Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Industrial strength: A talk with Mike Judge

The blue collar cousin to his 1999 cult film
Office Space, Mike Judge’s Extract examines the ironies of hierarchies in the work place. Joel (Jason Bateman, perfectly cast) built his company from the ground up. His patented flavourings and the small company that produces them have helped Joel ease his way into a big suburban house, a big pool, a big car, and other middle-class comforts that are slowly transforming him into a depressive eunuch, unloved by his bored wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig), unappreciated by his resentful employees, left with nothing to do in his spare time except masturbate in one of his three bathrooms while Suzie watches Dancing with the Stars or get drunk with his New Age dope fiend barkeep buddy Dean (Ben Affleck, alarmingly convincing).

A thread of emasculation runs through Extract, whether it’s Joel’s dwindling sex life or the literal testicular injury suffered by staffer Step (Clifton Collins Jr.). The only sexually satisfied male character in the movie is a supremely dimwitted young stud-for-hire, and in his case that’s all he has going for him. Genuine empowerment is enjoyed only by Cindy (Mila Kunis), a small-time grifter hoping to make a big score by convincing Step to sue Joel and the ultra-manic bus stop ad lawyer played by Gene Simmons, groomed here to most closely resembles a rabid poodle. Joel will make numerous attempts to break out of his rut, including selling his company, having an affair, and smoking a bong the size of a lamppost. But in the end he may find his greatest consolation in Step, who for all his flaws is truly proud to consider himself “just a working man.”

Extract is unusual among mainstream comedies in that Judge conveys affection for his characters while at the same time refraining from sentimentalizing them. In the case of one of the film’s most memorable supporting bits, amusingly embodied by Beth Grant, he doesn’t shy away from making her a flat-out racist. When I spoke with Judge he recalled how a friend once described to him the real-life model for Grant’s character, listing all her external traits. Judge (see below) felt like without having met the woman in question he absolutely knew her as a type. And perhaps herein lies some of the problems with the characters in Extract. So many of them feel much more like types than people. There are times you can’t help but wonder if it would all come off better as a cartoon, like Judge’s greatest successes, his television shows Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill. To be sure, there are a lot of funny scenes in Extract, but some of them are so broad and familiar it’s hard to feel completely invested in them.

Mike Judge

I can’t say the same for my experience of meeting Judge. His demeanor was somber, yet his responses to my questions were never less than playful, bouncing improbably from his admiration for both Badlands and The Big Lebowski—“the kind of comedy you can meditate on”—to the unlikely kinship between Bob Newhart and crime novelist Jim Thompson.

JB : When you have an idea do you know right away if it’s a television show or a movie?

Mike Judge: There were moments when I was working on
Office Space where I thought maybe it should’ve been a TV show. I’d be doing scenes with Gary Cole and Ron Livingston, or Gary Cole and Stephen Root, and thinking how fun it would be to just keep writing stuff for these guys and see where it goes. But for the most part the stuff I’ve made were things that always knew what they wanted to be from the beginning.

Office Space

JB: It must be tempting to turn any idea into television because then, in theory at least, you have an opportunity to build an audience.

MJ: At one point Fox did want to make a TV show out of
Office Space. This was before the British version of The Office came out much less the American one. Now I feel like we’ve had two great shows about offices and we don’t need another one.

JB: Has your idea of what makes good TV or good movies changed since you started out, given that the industry has changed so much?

MJ: I think it’s the same. I always think in terms of classic TV. I haven’t really watched prime time TV since I started in this business. I watch a lot of TV but mostly late at night, so I tend to see reruns of old shows. And reality shows. I was actually hooked on
American Idol for several seasons. I think in a way that’s a sort of classic. It could have been on in the 1950s.

The Bob Newhart Show

JB: Are there shows that were on when you were coming up that still feed you creatively when you see them now?

MJ: Oh yeah. I saw an old
Bob Newhart episode about a year ago and it was just brilliant. That character Carlin, his whole thing was genius. It was that episode where Carlin ends up buying the building that Bob Newhart lives in, so during his therapy session Bob has to explain to his patient about the heater not working and so on, trying to tell the guy he’s a tightwad and a bad landlord. You know there’s this Jim Thompson novel called The Alcoholics. Seeing that episode of Bob Newhart made me think that The Alcoholics could make a good movie.

JB: Really?

MJ: It’s about a guy a guy who runs a treatment centre. He’s kind of a Bob Newhart-like character.

JB: Huh. I know the book. I never thought of it that way.

MJ: That book’s actually kinda funny. You keep thinking someone’s going to get shot or something. Thompson must have been in an alcoholic treatment place when he wrote that.

King of the Hill

JB: What about animation? Do you know when something is going to be live-action or animation? Do economics come into account?

MJ: Yeah. That or my limited drawing abilities. With animation I do best when it starts with something that I drew. What’s harder is writing something and then figuring out how to draw it after the fact. King of the Hill and Beavis and Butthead both started as drawings. King of the Hill was initially a panel cartoon of four guys with their beers with three of them saying “Yep,” and then I had Boomhauer thinking “Yep” in a thought balloon. But if it’s something that starts out as a script it’s usually going to be live-action.

JB: Did the script for
Extract develop out of the milieu? The characters?

MJ: I remember writing the scene where Cindy steals this guitar. Sometimes I just write scenes. I wrote that not knowing where to go with it. At some point I know I wanted to write a script about a girl that’s really good-looking but kind of a sociopath—I’ve known a couple like that—and just the way that super-hot girls seem to live by different rules than the rest of us. I thought about doing something in the blue collar world, or something in the factory setting but from the boss’ point of view. This friend of mine had been a musician most of his life and had to quit going on the road, so in his late 40s he got a job in this parts warehouse. He started calling me to tell me about the people working there. I’ve worked in factories myself. He said there’s this woman, she sits on a stool, arms folded, shaking her head at everybody. She’s got a Tweedy-bird T-shirt on. She’s like 65, fanny-pack. I thought oh my god, I’ve never met this particular woman he’s talking about but I’ve seen her a hundred times. He had this one line of hers that he’d repeat. “I’m just gonna sit here.” So I just started imagining all these characters that are unique to factories, the same way there are characters unique to cubicles.

JB: And the Jason Bateman character? Did he come with this whole package you were envisioning?

MJ: That came more directly from my personal experience. At one point in my life I went from having nobody work for me to suddenly having 30 to 90 people working for me. I remember thinking, these people are driving me crazy, they don’t appreciate anything. I try to be nice and they take advantage of me. Then I realized, oh yeah, I’m the boss, and I was probably like that to my bosses. See, middle-management types like in
Office Space tend to thrive on that stuff I think, the power trip, telling people what to do. I don’t enjoy telling people what to do. But I do enjoy steering the ship and making something on a big scale. That’s satisfying work.

No comments: