Mike Judge, the creator of the animated smashes “Beavis and Butt-head” and “King of the Hill,” stopped in Dallas recently to talk about the third live-action feature he’s written and directed, “Extract.” It’s his second workplace comedy following “Office Space” (1999), which didn’t do much in theatres but has become a cult classic on video and cable.
When did Judge begin writing “Extract”? “Not too long after [‘Office Space’],” he recalled. “I wrote forty-five-fifty pages, and then I put it away. Then at some point not too long after that I decided to write through to the end. And then I kind of shelved it again, and then, oddly enough, when we were talking over ideas right after ‘Office Space’ all my reps said, when I said ‘a workplace comedy,’ that was poison after ‘Office Space’ had come out and not initially [succeeded].
“Then of all the ideas, ‘Idiocracy’ was the one they that they said [was] most commercial. The wisdom was, well, Mike’s a talented filmmaker, he just needs to do something commercial, and that’s what [‘Idiocracy’] is.” (That picture, starring Luke Wilson as a soldier sent five hundred years into a super-stupid future, was barely released in 2006.)
“So then after however many years, ‘Office Space’ started making more and more money on DVD and was actually becoming commercial,” Judge continued, “and then I remember the first focus group at the test screening of ‘Idiocracy’—this group of twenty people—were saying, ‘Well, it’s pretty funny, but we wanted it to be like ‘Office Space.’ A lot of people thought it would be a sequel, actually. Boy, were they surprised.”
Obviously the time for “Extract” had come. “The good thing about ‘Extract,’” Judge said, “was that I wrote it on spec. Nobody would have paid me to write it, anyway. So I didn’t show it to anybody until I showed it to my partners on ‘King of the Hill,’ John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky—they’re writers, also producers—and they liked it. We were talking about starting a company anyway, and we decided let’s do this low-budget, get independent financing. So that’s what we did. And Miramax came in with the remainder of the budget for domestic distribution.”
Why the interest in workplace comedy? “I remember even as a kid, but especially in the eighties, thinking that people in movies and TV shows just seemed to have cash, and they don’t seem to have to work that much,” Judge said. “In real life not everyone’s a detective and a drug lord or head of an ad agency. There’s just lots of interesting stuff that people are doing. After I made ‘Office Space,’ it was like, well there’s a good reason people aren’t doing [workplace comedies]. But then it became a commercial movie, so I think there is a lot of funny stuff there that people relate to.
“And also, I’ve had a lot of jobs, and it’s like Harvey Pekar, the comic-book guy who did ‘American Splendor,’ said ‘Everyday life has a huge effect on people.’ It sounds obvious, but I think that’s why I like this stuff.
“This is almost like a companion piece to [‘Office Space’],” Judge added. “Because that one was sympathetic to the employees, from the employees’ point of view and the managers and the bosses are the annoying jerks. In this one, I wanted to be sympathetic to the boss and have the employees be the annoying people. So I think it’s kind of a bookend.”
“Extract” boasts what Judge calls “a really great cast,” including Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, J.K. Simmons, Kristen Wiig and David Koechner, along with some out-there choices like Gene Simmons of KISS as a hack lawyer.
“I didn’t realize what a huge reality star he is,” Judge said of Simmons. “I’d only seen him once without his makeup on, and it was on ‘Politically Incorrect.’ And I thought, well this guy looks like he could just be a sleazy businessman. He had that air about him. And I had written in the script [that the lawyer was] ‘a guy who looks like Gene Simmons with a ponytail.’ And we were reading a bunch of people—good actors—and John Altschuler said, ‘We need someone who’s just a running sore of a human being.’ And then at some point, we just said, well, why don’t we see if Gene Simmons will come in and read for us? And he came in and we said, you know, this is working pretty well for us. I guess it throws some people in the audience because he’s such a big reality star, but people at the film lab who were doing the dailies said he gave them chills.”
And why an extract factory? “Well, it’s this odd kind of item that’s in every grocery store but you don’t think about it too much—people take it for granted,” Judge said. “And I like watching bottling mechanisms—I like watching that machinery go. I thought that would be a nice backdrop.
“And when I would say it’s about a guy who owns a factory that makes vanilla extract, people would start laughing.
“So I figured I was one step ahead right there.”