Why ‘Team America’ Did Matt Damon Dirty
In 2004, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone released Team America: World Police, a project which answered an age-old question: “Could a profane puppet musical satirize America’s post-9/11 foreign policy and simultaneously insult every group of people on the planet?”
The film hit theaters just a few weeks before President George W. Bush secured re-election, and with the nation fiercely divided over the War on Terror, it took the delicate touch of Parker and Stone to create a marionette show that slandered the left, the right, the military, the terrorists, Kim Jong-il, every ethnicity on the planet, and, of course, actors.
No group was mocked quite as fiercely as the politically vocal Hollywood elite, though - with none of them more maligned than poor Will Hunting himself.
To understand what happened to Puppet Matt Damon and why Matt Stone would later describe it with an offensive eight-letter R-word that isn’t “REDACTED,” we must first examine how much the “South Park” creators hated—and I mean HATED—these puppets.
Parker and Stone were first motivated to write a puppet musical by a British TV show from the ’60s called Thunderbirds, a campy sci-fi program about a family of rescue pilots set in the future.
The show was shot using a technique invented by program creator Gerry Anderson called “Supermarionation,” where pre-recorded vocal lines triggered sensors in the heads of carefully crafted marionettes and moved the puppets’ lips in sync with the dialogue.
Anderson’s work on Thunderbirds inspired Parker and Stone to shoot Team America with a similar level of detail—they vowed to capture all the action on film and leave none of the “stunts” to post-production.
Filming began with a crew of more than 200 people, as it took a team of four to operate a single puppet--and there were 270 custom-made characters. A three-second shot could take an entire day to complete, and with a limited budget and looming deadlines, Parker and Stone worked grueling 20-hour days leading right up to the film’s release.
Trey Parker would later say about the experience, “You could threaten to kill my family and I would not make another puppet movie. If my mother would die if I would not make another puppet movie, she'd be dead. I'm totally serious.”
When working on a project of this scale, there is bound to be a screw-up. Puppet Matt Damon was that screw-up.
“When we looked at the plans for (Damon's) head he looked good, but when he came out of the oven he just looked r-------” said Matt Stone. In the original script, Puppet Matt was written to be intelligent and articulate, not at all matching the misshapen Sloth from The Goonies action figure that Parker and Stone ultimately had to work with.
So, in order to turn a problem into a solution, they made some rewrites--Puppet Matt Damon’s revised role in the film was to repeat his own name over and over like a Pokemon, then get his neck snapped by the protagonists. Stone and Parker basically turned Puppet Matt Damon into the marion-opposite of Jason Bourne.
In typical South Park fashion, Trey Parker and Matt Stone barely finished the movie in time for opening weekend. Many of the film’s producers hadn’t even seen the final cut before it was playing in theaters across the country.
Yet Team America was a hit, with audiences and critics from across the political spectrum joining in to laugh at themselves (and Kim Jong-il). Trey Parker and Matt Stone crafted a beautiful, vulgar, and occasionally insightful attack on everyone that everyone was welcome to enjoy.
Damon, unaware of the noggin-sculpting debacle, was understandably “bewildered” by his portrayal as a glassy-eyed punching bag who could barely say his own name. Nonetheless, he remains a fan of the duo's work and calls them geniuses. How do you like them apples?
Looking back at a filmmaking process that Matt Stone described as “the worst time of life," it’s amazing that Trey and Matt were able to roll with the punches. They made comedy lemonade out of lemons = when their lives became torturous as a result of tiny, string-attached facsimiles, it's not surprising that they took their anger out on the one that came out the lumpiest.
It’s also because the puppet looks really, really dumb.
Top Image: Paramount Pictures