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Puppet Masters 

by Ray Pride


Wooden puppets save the world. How's that different from any Jerry Bruckheimer movie, you ask? It's very different -- and almost the same -- in Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's brilliantly mindless, wickedly profane, relentlessly acerbic satiric alliance of Bruckheimer's worldview and the scary marionettes from Gerry Anderson's 1960s British TV series, Thunderbirds.


"To parody a Bruckheimer movie, you have to make a Bruckheimer movie," co-writer-producer Stone declares. And to make a Bruckheimer movie, you need explosions. The firepower on the one-third-scale sets are less Armageddon than M-80-style detonations, but they're still impressive. They're also integral to the over-the-top nature of the plot: After North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il plots to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists around the world (after feeding weapons inspector Hans Blix to the fishes), he schedules a peace conference to be sponsored by the Film Actors Guild, comprised of liberal actors like Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins and Janeane Garafaolo. Elite anti-terrorist squad Team America recruits Gary, a Broadway actor, to join their midst and save the world. And of course, in the midst of all this, a Michael Moore marionette, packed with ham, straps on dynamite and suicide-bombs Mt. Rushmore.


The South Park pair have been working on the movie for more than two years.


"We were just sitting around watching TV," Parker says. "And Thunderbirds was on. 'God, this could be really funny, think about it. Just do this, but we'll make it f--ing filthy, let's do South Park does Thunderbirds -- people will love it, right?' We called our agents, we're like, 'We know, we swore we'd never do another movie again, but we've got a great idea.' They're like, 'Sorry guys, somebody's already doing it.' For about a day, we're super bummed out. The next day, we find out they're doing live-action."


"That's the most confounding decision ever made by a studio, ever in the history of Hollywood," Stone says. "Take the puppets out of Thunderbirds. You've got f--ing nothing. Such a total studio decision."





Parker says Paramount was worried about just about every savage jab in their script, but Team America is about more than the almost-NC-17 puppet sex scene and the puke scene to top all puke scenes. These guys are serious about story.


"We went back and forth from parodying Bruckheimer moments to more of a 'Hero's Journey'-George Lucas-Matrix kind of movie," Stone says. "But a Bruckheimer hero isn't like a Luke Skywalker hero because he knows from the beginning he's awesome and then has a moment where he falters and then in the end, he's awesome. Whereas the Frodo or Luke or Neo, they don't believe they're the one, and finally, they're the one. The scenes were way funnier with the Bruckheimer-ness."


Stone and Parker invoke other archetypes in reference to an offering made by noble Gary to his superior, who demands a certain delicate favor. "That's right out of Bruckheimer," Stone says. "You have to get back on the plane, you have to get back on the force."


"It's standard Joseph Campbell stuff, too," Parker adds of the unlikely sexual sacrifice. "Right before the third act, you've gotta go through the eye of the needle and prove that you're willing to commit to the third act. That's what it's all about."


Within the movie's Bruckheimer template, Parker is quick to dismiss any queasiness that might come from shots of fake Susan Sarandon thrown off a balcony and splattering on the ground (five "blood"-filled condoms inside the marionette) or the puppet version of Janeane Garafaolo's head exploding in a geyser of blood and viscera from a shot to the head. Within the plot, it makes sense, but in the real world? "That's the point. It doesn't matter, they were going to kill Team America, and Kim Jong-il was going to blow up the world. That's the plot. That's the end."


Even with visible strings on the hundreds of marionettes onscreen, the movie's a devilish display of eye candy. Kim Jong-Il's lair is neatly detailed like one of production designer David Rockwell's restaurant or hotel interiors, an Albert Speer-meets-Andy Warhol look. When the terrorists detonate the Panama Canal, it's in a glade where all the vegetation is pot and the fronts of palm trees outside the Film Actors Guild are made from shredded dollar bills. If you look away from the puppet rutting in the sex scene, a Philippe Starck juicer passes for a lamp in the background. The costumes by Karen Patch (The Royal Tenenbaums) are equally inventive.


But it still came down to 18-hour days, seven days a week for Parker and Stone, who are hands-on with everything they do. "The hardest part about the movie," Stone says, was "trying to stay spontaneous and be funny in the midst of just total tedium.


"Going into it, people were nervous, they knew our style is to get to set and change everything," Stone continues. "On South Park, on Tuesday, we change the entire show before it goes on the air [Wednesdays]. Here, they go, 'This has to be all storyboarded and figured out.' We tried, but we got to set and come to find out you can't do that. Every day we would get to set, we'd find the puppets can't do what's in the storyboard, and they're like, 'Oh yeah, f--, what do we do?' And I'm like, 'OK, all you just f--in' back off, we're gonna do what we do, which is just sort of guerilla-style figure out how to get something on film.'


"We were always riding this line between wanting to stay endearing and charming and wooden and clumsy, and yet we knew we needed more emotion than Thunderbirds," he continues. "The problem with Thunderbirds was that you never got any big emotion out of it, you eventually lose interest."


But eight years of South Park have taught them how to maximize their minimalism. "We told the guys making the puppets," recalls Stone, "we were like, 'Look, nothing else matters.' They were like, 'We can get the cheeks to move,' and we were, 'No, all that matters is we have total control over the mouth and the eyebrows.' It proved to be true on this, too. A puppet would be talking and we would do this thing where we would very slowly raise that [eyebrow] up while he's talking. It makes him look like he's really thinking, and he's feeling. It was pretty cool."





Publication date: 10/14/04

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