Trey Parker and Matt Stone pull strings with 'Team America'
Ever since "South Park" made its 1997 debut on Comedy Central, Matt Stone and Trey Parker have been the premiere satirists of American culture. On the show Stone and Parker co-created, they have been the most vulgar and hilarious commentators on everything from religion to government. There's no issue too sacred for a joke, from Osama bin Laden to child molestation.
But now, Parker and Stone are returning to the world of feature films, after 1999's "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," with "Team America: World Police," an all-marionette action extravaganza. Stone and Parker have done their film in a medium that is probably considered dead to studio-heads who consider computer animation more profitable.
While many would expect Stone and Parker's film to fall into the same category as Bush-whacking films like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," they would be 100 percent wrong. Puppet versions of neither Bush nor Kerry even appear in the film. The creators said that "Team America" is more a parody of big Hollywood action films - particularly those of Jerry Bruckheimer, whose movies include "Top Gun," "Pearl Harbor" and "Bad Boys 2."
"Instead of starting with the reluctant hero that sort of has to grow into manhood and has to accept his quest, [Bruckheimer] just sort of starts with a guy who is fuckin' rad and thinks he's rad," Parker said via phone. "Sort of in the middle [he] starts thinking maybe [he's] not so rad, and then in the end decides he's really rad again. And that's sort of the Jerry Bruckheimer hero. [It's] really a horrible structure when you really look at it."
Recently, as "South Park" tackles issues like illegal immigration and stem cell research, Stone and Parker seem to have more social commentary in their material now than in their first films "Cannibal! The Musical" and "Orgazmo."
"We very rarely sit down and say, 'Okay, what social things should we tackle?'" Parker said. "I think part of it is just us getting older and, not that we care more, it's just that we're starting to be like older people that watch the news and stuff, which is not cool."
Stone also talked about their brand of humor.
"You've gotta come up with subject matter, and there's the world around you so you just might as well talk about that," Stone said. "Like you see 'Friends' and stuff and they will purposefully stay away from social issues because they don't want to alienate anybody. When one of the characters becomes a single mom and gets pregnant, it will just be like, 'Oh my God I need to find a fuckin' dress to fit my fat belly.' That's your 30 minutes. I don't know if it's that we're just not into that kinda humor or what."
While "Team America" can also be described as political, it's not a political film, according to its creators. It was actually before the Iraq war when Stone and Parker handed in the first draft of the script.
"We noticed as we made it that the politics took a back seat," Parker said. "The politics became the setting, because politics aren't really that funny. It really became a movie about making fun of movies."
"Team America" references "Kill Bill," the original "Star Wars" trilogy, "Predator," "The Matrix" and many other action films. Parker said that the characters are inspired from the basic Joseph Campbell mythology.
"There is the mentor character, the emotional guidance character and all of that stuff you find in 'Star Wars' and 'The Matrix,'" Parker said. "Well, the first 'Matrix.' All the rest of them sucked."
"I don't know what those characters were about," he said.
One character that has come to the limelight of the film is North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. Parker said that after searching for a villain, Kim Jong-Il was the perfect choice.
"We had already done the Sadaam Hussein thing [in 'South Park'], and we didn't know what was gonna happen with Osama, so we were like well who else is out there?" Parker said. "At the time we were writing the script, Kim Jong-Il was kind of public enemy number three. We started reading into his life, and it was pretty obvious that he was the right guy. He's actually way more fascinating than the one in our movie. He loves movies, he writes musicals and he's completely insane and kills people."
What separates "Team America" from most action films is the immediate difference of marionettes. The marionettes are done to one-third scale and Stone and Parker describe the experience of production as "awful." They said they ended up shooting with three different units and would only get about nine shots on any given day.
"When you're sitting on your 75th day of trying to make puppets look at each other, nothing's funny anymore," Parker said. "It was really miserable making this movie. It was a really shitty time. Don't ever make a puppet movie, because it was the worst time of my life."
And the duo's struggles didn't end in production. When Stone and Parker submitted their film to the MPAA for a rating, they were given an NC-17, usually regarded as box-office poison. The rating continues to affect a film even after its theatrical run, due to the fact that mainstream video retailers like Blockbuster and Hollywood video do not carry NC-17 films. Stone and Parker said they received the rating based on the gratuitous puppet sex, not based on the film's extreme puppet violence.
"It's absolutely the most ridiculous, stupid thing in the universe," Parker said. "Our puppets are not anatomically correct. They don't even have pubic hair; they are dolls. We put them in like sexual positions where obviously everything's completely implied and just a joke and the MPAA was like, 'Nope, no, no, no,' and meanwhile we're taking other puppets and, you know, blowing their heads off filled with blood and all this stuff. Just as usual the MPAA didn't have a word to say about that. It was all about the sexual positions that confused them, which was basically anything but missionary."
Stone was also frustrated.
"I think that little girls and boys right now around the country are taking their dolls and doing the same stuff exactly," Stone added. "We just put it on film."
This is not the first time that Parker and Stone have sparred with the MPAA. In 1997, Parker's film "Orgazmo," which features a Jehova's-witness-turned-porn-star superhero, was branded NC-17. For "Team America," Parker and Stone cut the sex down to get the R rating.
However, the most controversial part of their film is not its puppet sex. It's taking something as gravely serious as the war on terror and imagining it as a Bruckheimer film. The puppet versions of Michael Moore, Janeane Garafolo, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Matt Damon and George Clooney are not treated kindly.
"I think this movie will get us some hate mail," Parker said. "[We'll] definitely sit down and hug each other and cry a little bit. We'll be really bummed out."
"But we will get into our big Mercedes and drive to our big house and not be so bummed," Stone said.
Despite the difficulty of production for "Team America," Stone and Parker said they have learned a lot since making their earlier films like "Cannibal! The Musical," when they were only 20, and "BASEketball" in 1998.
"We were just sort of winging it all the time," Parker said. "You can have all the jokes you want in a movie, but if you don't have the emotional through-line, it just doesn't matter how funny it is. We learned a lot on 'BASEketball' because we didn't write that or direct it, and so it was the first time we were doing someone else's stuff. It had tons of jokes, but you just didn't care about any of the characters and there was nothing going on that you could latch onto and go, 'Okay he's mad here.' And really doing a puppet movie ... you gotta be careful about that stuff. We learned that, yeah, you need to have your jokes and you need to have your funny stuff, but what's always more important is being able to say, 'Okay, in this scene, he's really mad. And not just kinda mad, really, really mad.'"
After the grueling production and the frenzy of promotion for "Team America," Stone and Parker are heading back to finish the eighth season of "South Park" that began earlier this year. Since "South Park" doesn't export its animation for cheaper labor overseas like "The Simpsons," the turnaround time from script to air is only one week, as opposed to "The Simpsons," which takes nine months.
Stone and Parker said they have also met with Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty, the creative team behind the all-puppet Broadway musical "Avenue Q."
"They're great guys, and we've been kicking around some stuff to do with them," Parker said. "It would be fun to do some stuff on Broadway."
With almost eight seasons of "South Park" under their belts - a show that defies all expectations by actually getting better over the years - and a dead-on Bruckheimer send-up with puppets, how can they keep up the quality and continue to be so funny?
"Part of what helps is that Trey and I are such dicks that we won't fake laugh at anything, so we'll only really laugh at something we really think is funny," Stone said. "I think that helps us."
"And we really only laugh at our own stuff," Parker added. "If anybody else tries to throw in a joke, we tell them to shut up."
"We like the smell of our own farts," Stone said.