Believe it or don't, August 13 marked ten years since the debut of South Park, an animated series that turned a gaggle of profanity-spewing kids living in a Colorado mountain town into television and big screen favorites. The show is the unlikeliest kind of success, and that's appropriate, since Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the onetime locals behind the phenomenon, hardly followed the predictable path to stardom. They had a DIY sensibility from the beginning, as is demonstrated by the following Westword article -- their first major interview, published more than four years before the American public in general knew thing one about them.
"The Ultimate in Sound Bites," which first appeared on April 21, 1993, the better part of a year before the beginning of Westword's online archives, catches Parker and Stone while they were CU film students trying to raise money to complete their first film, then called Alferd Packer: The Musical; better known as Cannibal: The Musical, it was released in 1996. The pair stopped by Westword's former offices alongside cohorts Jason McHugh and Ian Hardin and proved to be just as joyfully anarchic as their legend would suggest -- particularly Parker, who was just 23 at the time, but already had a finely tuned sensibility for bad taste. They were rewarded for their efforts when Westword's own Kenny Be drew an excellent mock poster for Alferd Packer, reproduced here.
McHugh and Hardin, who's now known as Ian Keldin, didn't disappear. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, McHugh worked on several Parker-Stone projects, including the big screen opus Orgazmo and episode one of South Park, and produced and acted in 2006's Electric Apricot, a Spinal Tap-like parody from the mind of Primus' Les Claypool. As for Hardin/Keldin, an interview on a Cannibal: The Musical tribute site, notes that he went on to form his own video company and play in a local Denver band called Zed.
What about Parker and Stone? You know that story -- but you probably don't know the one below:
The Ultimate in Sound Bites
CU students are filming a musical based on galloping gourmet Alferd Packer
By Michael Roberts
April 21-27, 1993
“We used a lot of our money and a lot of our time to make it as gory as possible,” says 23-year-old moviemaker Trey Parker about his first feature film, Alferd Packer: The Musical. “People ask, ‘Is the gore tastefully done?’ And I say no – absolutely not. That would ruin it.”
Taste is the enemy for director-producer-lead-actor Parker, a student in the University of Colorado-Boulder’s tiny film department. Rather than trying to make a historically accurate film about Packer, who was convicted of killing and eating five men he’d been hired to guide through the Colorado mountains during the winter of 1874, Parker’s come up with a story that combines cannibalism and musical comedy. “It’s an ironic contradiction,” Parker says. “One minute, people are singing a song, and the next, it’s really violent and disgusting.”
Originally, the project was little more than an elaborate joke. In trying to come up with an idea for a five-minute film that would serve as his senior thesis, Parker remembered a term paper about Colorado’s most famous cannibal that he’d written for a history class a year earlier. Turning this tale into a full-length musical epic, with himself as Packer, never crossed his mind. “Me and my friends just went out to Loveland Pass and had fun,” he says. “We made a fake preview for a fake movie.”
“This satirical trailer was also something more – Parker’s chance to get even with his ex-fiancée. He memorialized his former love by giving her name to Packer’s beloved horse, which ultimately dumps Alferd in favor of a group of trappers. “Basically, the whole preview was shot so I could get this one line on film,” Parker admits. “Packer says to this trapper, ‘Tell me something, Frenchy. How does it feel to be riding my horse?’ And Frenchy says, ‘Come off it, Packer. Everyone in town has ridden your horse.’”
Sophisticated? Hardly – but the preview, which also featured a cowboy chorus line and a shot of a miner chewing a human arm like a chicken wing, was so well received that Parker decided to explore the possibility of actually making a Packer musical. He and several friends who’d co-starred with him in the preview (fellow CU film students Matt Stone, Ian Hardin and Jason McHugh) went to an area bookstore and bought every volume they could find about feature-film production – information that they’d somehow never learned in film school.
“I took this producing-a-feature class, it’s like a continuing-ed class, but it didn’t help,” says Stone, who’s also acting in the feature. “We had to learn by doing.”
In short order, the quartet formed a corporation (Avenging Conscience, Inc., named for a D.W. Griffith picture they all hated) and a limited partnership (Cannibal Films, Ltd.) and hired a lawyer who agreed to work for half his usual fee. Next, they began to hit up friends and family for money. “Some were easy,” Parker notes. “They said, ‘Here you go.’ Some were a lot harder – and some saw the preview and said, ‘No way. No way.’”
As the fundraising continued, Parker began writing the screenplay. The script went through seven drafts, and although Parker researched Packer’s life, even reading the transcripts of his trial, he decided to use plenty of poetic license. He trimmed the number of miners Packer was leading to Breckenridge, where gold had recently been found, from nineteen to six. Out of fear of offending the Ute tribe, he replaced Chief Ouray and his subjects – who provided a safe haven for the fourteen miners who decided not to follow Packer into the mountains – with Japanese entrepreneurs disguised as Indians. He accepted Packer’s claim that he acted in self-defense when he killed a member of the party (played by Hardin) who he said had gone crazy and slain the rest of his fellow travelers. And he gave Packer an affinity for his horse because, he says, “in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, there’s always a love interest – but it’s kind of hard to come up with a love interest in a story about six guys stuck in the mountains.”
Parker, a pianist who transferred to CU from Boston’s Berklee School of Music, also wrote ten original songs for his movie, including the showstopping finale “Hang the Bastard”; in the finished picture, the tunes will be played by a forty-piece orchestra made up of CU-Denver music students who are getting school credit for their efforts. Using Oklahoma! as a model, Parker says he intends the numbers to flesh out Packer’s character. He describes his protagonist not as a vicious killer but as a “complete idiot.”
“He did live in Colorado for a while, but as far as being a guide, he was in way over his head,” says Parker. “He couldn’t read and he was really stupid.”
By February, the fledgling producers had a completed screenplay and half their projected budget (they won’t reveal the total because of agreements made with investors). Since then, they’ve filmed sequences along the route that Packer took: Grand Junction, Delta and Lake City, in the actual courthouse where Packer was convicted. Thus far, the only on-location disaster involved the horse named after Parker’s ex fiancée, which helped her namesake exact her measure of revenge against Parker.
“We rented this horse, and the guy we were renting it from said, ‘It might buck you off, but don’t worry about that,’” Parker recalls. “And he said it used to take off running, too, but it hardly does that anymore. We said okay, but just as we were ready to start shooting, the horse takes off at full speed, over really bumpy terrain. I’ve ridden horses before, but I’m no rodeo rider, so I finally decided to bail because I knew I was going to fall off anyway, and I got a concussion and a fractured hip. I went to the hospital and they said you have to stay in bed for three days. I said, ‘Yeah, right,’ and we kept on shooting.”
More than half of the script has been filmed, and the hanging sequence, shot earlier this month in Cañon City, was covered by MTV’s The Big Picture, whose producers were amused by the picture’s concept. Still, more cash needs to be raised in order to complete the movie, which the producers hope to have ready for theatrical and home video release later this year. “The project has a lot of momentum,” says co-producer/actor McHugh, “and that’s what we’re counting on. But we don’t have all the money we need yet.”
“A lot of people have helped us by giving us price breaks on equipment and studio time, though,” adds Hardin. “They hear we’re making Alferd Packer: The Musical and they say, ‘Here. You guys need all the help you can get.’”