With “Extract,” writer-director Mike Judge returns to the droll doldrums of the American workplace. With the “Extract” publicity tour, he returns to a hotel room to talk about his work.
(Here’s a review.)
If you were starting your career now, at this moment in entertainment history, what would be different?
I’ve actually thought about that. I didn’t own a computer when I started making animated shorts. There wasn’t the Internet to speak of. There weren’t as many channels. Well, actually, there were a lot of cable channels. But I think that in a way I would probably do the same thing. I started out with a 16-millimeter Bolex and shooting it frame by frame, when I was making these little home-made cartoons. Now, if I was a youngster starting out, I would actually think about doing that again, just to get a different look. I think people would go, “How the hell did you get it to look like that?” I think whatever the landscape is, you just try to find something unique that’s gonna stand out. That’s what I did back then. I think what I would like to do now–if I ever have enough free time, which I might pretty soon–is play around with 3D animation software. I think at first everyone was just enamored by computer animation. And there was that look that John Lasseter pioneered. He had his style. That was the first stuff that I really liked when I would go to computer-animation festivals. But now people are discovering really cool ways to use that stuff. And I think it’s just beginning. There’s a lot of cool stuff to be done with that, and it’s kind of, in a way, an exciting time. I don’t think everybody realizes how in its infancy it really is.
When you’re developing an idea, how do you know whether it should be animation or live action?
Usually, if it’s animated, it will start out as something I drew. Anything else, it’s live action. I’ve never personally had an idea and gone and tried to draw it. Well, not completely. Early on in “Beavis and Butt-Head” I had the idea for the hippie teacher, for example, and so I went and tried to draw that. But usually it starts as taking something out of the sketchbook and then drawing it, and the idea comes from there. Because I’m not a great animator, I’m not a great illustrator especially, so it’s not like I can just draw any idea I had. “Extract” was always live action. I never would have considered drawing that. It’s hard to describe why, actually. I don’t know.
So how did “Extract” come to be?
It is kind of a companion to “Office Space.” When I worked all my many jobs, I was always in cubicles. I never had anybody working for me; I was always working for somebody else. So that’s what that was about. And then when “Beavis and Butt-Head” happened, I suddenly had 30 to 90 people working for me. I remember thinking, like, “OK, now I have a little more sympathy for my bosses.” I started writing this pretty soon after “Office Space” came out. And I started it really on my own because when I mentioned different ideas I had, or said, you know, “a workplace comedy,” everyone was like, “Oh.” “Office Space” hadn’t done so well. So, I started writing “Extract,” and “Idiocracy” is the one I did; everyone said, “That’s the big commercial one, that’s what you should do.” Yeah, funny thing: By the time “Idiocracy” came out, everyone was like, “Oh, we…liked it…but we kinda wanted something more like ‘Office Space.’” So I did it in pieces. I wrote 50 pages, left it for a few years, looked at it again occasionally, and I’d go, “Oh, that’s a bit better than I remember.” So I kept going.
What happens between conceiving your characters and casting them?
Usually it’s pretty specific on the page. And I drive the casting people crazy. Especially with the smaller parts, I just make them keep looking and keep looking. I just get really bummed out when it’s not right because I know how good it could be. And sometimes–like on “Office Space,” with the cheery waiter, we didn’t find that guy [Todd Duffey] until the very last minute. And we looked at hundreds of people. We looked all over the place. And that guy was a local Texas guy. He was on “Barney.” And at the last second we found him. Sometimes, on the stuff that’s really specific, like Nathan, the David Koechner character in “Extract,” they’re pretty much doing and looking exactly like I imagined. Although, I gotta say, with David Koechner, I had met him a bunch of times, and he had read for me a bunch of times, and I like the guy so much and I think he’s so talented, I was always bummed out when I didn’t have a part for him. And when I saw that he was gonna come and read for this, I was like, “Oh man, I don’t want to turn him down again.” ‘Cause he usually looks like…I don’t know, kind of a cowboy type, or something, and he came and in started reading and just blew me away. Because it didn’t seem to me like what he normally does. In fact, all I did was put glasses on him, and a lot of people don’t recognize him, at least not right away. Which is a testament to how great his acting is. The same thing with the gigolo, Dustin Milligan. There were a lot of the people who had some of the qualities I was looking for, but he had everything, and more. I’d told my casting director that back when I did “Office Space” I’d had a bunch of people who were maybe day players on “Dawson’s Creek” and all those kind of shows. And they’d come in and I didn’t have parts for them in that movie, but they seemed like just good-looking airhead dudes, you know? So my casting director said, there are these other shows, like the new “90210,” and I said, “Yeah! Look there!” He was one of them, but he’s really smart and he got it on a level that I could only have hoped for. Also, with Ben Affleck’s part, I thought Ben brought something to it that maybe wasn’t there entirely on the page. I had never met him before, and I’d heard he wanted to do it. He said it’s just exactly like this friend of his from Boston. Everything down to the still trying to get his 20 bucks kinda stuff. Then he was telling me about this guy, and how out of nowhere the guy would talk to him about the Atlanteans and the Aztecs and stuff, and so he kinda reminds me of that saying, “A little knowledge is dangerous.” Like, OK, he’s taken a psychology class, he’s almost charming enough to make you think he knows what he’s talking about. But, well….
It seems like your work pays attention to class in ways that other American films don’t.
Tim League–who owns the Alamo Drafthouse, a chain of really great theaters in Texas where you can drink beer in there–was telling me he’ll regularly have big corporations in there doing movie night for their employees, and they’ll have a party. And Tim said the number-one pick for that is “Office Space.” And he said what never fails to happen is there’s that point where they’re kinda hating the bosses in the movie, where the employees start to cheer something on, and it starts to get a little ugly. I guess stuff is kinda everywhere in the country. And I didn’t grow up rich or anything. I worked a lot of jobs. Long before I became successful at animation, I remember thinking when I was a kid, and especially in the ’80s, that people on TV shows and movies seemed to just have money, no problem. They just seemed to have endless cash. And that’s such a big part of everyday life, at least it was for me, and I felt like the few times you would see it acknowledged, it’s kinda satisfying to see. Like, oh, there’s somebody out there making movies that kinda understands what it’s really like. When I was a kid my sister would read these “Nancy Drew” books, and she’d say, “So I hopped on a plane,” I’d think, how’d you buy the plane ticket? And then in the ’80s you’d see somebody in a movie…she’s a welder, and she’s got this huge loft that she lives in. Or even “The Waltons,” where they’re supposed to be poor, but they live in this huge thousand-acre place with a two-story house. So I always felt like maybe Hollywood makes really great movies but sometimes is a little out of touch with the way ordinary people think and feel. So there’s something satisfying about putting that sort of stuff in there.