After starting out as a solo animator, where he created mentally unstable characters like “Inbred Jed” and “Milton” (who would later be used in his first live-action feature Office Space), Mike Judge struck a chord with his minimalist MTV animated show Beavis And Butt-head, about a pair of chuckleheads (both voiced by Judge) who watched videos and commented inanely on everyday things. The show ran for four controversy-filled years on MTV and was eventually expanded into the successful 1996 road movie Beavis And Butt-head Do America. In 1997, Judge again scored by creating the Fox animated series King Of The Hill, which will soon complete its longtime run alongside The Simpsons on Sundays.
With live-action films, Judge hasn’t been so lucky, at least in their initial theatrical runs. His 1999 comedy Office Space is now considered a cult classic for its acutely funny observations about cubicle culture, but it didn’t find its audience until it hit DVD. A similar fate awaited Judge’s 2006 devolution satire Idiocracy, which didn’t screen for critics, and only received an obligatory unveiling in theaters before again finding fans down the line. Judge’s new comedy, Extract, returns triumphantly to the workaday banalities of Office Space while including some sharp material about marriage. Jason Bateman stars as the well-to-do owner of a small extract factory. His sexual frustrations at home lead him to consider an affair with the new temp, Mila Kunis. In order to justify his infidelity, Bateman allows bartender Ben Affleck to talk him into hiring a young gigolo to seduce his wife (Kristen Wiig). Meanwhile, Kunis, a drifter and con-woman, looks to clean up on a personal-injury lawsuit filed by one of Bateman’s employees. Judge recently spoke to The A.V. Club about executives’ panic over Office Space, the magic of test screenings, and why vanilla extract is inherently interesting.
The A.V. Club: It’s been 10 years since Office Space, and Extract is being promoted with very strong connections to that film. Is that vindicating for you?
Mike Judge: Yeah, it is. I actually started writing Extract right after Office Space came out. I wrote it on spec, and didn’t even tell anybody I was writing it, because when I mentioned the idea, along with a bunch of other ideas, to my people, agents, and managers, nobody wanted it. A workplace comedy was kind of poison after Office Space had come out and didn’t do that well. And with the studio, I owed one more screenplay under my old deal. I owed at least an option to Fox. Oddly enough, the only idea anyone thought was commercial was what became Idiocracy. [Laughs.] So it’s vindicating also in that when I was making Office Space, a lot of stuff I liked, the studio didn’t like. In fact, it seems like almost nobody liked anything. Up until the first test screening, it seemed like [Office Space] would maybe be a movie that me and a couple of my friends and my brother would think is funny, and that’s it. It was very satisfying to make, but I had to fight for every decision: [the studio] didn’t like the music, they didn’t like the cast, or much of anything. So when it didn’t do well at the box office, it was kind of like, “Well, you know, they were right.” So to have it become more and more popular and make more and more money over these years has been really vindicating. Anyway, I did start writing [Extract] just after Office Space, because I thought it would be really fun to write and see where it goes. Nobody wanted it anyway.
AVC: Did you stop when you realized it wasn’t going to be sellable at the time?
MJ: I don’t remember all the details. I think I wrote something like 50 pages of it and then just stopped. I thought maybe if I came away with a finished screenplay that was really good, it would be much easier to just let somebody read it than it would be to describe it. So I tried doing that, and then I just didn’t ever show it to anybody. And then I came back and looked at it myself maybe a year later, and thought it was better than I remembered, and tried writing all the way to the end. Then I still didn’t let anyone see it, and I was off making Idiocracy and all that stuff for a while. Then I finally gave it to John Altschuler and David Krinsky, who are producing partners and who ran King Of The Hill. They thought it was good. Then I kind of started giving it to other people here and there, and it started to build momentum.
AVC: To go back to Office Space for a bit, was the studio’s attitude at the time “This isn’t funny,” or “We don’t know how to sell this”? Or a cross between the two?
MJ: It was a little bit of both. Before it ever got to a test screening, they’d look at the dailies and they’d see take after take of [Imitates Gary Cole as Bill Lumbergh.] “Mmm… yeaaaaah.” And it just drove them crazy. I guess I don’t blame them. You look at material a different way when your ass is on the line financially for it. You want to know where the big laughs are, and how we’re going to sell this. And here you’ve got a bunch of actors nobody’s heard of, except for Jennifer Aniston, and they hadn’t seen her in something like this. So it’s a little bit of both, I guess. It’s not an easy job being an executive. When you make movies, you’ve picked the most expensive art form, and somebody has to pay for it. You kind of owe it to them to at least let them know how you expect to make it as accessible to as many people as you can, given the story you’re telling.
AVC: Is there also the possibility that studio executives don’t relate to the sort of workaday drudgery that so many ordinary people do?
MJ: That was definitely a big factor. It kind of hit me at some point during the process that most people in the film business—not just the executives, the people who make them, too—tend to come from pretty upper-class backgrounds. If they go work a job, it’s to have that experience, that sort of thing. After they graduate college, they have time to go visit Europe and take some time off and get their heads together. That kind of thing, I sure didn’t have. So I think that’s part of it. A lot of people hadn’t had to sit there in a cubicle and go, “Okay, this is it, and it’s not going to get any better. And maybe when I’m 58, I can retire.” At the earliest, you know.
So I started to have a glimmer of hope in post when we were doing mixing, and I remember hearing about people who do accounting in the post-production department who were all quoting the movie. I don’t remember how they saw the footage, exactly. I guess there are times during post when someone has to come in and deliver something in the theater. So sometimes people would quote it. And I would just kind of do the Lumbergh thing, too. I did that before I ever made the movie. It was part of my shtick with friends of mine. Somebody asks you to do something, and you go, “Mmm… yeaaaaah.”
AVC Extract is difficult to encapsulate in the usual 15-words-or-less logline. When you were writing the screenplay, was it a challenge to fit all these disparate elements together? How did the script develop?
MJ: I started with two separate stories, one being about a guy getting to a certain place where he hires a gigolo [to seduce his wife] to see if he can possibly justify having a guilt-free affair. This came out of a conversation with a friend. And then the thing about the girl [the con-woman played by Mila Kunis] was a separate idea. I combined some different things, stories I knew about. I think super-hot girls tend to live by a different set of rules than the rest of us. I thought I wanted to kind of do something about a sociopath girl who’s just sort of a drifter, I guess you’d call it. So kind of tried to combine those two, and also just the idea of this small factory as a backdrop: Have a workplace comedy told from the point of view of the guy who owns it, rather than the employees, and have it be sympathetic to him. I worked all kinds of jobs for years, including engineering jobs, which is part of how Office Space came about. But when Beavis And Butt-head happened, I suddenly had 30 to 90 people working for me. I’d never had anybody work for me, and I started to sympathize with all the bosses I’d had. Because you try to be a nice boss, and then you get taken advantage of, and it’s just… So I wanted to have that be the workplace. There was a lot of stuff to weave together.
AVC: Of all the possible products and factories, why extract? What drew you to that?
MJ: It was a couple of things. South of Austin, whenever you drive from Austin to San Antonio, there used to be the old Adams Extract factory. It was down there. I just loved the way it looked, and I always wanted to go take a tour of the place. I love watching bottling mechanisms go. I love watching machinery work. And I was driving around with my realtor looking at houses once, and he points to this really nice house in this really nice old neighborhood of Austin, and he says, “That’s where the Adams Extract people live.” So it started to occur to me that somebody really made it with vanilla extract. [Laughs.] So I just kind of picked that as a backdrop. And when I would tell people it’s about this guy who owns a factory and makes vanilla extract, they’d start laughing. Figured I was one step ahead of the game there. I think it’s just this kind of odd item that’s everywhere in grocery stores, and it’s interesting to me that there’s somebody who makes it.
AVC: There are all sorts of products that people make money on that you never think about. Nobody dreams of growing up to be somebody who manufactures extract.
MJ: Yeah. I’ve worked in a couple of factory settings. My brother actually worked in a place in Albuquerque that made all the syrup for the Slush Puppy and Slurpee machines. For some reason, that’s interesting to me.
AVC: What would you rank as the most soul-destroying job you ever had?
MJ: I think it would have to be—and this was for only two or three weeks, maybe longer—alphabetizing purchase orders. That was just god-awful. I worked a bunch of manual-labor jobs, and I worked in a cafeteria for a long time during college, but when you’re alphabetizing purchase orders, you can’t daydream about something else. You can’t shoot the shit and talk to somebody else, or you get off on the letters. And to be consumed for eight hours a day, maybe more, with just alphabetizing, running the alphabet in your head and putting those things, it was just god-awful. I’d fall asleep at night going “Arbaca, Armstrong, Armijo…”
AVC: Did you wind up singing the ABC song to yourself?
MJ: Constantly. Constantly doing the ABCs. It’s like that comedian Steven Wright said: “Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it the song?” I would just be running the alphabet in my head, names going to it. It was really bad.
AVC: How would you describe your style as a director?
MJ: To me, style is dictated by the material. My cinematographer that I’ve worked with on all three movies, Tim Suhrstedt, is really good at finding funny ways to look at stuff. I don’t know if I have an overall philosophy, but I tend to want to just show these things in a way… You know, it’s really hard to describe. I’m trying to think of a way I would describe it, and I don’t know if there is. Basically, I want to just show what’s funny without trying to bullshit people. Just like, when the guy’s getting his nuts knocked off, just do a flat wide shot and see it all happen, rather than a bunch of double cutting and that kind of stuff. Like with the car crash in Office Space, I didn’t want to do like an action-movie where it’s boom, boom, boom. I just wanted to show it like it’s really happening.
AVC: The shots I tend to remember in your movies are the ones that draw out the banality of everyday life. There’s that great shot in Office Space of the guys walking across the trench in the industrial park. And then in this movie, every time you cut to the establishing shot of the hotel bar, your soul sort of dies a little.
MJ: Definitely. Like that shot of them walking through the ditch [in Office Space]: When I worked in those places, it was just irritating to me that somebody sat there and designed this place, never thinking that you would walk from here to there, and they didn’t care. The one guy designs it, gives it to the other guy, he looks at it; no one thinks about all the people that gotta walk through it. So I think the best way to show those banal moments is to be just flat and wide. And again, I think that’s because that’s what the material is about. It’s about the everyday-life things, the banalities.
AVC: You’ve had to show your films to test audiences or focus groups. Do those screenings give you any useful feedback?
MJ: Oh, I like having test screenings. Even though I don’t get high test numbers, the test screenings are usually pretty vindicating for me. Because usually everybody in the editing room is going, “Oh, this isn’t going to work” and they’re sitting there going, “How can we make it?” But the screenings have usually gone better than everyone but me expects. Usually. Like the Office Space test screening was great, because even though the number wasn’t high, people laughed at all the stuff that nobody around me had laughed at. That happened a little bit here, too. Sometimes I go to a test screening and look at the audience in line, and I start to go, “Okay, I bet this is going to work, and this isn’t going to work.” It’s weird, but just going and facing the music and putting it out before a crowd, even before it starts playing, that exercise of putting it up on a screen for people makes you realize things even before it starts rolling. It’s really weird. I’ve heard other people say that, too.
AVC: What the Gene Simmons experience like? We did a very lively interview with him once, and it was a strange ordeal for our interviewer. What was it like on your end? How did that all come together?
MJ: You know what? He was a total pro. We had a lot of people who wanted to play that part. We had a lot of people read for it. There was something I was looking for, and when we were talking about it, my producer John Altschuler said “He just needs to be a running sore of a human being.” And I’d written in the script that the guy looks like Gene Simmons in a suit and tie with a ponytail. So we said, “Well, how about we just have Gene Simmons come read for it?” And he did. I don’t know if I’d want to interview him, but working with him on this movie, he gave us anything we wanted. He said, “I’ll do whatever you want.” That was his mantra. He said, “I’ll do whatever you tell me to do.”
AVC: Did you use the words “running sore of a human being” when you hired him?
MJ: No. [Laughs.] But I guess he’s going to read that now. Well, he had done King Of The Hill, so we had worked with him before. Yeah, he’s a piece of work. I will say that.
AVC: You’re one of a number of filmmakers—Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez being two other prominent examples—who are strongly associated with Austin, Texas and stay there. What keeps you there, and what is its community of filmmakers like?
MJ: I know both of those guys really well. I had started in Dallas making animated shorts, and after Beavis And Butt-head, we’d lived in New York for like a year and a half before finally deciding to move to Austin. It still felt like a pretty small town then. I used to rent space in Rick Linklater’s place, and it’s pretty nice, because it felt like a kind of small town that’s a satellite to the movie business. It still kind of feels that way, although the town’s gotten a lot bigger. I mean, Robert Rodriguez has practically his own Universal backlot over there. He’s got a big digital studio.
AVC: What’s next for you?
MJ: Probably the thing most likely to be next is something John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky wrote, called Brigadier Gerard. It’s based on these short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes guy, that I had read, and they just really made me laugh. So it’s kind of a big movie, I guess. It’s set during the Napoleonic Wars, where this character is kind of like Clouseau, similar to that.