The king of workplace comedy Mike Judge is at it again. From the cubicle to the factory, the director is behind the upcoming comedy Extract. The creative genius is a man of few words, but has an obvious confidence when it comes to his work. Judge is a writer, director, actor, producer, and animator who’s responsible for creating some of the most popular films and television series in pop culture. I’m talking Beavis & Butthead, King of the Hill, and my personal favorite Office Space, which just celebrated its 10th year anniversary.
We recently spoke to Judge about Extract, his first feature film since 2006′s best kept secret, Idiocracy. Sit back and enjoy our interview as we ask him about Jason Bateman, his writing process and oddly enough, American Idol.
If you look at Beavis & Butthead talking about youth in the nineties, Office Space dealing with the workspace and Idiocracy dealing with the future, what was the theme behind Extract?
MJ: The factory, the blue collar workplace in general, has its own unique set of characters in the same way that cubicles do. I worked in factory settings a couple of times and I wanted to do another workplace comedy looking at those characters. I started writing a couple of stories. Mila [Kunis]’s character and the thing about the gigolo, and then I just decided to put the world from the point of view of the boss this time.
I worked so many jobs, by the time I got into animation and whatever I was pushing 30. I always had employers. I never had anybody working for me. Suddenly when Beavis & Butthead happened I had 30 to 90 people working for me, and I just became very sympathetic to my old bosses. I was thinking, half of these people don’t appreciate anything. Take advantage of me. You try to be a nice boss and that doesn’t work. So, I thought that would be funny. Especially with someone like Jason Bateman playing a guy who has to babysit all these people.
David Koechner’s character of the annoying neighbor felt so real to me. Was that based on the actual experience of someone you knew or was it a compilation of people?
MJ: Yeah, it’s a bit of a compilation. There was this one woman when my ex-wife and I had this place out here [California] actually. We’d come out in the summer. We had a gated community by the beach. There was only one way out, and this woman would just stop you. She would park herself in the window of your car. She single-handedly brought down the property value for me by, I dunno, hundreds of thousands or maybe a couple million. She basically gave you the choice of being rude or listening to her for an hour and a half. She was a master at making you think the conversation was winding down. It was just maddening. I’ve also known other people in my life where you can’t get off the phone and I just kind of wanted to recreate that experience in the movie.
For some reason I really like watching those MSNBC prison documentaries partly because I think I can go, “Man, I’m glad I’m not in prison.” Like a horror movie, you know, you get all those kind of emotional experiences in a movie. So I wanted to create a super annoying character where you think, “Man, I’m glad I’m not in that car!” That’s how I was looking at it.
What is your fascination with dumb people? Those types of characters seem to appear in everything of you do.
MJ: You know, I don’t completely know the answer. I think that I find it interesting, I guess. I feel dumb myself sometimes even though supposedly I’m not. I was thinking of that movie Badlands by Terrence Malick, a movie I’ve watched so many times. I love that movie. After the third or fourth time I watched it I realized, Martin Sheen’s character is just a dumbass. To me that’s a lot more interesting to watch, than a guy on a cell phone who goes [imitates cliched movie killer voice], “You have exactly five minutes or the girl will get it!” I don’t really know why. I’ve watched Badlands dozens of times. And yet those action movies with killers you watch once in theaters, maybe have a good time, and then forget about it. I haven’t figured that one out.
Is there any hope for American business with so many dumb people in the workforce?
MJ: [chuckles] I think so. I kind of exaggerated a little bit for comedy’s sake. But um, I also wanted it to feel like, you know, it’s possible to have a company with just 75 people and have it work. On Beavis & Butthead, I had 30 to 90 people working for me at any given time. You know, we’d have our problems but work them out. I think the place we shot [the film] in, at the factory was about the size, about the number of employees, I was imagining. This guy who owned the place, was very close to what I wrote. You’d think it was his life story. He’s like Jason Bateman, same age, similar look. The owner was wearing the same kind of clothes as Bateman. The same haircut. Literally. The guy had started as a model in college.
I think it’s better for everybody, with the shareholders, the corporate thing off somewhere and you’re disconnected, but the good thing is the employees can go complain to the boss and the bad thing is the employees can go complain to the boss.
You always pop up in your films in a disguise, usually with a handlebar mustache. Do you do that strictly for the fans?
MJ: I really did it both times out of necessity. Well, in Idiocracy only my voice is in there. The mustache is really, a coincidence. In Office Space, it was something I had written at the last minute. I had read a bunch a people for the part, but couldn’t find somebody that could get it. They were trying to make the guy sound silly and goofy. But I really just wanted the guy to be passive-aggressive. That was a really simple thing to me. I finally just said, “well, I know how to do this.” I actually auditioned myself, I got a camcorder so I can look at it. So they aren’t deliberate cameos.
In this film [Extract], I screwed up in this one. Miramax asked me if I was going to be in it. I said, “Maybe I’ll play that guy with the mustache.” I described him in the script as having a mustache, being really skinny but with a port belly. Once I said that I think the casting people got lazy and didn’t look very hard. Because by the time we did readings people were sounding like Elmer Fudd. Almost like cartoonish blue collar people. So I said alright, I’ll do it. I didn’t want the [character] to look like I look, so there you have it. Sorry, long answer.
Did the factory you record in make flavored extract or did they make something else that you had to re-dress?
MJ: Not completely different. They basically did bottled water, flavored water and stuff like that. We had to run our bottles and our labels through their mechanism. It was fairly easy for them to adjust it. I loved watching that machinery work, which is partly a reason of why I did this film. I was really happy to see that what I had written wasn’t so far off from reality. That this guy was really like the real guy except for all the gigolo stuff.
Do you have specific actors in mind when you start writing character parts?
MJ: Not very often. In fact, well with this, I started writing it a long time ago and I hadn’t thought of anybody. Then after I started watching Arrested Development I did a re-write thinking about Jason. With Idiocracy I was thinking of Luke Wilson when I did a re-write. Um, other than that actually, I was thinking of Benicio del Toro for President Camacho. Benicio wasn’t [interested] anyway, and Terry Crews came in. It was just one of those times where it wasn’t how I imagined it, but he just stole the part. He just did something with it that I liked, a lot.
What was it about Jason Bateman and Luke Wilson in their respective roles that you identified with?
MJ: I guess [how] both of them in different ways react to certain things, react to crazy things. In Office Space also I was imagining a young Bob Newhart or Charles Grodin. With Idiocracy I was imagining somebody almost blue collar, somebody that you could believe is in the Army and I think Luke has that. Sometimes it is a hard thing to describe.
What inspired you to cast Gene Simmons in a cameo role in Extract?
MJ: [laughs] Ahh, it’s funny. I didn’t realize how recognizable Gene was from his TV reality show. I thought, the only time I had seen him without his makeup was from Politically Incorrect. I had written in the script, “A Guy That Looks Like Gene Simmons with a Ponytail and a Suit and Tie.” When we were reading for that, a lot of good actors wanted to do that, and yet something was not quite there. Then our producer John Altschuler said, “He has to be a running sore of a human being.” And I said, “Well, Gene Simmons.” Ok, it didn’t go quite like that but we said, let’s give Gene a read. What I didn’t realize is that people in the audience would go, “Ohhhh, it’s Gene Simmons!”
Why the title “Extract?” Does it have a more thematic meaning?
MJ: People pointed that out, “Extracting himself from this and that,” but I didn’t think about any of that. I actually am kind of interested in food flavoring [laughs]. When I was writing it and people would ask me what it was about I’d say, “A guy who owns a factory that makes vanilla extract” and they’d start laughing. So I figure I am one step ahead.
You know, Beavis & Butthead always ended up with something insightful to say in spite of where they were coming from. What do you think they would have to say about “American Idol?”
MJ: [laughs] It would be fun to have them watch that actually. As a whole, I don’t now. I was addicted to American Idol although I didn’t watch it this year. But um, but I would have to really sit down and channel Beavis and Butthead. To me, the best Beavis & Butthead stuff was when they were just sort of talking about anything. You know, random. Except I’d like to think they came up with some insightful stuff.
They were popular before the whole defining internet generation…
MJ: Yeah, we did an episode in 1993 just when the internet was starting to balloon. Of course it was about them trying to get porn and not succeeding. I dunno, but that’s what is tricky about a cartoon. I’m not doing that anymore, but in King of the Hill the world changes so much. Do we give them a cell phone now, or an episode where they buy a computer?
Last time you did a comedy like this, you had some resistance from the studio. How was it this time?
MJ: Well, from the time I had a script I just decided I’m not going to give it to a studio. I gave it to Jason Bateman. Then I gave it to my producing partners, and we said let’s see if we can get private equity. And that’s exactly what we did. About a year before we actually starting making it, we had financing in place, and somebody lost money in the mortgage crisis, and then Jason had to go make Hancock. So then a year later we got it together again. We got the schedule all worked out, and then Miramax came in with the last bit of financing, with maybe 3 million of the 8 million budget for domestic distribution.
It was really set up in a way where we could own it and control it. Usually in the casting process, somebody like Dustin Milligan will come in and read the gigolo and be perfect. And then you have to deal with [imitates stuffy producer], “Hmmm, he’s okay, but how about this person who gets more attention in magazines.” It is just so nice to just make the movie and not have to deal with those kinds of battles. Think about the stuff that counts. It’s hard enough as it is.
Who in the entertainment industry are you a fanboy off?
MJ: One of the first ones was Bill Griffith who did the Pinhead. I totally fanboy-ed Don Novello as Father Guido who also did the brilliant The Laszlo Letters. When I first did my animated shorts on VHS tapes, I did Bill Griffith and Lynda Barry impersonations. I actually got a letter back from Lynda Barry, a postcard that read, “I got your videotape. I don’t have a VHS player yet.” I got a letter back later on that said she really liked it. Her stuff back in the 1980’s was really inspired.
What inspired you to develop the subplot in Extract about a husband paying a gigolo to sleep with his own wife?
MJ: Well it actually kind of started out as that. In fact, I realized it was only worthy of a subplot and the rest came out later. It came out of a conversation with two friends of mine. A long time ago like in 1999, we talked about the Howard Stern Show where he’d do that thing where [the guy] is married and the stripper is in there, or whatever, and telling him his wife has cancer. We’re talking about how he’s never going to cheat on her, the only way is if she died or if she cheated. It kind of was a conversation we had when we started talking about that show. And us being married guys. I started writing that not knowing where I was going with it. Sometimes it’s just little bits to see if I can work something out, and then I decided to make it all happen in this workplace comedy.
Have you ever thought about doing a DVD re-release of Idiocracy, with an extended commentary on it?
MJ: I haven’t thought about that, but uh, I imagine… I would think at some point they [20th Century Fox] might want to do that, yeah. It wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Check out Extract in theaters September 4th.