By Lawrence Ferber
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are super, thanks for asking! Creators of Comedy Central’s deliciously un-PC “South Park,” the duo has brought the world wonderfully queer creations like Big Gay Al – whose uber-pink utterance of “super, thanks for asking” has become a big gay catchphrase. On “South Park” and its outrageous 1999 musical feature film, “South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut,” we also saw puppet-wielding teacher Mr. Garrison, gay canine Sparky The Dog, gigantic Barbra Streisand robot Mecha-Barbra, and a flamingly gay Satan sharing a tortured love relationship with his snarky, obnoxious, and kinky lover, Saddam Hussein. Last season, an episode called “South Park is Gay!” saw the town overtaken by the queer eye craze – and the Fab Five themselves! And the hilarious Devil/Saddam demented romance was the center of two episodes on Season 4 (the DVD set was just released), which also included a controversial, yet gut-splittingly funny, NAMBLA episode.
The controversies – and some pink winks – keep coming with Parker and Stone’s raucous R-rated marionette (yes you read that right – marionette) action film, “Team America.”
“It’s just a laugh, believe me,” insists Stone, likening the film to a big budget Jerry Bruckheimer action flick “with puppets” as opposed to a political rally cry a la Fahrenheit 9-11. “Hopefully, because it deals with a lot of issues everyone’s all fuckin’ amped about and comes out in October, it will be a pressure valve. Everyone can relax for a couple of hours instead of getting all psyched up about that shit. But I would take any of that [Fahrenheit box office] juice!”
Team America is the world’s de facto elite police force, whose base is located within Mount Rushmore. Each Team member has a specialty, ranging from martial arts to terrorist profiler to clairvoyant. Yet a mission against a diabolical group of evildoers requires the Team to recruit a new member – a spy. Enter Gary, struggling Broadway actor, who agrees to risk life and career and join their ranks. However, the Team comes up against more than just terrorists like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il: they lock horns with high falutin’ liberal activist Hollywood sorts – like Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Michael Moore, and Alec Baldwin – who are opposed to war and the Team’s actions.
“Team America is a metaphor for the sort of military might of America,” Parker says. “A lot of us have heard the phrase ‘Stop policing the world’ and ‘You think you’re the world’s police.’ And so we’re like, let’s just make that a totally real thing.”
As mentioned earlier, a queer-friendly sensibility has played a role in much of Parker and Stone’s output. Besides South Park, in 1998’s live action Baseketball, Parker and Stone famously French-kissed each other.
Stone says they scrapped a gay-themed subplot from Team America involving “an actor and his big hang-up with his father, who was convinced his son was gay because he was in theater. Maybe he was, maybe not.” Yet their overall embracing of gayness in their work has sparked quite a few rumors to the effect that the pair is actually gay – which is plain ol’ super with them. “When ‘South Park’ first started there were all these rumors that Trey and I were gay — we don’t care if people want to think that.”
With inspiration from the 1960s TV series “Thunderbirds” and Bruckheimer/Bay blockbusters, Parker and Stone began pitching “Team America” in 2002 as “a big stupid action event movie with all puppets,” Stone recalls. Of course, this Puppet Eye For The Action Movie Guy would also be a big comedy – although not entirely due to jokes and gags. “We do comedy, but to make [this idea] funny you have to do the most serious shit you can think of. Which means puppets dying, drowning, getting raped, falling in love, having sex.”
Indeed, the film’s content is entirely on par with the Bruckheimer/Bay blockbuster model – only on 20-inch marionette scale. “We’re blowing up all sorts of good stuff,” Stone giddily relays. “Everything is custom made for 20-inch puppets and because we built all these great locations, Trey and I have always been like ‘Can we figure out a way in the script to blow this up now that we have built it?’ [Some puppets have gotten] really fucked up. We burned some puppets pretty good, waterlogged some. And they’re pretty expensive.”
There will also be a steamy love scene and the lead character’s inner struggle with sacrifice for the greater good. “Our main guy, Gary, goes through the typical movie plot points of ‘If you were plucked from obscurity and asked to serve for your country, what would you do?'” Stone says. “Would you sacrifice your dreams and future for a greater cause? He does, screws up, the team breaks up, they get caught and he has to save the day.”
The homage to and satire of Bay/Bruckheimer-style also applies to the soundtrack. To concoct a suitably bombastic score, Parker and Stone enlisted their “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” composer, openly gay Tony-winner (for Hairspray) Marc Shaiman. And Parker himself whipped up several ridiculously grand, emotionally manipulative ballads a la Top Gun’s “Take My Breath Away” and Armageddon’s inescapable, mawkish Aerosmith anthem, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
“We kind a realized that we could make this a musical,” Parker says. “Not one where people break out into song but in the same way [Bruckheimer] would which is basically just, here’s this big moment, now let’s take a piece a music and then shoot some really pretty things.”
“Just pump it full of emotion,” adds Stone.
For Parker and Stone, whose experience also includes live action features (“Baseketball,” “Cannibal: The Musical”), as well as animation, working with marionettes proved significantly more challenging than they ever imagined. “I don’t know if we’ll ever do it again because it’s a tough thing to do,” Stone admits. “We love seeing the footage and the way the scenes are coming together, but just getting it is a complete engineering feat every scene. You can’t just tell a puppet, ‘Take a drink of water.’ They can’t really walk that well, pick up anything or set anything down. They can’t really do anything so to do any action you have to do several shots. It’s all a big logic puzzle, every scene.”
To fabricate and operate the marionettes, Chiodo Brothers Productions was hired. Regarding the look of Team America’s puppets, Stone says, “There’s a fine line between cute and interesting looking and creepy and Chucky-looking. We tried to stay on the cute and cool side instead of the Chucky side.”
Although some marionette characters are based on real life public figures, including Baldwin and his outspoken Hollywood ilk, Michael Moore, and Kim Jong-Il, the filmmakers decided against depicting Osama Bin Laden, George Bush, and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Osama was always excluded because “we were too afraid he might get caught,” admits Stone. However, “we had a Bush and Kerry puppet planned and we never did them – it felt cheap. The film’s gotten a bigger scope and feel than we originally thought, having Shaiman, [The Matrix] cinematographer Bill Pope, and producer Scott Rudin, and it actually feels cheap to go after Bush and Kerry jokes. Those are the kinds of things late night TV does and last for two weeks and date your movie a little bit. So we opted against that.”
“Team America” opened last month after much speculation that its release may be delayed. As of late August, Parker and Stone were still in frantic production. Both are voicing characters, with impersonators lending talents to the many real life A-list celebrity characters. Why not bring in the real deal? “If they wanted to work for free maybe,” Stone says. “But if we had some money, we wanted to spend it on shit to blow up.”
In fact, the pair have even jacked their own paychecks and profit points into bringing many of their past and present projects to the small and large screens, “Team America” being the latest.
“That’s kind of par for the course,” Stone admits. “Although we’re pretty rich, not near as rich as we could be, we always would rather put stuff on screen than take the money. We always get screwed at stuff like that, but at the end of the day Paramount is paying for us to make an R-rated puppet movie.”