In an interview, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and their collaborator Peter Serafinowicz discuss the back story of “Sassy Justice,” their deepfake video that used images of President Trump and others.
Like so many other things on the internet, the viral video “Sassy Justice” seemed too good to be true when it started showing up on television and then on the internet earlier this week. Presented as a local news broadcast from a station in Cheyenne, Wyo., the video is hosted by a reporter named Fred Sassy, who appears to be a dead ringer for President Trump — if he wore a cheap suit and a white wig and spoke with a campy accent.
Sassy conducts what he claims is an interview with Al Gore and spars with the unscrupulous owner of a dialysis center, who looks an awful lot like Mark Zuckerberg. All the while, he warns of the dangers of deepfakes: sophisticated computer-generated images that have been manipulated to look like familiar people engaging in actions that never happened and speaking words they never uttered.
Of course, “Sassy Justice” itself is an elaborate series of deepfakes — starting with its host — designed to mock leaders and celebrities while calling out the risks that such videos pose to our understanding of truth and reality.
And although its creators did not immediately identify themselves when it first appeared, the video is the handiwork of experienced satirists: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park,” and Peter Serafinowicz, the actor and voice artist.
As these collaborators explained in a recent video call, “Sassy Justice” is partly their attempt to educate their viewers about deepfakes and demystify a potentially terrifying subject.
“Before the big scary thing of coronavirus showed up, everyone was so afraid of deepfakes,” Stone said. “We just wanted to make fun of it because it makes it less scary.”
The project is also their way of immersing themselves in the technology — to see what it can do as an art form and also to salvage the investment they made in a deepfake feature film that was shelved as the pandemic spread.
As Parker said, “It really is this new form of animation for people like us, who like to construct things on a shot-by-shot level and have control over every single actor and voice. It’s a perfect medium for us.”
Serafinowicz, a star of TV shows like “The Tick” and “Miracle Workers” and of films like “Shaun of the Dead,” has also built a formidable roster of celebrity impressions he has performed on British sketch shows and political satires.
But the voice of President Trump, he said, has proved difficult to master. “Paradoxically, for somebody who’s so exaggerated, it’s almost impossible to do an accurate impression of him, Serafinowicz said. “There are so many enigmas wrapped up in that man.”
Taking a different approach, Serafinowicz created a series of viral videos in which he replaced Trump’s voice with various stock accents and voices he performed, including Sophisticated Trump, Cockney Trump and Sassy Trump.
He also started experimenting with his own deepfake videos, though he found it difficult at first to find reputable instructors on the internet. “There’s a little community of deepfakers who were almost exclusively using it to put celebrities in porn videos,” he said. (Eventually he found more conscientious trainers and learned to use open-source code.)
Serafinowicz (who has voiced characters on “South Park”) began working with Parker and Stone on a script for a full-length deepfake movie; in the spirit of comedies like “The Great Dictator” and “Dave,” it would chronicle Fred Sassy, a mild-mannered character who looks like Trump and who accidentally gets drawn into the president’s administration.
The filmmakers — who financed the project independently with the intention of finding a distributor later — created a studio they called Deep Voodoo and hired a staff of about 20 deepfake artists and technicians. They began preliminary work on the film earlier this year, hoping to finish it before the presidential election and before Parker and Stone had to start new episodes of “South Park.”
Only a few days of preliminary filming were completed when the pandemic forced a halt to the production in mid-March. “Everybody’s like, the Covid thing might delay us a week,” Stone recalled. “And we’re like, how are we going to survive that? We were already up against it.”
After their shock and disappointment subsided, and after Serafinowicz hurried home to London, the three of them were determined not to let their time and energy go to waste. They had their deepfake crew, the Fred Sassy character and some props that had already been created for the film (like his news van, which had cost them $30,000) — why not create a TV show for him instead?
With Parker in Los Angeles, Stone in New York and Serafinowicz in London, they spent the next several months remotely writing and producing the 15-minute “Sassy Justice” video, employing their deepfake artists to digitally graft famous faces onto footage they shot of themselves.
They recruited their own family members into the project: Serafinowicz (whose characters include Fred Sassy, President Trump and Michael Caine) drafted his wife, the actress Sarah Alexander, to play Julie Andrews, while Parker (who plays Gore) cast his 7-year-old daughter, Betty, as an eerie, childlike version of Jared Kushner.
Segments were rewritten and jokes were fine-tuned on the fly as the team continued to figure out the deepfake process. But when Parker got to see himself digitally altered to look like Al Gore, he said, “It was the first time I had laughed at myself in a long time.”
Parker added: “I always hate watching myself. Even with ‘South Park,’ I have a perfect image of what it’s going to look like in my head all the time. But on this, there were moments where we felt like kids in our basement again.”
To Parker and Stone, the experience also reminded them of “The Spirit of Christmas,” their 1995 homemade short film that became a viral sensation in a more primitive age of the internet and paved the way for “South Park.”
Channeling that same energy, they paid to promote the “Sassy Justice” video this past weekend on Wyoming television (including a commercial on CBS’s broadcast of the NFL game between the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs), on local radio, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle newspaper and on billboards. None of these ads fully explained what “Sassy Justice” was.
“You know there’s at least six or seven super-high people in Cheyenne who just lost their minds,” Parker said. “To us, it’s almost worth it.” He, Stone and Serafinowicz also tipped off a few close friends and industry peers about the video.
Technology ethicists, public-policy advocates and journalists have been sounding the alarm bells on deepfakes for years, and Congress has held hearings on the subject amid concerns that the rapidly improving technology could be used to influence financial markets and elections, or otherwise threaten national security.
(Keep this in mind as you’re watching a highly exaggerated sequence in “Sassy Justice” that presents a fake interview between Chris Wallace and President Trump, where the president appears to have a stroke and tells Wallace, “I’m a terrible person. I’ve led a horrible life.”)
The “Sassy Justice” creators said that they trusted their audience to figure out what is real and what is manipulated, and to understand that everything in their video is offered to entertain, not to deceive.
While they acknowledged the potentially treacherous power they have at their disposal, the creators said that their decisions are guided by whatever they think is funniest.
“There is something anxiety-producing about it,” Stone said. “You could call it a moral question — we call it a comedy question. Just ripping something off and trying to fool somebody for more than a second, we have no interest in that.”
Parker added, “What we want to do is put Mark Zuckerberg in a turkey suit.”
Serafinowicz said that he thinks of deepfake technology as a high-tech form of makeup or costumes — simply another element that he can use to enhance his acting.
When he performs one of his impersonations, Serafinowicz explained: “I imagine myself looking like the person that I’m doing. Now that’s become real. It’s like wearing the most realistic mask possible. When it works, it’s just startling. It’s like magic.”
The “Sassy Justice” creators said they had spent “millions” of dollars to make the video, including the initial investments to produce the halted movie and set up the Deep Voodoo studio, though they declined to specify the exact cost. “It’s probably the single most expensive YouTube video ever made,” Parker said.
Now that they have spent that money and created “Sassy Justice” as a proof of concept, they are considering what they will do next with the project, whether they return to their original film idea or continue to produce it as a television show.
No matter who is president next year, Parker said that a “Sassy Justice” series could continue to lampoon “whatever’s going on in the world, although I think Trump will remain a great character for a long time, regardless.”
In the meantime, Parker said, “We’re waiting for Steven Spielberg to call us and say, hey, we need your deepfake company to make my movie.”