By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Mike Judge planned to step out of the office only briefly. Instead, he disappeared from his desk for a decade.
Back in 1999, Judge -- the creator of such immortal animated characters as Beavis, Butt-head and Hank Hill -- attempted his first live-action feature film, based on his own workplace experience. Judge's hot streak suddenly came to a halt: His cubicle-life comedy "Office Space" -- given little hype or studio "flair" -- flopped at the box office, prompting Fox execs to tell him, in effect: You're talented, but maybe this live-action comedy isn't quite your thing.
Bummed, Judge shelved his prospective follow-up film -- "Extract," another workplace comedy, but one that traded in the white collars for blue. "I was already writing 'Extract' when 'Office Space' came out," he recalls.
But a funny thing happened on the way back to the animation studio: Slowly -- be it by TV, DVD or Netflix -- fans gradually turned "Office Space" into a hit, as Milton, Lumbergh and the Bobs became increasingly noted and quoted. Judge was redeemed. And the long-mothballed "Extract" finally hits theaters on Friday.
During the "Office Space" shoot, Judge says, "I thought: 'I was born to do this.' But when it came out and didn't do so well, I thought: 'I was born to do something that no one wants to see.' "
Now, as Mila Kunis, who stars in "Extract," says of the celebrated office satire, "it gets better every time you watch it."
That success finally brought the filmmaker back to the workplace, with his factory-set comedy that also stars Jason Bateman and Ben Affleck.
"I think of 'Extract' almost as a companion piece to 'Office Space,' " says the filmmaker, speaking a couple of days after the new movie's red-carpet premiere in the sauna that is Austin in August. ("The studio thought it would be a good idea to have it there," he says. "And I got to see my [hometown] friends.")
Thanks largely to "Office Space," Kunis -- who's been busy with such films as "Max Payne" and the upcoming "The Book of Eli" with Denzel Washington -- didn't need any prodding to work with Judge.
"I've been a fan of his for a long time," says Kunis, the former "That '70s Show" actress whose comic skills have been on display in such works as "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and as a voice actor on Fox's "Family Guy." "As soon as I heard Mike Judge wrote it, I said: 'Sign me up.' We have a similar sense of humor -- very dry."
"Extract" returns Judge -- who in 2006 came out with the broader social satire "Idiocracy" -- to a genre in which he became comfortable and confident.
"I feel like in the blue-collar factory setting, there's the same kind of recognizable but unique characters in that world as in cubicles," the filmmaker says. "A friend of mine was working in a parts warehouse and [described the floor employees]. He said there was a woman, 65 years old, sitting on a stool wearing a Tweety Bird T-shirt and a fanny pack. And I said, 'I've seen that exact same type of worker.' "
In the new film, Bateman plays the owner of a flavor-extract company who is led astray by both his "spiritualist"-pusher-bartender buddy Dean (played with shaggy dude-ism by Affleck) and the new hire who puts the "temp" in temptress, Cindy (Kunis). The businessman may know from flower extracts, but he wanders all but blindly down the primrose path.
Judge, who graduated with a physics degree from the University of California at San Diego, logged time in a factory himself -- the professional musician worked on guitar amps in Northern California -- and long thought it was fertile terrain for spoofing. Having sat on it for a decade, however, Judge, 46, seemed to alter his perspective. Now, instead of skewering management and corporate owners, Judge is more sympathetic to the trials and confabulations of the Boss.
"This is a workplace comedy from the boss's point of view," Judge says. "After 'Beavis and Butt-head' took off and I suddenly was running a show, I could relate more to what a boss goes through."
With "Office Space," the "Take This Job and Shove It" attitude is overtly humorous. "Extract" is often subtler, drier, which is precisely why Judge sought to hire Bateman: "I didn't want somebody to be overreacting and making it too silly and stupid." Bateman's satiric delivery can be as dry as vermouth.
In returning to workplace humor, Judge found that the joy of filmmaking -- the feeling he had during "Office Space" -- was recaptured. "Things become funner as they go along," says Judge, whose "King of the Hill" will end its 12-year run next month. "I'm getting back to what I was doing with 'Office Space.' I just could keep going with this -- when everything is working."
With "Office Space" and "Extract," "I think casting is 80 percent of the battle, and we got people who understand the purpose of each scene," says Judge, citing not only Bateman and Kunis but also Kristen Wiig ("Saturday Night Live") and Affleck. Judge, who is friends with fellow Austin resident Richard Linklater, first saw Affleck in Linklater's "Dazed and Confused."
"I just really loved that movie -- [Affleck] was great," Judge says. "I remember Rick telling me about him back in '93. Rick said he's really smart and funny. . . . Ben gets cast because he looks like a strapping leading man, but I think he's a really good character actor."
Judge says he values his actors' improvisations -- like Bateman, in character, repeatedly slamming down a phone in a humorous scene with a gigolo. Likewise, the cast appreciates being allowed to have input.
"What's makes him great is that he's not married to his dialogue," Kunis says. "He makes you feel you can do your version. He hires people that he trusts and lets you take the rein. He's one of a kind."
As with "Office Space," Judge again dons a wig and a mustache himself to play a notable role. In that film, he played the flair-urging restaurant manager, Stan; in "Extract," he plays Jim, the out-of-shape factory floor worker who tries to incite a walkout. So who would Judge rather grab a beer with: Jim or Stan? "Oh, definitely Jim," Judge says. "I probably wouldn't dislike Jim."
Judge likewise has warmer feelings toward the entire blue-collar world. "I think when it's something like a [factory] company of that size -- I think 75 people or so, and the boss is right there -- you can go complain to that boss. . . . It's a more healthy workplace than a bunch of shareholders and corporate owners in a different town. That's a more soul-sucking environment."
Bateman said during the "Extract" panel at San Diego Comic-Con last month that he'd love to see Judge form a Christopher Guest-like troupe "and crank out one of these every 18 months."
"I don't know about every 18 months," says Judge now, laughing at that prospect. "I'd love to do it, but maybe every 2 1/2 years."
Sold. Judge's fans would prefer that to having to wait another entire decade for him to get back to his desk.