Back in early 1990, Mike Judge -- who who finally gravitated toward his early love of animation and filmmaking after working as an engineer for a government contractor and later as a musician in Dallas -- created a series of shorts featuring the nebbishy character of Milton, a corporate prole firmly saddled to the angst-cart. Those shorts ("Office Space," "Huh?," and "The Honkey Problem") were picked up for airing by a then-comedically challenged Saturday Night Live, and later, in the wake of the unexpectedly wild success of his MTV series, The Beavis and Butt-head Show, these early shorts provided the grist for Judge's live-action feature film directing debut.
That new film, Office Space -- his first using live actors in lieu of the far more inexpensive animated ones -- is a throwback to those heady first days, featuring the snuffling, bewildered Milton character among a cast of virtual unknowns in a tale of corporate cubicle politics, chain restaurants, and the horrors of the American workplace. Office Space opens in theatres across the country on Friday, February 19.
Judge, an Austin resident for going on three years, has launched his career in a new direction with Office Space, a wickedly spot-on examination of life and love amongst the Swinglines. It is, above all else, very much a Mike Judge comedy, slyly subversive in its humor and with a clear, true heart beating just below the snorts and guffaws. Judge has always struck me as the cinematic equivalent of the collision of Norman Rockwell and a sizable tank of nitrous oxide -- what are Beavis and Butt-head but Tom and Huck with ADD and a penchant for willful arson?
I spoke with Judge recently in the midst of his own office space, this one cluttered with a dual-necked B&B Gibson guitar that would do Cheap Trickster Rick Nielsen proud, framed shots of a young Fiji Island native sporting the latest in B&B T-shirt designs (an offering from stalker/porn legend Ron "Hedgehog" Jeremy, of all people), and the piece de resistance, a garish flyer promoting the release of Beaver and Buttface, a triple-X fleshfest featuring a pair of freakish B&B clones giving the dog the proverbial bone at presumably every opportunity. You know you've "made it" when the porn industry is satirizing your life's work.
Austin Chronicle: How did Office Space come about? Did you pitch it to Fox or did they come to you?
Mike Judge: I've been pretty lucky in that never in my career -- well, almost never -- have I had to pitch anything. I'm horrible at pitching. Believe me, the few times I've done it have just been hopeless.
In '94 I realized that Beavis and Butt-head was probably going to go on for a while longer, and I wanted to get something else going. At that time, in order for me to do other things, I had to do an overall deal with a studio -- that was the best way to do it, the best way to become "unowned" by MTV. So I did this deal with Fox. One of the things they wanted was a film with the character of Milton in it, especially Peter Chernin -- he's now the head of all of News Corp, which includes 20th Century Fox, the Dodgers, and all that -- but at the time he was the head of Fox TV and features. For someone that high up, he's really a cool guy. He liked Cornholio and Milton, and that's why I did the deal with him. He's not your typical suit. At all.
Anyway, they'd always wanted a Milton movie, and I kept trying to think of a whole movie to hang that on and couldn't, and then they suggested I do something like Car Wash where it's set in the workplace but it's just a bunch of people in different scenes.
AC: Did they specifically mention Car Wash?
MJ: Yeah. It was pretty cool.
AC: How did you handle the jump from animation to live-action?
MJ: Doing a movie, it's weird. The pressure is more intense and concentrated into a shorter period of time. Animation has a lot of pressure, too, but with animation you can say, "Well, I'll just sleep in tomorrow and then work 'til three in the morning." With live-action there are 80 people waiting for you at seven in the morning. It was still a lot of fun, though.
AC: Did you have any previous experience with the technical side of live-action, such as lenses and film stock and that kind of thing?
MJ: When I started out I had a little Bolex and that's what I did my first animation on. I was planning on shooting a short live-action film after I got done with my first few shorts, which I never did, but I had a little bit of live-action experience from some Beavis and Butt-head promos I did and then the Cher video. Stuff like that. What really helped was that I had a really great DP -- Tim Suhrstedt -- a really down-home guy who just took me aside and demystified the whole process. You can learn about lenses in 10 minutes -- it's really easy. You do it a couple of times and watch the dailies and you just get an intuitive feel for how it works. It's not rocket science. You can get a feel for it pretty quickly.
All the stuff from animation applies as well -- how you're going to stage something, where to put the camera, that's just like deciding how you're going to draw a panel in animation.
AC: Have you seen the film with an audience yet? The audience reaction at the screening here was terrific. Everyone seemed to get it.
MJ: We've had three test screenings and the last one went really well. Something that's sort of the same thing that can happen with animation where you're working on it by yourself and you end up having to think, okay, there was a time I remember thinking that was funny, but it sure as hell isn't funny anymore. For a comedy you have to play it with test audiences to see what works, you know? There was a scene I had in an earlier cut of the movie that I thought was my favorite scene. People would come into the editing room, I'd say check this out, and then, at the first test screening everything was going fine until we got to that scene and there was just total silence. For some reason we had played it too dramatic and everyone thought the movie was suddenly getting serious on them. So you never know. You've got to test comedies.
AC: Jennifer Aniston is the only name-brand star in the cast. Was that something you specifically went after, to use mostly unknowns?
MJ: Well, I didn't say I don't want stars but I started to realize early on, when Fox started to bring up names ...
AC: Who were they thinking of using?
MJ: Oh, boy, everybody. A good example is, I'm a huge fan of Bill Murray, and they wanted him for Milton, and, you know, I think he's the greatest comedy guy around but him doing Milton would be like him being Mr. Lupner on SNL or something. Also, he probably wouldn't have done it. I don't think we ever even went to him. But they also made some pretty ridiculous suggestions for Milton -- like Mel Gibson [laughing].
AC: That would have been so surreal it might have worked.
MJ: Actually, sometimes things like that do work. What's that movie? Bringing Up Baby. If someone had described that character I never would have thought Cary Grant could do it, but he's great. So you never know.
AC: Let's talk about the shoot. How was it shooting in Austin, and was that a conscious decision on your part to keep it local?
MJ: Yeah. And it was also to be away from the studio. My first AD [James W. Murray Jr.], who's from L.A., told me that this was the best crew he had ever worked with. It was a mostly local crew and he was just raving about them. I think that's why it's so easy to do a movie here. Of course, it didn't help that it was the hottest spring on record and the sky was hazy that entire time from that Mexican smoke. The other great thing about Austin is that it's pretty easy to make it look like anywhere. I had a scene on a lake and I didn't want it to look like a Texas lake, I wanted it to look like we could be up by Chicago or New York or something. You can get any kind of location here.
AC: I've got to ask: How was it working with Jennifer Aniston? And the corollary, was Brad Pitt hanging around?
MJ: He wasn't on the set, although I heard he drove her to the set a couple times. I didn't meet him until after the movie. I had met Jennifer before because we're represented by the same people. It's funny, though, because you meet her and you're hanging around and everything's cool and then you go to the set and you see people's reactions and you go: Oh, yeah. I wasn't really prepared for the amount of attention because she's not the main character in the movie. I should have thought about it a little more but it kind of slipped my mind exactly how big a star she is and how much the public freaks out when she's around and how much attention it draws to the shooting of the movie. She's the type of girl who could really do some pretty whacked-out comedy stuff if she wanted to, and I had always thought it would be a lot easier to cast the rest of the movie with the studio knowing that there was at least one bankable person in there.
AC: It's your first live-action film: Are you satisfied with how it turned out?
MJ: Stuff like production design? I've learned a lot about what looks good on film and looking back, I think I could have made some scenes just visually more appealing. I look at a film like Life Is Beautiful and some of those scenes are just beautiful. It's probably the same film stock, same lights, but there's just a way to select the right colors and make things look really nice. Also, one of the things I learned is that you don't have as much flexibility in a lot of ways as you do in animation. In animation you can cut wide to close on someone, but in live-action they really have to be in the right position or it's jarring. It's little things like that that I've learned.
AC: What's your relationship with MTV these days?
MJ: I haven't talked to them in a while, actually.
AC: Who owns the Beavis and Butt-head rights, them or you?
MJ: It's them, but I was able to renegotiate a lot of rights back after the movie. They still own it but I got a settlement out of them. Nothing's really happening with that.
AC: Isn't there supposed to be another film?
MJ: I don't know. Not any time soon and definitely not in the next year. It was coming out in the press that the sequel was going to be out in the spring and I think it was on Paramount's calendar from way back, and then because no one came out and said it wasn't going to happen, you know? Unless somebody's been making one in their basement that I don't know of, it's not going to happen for at least a year, if ever.
AC: Was there ever a script?
MJ: There was an idea I had where they get involved with a Jonestown or Heaven's Gate kind of cult and they think Beavis is some kind of messiah. There was a first draft written of that but it never developed any further. And it's been a while, too. There's a lot of other stuff that is coming out in the meantime -- the South Park movie is probably going to be really big and that's Paramount, so I think they're satisfied.
AC: What do you think of South Park, by the way?
MJ: I like it. It really makes me laugh. In animation there's never any formula for what's going to work, but to me those characters really work. I love that guidance counselor, you know? I've been doing that "mmm'kay" thing that he does in all my work -- the hippie teacher, Lumbergh [Gary Cole] in Office Space ñ but to me that guy's the king of "mmm'kay." Trey's [Parker] just got a bizarre sense of humor that I just really like.
AC: How are you doing with King of the Hill these days?
MJ: It's going really well. I was worried about it at the very beginning. I thought the first few episodes were a little shaky, but now it's turned into something I really love doing. It runs really smoothly now, too. The learning curve went so much more smoothly than Beavis and Butt-head. Fox is the ultimate network for animated shows -- they know how to nurture them and do it right. I'm really proud of the show, especially the second season and going into the third season. There are occasionally shows that I'm not crazy about, but on the whole I feel that it's reached that place that a lot of shows have, like The Andy Griffith Show or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where you know the characters well enough and it becomes easier to write for. It's in a good place.
AC: Did it surprise you that it took off as well as it did outside of Texas?
MJ: I think that what made it work -- and I was really conscious of this early on -- is just making it real and honest and not so much "Hey buddy, don't mess with Texas!" Even though it's set in Texas it's really just about suburban, working-class people. It was a surprise that it caught on as quickly as it did and that it caught on all over. Yeah, I didn't know what to expect.
AC: How many Emmy nominations?
MJ: Two. We lost both times. It's pretty cool to be nominated, but you know, at the time there weren't that many animated shows. On Beavis and Butt-head, I knew that a lot of the animation community kind of hated me. And so with King of the Hill I wasn't sure if they would still hold a grudge or what. So yeah, it was nice to get those nominations. It would've been nice to win.
AC: Animation is staging a comeback on prime time, what with The PJs and Family Guy entering the fray. Any thoughts on that?
MJ: Most people my age -- I'm 36 -- when we were really little there were still some great cartoons on, and then we also saw all the really shitty Saturday morning stuff. So people my age ended up becoming connoisseurs of really good animation, which they don't make anymore. My peers and I thought that way, but then when I was in college I went to The Festival of Animation and I saw that there was some really cool stuff that people were doing -- they were just doing it independently in small groups. There have always been people who wanted to do [quality prime-time animation] but the thinking in Hollywood was just, "Oh it's too expensive and the only thing that works is Saturday morning or a big Disney picture." It finally took The Simpsons to break down that mentality, although I really think it was about to happen anyway, judging from the festivals. With Ren and Stimpy, too, you could just feel that it was about to happen.
As to why, I think that TV's been around for about 50 years now, and there have been so many sitcoms -- every year it's just a new batch of sitcoms -- that animation, at the very least, it's something different.
AC: Isn't it a little more cost-effective?
MJ: It's about the same. That's the other thing, though, live-action shows have gotten more expensive and animation has stayed fairly reasonable. And then I think the Korean studios popping up has made it a little more doable.
AC: I've always wondered: Why is so much North American animation finalized in Korea?
MJ: That's funny because I've been over there, to Seoul, where most of it's done. By the way, people are always talking about "sweatshops" -- they're not sweatshops, okay? They're nicely dressed college-student-looking people who make efficient use of space. Seoul is great -- it looks like Akira or something.
I asked this woman there your question and she told me that for all the kids in Korea, learning to draw is part of their school curriculum. You learn to draw but you learn useful techniques, like point perspective, real techniques. At my kid's school it's, like, everything you draw is beautiful, right? "Oh that's wonderful! You smeared your crayons all over the place, how beautiful, it's your self-expression." In Korea, everybody learns to draw well in school. And so this woman says, "If you can't do anything else, you can always draw for a living." She kind of implied that it's the job you can do if you just need some money. So you have this whole country of people who can draw, and I think they even learn animation in school. It's become a big export for their country.
AC: I'll bet they do the same thing in North Korea but they only get to use gray crayons.
MJ: And they're not allowed to draw Butt-head either.
AC: What's the story on Daria? Are you involved in that or is that MTV's baby?
MJ: I'm still a little bitter about that. I just got a call one day from someone there saying they were thinking of doing a spin-off of the character Daria. And I thought, hey, that could be cool. Then the next thing I know they've started, they've done a pilot, and they've hired somebody without really ever consulting me on anything. It just happened. I hear it's gotten better. I do get paid something for it, though. Not a lot, but something.
AC: What's up next for you? More movies? Or more animation?
MJ: Well, King of the Hill has turned into a nice part-time job that I don't have to stay up until 3am and agonize over. I still do the voices and I'm still involved in a creative way. I'm think I'm actually going to try and take it easy this year. I've thought about doing another live-action movie, maybe doing it independently. Depending on how this movie does, it would be hard to go back to the studio and have them say, "Well, your last one didn't make a lot of money so this time you really have to listen to us." It was hard enough going through -- I dunno, I guess that's what you have to put up with to be a good director, but it's still a pain.
Some of the ideas I have, I don't know if I even really want to try and pitch them. It would probably end up just being, like, "Huh?" The kind of comedy that I like doing is hard to pitch.
AC: How would you describe your comedy?
MJ: I guess it's probably observational. You know what it is? I try not to just write jokes, and the one thing that I've found that makes me different from other writers is that I really hate getting the comedy out of smart-aleck characters. That's most sitcoms right there: Everybody is Murray on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Even in a lot of movie scripts I read, it's all sarcasm. I guess a lot of my stuff has been kind of a reaction to that mentality. I've always just thought of the kind of stuff that my brother and I would laugh at when we were growing up. The kind of stuff that you wouldn't think, "Hey that should be a movie." That's what I've tried to do for the most part.
Office Space opens in theatres across the country on Friday, February 19.