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Film Has South Park Guys At End Of Rope   |   18 September 2004

The Taj Mahal wasn't built in a day, and it looks as if it's going to take much longer than that to torch it.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the "South Park" TV series and movie, are scurrying to finish their next film, the action satire "Team America: World Police," and the Taj Mahal isn't making their destructive work any easier. The movie's central conceit -- it's performed by one-third scale marionettes dangled over miniature sets -- has been far easier to dream up than execute, and with two weeks left to complete principal photography for the film's Oct. 15 premiere, Stone and Parker are running out of time, money and energy.

Like the most hackneyed Hollywood popcorn movie, the world will go up in smoke unless Team America's crime-fighting puppets single-handedly come to the rescue. Stone and Parker's villain puppet, Kim Jong Il, is as ruthless as he is diminutive, and is laying waste to familiar sights spanning the globe. The North Korean leader already has obliterated London's Big Ben and Paris' Louvre. India's onion-domed landmark is the next to be vaporized, assuming Parker and Stone can figure out how to blow it up.

For the better part of an August morning on a Culver City soundstage, Stone has rehearsed a sequence intended to turn an enormous scale Taj Mahal model into rubble, but what sounds like a teenage pyro prank is proving much more complicated than that. The movie sends up show-business cliches whenever possible, and the filmmakers are trying to jam in as many visual allusions as feasible. Stone, who co-wrote "Team America" and serves as its second unit director, wants the Taj Mahal scene to be a recognizable homage to the nuclear shockwaves leveling Baltimore in "The Sum of All Fears."

"It's a great explosion," Stone says of the "Sum of All Fears" blast. "It's probably the only good part of the movie."

Stone loads a "Sum of All Fears" DVD into his laptop and reviews the key scene with co-writer and director Parker, who is filming another "Team America" segment on an adjacent set inside the same soundstage. Special-effects technicians have ringed the Taj Mahal replica with compressed-air canisters designed to generate a sequence of debris-filled shockwaves that will wipe out the innocent marionettes strolling past the Islamic shrine. After a quick safety speech, the fireworks begin. A smoky explosion rips across the stage with a roar, the lifeless puppets collapsing in a tangled mass in the Taj Mahal's reflecting pool.

"Damn it," Parker says, punching his director's chair as the scene is replayed on a video monitor. "One puppet screwed up the whole shot."

The video replay reveals that the instant the explosion hit, the hands of one of the scene's six puppeteers flinched just a few inches, sending his marionette skyward a split second before the shock waves arrive. What's more, the debris is out of scale, and the explosion isn't bright enough. It seems absurd to say, but the sequence looks ... fake.

Even though "Team America" is by outward appearances a feature-length joke, the film is painstakingly well made, from intricate costume designs to high-speed chase scenes performed in remote-control cars. One tiny "Team America"-scale Uzi cost $1,000 to construct, and Kim Jong Il's eyeglasses are made with hand-ground prescription lenses.

Given their obsession with detail, craftsmanship and whatever passes for verisimilitude in a puppet movie, Stone and Parker immediately realize that as hopelessly overcrowded as their remaining production schedule might be, they must redo the Taj Mahal scene.

"This movie is a nightmare to shoot," Stone says. It's not just explosions that have proved challenging.

To ensure Paramount would give enough money to maintain high production standards, Stone, Parker and producer Scott Rudin waived their collective fees of some $7 million.

"There is nothing in the world," a weary Parker says, "that would ever make me want to make another puppet movie."

But a few days with Stone and Parker on the "Team America" set proves that underneath their frat-house fascination with language and sexuality so coarse it might make John Waters blush, they take moviemaking quite seriously. The "Team America" production boasts some of the top artists in every trade: Cinematographer Bill Pope is coming off "Spider-Man 2" and "The Matrix" movies, while pyrotechnics supervisor Joe Viskocil worked on "Independence Day" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

It's easy to forget Parker and Marc Shaiman's "Blame Canada" song from 2000's "South Park" movie was nominated for an Academy Award (Shaiman also is "Team America's" composer).

Stone, Parker and longtime writing partner Pam Brady spent nearly two years perfecting the "Team America" script. For influences, they studied scores of recent action and disaster movies, from "Alien" to "Top Gun" and "S.W.A.T." To help shape the film's archetypal heroes (from the true believer to the reluctant hero to the guy who sells out his friends for greater glory), they read Joseph Campbell. More than anything else, as they constantly reworked the script, they asked themselves questions. Are puppets inherently silly? How are Jerry Bruckheimer movies emotionally moving and manipulatively silly at the same time? Can serious be funnier than funny? And what is America's role in world affairs?

"On one level, it's a big send-up," Brady says. "But on another, it's about foreign policy. It's pretty trippy."

They settled on the story of a mostly gung-ho police force stomping out terror around the world. As Team America dispatches global enemies, its sometimes heavy-handed tactics generate international scorn, eventually prompting self-centered, left-wing celebrities to denounce the crime fighters. Michael Moore leads a demonstration against Team America, while stars such as George Clooney and Ethan Hawke help keep the superheroes captive.

Just as "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" ultimately made a statement about the dangers of censorship, "Team America" may not be as mindless as it appears. Uninformed "Team America" critics previously have attacked the filmmakers for belittling President Bush and his war on terrorism, even though Bush isn't in "Team America" and the film ultimately recognizes America as a superpower while mocking its movie stars.

"When the Iraq war started, the celebrities really took center stage," Brady says. "It was so frustrating. Every time you wanted an expert, you got Janeane Garofalo instead. It's about time someone stood up to celebrities."

As soon as filming began, Parker and Stone, who jointly supply many of the characters' voices, labored to find the right comic tone. The movie, they quickly realized, had to take itself earnestly, because it already is a gag.

"Puppets doing jokes is not funny," Stone says. "But when you see puppets doing melodrama, spitting up blood and talking about how they were raped as children, that's funny."

Simply getting the puppets to perform more than a herky-jerky walk, though, was nearly impossible. Having a character do something as basic as knock back a drink would take half a day, even though the filmmakers hired three dozen top-notch marionette operators.

"There are so many things that haven't worked," Parker says. Rather than rely on computer-generated special effects added in post-production, the filmmakers are trying to capture every stunt live on film. "People may think it's the easiest movie in the world, but it's the hardest thing we've ever done," Parker says.

"I think 10 minutes into the movie, people will say, `You really are going to do the whole ... thing with puppets?'" Stone says. "And you are either going to get into it, or you are going to bail."

[ source: LA TIMES ]




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