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FALL SNEAKS

Launching a small-scale offensive

The 'South Park' gang is back with more of its raunchy, irreverent shtick. But this time they recruited puppets to do the dirty work.

September 12, 2004|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

The Taj Mahal wasn't built in a day, and it looks as if it's going to take much longer than that to torch it.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the "South Park" TV series and movie, are scurrying to finish their next film, the action satire "Team America: World Police," and the Taj Mahal isn't making their destructive work any easier. The movie's central conceit -- it's performed by one-third scale marionettes dangled over miniature sets -- has been far easier to dream up than execute, and with two weeks left to complete principal photography for its Oct. 15 premiere, Stone and Parker are running out of time, money and energy.

Like the most hackneyed Hollywood popcorn movie, the world will go up in smoke unless Team America's crime-fighting puppets single-handedly come to the rescue. Stone and Parker's villain puppet, Kim Jong Il, is as ruthless as he is diminutive, and is laying waste to familiar sights spanning the globe. The North Korean leader already has obliterated London's Big Ben and Paris' Louvre. India's onion-domed landmark is the next to be vaporized, assuming Parker and Stone can figure out how to blow it up.

For the better part of an August morning on a Culver City soundstage, Stone has rehearsed a sequence intended to turn an enormous scale Taj Mahal model into rubble, but what sounds like a teenage pyro prank is proving much more complicated than that. The movie sends up show business cliches whenever possible, and the filmmakers are trying to jam in as many visual allusions as feasible. Stone, who co-wrote "Team America" and serves as its second unit director, wants the Taj Mahal scene to be a recognizable homage to the nuclear shockwaves leveling Baltimore in "The Sum of All Fears."

"It's a great explosion," Stone says of the "Sum of All Fears" blast. "It's probably the only good part of the movie."

Stone loads a "Sum of All Fears" DVD into his laptop and reviews the key scene with co-writer and director Parker, who is filming another "Team America" segment on an adjacent set inside the same soundstage. Special-effects technicians have ringed the Taj Mahal replica with compressed-air canisters designed to generate a sequence of debris-filled shockwaves that will wipe out the innocent marionettes strolling past the Islamic shrine. After a quick safety speech, the fireworks begin. A smoky explosion rips across the stage with a roar, the lifeless puppets collapsing in a tangled mass in the Taj Mahal's reflecting pool.

"Damn it," Parker says, punching his director's chair as the scene is replayed on a video monitor. "One puppet screwed up the whole shot."

The video replay reveals that the instant the explosion hit, the hands of one of the scene's six puppeteers flinched just a few inches, sending his marionette skyward a split second before the shock waves arrive. What's more, the debris is out of scale, and the explosion isn't bright enough. It seems absurd to say, but the sequence looks ... fake.

Even though "Team America" is by outward appearances a feature-length joke, the film is painstakingly well made, from intricate costume designs to high-speed chase scenes performed in remote-control cars. One tiny "Team America"-scale Uzi cost $1,000 to construct, and Kim Jong Il's eyeglasses are made with hand-ground prescription lenses.

Given their obsession with detail, craftsmanship and whatever passes for verisimilitude in a puppet movie, Stone and Parker immediately realize that as hopelessly overcrowded as their remaining production schedule might be, they must redo the whole Taj Mahal scene.

"This movie is a nightmare to shoot," says Stone. It's not just explosions that have proved challenging.

To ensure Paramount would give enough money to maintain high production standards, Stone, Parker and producer Scott Rudin waived their collective fees of some $7 million.

"There is nothing in the world," a weary Parker says, "that would ever make me want to make another puppet movie."

*

A method to their madness

People unfamiliar with the work habits of Stone, Parker and longtime writing partner Pam Brady might assume the trio simply guzzles enough beer and takes sufficient bong hits until crazy ideas start flowing. How else to explain "South Park's" episode "The Passion of the Jew" or the show's turning Saddam Hussein into Satan's gay lover?

But a few days with Stone and Parker on the "Team America" set proves that underneath their frat-house fascination with language and sexuality so coarse it might make John Waters blush, they take moviemaking quite seriously. The "Team America" production boasts some of the top artists in every trade: Cinematographer Bill Pope is coming off "Spider-Man 2" and "The Matrix" movies, while pyrotechnics supervisor Joe Viskocil worked on "Independence Day" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

It's easy to forget Parker and Marc Shaiman's "Blame Canada" song from 2000's "South Park" movie was nominated for an Academy Award (Shaiman also is "Team America's" composer).

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