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October 2004
Team America: An Interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone

Team America: An Interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone

By Todd Gilchrist

To Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the irreverent creators of the hit Comedy Central show "South Park", it seems like nothing is sacred; their comedy has crossed all boundaries of propriety (not to mention good taste) in the name of nailing a punch line (or ten). While the television adventures have met with resolute success (they find themselves in pre-production on an eighth season right now), however, their film projects have been decidedly less rewarding; with "Team America", they are hoping all of that will change. The film features the voices (as always) of Parker and Stone to bring to life a cast of thousands- of puppets- who embark on a high-speed journey to save the world. Parker and Stone recently spoke to blackfilm.com about the arduous process of getting this film made, and about the controversy the film has already courted prior to its release.

So how much did you actually cut out?

Parker: It was a little more than twice as long as it is now.

Stone: And foreign markets too, hopefully, we're talking about doing it, putting in the full version for foreign markets...

Parker: ...Just because it will be funny that America is the only one where you can't see the sex scene.

What did you know about puppets before you started?

Parker: We knew that we wanted it to look, it was hard because for the sort of R & D phase, which was like a year, we were always riding this line between wanting them to stay sort of endearing and charming and wooden and clumsy, and yet we knew we needed a little bit more emotion than the "Thunderbirds" puppets had, because that was part of the problem with "Thunderbirds" was that you never got any big emotion out of, so you're watching this thing for an hour and you eventually lost interest because there was no emotion, so... But we knew from "South Park", because on "South Park" all we had to deal with was a head. They all look exactly the same and the only thing we have to get across our characters is eyebrows and mouth shape, and after eight years of doing it, we now know that we can get any emotion across with the right eyebrow position and the right mouth shape, so we told the guys making the puppets were like 'oh we can get the cheeks to move,' and we were like, 'no, none of that matters. All that matters is that we have total control over the mouth and that the eyebrows can do all different kinds of things. And it proved to be true on this too, because with the puppets we could, a lot of times we did this thing with the eyebrow servo down and a puppet would be talking, and we would just very slowly raise that servo up while he was talking so it was like, 'and then I was raped by Mr. Mestopheles' and it suddenly makes him look like he's really thinking and feeling. It was pretty cool.

What's the story with Sean Penn?

Stone: It's up on the Drudge Report. He sent the letter, well, I got a letter two days ago from him, and the office sent it to my house, so I called Trey, and I was like 'we got this letter,' and one of the first things out of my mouth was 'it doesn't really read like a letter really to us. It reads like an open letter, and I was like it's just so weird, and of course it was an open letter. He says he's not mad about being in the movie, but it's obvious he is if you read the letter. He said, what he tried to do was wrap himself in some kind of weird patriotic thing about how we were trying to encourage people not to vote, which we got quoted in Rolling Stone and we were talking about how voter things like P. Diddy's 'Vote or Die' is just kind of civically irresponsible, because I think that encouraging uninformed people to vote, don't throw a party for anybody who gets a bunch of uninformed people to vote. And we weren't even taking a side, I mean either side of the political spectrum. If you don't really know what you're talking about, don't feel strongly, just stay home and don't vote. It doesn't help us any. Your vote doesn't help. But he tried to say, if you read the letter, his logic is by doing that you are contributing to the mutilation of thousands in Iraq and all of the crazy shit, and I was like we never said anything about that at all.

What's interesting about the film is that you don't take a side.

Stone: There's funny stuff on both sides.

Parker: But it's funny because the Sean Penn letter is confusing because he's so angry and on the other hand, there's nothing he could have done to help us more. It's like, right now we're on the front page of everything again because Sean Penn wrote a letter. We're like, 'thanks,' I mean this is great.

Stone: The logic he tries to use in the letter doesn't make any sense.

Did you have to get permission from anyone?

Stone: It's obvious parody. For instance, our friend Tom, we could not have put him in the movie, because he's not a public figure.

How much tedium was there with the puppets? Did it inhibit spontaneity?

Parker: It ended up being, you know, the people going into it were really nervous because they knew that our style was to get to set and change absolutely everything, and South Park, on Tuesday, we changed the entire show before it goes on the air, and people were like 'you know you can't do that with this because these are puppets.' And we were like 'really?' Because we don't like doing that. And we tried, but we got to set and come to find out you can't do that, because every day you would get to set, and it would be like , 'wait, with this set these puppets can't do that. The puppets can't do what's in the storyboard.' And they're like 'oh yeah, fuck, what do we do?' and we're like, 'all of you just fuckin' back off. We're going to do what we do, which is just sort of guerilla-style figure out how to get something on film.'

Stone: That was the hardest part of the movie, trying to stay spontaneous, be funny in the midst of just total tedium.

How long was the process?

Parker: Two and a half years.

Stone: It was the spring of 2002.

Parker: Thunderbirds. We were just sitting around watching TV and Thunderbirds was on Tech TV and we were just watching it. We were looking at it and we said 'God, this could be really funny. Think about it. We'll just do this but we'll make it fucking filthy, and we said 'let's do South Park does "Thunderbirds". I was like think about it- people will love it. So we called our agents and we were like, 'okay we know we swore we never would do another movie again, but we have a great idea.' We were like, 'we want to do Thunderbirds,' and they were like, 'sorry guys, someone's already doing it.' and we were like, what?' and for like a day, we were super bummed out because we were like someone's doing a puppet movie and that's genius, and we were so bummed someone else was doing a puppet movie, and it wasn't until the next day we found out that they were doing it live-action. So we were like, 'what?'

Stone: That was the most confounding decision ever made by a studio ever in Hollywood. If you take the puppets out of "Thunderbirds" you're just left with nothing.

How do you pay homage to Bruckheimer and make fun of him at the same time?

Stone: To parody a Bruckheimer movie, you have to do a Bruckheimer movie, basically. We went back and forth between parodying Bruckheimer moments, but in more of a hero's journey kind of like George Lucas- Matrix kind of movie. A Bruckheimer hero isn't like a Luke Skywalker, because a Bruckheimer hero knows from the beginning he's awesome, and then has a moment when he falters, and then in the end he's awesome, whereas the Frodo or Luke Skywalker, they don't believe they're the one, they don't believe they're the one, and then finally they're the one, and that gave us so much fucking grief because we went back and forth in Gary's story, and it's an extremely different first thirty minutes to the movie, especially, if he's like 'what? Me? I can't do this' or if he's like 'okay I'll give it a try.' It was like all of those scenes seemed to be way funnier with the Bruckheimer-ness, so he was never like 'what's going on?' All of that stuff seemed to take all of the air out of the movie, and whenever he was like 'I'll do what I can but I don't know if I can...'

The blowjob.

Stone: That was right out of Bruckheimer- you have to get back on the plane, back on the horse...

Parker: And it's sort of like standard Joseph Campbell sort of stuff too because it was like before the third act you've got to go through the eye of the needle and sort of prove that you're willing to commit to the third act. That's what it's all about, so we were like, 'let's do it with a blow job.'

How do you compile these ideas to make sure you include every cliche?

Stone: It's just constant rewriting. I mean, in the first draft of the script there was like two of those moments in there, and as you start to change stuff because it's not working, you'd start going, 'well, we need this scene, but we need to make-' it's just constant rewriting.

Parker: Scott Rudin even said we rewrite more than anybody he knows, and we rewrite well into post-production.

Stone: We changed lines on Tuesday.

Parker: And not just slightly- we were changing whole story lines.

Stone: The whole Kim Jong II where Kim Jong II meets the Chechnyan terrorist for the first time, that entire scene, all of the dialogue is completely different from when we shot it. That was actually different from the last version, and that scene and a couple other scenes, we literally would turn the sound off and watch it like Mystery Science Theater and try to come up with lines to fit the mouths and tell the story.

Parker: Basically with the South Park movie, we got up to draft 43, and with this one, I'm just tidying up and putting in the last changes we made on the stage because I want to hand in a final script to Rudin, and it's number 44. That's our final, last draft of the script.

Any interest in doing a sequel?

Parker: Not in a million years. Find someone to make it, because I will not put myself through that again. It's the worst time I've ever had in my life.

Stone: Nothing even comes close.

Parker: There was one time on this film that I had fun. I'm not kidding. There was a time before we started shooting when we were coming up with some stuff was kind of fun, and then coming up with the songs was always fun. It has been the worst year of our lives...

You're being facetious.

Parker: Not at all. It was on average, eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, not one day off except for the fourth of July, and all just super hard and all just left-brain things. It was all problem-solving. There was a lot less creativity and a lot more just 'how the fuck do we do this?' and we're not going to make it super-stressful.

Everyone said they had so much fun.

Parker: People keep saying, 'yeah, this is the most fun I've ever had,' and we're like 'are you fucking high?'

Was there anything in the development process you thought went too far or got cut?

Stone: There were a lot of ideas that just weren't funny enough, but I don't know if it was because it was too far...

Parker: It was never because it was too far, it was because it wasn't funny. It will be a pretty amazing special-features DVD because it is fascinating they way they made the puppets move. Stone: They did a lot of behind the scenes because they knew we were technically making something really cool.

Parker: I just saw some of the stuff they shot and I'm fascinated by it, so...

What didn't make the MPAA cut?

Stone: Yeah, it's just scenes in the sex scene. The lovemaking scene as we like to refer to it.

Parker: The sex scene was basically more than twice as long. It was great.

Stone: It was a very- - they loved each other very much.

Will that be on the DVD?

Parker: Yeah.

Stone: Yeah, it'll be DVD and hopefully foreign markets too.

Parker: Just because that would be great. That would just point something out, that America is the only country that can't see the whole puppet sex scene and every other country, in Australia and the UK.

Were you expecting that?

Parker: We really thought, because we made a decision not to make them anatomically correct. The puppet guys were even like, 'Look, we put little pubic hair on them.' We're like, 'No, no, don't want to do that. We just want them to be little dolls.' But I knew the whole time. It was just like, 'Well, maybe they won't have a problem with it?' I was like, 'No, I've been through this before. They are going to totally have a problem with it.'

Stone: Yeah, I didn't think they would. I was wrong.

There was fluid?

Parker: There were some fluid scenes, yes, but those we put in specifically to be cut out. We shot shots knowing that they would want something to bargain with. We shot shots knowing that we wouldn't even want them in the movie, just for them to take out.

Not even the foreign cut?

Parker: No.

What point did you get to with how surprisingly difficult it was to make?

Parker: The first time that we actually got a crew together and we were able to do- - we did a few test shoots before we started the actual production. And the first test shoot, we were shooting that dressing room scene where Spottswood first comes and meets Gary. And we shot that just because it was very simple, it was just two puppets, Gary sitting down the whole time, Spottswood standing there. Very short scene, and we went to shoot that thinking, 'Okay, well, we'll spend a few hours shooting that and we'll shoot it a couple ways.' We wanted to see things like eyelines into camera, was that better to do it South Park style right into camera? Was it better to do more traditional over shoulder stuff? And we get there and after spending like 18 hours, we had just barely gotten kind of one version of the scene. We still didn't have it and we were like, 'Uh-oh' because it was really just like, 'Okay, in this shot, all we need is the puppet to go like this [turns head].' Yeah, and it was just like [head bobbling] for hours on end, and we were just like oh my God.

Stone: Outtakes of the movie will be funny because it will just be that over and over 40 times.

Parker: Between takes, it was like, 'Oh, fix his hair.' And then someone would go in with a little comb and a little thing and get into the set like this and go like that and spend forever getting it. Then the makeup person could come in, and it was just like uh-oh.

Stone: Excruciating.

Parker: And we knew we had already spent so much of Paramount's money at that point making sets and everything, because the sets had to be done so far ahead of time, and the puppets, that we were just like, 'Wow, we could be in big trouble. '

Stone: It happened about 50 times a day.

Parker: And then we got into the actual shooting of the movie and it happened every day. Like after the first week of shooting, I would have done anything to get out of it.

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