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Mike Judge—Extract, Office Space—8/21/09

/content/interviews/299/4.jpgThe creator and star of the animated television series Beavis and Butt-Head (MTV) and King of the Hill (FOX), Mike Judge branched out into movies with Beavis and Butt-Head Do America and into live-action with his cult favorites Office Space and Idiocracy. Recently, Judge has given himself "final cut" by producing his recent FOX animated series The Goode Family and his latest live-action film Extract through his own Ternion Productions, which he formed with longtime writer-producer collaborators John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky. When Judge came through San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel, I had the opportunity to talk to him about his career and his new film.

Groucho: So I wrote in my notes for this film when I saw it the phrase "Judge logic."

Mike Judge: (Laughs.)

Groucho: It seems to me that maybe you have this thing that's sort of akin to Murphy's Law, where there's a certain kind of way the world operates, maybe just for certain characters: you know, like the 8 o'clock sweatpants rule of thumb [in Extract] or Milton passing the cake and never getting his own [in Office Space].

Mike Judge: Ohh, yeah.

G: Am I crazy, or am I on to something here?

MJ: No, I think you might be on to something there. Sometimes I'll write something, like a bunch of dialogue, and I'll realize, like, "Okay, I guess if you thought about it too much that wouldn't flow or something," (laughs) but, uh, it seems to—when I look at it just in real time, it seems okay. But yeah, I think I do know what you mean, yeah. I haven't heard that before; that's good. I mean, I—sounds good to me.

G: It's a new one. You have a B.S. in Physics and went to grad school in Math.

MJ: Yeah. Just for a little bit.

G: Explain yourself.

/content/interviews/299/6.jpgMJ: (Laughs.) Yeah, I'm schizophrenic. Yeah, well, I was always able to do pretty well in math and science classes, so in a weird way, a physics degree was almost the easiest path to a degree for me. (Laughs.) I just don't like English classes. Y'know, Literature classes. Where you're graded on an opinion on something you wrote. I like it when you're either right or wrong and you can prove it. So I did that. You know, I guess my—I had always wanted to do something in music or comedy, mainly comedy, but just didn't know how you do that. Any story you hear about somebody who's in the entertainment business, it seems like there was some connection or some fluke. Or they're leaving that part of the story out of how they got in. I was interested in doing, like, sketch comedy or something like that. And also, I've always just sort of, separately to that, wanted to try claymation, like animated stuff. So—I think this is the answer to your question—maybe, I don't know. But I started—I've always thought, like "Well, when I get some money, I'll buy a camera and try that, and mess around with it. When everything came together, clicked, for me was when I saw—when I was living in Dallas with my wife at the time and we—y'know, I'd go to all those travelling animation festivals. And I saw this—you know, they all have films from all over the world, and there was a guy in Dallas who had made one that had gotten in, and they had his drawings and cels on display in the lobby. And he wasn't there, but I was just looking at that, thinking, "Well, a guy who lives where I live has done this. There's got to be a way. There's got to be a camera you can rent time on, maybe, or something. I always thought you needed a lot of money, too. And the next day I just kind of went on a mission. I went to the library, got books on it, and just taught myself how to do it. With still not having ever talked to an animator. I got a Bolex camera and just started making aniated shorts. So that's how I—and that was around the time that I was taking some graduate classes; I was going to become a math teacher. I figured this would be my hobby. (Laughs.)

G: The math skills would come in handy; I read that you use your prob/stat knowledge to stymie executives who are holding screening reports at you.

MJ: Oh, there have been a couple times where someone tries to do a snow job on me about numbers on these things. (Laughs.) And I'd correct 'em. And that was pretty fun. (Laughs.)

G: Part of your inspiration for Extract must have come from the premonition you once had. You had a premonition of being in a car accident and having your testicles impaled, right?

MJ: (Laughs.) Yeah. Yeah, I had this—I don't know what—it was weird, like I—.

G: You have a late-night pizza with anchovies or what?

MJ: It was—well, I had—it was when I was—one of the last nights I was playing with—it was when I was a musician. And I played with this guy Anson Funderbergh and Sam Myers, who were like these blues guys based out of the Dallas area. And it was one of my last gigs, second-to-last gig with them before I quit, and it was like three in the morning, and I just got creamed by a drunk driver...But yeah, I had this thing, like—it was my wife, my ex-wife and I at the time...I felt this, like—like "I gotta—we need to have kids. I don't want to wait too long. Something could happen." (Laughs.) You know? I had made a[n] X-ray machine for science fair in high school, and using it pretty—without any protection for a while. (Laughs.) And then read somewhere that it could actually make you sterile. And then I built this big lead box (laughs). And so that was kind of in my mind, about protecting the testes, for a while.

G: Joel, the lead character here, is fundamentally decent, and then he decides to kind of try to be a little bit bad, and that doesn't seem to work out much better for him.

MJ: Yeah. (Laughs.)

G: Is it fair to say he's looking for the sweet spot of not being a pushover, but still remaining true to his decency.

/content/interviews/299/1.jpgMJ: Yeah, that's a good way to put it. I mean, I think he is a very kind of decent, y'know, middle-America guy who—I wanted to do this thing where every time he just tests the water, dips his toe in, he just, like, falls in and drowns. And has to dig himself out. It's like he's just constantly being taught, you know, "You're not meant to do this. Stay at your extract factory, and be married." So, yeah, I think, you know, he tries to get a little brave, and it goes horribly wrong.

G: Obviously one of the dynamics of the movie is sort of the flip side of Office Space, this idea of sympathy for the boss.

MJ: Yeah.

G: And he says his employees are "like children. I feel like a babysitter." And I assume you can relate from your days as a TV showrunner.

MJ: Yeah, see I went from never having anybody working for me ever, always being the employee at just dozens of jobs, to suddenly having to be in charge of, when Beavis and Butt-Head happened, like thirty to ninety people. And also at a place—MTV had never really—not only they had never done an animated show; they hadn't done that many shows. And nobody knew what they were doing; I didn't—I was kind of in charge. I mean, I was in charge. And, you know, you try to be a nice boss and that doesn't work. You know, and these people (laughs): there was a lot of—I mean, there were literally just like, you know, screaming matches that I would have to break up. So yeah, a lot of it is drawn from that. Mostly that, because then once—like, King of the Hill was pretty well run, and I actually didn't run it, for the most part. So I had that kind of corporate, "other people do the dirty work" [role]. But not on Beavis and Butt-Head: I had to actually fire people.

G: You had to learn to put the foot down.

MJ: Yeah, and that's no picnic either. So yeah, I definitely wanted to do something—it was kind of the inverse of Office Space was the idea, yeah.

G: Dean is sort of the devil on your shoulder who thinks he's an angel.

MJ: (Laughs.) That's good!

G: What's the dumbest thing you were ever convinced to do by a friend?

MJ: Let me see. I can't think of something I was convinced to do, but I was—but, you know, I've heard bad advice given very seriously. (Laughs.) With no sense of irony or comedy or anything. I mean, I remember a guy just saying—and he was a married guy, obviously, I won't ever say who he was—and he was saying, "You know, you really—the thing to do is to just get prostitutes, you know." (Laughs.) Just saying it like he's a doctor, or something like—. There was another guy in college who—there was this backpacking trip that I never went on, but everyone was trying to decide like "Okay, we're going to bring some drugs. What are—?" (Laughs.) It was at U.C. San Diego. And this guy comes over from Revelle College, and he's like the expert. He's also the consultant; like, I guess he can hook you up, he had dealt, something. And I just remember asking—I said, "Now are—?" 'Cause I had never done the drugs most of them were talking about, and I said, "So are mushrooms good for a backpacking trip?" And this guy thinks for a while and he goes, "Mushrooms are just good."

(Both laugh.)

MJ: He said it like he was like a scientist or something.

G: Well, in his own mind.

MJ: Yeah.

G: It's pretty clear by now that you've got great taste in casting. How do you go about casting for your films, and what do you like to see in an actor?

/content/interviews/299/2.jpgMJ: Well, you know, ideally, aside from just being the person who's right for it, they just get it already anyway, and it's just all—it's just a matter of kinda keeping 'em in the zone, you know? But I think I drive casting directors crazy 'cause I'm really meticulous and nitpicky about it. And I'll be trying to describe why the last forty people I've seen—and most of them really talented actors—aren't right for the part. And it just drives them crazy, you know? I guess I just—well, for these kind of movies, especially, I just want it to seem real and believable and also hit all the comedy beats that need to be there for it to work. 'Cause I think a lot of what I've written, especially this and Office Space, it kind of lives or dies on the performance.

G: It's rhythms and it's expressions.

MJ: Yeah.

G: Subtle stuff.

MJ: There's little nuances, and it's all pretty subtle. But, you know, I'd like to feel that I—I do feel vindicated about Office Space. I fought so hard for that cast, and to convince people that it was worth having a guy who's just going "Mmm. Yeeah" in just the perfect way. That it would be worth it. Then it didn't do well but eventually made a lot of money, so I feel vindicated now that people like it. But, yeah, it's tough, you know, because sometimes on both of these, some of the people we didn't find—well, especially on Office Space—until the very last second. Like the cheery waiter in Office Space; it was just right down to the wire: "Who's going to do it?" I looked at literally probably over a hundred people. I was like "No, no, that's not right." And then this guy came out of—a Texas local; this guy had worked on Barney. (Chuckles.) And it's like "That's what I was looking for." Actually, Brad—the guy who plays—Dustin Milligan plays the gigolo. That was kind of a last-minute thing, too, and he was just, I mean—it's great when you get someone—like him, for example—who, to me, looks totally like he's that guy. When he's doing that character, I believe it's that guy. Plus, Dustin himself gets the joke, but is able to make it look like he's not getting the joke. And just hitting every little—and have comedy timing, too. That's the other thing. And you can create that a little bit in editing, but it's always better when the actors just have it, you know?

G: I'm curious what Jason Bateman is like, constitutionally, as an actor. Is he relaxed...focused, grumpy, all of the above?

MJ: He's very relaxed. I was really impressed. You know, also he's a guy who's been doing it since he was a little kid. That's the thing that every now and then hits me, like "Okay, I'm probably seven years older than him. He's been in the business way longer than me." (Chuckles.) There's people on the crew who might be in their fifties that, you know, started after Jason did. And so he's just so familiar with the whole process, and he...never would he ever, I think, get nervous. It's really—it's great to watch an actor like that. I mean, you know, we can all get grumpy, but as filmmaking goes, he's actually really relaxed throughout the whole thing. It's like a day at the office for him, you know? Figuratively, literally.

G: Now how do you decide which role you'll play? In this film, you play Jim—which is your dad's name, right?

MJ: Yeah!

G: But he's sort of a deus ex machina with a strike plan.

MJ: (Laughs.)

G: He comes out of nowhere. How do you choose your role?

/content/films/3344/5.jpgMJ: I usually give myself the thankless role, I guess. (Laughs.) Like on Office Space, I had written that thing at the last minute, and read a bunch of people, couldn't get anybody to do it the way I imagined it. With that one, the problem was everyone kept trying to do kind of goofy—approach him from kind of a goofy, sitcom-y way 'cause it didn't seem that it would get—I guess they didn't think it was funny on the page. So they were doing like "Ooh! Ha ha ha!" instead of being a guy who really is worried about—really wants [them] to do those fifteen pieces of flair. This one, I also added this bit a little late in the game. 'Cause I realized I didn't think any of the other speaking people would want to instigate it that much. And I think—'cause at some point I made the mistake of mentioning—someone at Miramax asked if I would ever play a part. And I said, "Oh, I could maybe do that guy with the big moustache and the beer belly that's talking about—" And then—. I meant "maybe"! (Laughs.) And then I think my casting director kinda didn't look as hard, 'cause she thought I was just going to do that. So we looked at a bunch of people, and some of them sounded like Elmer Fudd, and some of them just couldn't get it right. So I ended up doing it. I don't know if I'm as ideal for that part as I felt I was for the Office Space part I did, but it's just out of necessity, I guess, is the short answer.

G: I got to get in here I did catch up with Idiocracy

MJ: Oh, uh huh.

G: Despite them making it hard for us to see it.

MJ: Yeah!

G: I enjoyed it quite a bit, though like a lot of people I think I was a little afraid it was a documentary. (Laughs.)

MJ: Yeah. (Laughs.)

G: But just how fearful did that movie make the suits? You know? It really seems like they really shafted you on that.

/content/interviews/299/7.jpgMJ: Oddly enough, that was—after I'd made Office Space, they still had an option of one more screenplay for me. So I wanted to get out of that. And I pitched, you know, a bunch of ideas, including just the idea of this. And the only one that anyone thought was—Idiocracy, what became Idiocracy, they said, "That's a big, commercial idea. That's what you should be doing." That's what my agent said; that's what everybody said. You know, "You did your little thing to show that you can make a live-action movie. Now you gotta do something big and commercial." So that was the wisdom—that's what this was supposed to be. And, actually, they loved the dailies. Office Space, they hated the dailies. This one, dailies they liked, everything, they thought—. All the way up until—I don't know. At some point around the first test screening, which didn't go that great. We also had—half the movie was green-screen and even just drawings on the screen. So it was like "Let's not judge this yet. You know, we don't have some of the stuff, like the Costco, and these things were just like drawings. And no music and whatever. And then they just freaked out, cut the budget, just got really ugly. And then, yeah, from there, it was —that's the thing: I didn't—up until that point, it wasn't me saying, "You must make this movie!" It was kinda the other way around. I was really like—. (Trails off.) Y'know, so that's the irony of it is then you look at, like, the focus group at the test screening; they were saying, "Well, I thought it was pretty funny, but we wanted somethin' more like Office Space." (Laughs.) And of course everyone just completely forgets back when they were saying, "You shouldn't do something like Office Space. You should do something like Idiocracy. And, so, anyway, that's how that went.

G: Of course, King of the Hill is rapidly approaching its final airing, right?

MJ: Yeah!

G: September 13.

MJ: It is? Okay, yeah.

G: The last couple that are gonna air, I guess.

MJ: Oh, that's right, yeah.

G: Do you have sort of a pre-mortem post-mortem on that? How do you feel about that?

/content/interviews/299/5.jpgMJ: Well, I kind of went through that stuff when it was cancelled the first and second time. I think it's a good time for it to stop. I'm fine with it. I think it was a good run. And I'd rather just stop while I think the episodes are still pretty good rather than run it into the ground. So I'm pretty comfortable with it, actually.

G: And is The Goode Family—there's talk that that might jump to another network. Do you think that's likely, probable?

MJ: I don't know. I just heard something about that. It's probably—it sounds like maybe it's a 50-50 chance. It might never happen. So, yeah, might end up doin' that.

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