Puppetry of the Meanest
‘South Park’ creators
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are very, very proud of their
new movie, ‘Team America: World Police.’
aren’t having any fun making it.
by M.E. Russell
Click here for the bigger,
longer and uncut web-only version.
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
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.
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: 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. 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. If I was working this hard and I didn’t know
the movie was coming out, it would bum me out.
When you pitched “Team America,” were
there Paramount executives who looked at you like you were
TREY: Yeah. I mean, they did not see any dollar signs with
an R-rated puppet movie. [laughs] They were basically like, “Well,
[“School of Rock” producer 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. 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.” We wanted
to tell a really big, good story. Everyone else at that time
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!”
Rumor has it, Trey,
that you didn’t even discover
the 1960s TV “Thunderbirds” until very recently.
TREY: [Matt and I] both kind of remembered it, but we weren’t
fans. 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
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
How you could do this and do it again, I do
not understand. 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: 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 [expletive deleted] thing, but I hate it. I do. I hate
I have to ask you about
the August 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
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
It was free publicity, so it was fun for us.
TREY: 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 if
you’re laughing, it’s because what you think
you’re laughing at is stupid. People don’t realize
that it can be something a lot deeper than that.
One of the most interesting
things about “South Park” is
that the right and the left sort of claim it as their own.
TREY: Absolutely. What we’re sick of – and it’s
getting even worse – is: You either like Michael Moore
or you wanna [expletive deleted] go overseas and shoot Iraqis.
There can’t be a middle ground. Basically, if you think
Michael Moore’s full of [expletive deleted], 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, “[expletive deleted] – everyone kind of
hates us right now. How do I feel about that?”
Really, all the Team America members are people
supposed to like; they’re kind of mess-ups and they
get it wrong sometimes, but gosh-darn it, they’re tryin’.
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 you start to look
at stuff, and then you realize, “OK, 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
f***in’ up puppets.
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
puppets, then you ain’t got nothin’. They sure
didn’t have a story.
MATT: 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. 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
[expletive deleted] 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 two 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
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.”
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: 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.
The nightly edit sessions
would help with that, I’d
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 sh*tty film. Especially when you’re
doing something like this, in a new medium.
George Clooney, one
of the “limousine liberals” you
mock in the movie, loves you guys – he even played
a gay dog on an early “South Park” 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 – [expletive deleted] 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,
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 [expletive deleted] ass. Are
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.” He went
on to say, and I quote: “That pastiche of ‘Les
Miz’ is one of the great pastiches ever written in
the musical theatre – 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.”
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]
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 theatre 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
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.
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
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.
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. 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 [expletive deleted] 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.
We have a retreat before the season starts
and we think up funny [expletive deleted]. But then we have
nothing. A show
airs, and the next morning we get together and say, “OK,
which show would we want to do this week?” Or we think
of a new one, which is usually what happens, and then we
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
So you spend Wednesday in a fetal ball, basically.
“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 2-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: Oh, I don’t know. [Expletive deleted], 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.