He’s got the world on a string

As told to <I>Variety</I>: David Rockwell on 'America'

It isn’t a stretch to say that Paramount’s “Team America: World Police” was the most unusual-looking film of 2004. “South Park” creators Trey Parker (who directed) and Matt Stone chose to express antic satire with puppets — the film took much critical drubbing and the public responded with a yawn: the film grossed $35 million worldwide. Nevertheless, the technical demands of the $32 million production were formidable — 90 marionettes and sets that had to accommodate puppeteers. Design work was spearheaded by Gotham-based architect and designer David Rockwell, known for Broadway shows like “Hairspray” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” restaurants like Nobu and venues like the Kodak Theater and Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. The artistic team also included production designer Jim Dultz, d.p. Bill Pope and costume designer Karen Patch. Rockwell tells Variety‘s Carole Horst about this, even by his eclectic standards, highly unusual project.

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“(Producer) Scott Rudin approached me, then he set up a meeting with Matt and Trey. I was immediately hooked by the script; also immediately hooked by the idea of creating an entire world. I had been approached before about doing film, but this was the first film that I was approached about where it was extremely clear to me how we could make a significant contribution, because it was about making things.

“I was also really interested in the fact that Trey and Matt did not want to use computer graphics.

“That totally relates to the work I do as an architect where I’m really interested in craftsmanship. It also gave us a chance to try to, throughout the movie, have a visual ‘Where’s Waldo?’ of handmade things from found objects that if you look carefully, they reveal the scale of the marionettes.”

“When you approach Kim Jung Il’s palace — the ultimate in dictator chic meets Liberace — the slums are all made of Chinese food containers. … The palm trees in front of the Film Actors Guild are made from shredded dollar bills.

“In some ways, in visual ways, our job was to be the straight man; to allow the comedy be the marionettes, and since they wanted it to be a spoof of a (producer Jerry) Bruckheimer movie, we did want super-real things.

“But take, for instance, the streets of Paris, which have croissants as a paving pattern. Obviously this is a very Americanized view of the world. That’s what the story’s about. So Paris does have all the icons one would expect to find in Paris, but it’s only made of icons. So it’s the Eiffel Tower, quaint town square, the fountain, the Louvre, it’s the Paris Opera House, it is a mime, it’s a topiary in the shape of a poodle … which is a kind of reductivist view of the world.”

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“In the script, it talked about them living in Mount Rushmore, which opens up in this absurdly James Bond way, to let the planes come in. Then Team Base is this little modernist house that sits in there that was really very influenced by moderism; modernism was the epitome of optimism. It also combine(s) up-to-the-minute moderism with a kind of Dean Martin swankiness combined with a kind of ‘Dr. Strangelove’ world surveillance.

“And Spottswoode (Team America leader) would have been the client for it. You have to think who would be the client for the environment. So we went with something we thought Spottswoode would do.”

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“I guess Team Base was the biggest challenge. First of all, there were three different scales. But it’s got so many things that are very hard to do: It’s got a waterfall, it’s got a fireplace, it’s got a lit floor — because a lot of puppets are rodded from below so the lit floor was a big challenge — it’s got planes that fly out … so that was clearly our most challenging set.”

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“Part of the real thrill for me was not just working with Matt and Trey but working with (cinematographer) Bill Pope; Karen Patch, who did the costumes; (production designer) Jim Dultz. … It was just a fantastic team. Collaboration is where you get your best ideas.”

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“Money was a major issue. They certainly weren’t cheap about anything but money was an issue that lead us to many decisions over how big things were. But I don’t think it ever affected the movie negatively. Sometimes parameters lead you to more interesting design solutions.”

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“I had to deal with the fact that when I read the script it was going to offend everyone I knew. … Matt and Trey are true satirists. There are no sacred cows. I did get a laugh out of knowing what a huge Hollywood film fan Kim Jung Il is and knowing that he’s probably seen this movie.”