Puppetry of the Meanest (uncut)
‘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 print 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: 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
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 s*** 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
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
dailies…. They’re pretty excited now.
MATT: Now everyone at the studio’s f***ing 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 f*** 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
What was the non-“South Park” project you guys
were contemplating before you stumbled onto the 1960s-TV “Thunderbirds”?
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
Rumor has it, Trey,
that you didn’t even discover “Thunderbirds” until
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
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
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
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 f***in’ 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”….
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
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,
How many ideas from
that have been subsumed into “Team
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”?
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: 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
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 f***in’ go overseas and
shoot Iraqis. There can’t be a middle ground. Basically,
if you think Michael Moore’s full of s***, 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?
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, “F*** — 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 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 f***in’ up puppets.
Who do you think wants you to shut up the most:
the right or the left? Putting it another way: Would Janeane
or Sean Hannity tell you to shut your yap faster?
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.
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
f***in’ 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
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?
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
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 s***ty 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.
[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 — f*** 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?
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 f***in’ 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
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]
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
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;
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.
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 up.
Now, this is probably
a question you guys get asked all the time, but why haven’t you made a “South Park
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
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 f*** 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
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
TREY: We have a retreat before the season
starts and we think up funny s***. 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
Are you awake for days at a time to make that
TREY: Yes. And then we’re up all night, and everything.
It’s brutal. But again, that’s the process, for
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?
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
away when you started the show?
TREY: Yeah. We knew right
after the pilot that it was going to be impossible [otherwise]:
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. S***,
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?
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.