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Puppet Love: A Comedy With Strings Attached

By Anne Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page N01

HOLLYWOOD

"Team America: World Police" presented filmmakers Trey Parker and Matt Stone with some unusual challenges. For one thing, their actors were 22 inches tall and couldn't walk properly across a set (their wires got tangled), much less toss back a drink. The marionettes, however, became far more functional -- and accomplished -- in the bedroom.

This last did not amuse the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America, which slapped the movie with an NC-17 rating until last-minute cuts earned it an R. ("Team America's" full-length puppet-porn sequence will definitely boost sales of the DVD.) "To protect people from two puppets who love each other is a weird thing for the MPAA to put down," says Stone, who wrote and produced the film with Parker.


"People are saying that it's about politics," says Matt Stone (right, with Trey Parker) of "Team America." "It's a satire of movies."

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"We blow Janeane Garofalo's head clean off," adds Parker, "and they don't say a word."

The ratings battle was an unneeded distraction for the duo during a frantic last few days before the movie opens in theaters Friday. So they wouldn't have to put "Team America" on hold for months, Parker and Stone, the creators of the Comedy Central series "South Park," insisted on completing the film during their five-month hiatus from the TV show. That timetable, though, locked them into a killer pace.

Amid the MPAA tussle, Parker and Stone also had to do a day of reshoots the same week they showed the movie to the media, five days before they were due to deliver the final cut.

All this from something the two men call the "Mr. Bill" factor. Two and a half years ago, Parker and Stone were watching the '60s puppet show "Thunderbirds" on Tech TV. When a little car went sailing off a cliff, flipped and exploded, they burst out laughing. "Take a real thing and give it a little voice and it's funny," Parker says.

Even though they had promised each other after the 1999 Oscar-nominated animated musical "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" never to do another feature film, Parker and Stone latched onto the idea of doing the first R-rated puppet movie. Like "South Park," which features the crudest kind of construction paper animation, "this would be a giant step back from" computer graphics, says Parker, 34. "There was a whole fertile paradise of R-rated puppet jokes."

When Parker and Stone got hold of an early script for the global-warming disaster movie "The Day After Tomorrow," they wanted to convince 20th Century Fox that it was making a terrible mistake by shooting it live-action. "This was the best puppet script ever written," Parker says.

Fox, no surprise, begged to differ. So during the buildup for the invasion of Iraq, Stone and Parker wrote their own Jerry Bruckheimer parody. The plot is simple: When Team America learns that ruthless North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is disseminating weapons of mass destruction, it recruits a gifted Broadway actor to join the international police squad to help save the world.

On one level, the $32 million politically incorrect comedy is all about getting laughs from blowing up elaborate sets of Big Ben, the Great Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower -- as well as puppets who resemble outspoken liberal celebrities such as Garofalo, Tim Robbins and Michael Moore.

On another, it's a sophisticated deconstruction of the too-familiar cliches of studio action-adventure pictures such as "Armageddon."

"People are saying that it's about politics," says Stone, who is 33. "It's a satire of movies."

On the set, director Parker completed only about nine painstaking shots a day. Things went so excruciatingly slowly that by the time this reporter visited their Culver City, Calif., soundstage one steamy day in late August, the filmmakers were shooting three units at once.

Alec Baldwin has popped a string. A puppeteer, one of 40 working on this day, is lying on a platform above the set, manipulating the Baldwin marionette. As the puppeteer stops to restring his wooden controller, a costumer wearing knee pads fussily dusts Baldwin with a lint brush, snipping at his costume with scissors.

"Stars are always shorter when you meet them in person," cracks Eric Jewett, the first assistant director.

Next door, Parker is hunkered down behind a video playback monitor with his script, manipulating a joystick to move the jaws of the Baldwin puppet as he delivers an impassioned speech ("We must help Kim Jong Il!") in front of the Film Actors Guild.

Muppets production designer Jim Dultz's sets include the Sphinx, the Taj Mahal, the elaborate palace of Kim Jong Il and a James Bond-style Team America airbase inside the heads on Mount Rushmore, which open their mouths to spit out aircraft. Most of Dultz's work does not survive the movie intact.

For all their complaints, the filmmakers definitely got a primitive charge out of one aspect of their job.

"The sets cost $100,000 to make," says Parker, smiling, "and only 25 bucks to blow up."


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