Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sunday Long Read: I Believe You Have My Stapler

One of my favorite movies of all time, Office Space, turns 20 next month and it's just as relevant today as it was in 1999. Entertainment Weekly's Stacy Wilson Hunt rounded up the cast and crew for the story of how the adventures of Milton and his stapler got made.

In 1991, aspiring animator Mike Judge was a touring musician and grad student living outside of Dallas, Texas, when he channeled his past cubicle-life angst – from his former life as an engineer – into a 16mm short film called Office Space, featuring Milton. The vignette about a mumbling office worker and his condescending boss – which Judge drew, voiced and scored –would air on Comedy Central. It was a low-key launch for one of Hollywood’s most singular comedic voices who brought us the generation-defining MTV cartoon Beavis and Butt-Head, the eerily prescient 2006 satirical feature Idiocracy, and HBO’s Emmy-winning tech-nerd lampoon Silicon Valley among others.

The short film also inspired Judge’s live-action feature debut, Office Space: a box-office-flop-turned-cult-classic that ultimately became one of the most relatable workplace comedies of all time. To mark the film’s 20th anniversary (Feb. 19), EW spoke to key on-and-off-screen talent about how the low-budget comedy – starring mostly unknown actors – became a timeless portrait of Everyman Peter Gibbons’ (Ron Livingston) revenge against smarmy bosses, menacing office equipment and T.P.S coversheets. (Did you get that memo, by the way?)

Mike Judge (Writer, director, Chotchkie’s manager Stan): In 1996, I had an overall deal at [20th Century] Fox. [Network president] Peter Chernin had seen the short film and said, “This should be a movie,” so writers pitched ideas for a Milton-focused feature. I said, “It can’t be just about Milton. You don’t want to know what he does at home after work.” [Laughs] Someone said, “Make it an ensemble, like Car Wash, but in an office?” I wrote a treatment in 1996, then wrote the script after season one of [Judge’s animated Fox TV comedy] King of the Hill. Michael Bolton was the only character where I had a specific actor — David Herman — in mind.

David Herman (Michael Bolton): I’d been doing voice work on King of the Hill and also desperately trying to leave MADtv, but was under contract for seven years. Fox said, “Sorry, no. You’re our .360 hitter.” So at the next table-read, I did every sketch screaming at the top of my lungs. They took me off the show and said, “You’ll never work in this town again!” At the next table read for King of the Hill [co-creator] Greg Daniels says, “Don’t worry, you can always work here.” [Laughs] Then I read Office Space. I was in love with it.

Tom Rothman (then President of Twentieth Century Fox Film Group; current chairman of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group): At that time, Fox had been successful with big event movies like Titanic. We needed comedies to balance the slate. When I read Office Space I wondered, “Was Mike hiding in our office?” It was the most brilliant workplace satire I’d ever read.

Judge: We did a reading at the studio in late 1997 with David, Stephen Root, who was also on King of the Hill, and some random actors. I was going to read Milton but thought, “I’d rather just sit back and listen.”

Stephen Root (Milton): So Mike shows me his little Office Space short film. I added more lisp and strangeness to Milton’s voice. He loved it.

Judge: Stephen and David killed it, but otherwise it was a disaster. The actor who read for Peter had too much swagger. I’d been miserable in my office jobs, but I never thought I deserved better. He played it wrong. I felt sick. “Well, I guess we’re not making this movie.” Then Rothman says, “The actors aren’t right, but this is a movie!” I’d felt depressed, then “Okay, I’ll make it better.”

Sanford Panitch (then executive vice president at Fox; current President of Columbia Pictures): I have fond memories of going to Austin, where Mike lived, after that and talking about the script at his house. We’d get Mexican food. He introduced me to chorizo. [Laughs]

It's a fun trip down memory lane.  I remember seeing this in the theaters, but of course it was directly aimed at my young 20's self and this was back when I was working at Radio Shack selling Compaq PCs and satellite dishes.  I definitely got the movie then, not a whole lot of people did until later.

And all of it's still true today.

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