AICN Exclusive! Moriarty Visits Matt & Trey On The TEAM AMERICA Set! Fuck Yeah!!
By Ain't it Cool's Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Trey Parker is the new Jim Henson?
I certainly heard that name evoked several times on Monday as I toured the Culver City warehouse where I got a chance to see some of the craziest sets I’ve seen in my entire 14 years of living in Los Angeles. Every single person working on the picture seems to be amazed at what Paramount and Scott Rudin are allowing them to get away with, and they also seem to genuinely adore the atmosphere that Matt Stone and Trey Parker have created.
Having seen a little bit of the movie and having heard now about the origins of it and their goals for it, I can see why everyone’s having such a good time, and I’m willing to bet audiences will feel the exact same way when TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE hits the screen.
This whole lunatic endeavor started about two years ago. Matt and Trey were watching TV, flipping through channels, when they came across a THUNDERBIRDS rerun. Trey, in particular, seemed hypnotized by what they were watching.
”Dude... what the fuck is this?”
”Dude... what the fuck is THUNDERBIRDS?”
Over the next few days, he couldn’t shake the idea that he somehow wanted to tap into the bizarre aesthetic that Gerry Anderson defined over 30 years ago. I can understand his fascination. I’ve got UFO and CAPTAIN SCARLET and STINGRAY on DVD, all sent to me for review, and I’m not quite sure what I think of them. I love looking at the shows for a few episodes at a time, but the writing is so insanely over-expository and dull that after a while, the surreality wears off and I just can’t take it anymore. They’re remarkable, and almost unwatchable at the same time.
Executive producer Anne Garefino, who’s been working with Matt and Trey on SOUTH PARK ever since it went on the air, told me about walking into the SOUTH PARK offices one morning a few weeks after Trey’s first exposure to Anderson’s work. “We were on hiatus, so there was pretty much no one there. I end up having to do something almost every day for the network, so I had to go in. I was surprised to see Trey sitting at the reception desk, just answering phones, sort of killing time. At first I thought, ‘Is he just bored being at home?’ but then he showed me this tape.” The tape was a crude concept test where Trey basically redubbed a THUNDERBIRDS episode with some dialogue about terrorism and Homeland Security.
Trey told Anne that he was worried about showing Matt the tape, afraid Matt was going to be mad at him. “We’re already working on this other thing, and now all I can think about it making something with puppets.” Anne reassured Trey that as long as it was a good idea, Matt would respond, and when he showed up at the offices in response to a call from Trey, he immediately tuned in on the idea and got exactly what he was talking about.
”Just that first tape with Trey doing the voices was hilarious,” Matt said when we were discussing it. He was ready to switch gears right away, but it took them a little while to figure out exactly what it was that they wanted to do. At first, they actually planned to shoot an all-puppet version of THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. Matt explains, “We had been given that script to read, and we thought it was hilarious already. We figured it would be fifty times funnier if we just did it exactly the same way, but with puppets.” Fox’s legal department quickly put a kibosh on that idea, so their next plan was to get the remake rights to THUNDERBIRDS so they could do an R-rated comedy version. They ran into another legal wall, though, learning that Universal and Working Title had already begun work on a feature film version. For a moment, Trey figured that was the end of the road, until someone explained to them that the new THUNDERBIRDS was going to be a live-action film directed by Jonathan Frakes.
”We were like, why the fuck would you make THUNDERBIRDS without the one interesting thing about that show?” Trey said, laughing. “It’s a lame concept, but at least the puppets made it all look cool.”
On that note, the guys set to work on a screenplay with Pam (MR. WONG) Brady, which is still undergoing constant revision on the set even now. “This movie’s going to be totally sweet as soon as we figure out the ending. And the middle,” said Matt, only half-kidding. One of the things that makes Stone so disarming is his unaffected honesty. He and Trey are the opposite of what you’d expect from two of the biggest names in modern comedy. They’re confident on a professional level, but they’re almost shy on a personal level. There’s no inflated sense of ego about what they create or what they’re working on. There’s none of the arrogance that they’re almost certainly entitled to at this point. After all, if America has a leading team of social satirists, the SOUTH PARK boys are it.
When I arrived at the production offices in Culver City on Monday morning, I was met by two publicists, Soni Ede and Pat Story. As much as they tried to prep me for what I’d see on the warehouse sets, they undersold it. And, to be honest, I understand why. It’s hard to do justice to the impact it has when you walk in on a 1/3 scale reproduction of the Panama Canal, complete with working boats and a town on both sides, filled with people going about their daily lives, never suspecting that they’re about to be destroyed by a Weapon Of Mass Destruction.
Make that puppets, though, instead of people. Lots and lots of puppets. At times, there are as many as 40 puppeteers working from specially rigged scaffolds suspended above the miniature sets, as well as more puppeteers working the facial controls via remote control. As much as the look of the film will immediately evoke thoughts of Gerry Anderson for anyone who grew up on his shows, these puppets are a step up in technical craftsmanship.
”They were actually too good,” Matt said. “These guys are amazing, and they made the puppets so they could articulate their mouths completely. Problem is, it just looks creepy when there’s that much motion going on. It was like a whole movie filled with Chucky. We found just the right balance. They can move their mouths very simply. Open. Closed. Smile. Frown. And they can move their eyebrows. Anything more than that gets really distracting.”
They’ve certainly got an impressive group of craftsmen working with them to make all of this happen. Norman Tempia was one of the people who compared Trey to Jim Henson when we spoke, and he should know. He worked on THE DARK CRYSTAL, LABYRINTH, FRAGGLE ROCK, and SESAME STREET during his ten years as a puppet designer/builder for Henson. He’s got great support in the form of the Chiodo Brothers, whose team is also working on the movie. They’re overseeing a small army of artists responsible for sculpting heads and bodies, and also for rigging the puppets to be able to deliver a wide variety of actions.
And there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different heads required to bring this cast to life. First of all, there are the members of Team America itself. Chris, Sarah, Lisa, Joe, and Spottiswoode are the long-standing members of the team, and Gary Johnston is a new recruit, a rising Broadway star who helps them with an undercover assignment. Then there’s the film’s main bad guy, Kim Jong Il, the “power-mad dictator” who may be selling Weapons of Mass Destruction to terrorists.
The most remarkable head sculpts belong to the other bad guys in the film. “Actually,” said Trey, “they’re not bad. They’re just really really stupid and misguided.” They’re an organization of Hollywood liberals who are determined to stop Team America from interfering in the affairs of international politics. Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, and a permanently mustard-stained Michael Moore are just a few of the celebrities who are going to feel well and truly roasted when they see this film. Even seeing the heads without the film’s puppeteers bringing them to life, they are frighteningly accurate and bitingly funny.
I saw some of the other sets as well. Various sections of Kim Jong Il’s palace were still standing, but I didn’t get to see his bedroom where he evidently belts out his melancholy musical number, “I’m Ronery.” This may not be a full-blown musical a la SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT, but Trey’s written several songs including the theme “Team America! Fuck Yeah!” and an Aerosmith-style power ballad that plays during the puppet sex scene.
Yep. A graphic puppet sex scene. And you should see Matt’s eyes light up when he talks about it.
Credit for the wonderful sets has to be shared by two men, according to everyone I spoke with. Jim Dultz is the production designer on the film, and he also spoke about Trey in relation to Jim Henson. Again, this is a guy who knows what he’s talking about, having worked on MUPPETS TONIGHT, THE WUBULOUS WORLD OF DR. SEUSS, MUPPETS LIVE @ THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE, and more, all for the Henson Company. He also designed GREG THE BUNNY for Fox TV a few years ago, and worked on the pilot for TIM BURTON’S LOST IN OZ. I saw that pilot, and even though I didn’t like the show, it looked absolutely amazing for television, and I thought he really nailed the Baum books in a way no one else ever has. He’s been working closely with David Rockwell, the film’s visual consultant, who is renowned for his architectural projects like The Kodak Theater, as well as his Broadway sets for shows like HAIRSPRAY and THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. The combination of their sensibilities is immediately funny and striking, and really gives this film a unique visual signature right off the bat. You certainly won’t mistake it for anything else you see this year.
I also got a look at the outside of the Mount Rushmore hideout for Team America, and I saw stills that show how helicopters fly out of Washington’s face and rockets shoot out of the top of Teddy Roosevelt’s head whenever they’re called into action. In fact, as I was checking out the set, Bill Pope was setting up the next shot. The director of photography for THE MATRIX trilogy and SPIDER-MAN 2. Shooting a puppet movie. And he appeared to be having the time of his life. Talking to him, I felt like I was interrupting. He told me that when he read the script, he had no idea it was going to be filmed using puppets. He just thought it was a brilliant satire of big-budget action films, and a sly political satire as well, and he wanted in. He was frank about how demanding this shoot has been, and how big a challenge it’s been to adapt to the particular demands of shooting this sort of movie. Matt talked about how they realized just how hard this was going to be as soon as they did their first camera test last year. “All we wanted the puppet to do was turn abruptly, walk across the room and take a shot of alcohol. It took 20 hours and something like 75 takes. I love doing this movie, and I think it’s going to be sweet, but there are times where you just want to lay on the floor and cry.”
An average day sees the first unit manage about six shots, even as they also roll a second unit and supervise a miniature unit that’s shooting in Van Nuys. All this effort seems extra crazy when you realize that this thing is set for release on October 15th. That means they have to deliver the movie by October 1st at the latest. Adding to this pressure is the fact that the new season of SOUTH PARK premieres on October 27th, and they obviously haven’t even started work on that yet.
I hereby officially take back anything I’ve ever said about being busy. These guys are pushing the envelope of busy, but even amidst all of that, they’re having fun.
For one thing, they’re planning their first-ever appearance at the San Diego ComiCon next weekend as part of the Paramount panel. 3:00 on Saturday, as I understand it. They’re going to show a clip from the film from the Cairo sequence, which is supposed to be one of the biggest sets in the film. Like in any giant-budget Hollywood film, this thing takes place in various exotic locales, each one of which is host to a different set piece.
At the end of the day, I joined Matt in the editing room, along with executive producer Scott Avesano, so we could take a look at the opening scene in the film, set in Paris. The guys are cutting this as quickly as they shoot it, working every night with Tom Vogt, their editor. The scene I saw was still rough, but right away, it clues you in to the tone of the film, which might surprise some of their most ardent fans. It’s not overtly silly or jampacked with obvious jokes. “We figured out pretty quickly that the more straight you play it, the funnier everything gets,” said Matt. “Watching puppets discuss life and death issues is just funny. Period.”
The film opens with a shot of an obviously fake backdrop with a badly drawn Eiffel Tower, nothing realistic about it. A fairly awful puppet comes walking out in front of it, and I had a moment where I thought, “Oh, god, is it all going to look like this?” Evidently, when they first screened the footage for Paramount executives, the prankster spirit that is alive and well in the guys led them to make sure that this was the first shot they saw from the entire production, prompting one executive to actually yell “Oh, god, they fucked us!”
That’s the gag, though. As the camera pans left, we get our first look at a huge beautiful outdoor Paris set, and we realize that what we were looking at is a sidewalk puppet show, being performed by a puppet puppeteer. Dozens of Parisians are out, walking in the park, riding bikes, enjoying the sun. There’s even an annoying mime trying to get everyone’s attention. A small French boy walks along with his mother, enjoying a chocolate pop, so distracted by it that he walks right into the back of a terrorist. How do we know he’s a terrorist? Because of the turban, the briefcase with the blinking light on it, and the temp track from BLACK HAWK DOWN. In the final film, the score will actually be composed by their SP: BL&U collaborator Marc Shaiman, but for now, the temp track works really well.
As soon as the little boy notices that blinking briefcase and tells his mother, Team America’s helicopter swoops in overhead and they drop in, ready to kick some terrorist ass. Because they play it like a regular action movie, right down to the cheesy one-liners (“Hey, terrorist! Terrorize this!”), it feels both familiar and incredibly absurd. The action is especially funny. There’s something about two marionettes trying to have a bad-ass martial arts fight that should give any audience a wicked fit of the giggles. “I think there’s going to be a moment, about ten minutes into the movie, where it’s really going to hit people. ‘Holy shit, this is really going to be an entire movie about puppets.’ Hopefully, they won’t freak out and run for the door.”
I can tell you after that brief glimpse I got, they won't. This is a culture bomb just waiting to detonate, and I can't wait to see what sort of collateral damage there is once the smoke clears. TEAM AMERICA's keeping the world safe for smart satire this fall. Until then...
© 2004 by Ain't It Cool