SUPER MARIONETTE BROTHERS
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s thought they’d enjoy making a spoof Hollywood action movie with puppets. Instead they became entangled in political controversy and a nightmare production that left their sanity hanging by a string.
Puppet Master: Leigh Singer
Excuse his language, but Gary Johnston, one-time actor and the newest recruit to global strike force Team America, has a theory to share with you.
“We're dicks! We're reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks. And the Film Actors Guild are pussies. And Kim Jong Il is an asshole. Pussies don't like dicks because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes. Assholes that just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls.”
Welcome to international diplomacy, Team America: World Police style. Dangle the War on Terror, interventionism, bleeding heart liberals and Asian dictators in front of South Park’ creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and what do you expect? The outrageous, take-no-prisoners humour perhaps; but coming from the mouths of two-foot tall puppets? Thunderbirds it ain’t.
“It wasn’t any ‘blast from the past’ thing,’ relates Matt Stone, denying some deep-held passion with the work of ‘Supermarionation’ founder Gerry Anderson, the brains behind Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet among others. “Visually it was completely different. Doing puppets, you’re just doing something new. If you’re doing a movie about golf you’re going to run into Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore. But when it’s puppets, it was like, well no one’s ever done a movie like that before. Doing that and making it funny and good was intriguing to us.”
It’s also, for all the telling blows landed by South Park and their short-lived series That’s My Bush! (a sitcom version of George Dubya’s White House), the biggest political storm that Parker and Stone have been caught up in to date. Team America’s gung-ho military might save Paris from a terrorist attack, but they manage to level the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre museum in the process.
Then again, they’re certainly not aligned with the liberals, represented in the movie by Hollywood’s finest, the Film Actors’ Guild (F.A.G), who misguidedly team up with the real menace, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Gary’s imaginatively graphic defence of the Team America stance may not be quite the phrasing Colin Powell used to convince the United Nations to attack Iraq; however, critics of America’s interventionist policies might argue that such straight talking would, though coarse, be a more honest approach.
“We never intended it to be an overtly political movie,” Stone maintains. “It was supposed to be about the emotions behind the politics. We’re not going to make a fucking puppet movie about what we think we should do on our foreign policy because that’s retarded.” He chuckles away to himself, almost in disbelief. “That Trey and I are going to convince anybody of our political beliefs using puppets…”
Given the hot-button issues the movie pushes and that it was rush-released into US cinemas to coincide with last November’s presidential election, Stone’s argument can sound a little disingenuous. While he and Parker are happy to feature and ridicule puppets of outspoken anti-war advocates like Sean Penn and Alec Baldwin, their political opposition, Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and co are glaringly omitted. Yet Stone is adamant that the film is meant to be an equal-opportunity offender.
“It’s kind of a Rorschach test,” he counters. “Some people have seen it as our anti-Bush movie and tons of the movie is a criticism of American arrogance and we have fun with that idea but on the other hand it’s like, there really are bad people in the world and America maybe isn’t the worst one. We put John Kerry and George W. Bush in a draft of the script, but then all of a sudden the whole movie was about them and this election. It took all the responsibility and culpability and emotion off of the audience.”
“Our lead character Gary is like most Americans,” he continues, “he’s a good guy, he’s not political, he just wants to go and live his life and pursue his dreams but he’s caught between two sides one being full of pride about your country and the other saying, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’ ‘Dicks, pussies and assholes’ is his trying to make sense of it all.”
Indeed for all its global topicality Stone holds that the real target was something a little closer to home: the modern Hollywood action blockbuster, specifically, the Jerry Bruckheimer (and, until his death in 1996, partner Don Simpson) movies: Top Gun, Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, etc. Ridicule for his bombastic narratives, ADD visual style, and testosterone overdrive hasn’t prevented Bruckheimer from becoming financially the most successful producer in Hollywood history. To send him up, however, Parker and Stone needed to figure out just how his films work. It turned into their own mission impossible.
“We had repeat viewings trying to deconstruct them,’ Stone sighs, ‘and to this day I cannot figure out. Those movies are not very good. It doesn’t mean there’s no talent behind any part of making it, it’s just that the structure and the way it’s set up so shouldn’t work. Armageddon is probably his best movie. It’s just so dumb but if you accept certain things then the movie will fulfill its promise of being fun to watch. It was really hard to try and make a Bruckheimer movie and make a good movie. Every time we structured it like a Bruckheimer movie it would be shitty.”
If the content proved hard to imitate successfully, Stone and Parker inadvertently found themselves aping the other aspects of big-budget filmmaking. “I despise most Hollywood moviemaking,” Stone asserts, “which is just make it up as you go. It’s like, how would you spend $75 million and not know where you want to end up?” He sits in rueful contemplation for a moment. “Then that happened to us on this movie.”
“We went in with much more of a comedy script,” he explains, “and after a week of shooting we realized, ‘Holy shit, that stuff doesn’t work, it’s the serious stuff that works the best.’ It was a tone problem. Puppets trying to be funny aren’t funny. The puppets had to be serious so it was like, all right, let’s a do a serious Bruckheimer movie with puppets. We had to rewrite every scene every day more serious, more personal drama.”
All this was taking place in the middle of a production that even the master puppeteers they had hired deemed impossible. Filming in a converted warehouse, production designers recreated caricatures of Paris, Cairo (including the Great Pyramids and Sphinx), the Panama Canal, Team America’s Mount Rushmore headquarters and many other locations, all in one-third scale. Ace cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix) was hired to bring a convincing look to the sets. And then there were the marionettes. Human actors accused of being ‘wooden’ are easily replaced; their puppet counterparts are a different matter.
Sophisticated animatronic skulls were employed for character facial movements but for general body motion, it was back to the age-old techniques. ‘A basic marionette in this production has anywhere from eight to ten strings per puppet,’ explains puppet maestro Edward Chiodo. “Four to the head, two on the shoulders, two more on the legs and two on the hands. So when you add it all up, we have six strings per puppet [body] for ten puppets. That’s sixty strings of puppets interacting, crossing and moving around one another. It can be a mess.”
“When we did our first test, all we wanted the puppets to do was turn abruptly, walk across a room and take a shot of alcohol,” Stone remembers. “That along took twenty hours and something like seventy-five takes. It was like a nightmare eighteen, twenty-hour days. That schedule was the craziest thing I’ve ever been through.”
Just as well then that he and Trey Parker had so much material that genuinely inspired them. Anyone familiar with the duo’s work knows the importance they place on music and song (The South Park movie even got Oscar-nominated for its provocative ditty ‘Blame Canada’) and they saw a unique opportunity here.
“Armageddon and Top Gun, they’re in a sense musicals,” argues Stone. “In musicals when a character is pushed to an emotional place, they break out with a song and it doesn’t seem weird because emotionally they are at that point. With Bruckheimer, the characters don’t burst into song but they’ll reach a moment and then ‘Take My Breath Away’ will play or the Aerosmith song in Armageddon. They’re meant to just hit you over the head ‘he’s sad’ or ‘he loves her like a sledgehammer’… “
It proved irresistible for musicals fan Trey Parker. When Team America tool up for action, anthem ‘America Fuck, Yeah!’ pumps along on the soundtrack. The obligatory training montage is set to what else? ‘Montage’. And in case you’d forgotten just who’s being lampooned, love theme ‘The End of An Act’ begins with the lines ‘I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark / When he made Pearl Harbor...’, ending in a plaintive chorus of ‘Pearl Harbor sucked / And I miss you.’
If Bruckheimer, Bay and co feel hard done by, at least they can console themselves that they aren’t mutilated, eviscerated and decapitated onscreen the way F.A.G members Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon et al, pay for their misguided attempts to stop Team America.
‘The whole Film Actors Guild was one of the hardest things to pull off,’ nods Stone. ‘Those people are all very good at what they do, but the problem is when you then start thinking you know everything about everything. Before the war started, you’d turn on the TV and there’d be some military guy telling you why we should go to war and then Sean Penn telling you why you shouldn’t. It’s not just Sean Penn’s fault, it’s the media’s fault that they listen to these fucking people.’
Penn subsequently sent Parker and Stone an open letter, a ‘sincere fuck you’ attacking their ‘ignorance’, which Stone laughs off as exactly the action his puppet would take. Not that Penn receives the harshest treatment. Special venom is reserved for Michael Moore, here portrayed as a hysterical, fast food guzzling suicide bomber. If the attack seems personal, well… anyone remember Stone’s appearance on Moore’s Bowling for Columbine? His appearance as an alumni of Littleton High School, scene of the infamous 1999 gun massacre, was immediately followed by an animated sequence striking for its similarities to the South Park style.
“95% of people think that we did that animation and I think that was very purposeful,’ Stone complains. ‘To me that cartoon is one of the lamest parts of the movie, I think it’s completely offensive, which only matters in that people think I did it. We felt that he was trying to misdirect people, so then, hey, that guy did that to us a little bit so why not… but really it was the imagery of him trying to blow up Mount Rushmore that I liked.” He pauses to reconsider. “Actually I think we gave him a little too much credit suicide bombers are a lot more determined than he is.”
Last-minute censoring of a deliberately gratuitous sex scene between Gary and Team-mate Lisa almost scuppered Stone and Parker’s resolve to finish the film on time - although Stone is now proud of the official ‘R’ rating the film has in the U.S: ‘Graphic, crude and sexual humour, violent images and strong language; all involving puppets’. There also clearly won’t be a sequel.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done emotionally,” he winces. “I’m proud of the movie and don’t regret it but I would never, ever do it again. I spent on average eighteen hours a day, six days a week, together with Trey and I’m really happy we didn’t want to kill each other by the end of it.” Funny, for all the ‘dicks, pussies and assholes’ rhetoric, it’s their mutual respect and restraint under pressure that proves Stone and Parker have balls.
Gary Johnston’s terrorist act is just the latest in the line of taking out the criminals from the inside.
Gary Johnston Team America: World Police (2004)
Acclaimed Broadway actor and language expert, strategically placed facial hair and improvisational skills make him the perfect spy. If his cover is blown, he’s been given the means to end it all a hammer.
Mr. Orange Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Inconspicuous among the sharp-suited, colour-coordinated thieves, cop ‘Orange’ shows touching loyalty, even when he’s lost so much blood that he’d be more aptly named Mr. Red.
Alan (Tony Leung) Hard Boiled (1992)
Undercover gangster Alan whiles away his free time making origami birds and sending coded messages to the cops via flowers, love letters and Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’.
Russell Stevens, Jr. (Laurence Fishburne) Deep Cover (1992)
Dodgy cop plays shady dealer to help take down some Colombian coke peddlers but becomes a little too convincing. Not even given a hammer if things get rough.
Just how close is Team America to their inspiration Jerry Bruckheimer’s action-packed action flicks?
The Hero With A Past Trauma
Top Gun - Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is haunted by the ghost of his pilot father, also infamous for not following the rules and causing his own death.
Team America: World Police Gary Johnston is haunted by the fact that his acting skills got his brother beaten to death by gorillas.
The Special Forces
Black Hawk Down a crack military squad with excessive firepower arrive to aid a foreign country and cause mayhem.
TA:WP a crack world police force with excessive fire power arrive to aid foreign countries and cause mayhem.
The Heroic Climactic Speech
Armageddon Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis)
“Houston, you have a problem. You see, I promised my little girl that I was coming home. Now I don't know what you people are doing down there, but we've got a hole to dig up here!”
TA:WP Gary Johnston
‘We’re dicks! We’re reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks…”
The Love Theme
Pearl Harbour ‘There You’ll Be’
“Above the sky / In my heart / There always be a place / For you for all my life / I’ll keep a part / Of you with me / And everywhere I am / There you’ll be”
TA:WP ‘The End of An Act’
I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school / He was terrible in that film / I need you like Cuba Gooding needed a bigger part / He's way better then Ben Affleck / And now all I can think about is your smile / And that shitty movie too / Pearl Harbor sucked and I miss you.
'© Future Publishing 2005. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'
BACK TO FILM JOURNALISM INDEX