we want. And we haven't really wanted to do another “South Park” movie. Our heads live in South Park most of the year, doing the show, and the first “South Park” movie almost killed us, emotionally and physically — and we took a year off from movies, and we started doing this movie.
We get to do whatever we want on the show, and that scratch gets itched. I think most sequels suck, so unless we could come up with a really great idea, we would never do it. It would not be motivated by “We must do a ‘South Park 2'”; it would be motivated by, “I've got a great idea for a movie.” We live enough in that world. We make enough money off of that world. And we're really proud of that first movie, and we don't want to fuvk it up with a Part 2, like they do with most franchises.
Trey, you've been writing and directing — solo — all the South Park episodes the last few seasons. Do you hope to delegate any of those duties at some point?
TREY: I don't know if I could. Maybe the show would be better if I did [laughs].
We're sort of going through the same thing on this movie: For some reason, the process for us has to be chaotic and painful. At the end of a “South Park” run, we're about to die. We're worked to death. It's like we're a sponge and there's nothing left. And that's exactly how I feel on this movie right now. For some reason, that's the way it works for us. It sucks, but that's the way it is.
When we do “South Park,” we do it week-to-week — so the episode that airs Wednesday, we start writing the Thursday before. That's how you have to do satire, because you have to be right with what's going on.
I was going to ask you about “South Park”'s production schedule.
TREY: We have a retreat before the season starts and we think up funny shit. But then we have nothing. A show airs, and the next morning we get together and say, “Okay, which show would we want to do this week?” Or we think of a new one, which is usually what happens, and then we start writing.
Are you awake for days at a time to make that happen?
TREY: Yes. And then we're up all night, and everything. It's brutal. But again, that's the process, for some reason.
MATT: Mm-hm. We wake up on a Thursday morning, come into the office at like 9:30, we sit down around the writer's table with donuts and we say, “All right, what should next week's be about?” And that's literally the one that's on in six days. We start coming up with stuff, we put scenes into production, and we just go.
Do you guys take weekends off during the “South Park” season?
MATT: No. We work Thursday morning until Wednesday morning, basically. We have one day off. We start Thursday, and the hours get longer and longer and longer until we work a 24-hour day on Tuesday in order to get the show done by Wednesday.
So you spend Wednesday in a fetal ball, basically.
What's the latest you can have an episode in and still have it cablecast at 10 p.m. Wednesday?
MATT: Well, it's really 7:00 Pacific time to make it on the East Coast. I think they get it around 2 p.m. their time. I don't know — 12, 2, something like that.
I presume computers are a lot of the reason you can turn these around so fast. Did you go to computer animation right away when you started the show?
TREY: Yeah. We knew right after the pilot that it was going to be impossible [otherwise]: It took us three months to do the pilot using construction-paper cutouts. We'd be making a show a year, basically.
I think [computer animation] makes it a better show — because Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, we can sit there and completely change it, and decide something isn't working, and go a whole other route — and put in things that happened the day before. And that's what makes it exciting and fun for us.
“South Park” episodes seem to become funnier (i.e., more random and absurd) when they're done quickly, or toward the end of the season.
TREY: Yeah. It's because you have to get to that point where you stop thinking about it and you just do it. That's why the first episodes in a “South Park” run are consistently the hardest, and the most sort of scrambled and jumbled — just because we have two-and-a-half weeks to do it. The shows where we come up with an idea on Thursday and we go, “Sweet! Let's do it!” end up being our best shows.
What's the funniest thing you've ever put in a South Park episode?
MATT: The funniest thing? Oh, I don't know. Shit, man. I don't remember any “South Park” episodes. That's part of doing an episode a week. If you asked me what we just did on a Friday, and it aired on a Wednesday, a lot of times I can't answer you. You go through this weird process where you finish an episode and you purge it from your mind.
Between “Orgazmo” and the “South Park” Mormon episode, do you fear layovers in Utah?
MATT: No. Mormons love us. Not all Mormons, but Mormons love it. They're like Canadians — they just like being paid attention to.
I am fascinated by Mormonism, and I think we'll probably end up doing a movie or something about Mormonism, because it's just too good. It's too funny.
[ source: INFOCUS ]