Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a nice little sit down with the brains behind the upcoming Broadway musical The Book of Mormon: Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q).
I couldn’t turn down the offer to preview the opening act of the play (read my thoughts on that here!) and interview these guys, so I booked my flight, sought out a nice, cheap hotel and prayed the weather wouldn’t fuck me and headed out to NYC.
Back in the mid-‘90s I attended SXSW and saw the midnight show of Cannibal: The Musical. If my memory is correct they also played The Spirit of Christmas before the feature, which is essentially the very first iteration of what would become South Park before Comedy Central aired the show.
So, I’ve been a fan a long, long time and have stuck with Parker and Stone from Cannibal to South Park, Orgazmo, BASEketball, the South Park movie and so on… even including digging up their more obscure shorts (anybody see their Universal backlot short about things being “Old… and stupid” that includes Spielberg himself conducting the tram ride through the Jaws section?).
Now you know, I entered his chat as a complete fanboy, but I don’t think I totally Chris Farley’d up the conversation… Just a little bit when I talk about how much I love the Cannibal: The Musical commentary.
There’s a lot of good stuff below, their process on the musical, their inspirations, the collaboration between Trey, Matt and Robert Lopez and much more. Hope you enjoy!
Matt Stone: Have you seen a lot of theater? Are you a theater person?
Quint: No, I’m a movie guy. I’m with Ain’t It Cool News.
Matt Stone: No, I know that. The reason I’m asking is because we figured you know…
Quint: But my theater experience has been more in comedy stuff. I went to see SPAMALOT, because I’m a Monty Python fan. I knew I was in with your play when the guy walked by with the punching bag marked “Dead Donkey,” I’m like “Alright, I think this might be for me…”
Matt Stone: That’s the magic of theater right there.
Quint: But this was your first time watching it with a crowd, right?
Trey Parker: No, we have seen the entire show… We have done workshops like this where we have seen it in a room like this for years…
Matt Stone: Five or four years…
Robert Lopez: But it’s always been kind of secretive.
Matt Stone: It’s always like seventy friends of ours.
Trey Parker: And actually we were partly thinking at the very early part of it “Should we do this as a movie or as a stage thing?” As soon as we started seeing it with an audience, we were like “This is cool” and “This is a whole new thing. Let’s do it.”
Quint: But that reaction, and those are, I guess, the hardened press out there too and they were really into it.
Trey Parker: Yeah, we always have a really good reaction and then it’s funny, because it’s theater, so then you can also do one and suddenly everyone’s really quiet, but then at the end of it they are “Oh that was really great.” and you are like “Really?”
Matt Stone: Last summer we did the exact same show two days in a row and one day people laughed here and there. It wasn’t like a complete disaster, but it was just dead. The next day it was like off the walls.
Trey Parker: It blew the roof off.
Matt Stone: And a little bit has to do with the performers and that chemistry between the performers and the audience… he gives a little and they give a little more. I think there’s something when the performers are up on stage and they just don’t feel the audience giving in and they kind of pull back. That’s all stuff that me and Trey don’t know anything about, but Bobby does… It’s pretty interesting.
Robert Lopez: Yeah, years into the run that gets really annoying.
Matt Stone: Yeah when you know it works and you know that it can be great and then it, for whatever reason, this crowd or this night didn’t take. That’s going to happen.
Quint: You touched on it a little bit in there, but I would love to hear a little bit more about the collaboration between you guys. It seems like a perfect match from an outsider’s perceptive.
Trey Parker: It’s great and we really just start from a place of “Let’s start writing a song.” Once we got the whole idea of “Okay, two missionaries put together” and really that “Hello” song was one of the first things we wrote. It was just like “Okay, what’s the opening number?” We were just like “They are ringing doorbells and they are doing their thing…”
Quint: As you are saying this, I imagine somebody’s at a piano; the other one is smoking a cigar… “How are we going to do this?”
Trey Parker: (laughs) Completely. Standing in lounge jackets…
Matt Stone: (in old timey voice) “How are we gonna do this!?!”
Robert Lopez: Well, it was. We were kind of just bouncing titles and tunes.
Trey Parker: And coming up with the joke of the song, the hooks of the song, and all of that stuff. It was really fun. It was just that, for us too, it was always in-between SOUTH PARK, so for the first three or four years of it really, at least three years of it, it was like “We are just doing this for fun. Who knows what’s really going to come out of it.”
Matt Stone: It was a “Let’s see where it leads” kind of thing.
Trey Parker: Yeah and we were just doing it as a break and then it of course becomes work. (laughs)
Matt Stone: It was really nice. It was nice for us and now that we have been in the theater world a little bit, it seems like it’s kind of a rare luxury to be able to just take the time and kind of have the wherewithal to go “Let’s just get together for a couple of weeks and see what happens.” We don’t have a schedule. We can afford to fly off to New York and stay in a hotel and work with Bobby or Bobby can afford to come to LA. We can just work on it.” Then we would put it down for sometimes even like six months at a time and not even talk to each other. “Hey, what are you doing in a month? Let’s get together and do this.”
Trey Parker: But the work kept us coming back, because then we would listen to the three or four songs we wrote and be like “God, this is good. We’ve got to keep (going). We can’t stop working on it.”
Robert Lopez: My favorite part of it was that we would always end up, at the end of every session I would go back to New York and we would say “goodbye,” there would be like cards on a bulletin board and Trey would be like “Okay, now save these cards.” Then we would come back and the cards would be missing…
Trey Parker: I would always lose the cards… (laughs)
Matt Stone: So the progress line would be (draws an almost Z shape in the air). It’d be like we would have to talk about like “What did we do last time?” Then we would get an hour into it and it’s like “Oh yeah! Well, you know we can do this…” and then “Oh, this is what we came up with last year.” We just forgot.
Quint: So you got to have the joy of discovery twice.
Matt Stone: That was funny. We did talk a lot. There was a certain point where we had to go “movie or stage?” And there was a bit where I remember I was like “Let’s do a movie, because at least…” I’m not saying Trey and I know how to do a movie, but “Okay we have done a movie before,” but then we would put it in one of these workshops for fifty people and see how well it went on stage. “That seems like it has to be on stage.” It was a couple of years ago we finally said… It was like two years ago, right?
Trey Parker: If we had made a movie, it would already be done and out on DVD. (laughs)
Quint: Look at it this way; you can always get Roman Polanski to film the movie version.
Trey Parker: Yeah, right exactly. (laughs)
Matt Stone: Let’s do that.
Quint: I saw CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL at South By Southwest when it played the midnight lineup there, so I’ve been a fan a very long time and to this day the commentary on CANNIBAL is my favorite commentary.
Trey Parker: (laughs) I hadn’t listened to that since we did. I keep hearing we won some award for it and I’m like “Really? I don’t remember. I was really drunk.” They are like “I know, that’s why you won.” (laughs)
Matt Stone: (laughs) I just remember there was some point where Trey is yelling “Fuck Sting” or something? “Fuck Sting” like “What is this about?”
Trey Parker: I was wasted.
Matt Stone: We just got really wasted… When I get wasted, I get really quiet. That’s my drunk thing, so I’m not that great on it, but we were all really drunk.
Quint: My friends and I quote that commentary like back and forth like people would quote SOUTH PARK and movies. I know it sounds like I’m way off topic, but what my bridge was supposed to be was that it’s very clear you guys have been into musicals for a very long time and that’s been a very strong passion and now you are going to be on Broadway. This has got to be a tick off of the bucket list or something.
Trey Parker: It is. I don’t know what other ticks are left, really. It’s my big one for sure. There’s just something so pure about it and you know I always loved musical storytelling and actually when I was a kid I was really doing more like funny songs before I got into filmmaking or anything like that or using a video camera.
Just in a musical how you can tell a story and how you are so limited. That’s what’s so cool and it sucks when you are there, but to have… You’ve got this limited cast and this limited space and it’s like in SOUTH PARK we are like “Okay, well let’s bring in the Chinese army and then we will have this person show up and do whatever.” It’s like you are so limited, you have to think of how to solve the problem with your two characters that you are really focusing on, so it’s just been a big exercise in having to write well.
Matt Stone: I think if we would have chosen the movie version, it wouldn’t be as good as it is. I’d say it ended up forcing us into that discipline of writing, so it’s like you can’t just go to a gunfight. This has to work emotionally, thematically, and whatever is going on has to keep your attention, because it’s actually good, not because of quick cuts. That’s been a challenge.
Quint: The visuals aren’t so much a crutch for you. You can’t just throw in a funny gag or something.
Matt Stone: Or sex it up…
Robert Lopez: And you can’t really throw in too much plot either because people don’t really care about logistical anything on stage. It’s all just one room… “We are all here. Everybody knows…” and you are looking at this emotional crucible.
Trey Parker: It’s so emotional. It’s just like “Oh, everyone’s happy now.” Or “Oh, everyone’s sad now…”
Matt Stone: We’ve done a whole thing and I’m sure hopefully the experience is a little… “Okay, they are in Africa now” and you just go “Okay, they are in Africa.” Your mind does fill in… We’ve got a set with an Africa backdrop and you know we have the costumes and sets to put you there, but it’s crazy how when it’s working how how it works with none of that stuff. It’s pretty cool.
Quint: Yeah, there’s a much easier suspension of disbelief on stage for some reason.
Trey Parker: Yeah, that’s part of the fun.
Quint: You mentioned earlier that you’re handling the missionaries like a married couple, but it looks like you kind of have like an ODD COUPLE thing going into the hellish world of Uganda.
Trey Parker: It was always that way, right?
Robert Lopez: Yeah.
Matt Stone: One screw up and one perfect Mormon…
Trey Parker: And of course the perfect one ends up getting completely fucked over by the other one.
Matt Stone: The lead doesn’t get what he thought he was going to get.
Trey Parker: Our whole idea originally was that we had these two… We had this one picture perfect Mormon and then the big kind of slobby, doesn’t really read the book much and then right before intermission the main character got shot and killed, so that the slobby one had to take over. Structurally it’s still kind of the same, but now it’s like “No, this guy is too good; we can’t kill him.” (laughs)
Matt Stone: (laughs) It was too good of a character. I think we started from that place, because that’s how we got that leading man and obviously not leading man thing, but I think we just talked a lot about… When you think about two nineteen year olds that are paired together and you don’t know each other and you are sent to… We went to Salt Lake City and just interviewed Mormons. By interview, we just went to restaurants and talked to waiters, because for the most part down town Salt Lake City “Are you a Mormon?” “Yes” “Did you go on a mission?” “Yeah, I did.” or “This guy did.” We just talked to people informally and a lot of people went to Cambodia or Brazil or… Some of them went to nice places and some of them went to really shitty places and you are like “Dude, you were nineteen, you got paired with someone you never met and they send you to Cambodia.
Robert Lopez: There was this one kid and he had witnessed some kind of brutality and he transferred out.
Trey Parker: He witnessed somebody getting stoned to death or something.
Matt Stone: At that moment you are like “Okay, I like laughing at you and everything, but I didn’t do that when I was nineteen. I lived forty minutes from home and went to the University of Colorado. I drank tons of beer and did tons of drugs and that’s how I found myself.” (laugh)
There was a real coming of age story… That must make you grew up and there’s kind of a weird wisdom to that and there’s a ton of like “Well, that’s a story. That’s a less contrived setup than half the movies that come out.”
Matt Stone: “What if he could have a free ticket to cheat on your wife for a week?” (laughs) “Oh my God, now that’s a movie!” Or “A TiVo device that can control my life!” So it just seemed like that to us seemed like such a good story.
Quint: It’s really funny fish out of water stuff. I’ve only seen the first twenty-five minutes, but I can already see that there’s a little heart there.
Trey Parker: Yeah, but we also have this license now to be super cheesy and that’s the thing, musicals can be kind of cheesy. You can do a big like Rogers and Hammerstein kind of musical because that’s who they are. Do you know what I mean? It’s like we always say “Let’s Disney this up some more. Let’s Rogers and Hammerstein this up some more,” just because Mormons fit right in with that and so it lets us do these dance moves and it fits right in.
Quint: Just a happy white guy dancing.
Trey Parker: Yeah, just watching lots of Up With People.
Matt Stone: Up With People, definitely a big inspiration.
Quint: So what’s the plan? Where do you go from here?
Trey Parker: So we go in the theater, we start in there on Monday and that’s what we have learned is… Bobby knows all of this stuff, but we are learning, so it’s this thing called “Tech” where we have two weeks of basically everyone sort of meticulously going “Okay, now I say my line here” and we go “Okay, so this light should be on him there.” Just this grueling kind of two weeks of like making sure all of the lights and everything is blocked out exactly the way (it needs to be). Then we have a few days and we start previews, right?
Matt Stone: Our first paid audience is less than three weeks from yesterday, or today. Today is Monday, so three weeks from today we have our first paid audience. Is that right? Yeah, we have the rest of the week in here and then two weeks in tech. That sounds really fast, but on the other hand we have to do it. Because this is a performance and people are practicing everyday, you want that freshness and almost nervousness and almost like “Oh my God, I’ve got to say these lines right.” And you can tell when the performers kind of start getting like “Okay, we’ve got to do this again?” You don’t want it to get stale. You have to hit it with that “Okay, it’s fresh. It’s still a bit exciting and dangerous, but done.” Then they can get pumped up by the crowd.
Trey Parker: Yeah.
Matt Stone: But I can see why you don’t want to take too long and kind of run it into the ground and get bored of it and hate it. Hopefully we are on a good timetable.
Quint: Cool. How was working with the actors? Was it a long casting process or did you find your guys quickly?
Robert Lopez: Well a lot of them have been in it since the first workshop from like three years ago and then some of them are new and some of them are brand new.
Matt Stone: Josh Gad has been in it the whole time and Nikki [M. James] has been in it except for the very, very first time. She’s been in it the whole time. Rory [O’Malley] has been in it the whole time…
Trey Parker: Yeah, a lot of them have been.
Matt Stone: There were a few we have had to cast along the way, but yeah they are great and they are artists in their own right, all of them. You start to get a character and a person playing that character in mind, you are writing for them… That’s a new process for us too, because Trey and I just write for ourselves like “Cartman would say this and then Butters will say this and will go do that,” so that’s a little different, but it’s pretty great too when it works. When it doesn’t work, it’s not great.
Robert Lopez: Some of developing the characters and the casting process have kind of gone hand in hand because the main character, the one that was going to die right away, we didn’t really have a great lead on. We cast this guy who didn’t seem right, so then we cast another guy and put him in the same part and he didn’t seem right and then suddenly realized “It’s the character. We need to rewrite this character.”
Matt Stone: Right, it’s not the actors, it’s the character. But then we found Andrew and he was great. He had knocked it out of the park. “That’s the guy. Finally.” That was great.
Quint: And he has a lot of energy. It is very much… I just came from Sundance, so it feels like I’ve been prepping for this trip! I guess it’s a tribute to everybody you have picked so far where everybody that was up there was like “Yep, I buy him as a Mormon.”
Matt Stone: We went to Sundance like eight or nine years in a row I think and we went to Temple Square like five or six of them. Almost every year we would go down to Temple Square and not go see some movies, just go down and hang out with Mormons and just see Mormon stuff.
Quint: What’s the next? The play comes out and then?
Matt Stone: And it just runs for years and years.
Trey Parker: That’s what’s so crazy about this. In what we are used to it’s like “well no matter what happens, we are always going to have a DVD of this.” With this thing, if it doesn’t work it’s just gone.
Matt Stone: I was talking to one of my friends and this sounds like a sales pitch and it’s not, literally I told my friends “Come see it…” They are like “When should I come see it?” I go “Well… honestly I hope you come see it whenever, but to be safe… pretty soon…” Hopefully it will run for a long time, but we don’t really know. It’s kind of weird.
Trey Parker: Yeah, it’s really weird.
Robert Lopez: And even if it does run for ten years, when you go to see it ten years from now it’s not the same thing and even if it was the same thing, it wouldn’t feel like the same thing because it’s a different audience and a different you.
Matt Stone: I don’t want to say, “Oh, this is the rawest thing we’ve done.” It’s our sensibility, but different than doing TV or film. In TV we have the network to deal with. With film we have the MPAA. With this, it’s kind of like me and Trey and Bobby are renting a theater and we are putting on a show. It’s weird, like the first time go “Who do we have to run this line by?” “Nobody.” “Does it violate New York indecency laws?” “No.” “Okay, well you guys can do it.” “That’s kind of cool.”
Robert Lopez: It’s ironic that the cleanest art form has absolutely no code whatsoever.
Trey Parker: Because they usually don’t have to worry about it. (laughs)
Robert Lopez: Right, exactly!
Matt Stone: So, that’s kind of a new experience too, but really is like it will go on hopefully as long as people want to see it.
Quint: That’s got to be amazing for you guys, although I have to say I’m a fan of your work arounds to some of the stuff before, like I love that with the SOUTH PARK movie you took an innocuous title anyway that they had a problem with, then you made it the most disgusting title that they just totally didn’t catch.
Matt Stone: No, if there was some kind of theater MPAA, we probably would have made this way dirtier somehow! (laughs)
Quint: Cool, well what’s next for you guys film-wise? Do you guys have another feature?
Trey Parker: Seriously it’s been all about this and then we go back to SOUTH PARK, but like… I don’t know what we are going to do when this is done. It’s going to be this giant thing we have been working on for so long.
Matt Stone: We have been doing this for seven years, so we are going to take a break. SOUTH PARK is… fourteen episodes of SOUTH PARK a year is full time. That’s a lot, so we go right from this… We will be here from like two weeks after opening. Opening night is March 24th and then here for like a week or two and then back to SOUTH PARK, but film-wise we don’t have anything on our plate.
Robert Lopez: My wife and I have WINNIE THE POOH coming out the summer.
Quint: Oh, nice.
Matt Stone: You did the NEMO ride, too.
Robert Lopez: Yeah, we did the NEMO musical down in Orlando, but that was like three years ago.
Matt Stone: Bobby does a lot of Disney…
Robert Lopez: I don’t know how much I will get after this…
Matt Stone: Trey and I don’t have any film, nothing… We don’t have anything set-up. Like really we don’t have anything.
Trey Parker: We never do, though. Even when we did TEAM AMERICA it was like one day where we were like “We should do this like marionette puppet movie” and we were doing it like six months later. That’s just how it is.
Quint: Well, I look forward to anything you guys do. Thank you very much for your time!
Trey Parker: Thanks.
Matt Stone: Cool, man
There you have it. Hope you guys enjoyed the chat! I’ll have an avalanche of Sundance interviews hitting this week, including chats with such greats as Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, Tom McCarthy and Kim Ji-Woon!