The Mike Judge Interview: Part 2: Gene Simmons and Ben Affleck in Extract, Corporate Product Hilarity in Idiocracy, and the Kamikaze Futures of Beavis & Butt-Head
Posted on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
For part one of /Film’s exclusive interview with writer/director Mike Judge for his new film Extract, click here.
In the second part of my interview with Mike Judge, he shares a couple of candid, behind-the-scenes tales about dealing directly with the global corporations that he skewers in his live-action films. No other work captures both this modern satire and the writer/filmmaker’s view of where our world is headed better than 2006′s Idiocracy. The $30 million sci-fi satire was infamously dumped into a handful of theaters to die by 20th Century Fox; a surprising outcome since Judge’s King of the Hill—the Emmy-winning and second longest running animated program in television history—airs on the Fox Network. In fact, King of the Hill‘s grand finale airs this Sunday, and continues its run in syndication and as a contextually welcome addition to [adult swim].
We also discussed how actor Ben Affleck came aboard his latest film—a midlife crisis dramedy entitled Extract—as a shaggy, drug peddlng bartender named Dean. With a cast that includes Jason Bateman in the lead, SNL‘s Kristen Wiig, David Koechner, Mila Kunis, and Juno‘s great J.K. Simmons, it will come as a surprise to anyone sans Satan and Shannon Tweed that KISS‘s Gene Simmons steals the picture as a sociopathic ambulance-chasing attorney. Judge included. And, of course, no interview is complete without peering in on the irreversibly clueless futures of his most famous cretin-creations and voices, Beavis and Butt-Head. Judge shares a few premises for a possible and much anticipated sequel to 1996′s Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. One idea would see the two dumbasses thrown enormous -head first into our post 9/11 world gone mad.
Hunter Stephenson: Let’s talk for a second about Idiocracy. When WALL•E was first released, more than a few people noted similarities between the use of Costco in Idiocracy, which in the future has become this dumb-downed metropolis, and the Wal-Mart-like corporation, Buy N Large, in WALL•E. I’m wondering if you saw those similarities?
Mike Judge: Yeah, in fact, I really liked WALL•E. And ten minutes into the movie, I thought, “Man, this is what I was trying to get Idiocracy to look like.” [laughs] [laughs] That’s what I hoped it would look like. I thought it was amazing. I’m a fan [of Pixar]. And someone told me recently that Pixar screened Idiocracy, someone told me that who worked there. But I don’t think there was any kind of rip-off or anything. There wouldn’t have been time. I almost think things like that happen when the time is right for an idea.
The zeitgeist, yeah. I consider Idiocracy, and more and more people do, to be one of the balliest studio comedies ever. I think it’s amazing that you made that movie, even after what you went through at [20th Century] Fox. Initially, did you consider the repercussions of making a movie like this? Especially with using major real-life companies in such a scathing way?
Mike Judge: I realize that a lot of the things I’m doing don’t fit into the category so easily that people are comfortable with. You know, when when we were writing the first draft, we’d start coming up with this stuff. And I think one of the first things that I had written, even when it was a treatment, was the billboard that said, “If you don’t smoke Carlton’s, Fuck You.” [laughs] Because there’s the billboard: “If you smoke, please try Carlton’s.” [I say, "Right, right."] So, when I was thinking about this idea, I thought one of the most fun things to do would be the advertising, you know? And when I moved to Austin, maybe a little before I moved to it, I had seen this sign that said, “Erotic Tan for Men.” So, I was like, god, now there are tanning salons that are like [pause] brothels or something. [laughs]
So, I just started thinking what if all these other places started sexualizing things, because people in advertising are always using sex to sell things. There’s already, like, “Sexy Scissors” and Hooters and all of this stuff. And I thought, what if you just cut these people loose and they literally used sex to sell things. It became really fun to write. [laughs] And you know, looking back, I can see how it can look like an odd movie to come out of Fox I guess. But you know, they were pretty supportive of it up until the end. They also, they didn’t know how to give notes on something like this.
And as far as the products stuff, I remember writing it and going, “Oh man, there’s no way we’re going to clear all of this stuff.” And I had a meeting with the lawyers, who were actually really cool and really liked the script. [laughs] And in the Beavis & Butt-Head movie I couldn’t even have a bottle that was shaped like a Jack Daniel’s bottle. I couldn’t have, there was more, it was just ridiculous on that [movie].
But on Idiocracy, when we were talking about Starbucks, the lawyers said, “Well, it would help if you didn’t pick on just one company and if you did more than one.” So, [laughs] I was like okay, and that’s why there’s the whole red light district with Starbucks and there’s an H&R Block with “Tax Return and Relief,” and all of that. But the other stuff, Carl Jr’s, that was all in the script, and I couldn’t believe it all cleared.
But do you think these companies played into the movie being snuffed theatrically, because it seemed really odd. Do you think there was outside pressure?
Mike Judge: You know, I really don’t know. Nobody told me about that. I was completely out of touch and out of the loop. At one point, [Fox] told me, “Hey, it’s not testing well, we’re not going to spend a lot of money promoting it.” And I just said [shrug voice], “Okay. I understand.” [laughs] And that was that, and I had no contact with them. And I really don’t know. It’s possible, but I just don’t know if that happened.
Going back to Extract, you have a character who is living off of Pepsi, just drinking liters of it and sleeping on the floor. [laughs] And that character is even darker than what I recall from the script. And I’m wondering, that character seems like a direct harbinger for the world in Idiocracy. [Judge laughs, says "Yeah."] I know you don’t want to over-explain your characters, but where does that character fit in your worldview? And moreover, are you an optimist or a pessimist at heart, because I wonder about that watching your work?
Mike Judge: I think I’m optimistic, yeah, especially in real life, but I think it’s funny to be pessimistic. And actually, that guy, originally I wanted that [Pepsi-chugging] guy to be just a giant fat guy…
Like the mom in [What's Eating] Gilbert Grape?
Mike Judge: Yeah. Well, maybe not quite that big. And actually, I was trying to get the guy to do it from Idiocracy who sits on the guy’s face in prison. [laughs] But I couldn’t get a hold of him. And that guy was in Office Space also, very briefly. He played a truck driver. But then we found out—you know in the script I think it said the character was 300 pounds—and then Pepsi and Domino’s said we couldn’t use their stuff if the guy was 300 pounds. [huge laugh] [laughs] But also, Brent Briscoe (who plays the Pepsi-swilling step-brother of the character Step) is a really great actor, he’s really funny. And Brent, I think he was kind of sick around the time we were shooting that [laughs] so, instead of a fat guy [Pepsi and Domino's] ended up with that. [laughs] [laughs]
Yeah, Brent actually looks much better now. I don’t know, when I was imagining this character Step (who gets his ball shot off), I remember a couple of guys in Albuquerque who lived in this motel that was converted into apartments. We used to call it “The Roach Motel.” And this guy would just introduce this guy, like, [muddled Southern voice] “This is my half brother.” And they didn’t look anything alike [laughs] [laughs] and he didn’t seem to have a job or anything. I don’t know, those two scenes I probably like more than most people probably. I thought they were funny.
With Ben Affleck’s character in Extract, Dean, I’m wondering if you patron bars located in hotel chains. It seems like you’re going after a very particular, modern day vibe with that character, and Joel [Jason Bateman] and Dean, they’re friends with competing ideologies…
Mike Judge: Well, I have musician friends, and they stop by my studio in Austin on “musician time” and they go, “Hey mannnn,” and I’m in the middle of something, working my ass off. And they are fairly different from me. [laughs] The thing about the hotel bar, this is something, I think, that is happening around the country. Some of those hotel bars become neighborhood bars for their area. I remember being on the road as a musician, and there was one, I want to say it was a Holiday Inn in Omaha, maybe, and it was like, I walked in to get some food, and all the locals look at me, like, “Who the hell is this guy?” But the bar is part of the Holiday Inn. [laughs] [laughs]
And there are so many bars in movies, so I didn’t want to do the regular, old, funky neighborhood bar. And the area that these characters are living in, I kind of imagine it being on the outskirts of a big city—like Ohio or Dallas, in the Midwest—and this is a bar that Joel used to work at with Dean, like fifteen years ago. And you go to these hotel bars, there was another in Corpus Christi [Texas] and you hear peoples’ conversations and they all work and live nearby.
So, did you go to any of these bars with Ben Affleck to pin down the character? Was he familiar with that type of guy?
Mike Judge: Well, Ben read the script and I heard he was interested, but my first reaction was, “No, it’s Jason Bateman’s.” And they go, “No, he wants to do Dean.” So, I met with him, and he started talking about this guy he went to high school with. And he started doing an imitation, and he said the script was written about this guy, like, down to the $20 that Dean wants [for his cut of the gigolo's extraneous services]. And then he started channeling this guy and it really made me laugh. And he and Jason were really great together. And Ben was really down for growing his hair out and that beard…
One thing that I haven’t seen you discuss much is your relationship with Tim Suhrstedt, who has worked with you on all of your live-action films. And he’s worked on a lot of cool stuff, like Teen Wolf, the first Bill and Ted’s, and Little Miss Sunshine. What does Tim Suhrstedt bring to your films and what’s it like working with him?
Mike Judge: He really brings a lot to it. I remember when I was interviewing people for Office Space, and I was on the bubble of whether I really wanted to do this, “Do I want to do live action?” He came in to meet, I had never met him before that, and he immediately started to describe how to shoot scenes and Office Space really started to become alive for me. I remember he talked about doing handheld as a character was starting to leave, and I just started to see all of the possibilities for comedy, in how you shoot it, that I hadn’t thought about. And, we became friends, obviously, but he’s a really funny guy. He takes me up a notch.
Yeah. I think he did a great job. After reading the script and then seeing the final film, it really is great how precise all of the comedy beats, the framing, and the timing are. It’s a great translation. And there’s not a lot of fat in the script or in the final film. So many comedies run overlong now…
Mike Judge: I do find that. Movies are too long nowadays, yeah. I don’t think I’ve made one that’s longer than 80, well, this one is only 90 minutes.
SPOILER While we’re on the script, the ending to the film still comes as a shock. And I remember reading it, and I was like, “That’s pretty bleak,” given what’s come before. [laughs] What happens to that character. And the ending made me slightly reevaluate Suzie and Joel. [laughs] I mean, I don’t totally hate the neighbor. He’s really annoying, but I’m also a little empathetic because he’s so clueless. It knocks you over the head a bit, it’s good.
Mike Judge: I actually had a neighbor like David Koechner‘s character and it was in this neighborhood—it was the most expensive house we’ve ever bought, a place to go to in the summers when we were in L.A.—and there’s only one way out. [laughs] And this lady would park herself in your window. And I think there’s some sympathy to him that David brought, and I think he really nailed it. And I actually wanted to bring that to the movie; I was thinking about how a horror movie can scare and there are a lot of different kind of feelings you can get. Normally you wouldn’t want to be scared, and normally you wouldn’t want to be annoyed, but I think there’s a nice relief. I watch a lot of those prisons documentaries on MSNBC and I don’t know why, but I think it’s so I can go, “I’m so glad I’m not in prison.” And I think it’s like that, like, “I’m so glad I don’t live next to that guy.” He’s just a clueless boob.
But with the ending, it has an unexpected ring of mortality to it, like, maybe these two people should get their shit together…
Mike Judge: [pause] Yeah, yeah. You know, I didn’t really spell that out. I did think about this. I actually had more of that in the script, where Suzie would go, “Wow, it could have happened to any of us.” That kind of thing.
Obviously Gene Simmons is known for his humility, but I’m also sure that he’s had his fair share of run-ins with lawyer to prepare for this role. And these greedy characters appear in your work. Gene’s character, he reminded me of one of Hank Hill’s friends on King of the Hill, who is a car dealer and he’s been swindling Hank on cars for years.
Mike Judge: [big laugh] Oh yeah, I like that one a lot. [laughs] Yeah, that was [producing partner] John Altschuler‘s idea, that that guy has been ripping Hank off for years. That was a fun one. Gene Simmons had done King of the Hill, but I had never met him in person, that was over the phone. But I’m so out of the loop that I thought people wouldn’t recognize him [out of his KISS makeup]. I didn’t know how huge his reality show was, I was just thinkin’, “Oh, this will be cool, people will go, ‘who is that?’” But instead they go, “Oh, Gene Simmons!” That’s funny.
I had scene Gene on Politically Incorrect, that was the only time I saw him without his makeup on. And I thought, he kind of has that sleazy business man quality, and that he should play one. [I say, "He does sell his own coffins."] Yeah, yeah. [laughs] I remember in that movie Bugsy, Billy Graham, who was a concert promoter, he played a mafia guy [Charlie Luciano], and I thought Gene had some of that quality. And then, during casting, we thought that maybe we should see if he’d come in and read for it. (Note: The lawyer character is described as looking like Gene Simmons with a pony tail in the script.)
So, he came in and he just said [super low voice], “I’ll do whatever you ask.” He’s got that great voice, just so severe. And I think I had put at least two KISS videos on Beavis & Butt-Head, and I talked to him a little bit about that. But he’s obviously a really smart guy and a piece of work. You know when he’s on set, just a total pro. No musician-time, no entourage.
Finally, let me ask one Beavis & Butt-Head question. Thanks again for doing this interview with us, Mr. Judge. Obviously, a lot of people want a sequel, and you have a lot of premises, but nothing seems to be solidified. I’m wondering how you might update. Because their world in the show—that’s what I always found so eerie. It never seemed to be very connected. They’re wandering around this American wasteland, with no parents and no friends. But now with the Internet, what would what that do for them? I know you’ve talked about making them tech-support operators if they came back. [laughs] Can you discuss any new plans?
Mike Judge: With those two, from the get go I tried not to be too topical or specific, even though some times it was. Or too “of the times.” Even the first time I animated them, people would say, “That’s not what people are wearing.” [laughs] Back in ’92 when the show was first starting a lot of people were like, “Oh, people don’t wear those shoes,” and people don’t dress like and wearing shorts. Stuff like that.
But I’ve always tried to avoid references, even though we did the episode where [Bill] Clinton came to their school and stuff. [I say, "Yeah, that was awesome."] But that was coming right on the heels of like, Pauly Shore had been on MTV right before that. And everything was just loud and super-hip lingo. It was like L.A., like you could barely understand him, with these total young teenage catchphrases that he’d be saying. And I couldn’t compete with that. So, I deliberately tried not to make it hip at all. And that’s why they just said these simple things, like, “This sucks.” And I really wanted no catchphrases to come out of it. Even though they did.
So, I think I would do [a sequel] the way, where I wouldn’t shine too much light on the fact that, you know, they don’t have cell phones and that type of thing. But I don’t have any plans to do it. But people keep asking me about it and I might go look at that stuff again. It’s cool to see how people responded to [the Extract promotion], because I’ve done little things before and it didn’t get so much attention. It would be pretty easy just to set the movie in ’94. And they had tech-support then. But that was just an idea I had for a scene in it.
And I’ve had a couple of movie ideas; one is where a religious cult thinks that Beavis is the messiah and there are all of these people hanging on to his every word. And writing it all down. And it would start out with him being Cornholio. [laughs] [laughs] There are a bunch of ideas. Another one is where the government promises them 72 virgins to go on a suicide mission, but Beavis just keeps trying to kill himself. He keeps trying to kill himself on the way to the airport.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at gmail: h.attila and on twitter at www.twitter.com/hunterstep.