Before there was Beavis, Butt-head or Hank Hill, there was Milton Waddams. In 1990, a former Austin, TX-based engineer named Mike Judge created the hand-drawn and self-produced short about a squirrelly office worker named Milton. He toils in a pitifully small office. He mumbles about his job. He’s obsessed with his stapler. His boss, a suspenders-wearing jerk named Bill Lumbergh, asks him to push his desk “as far back into that corner as possible” so they can use the rest of it for storage space. The story ends with Bill taking the stapler and Milton threatening to set the building on fire.
That 90-second short helped open the door for Judge to create Beavis and Butt-head for MTV in 1993. The rest is TV animation history. But he wasn’t done with Milton yet. When 20th Century Fox was looking for Judge to write and direct a live-action film, he thought of the weird cubicle dweller.
“My manager was really pressuring me, saying, ‘You got to just write a treatment. Write a treatment then we’ll get it. Plant our flag just so they’re thinking about it,’” Judge remembers. The biggest nut to crack: He didn’t think he could make a whole movie revolve around Milton. While getting feedback from other screenwriters, one suggested a Car Wash-style ensemble film. “Then I thought, ‘Maybe I can combine some of my ideas about an engineer workplace and just make that the movie,’” Judge says.
The result, Office Space, had a modest $10 million budget and centered around Peter Gibbons, a programmer at a company called Initech. He spends his days trying to avoid his boss — welcome back, Bill Lumbergh — and fielding calls from his cubicle mate — hello there, Milton — about the squirrels “getting married” outside his window. He takes long morning coffee breaks with his equally disgruntled coding buddies. He really hates his job. Then a therapy session gone wrong causes Peter to stop stressing over whether or not he has to give 110 percent at work. And everything changes.
Despite Judge’s track record and the presence of Jennifer Aniston as a waitress at a chain-restaurant (“Chotchkies”), it came and went from the theaters without much of a blip when it was released on February 19, 1999. Then something happened; DVD copies of the film started circulating among the cubicle crowd. Between home video and its place in heavy rotation on cable TV, it began to build an increasingly larger fanbase. Soon, the film had become a bona fide pop-cultural touchstone. Try finding someone who doesn’t know what adding “flair” to a uniform or having “a case of the Mondays” comes from. We’ve all got the “memo about the TPS reports” at this point.
For the film’s 20th anniversary, we talked to Judge and much of the cast about the making of the film — and the phenomenon that turned the movie into a genuine cult classic.
“I would be going home and doing it in my sleep.”
Much of the detail about life in the offices of Initech — the chipper receptionist, the person saying “someone has a case of the Mondays”, the gray cubicles and overall air of desperation — came from Judge’s experience in numerous engineering jobs he had during college and right after he graduated, before he became a musician and animator.
Mike Judge (Writer-Director): I’d taken a year off of college and I worked at Jack in the Box, construction — every job there is. There was a temp agency that would put you in an office, which back then seemed like: “Oh my God, an office. That’s cushy.” I got a job “collating,” which is basically alphabetizing purchase orders.
And the woman at the cubicle next to me kept answering the phone like: “Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. Just a moment!” It was just all day long. I would go home and I would be doing it in my sleep. I remember just thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t do this anymore.” I would rather go back to construction, or working in a cafeteria, or any jobs I had.
Ron Livingston (Peter Gibbons): Probably the closest thing I did was an internship over the summer my senior year of high school — I think it was at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, where I’m from. They do military radio and aircraft cockpit instrumentation and controls, stuff like that. Then I temped for a good five, six years doing all kinds of stuff. I got a good taste of what it was like to sit at a desk with a phone, have a to-do list, have people checking in on you all day.
Stephen Root (Milton Waddams): In the early Eighties when I was in New York doing theater, I had to support myself doing many different jobs, one of which was temp work. I would go from office to office doing stuff, mostly organizing and carrying boxes. But I was in the cubicle world. I ended up doing some typing for the membership department in one of the natural history museums; I actually got the job near Christmas, so they were having Christmas parties while I was typing out paychecks in the cubicle. I was in it. Not for a long time, but I was in it.
Judge: I was a musician at that time when I made the [first Milton] short. It started with a guy at my first engineering job who I didn’t know well. He worked in logistics; I don’t even know what he did, but he was kind of an odd guy. He sort of had this indignant, scared vibe to him. Nobody ever talked to him. One day I was just bored and walking through that part of the office, so I just asked him how it’s going or something. And he went into this whole thing about how if they move his desk again, he’s gonna quit!
He said, “I told Bill if they move me one more time I’m out of here.” I asked him why. “’Cause I used to be by the window and I had my fish tank there and it got more sun and now he moved me. But if he does it one more time I’m out of here.” I remember thinking Bill could move his desk 20 more times and he’s never gonna quit. He’s just happy saying these things.
Gary Cole (Bill Lumbergh): I had a guy … He even had a weird name: Buck Palmer or Buck Palmeroy, something like that. I sold shoes in a mall outside Chicago and he was very much like … Well, first of all, he was barely ever there. He was never in the store. He was always at lunch or somewhere else. But when he was there, he was Lumbergh-like in a sense that he never really raised his voice and didn’t have a lot of urgency to him — other than he probably didn’t want to be in the store. It was always kind of that passive-aggressive, “Can you take this out of here?”
Judge: At my second engineering job I had a boss who was super passive-aggressive — like to a level that I didn’t know existed. I worked there a week. Sunday night came and I just said, “Oh God I can’t do it. I got to have one more day before I go back.” Called in sick and the next day he just came by: “Yeah, so you were sick huh? Did you have a flu or something? Yeeeaahhh OK.” The engineers didn’t really respect him because he didn’t have a technical background, but he was just good at being incredibly annoying.
We all worked fast-food places, and one of the worst things was changing the oil in the fryers because you can really severely burn yourself and you’re carrying this thing that weighs a ton. The way [our bosses] would say, “Yeah, Mike, why don’t you go ahead and change the fryers.” And the “go ahead” was just sort of like [mockingly] “I’d been chomping at the bit to do it and they’re finally gonna let me!” So me and my friends just started saying that to each other. My roommate would just say, “You know why don’t you go ahead and …” if it was something you didn’t really want to do.
“It was just understood that I’d direct it.”
Judge: I finished the first part of Milton in late 1990; I was a musician at the time and going to part-time to grad school. It would take me like six to eight weeks to animate two minutes completely by myself. I’m just a guy animating shorts in my house.
I felt blown away that someone played it on Comedy Central and that it eventually played on Saturday Night Live. So I wasn’t thinking so big that this would immediately be a series. I mean that’s what I was hoping. I thought maybe this could be a series or a bunch of shorts that they would play on [MTV’s] Liquid Television or something like that. But that was the plan. I had other characters like Lumbergh; I was gonna have [the “just a moment” coworker] Nina as a character and some others, too.
Once Beavis and Butt-head became a hit, I kind of wanted to move on fairly quickly. I wanted to do something with Milton. That’s when I ended up doing those three other shorts for Saturday Night Live which weren’t that great. I think the fourth one I liked the best, but that was done in such a … It was while I was in the thick of it with Beavis and Butt-head so I wasn’t able to give them enough attention. But [20th Century Fox Head of Film Entertainment] Peter Chernin saw those shorts and thought this should be a live-action movie.
Fox always wanted me to direct it. It’s funny the way Hollywood works. I just wanted to make movies. I didn’t know what a director does as opposed to a producer because I’d always done everything completely myself. I had a deal with Universal to adapt this children’s book into a summer-camp movie — I had never even been to summer camp. But I was just like “Someone’s gonna offer me to direct a movie, I’m gonna say yes.” When this came along, it was just understood that I would direct it.
“A lot of Hollywood actors [auditioning for Peter] were playing it like, ‘Fuck this place. This place is bullshit.’ They didn’t seem like somebody who’d ever be stuck in that job — they seemed like swinging-dick actors who are better than all this. Ron played it the way I imagined it.”
Livingston: Oddly enough my dad was a big Beavis and Butt-head fan so we’d watch. When I was home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, we’d all be sitting around watching it and laughing our asses off. At that point, when you go in for that first audition, you don’t really even think about it too much because it’s just: “Here’s another thing I’m gonna go out for and probably not get, but let’s give it a shot.”
The scene that I went in with was the one where everybody was coming in asking me “Did you get the memo?” It was about a two- or three-page scene. When I got in there, I saw that Nancy Clapper, the casting director, had a desk in the room. I said, “You know, I’m gonna sit over there if that’s OK.” So she turned the camera around and I got to play the scene at the desk — just basically working with files and you have to look up as people came in and answer the phone. I don’t know how you’d do that scene if you don’t have those props around because you’re just sitting in a chair waiting to get yelled at. It doesn’t make any sense.
Judge: A lot of Hollywood actors [who were auditioning for Peter], they’re kind of playing it sort of like, “Fuck this place. This place is bullshit.” When I had my engineering job, I didn’t think that I was better than everybody there. They didn’t seem like somebody who would ever be stuck in that job the way I was — they seemed like these kind of swinging-dick actors who are better than all this. A lot of them had too much swagger. I’d imagined a kind of young Charles Grodin type who’s just not railing against the system. And Ron played it the way I imagined it.
Cole: Normally when you go in to audition, you don’t have some kind of preconceived idea necessarily. In this case, you had the [animated shorts] and they were so well done that I decided, I’m going to do nothing else except impersonate this cartoon. Even though it was a cartoon, it was so relatable, so specific to me: “I know that guy. I know that rhythm. I’ve had a boss like that. We’ve all had a boss like that.” I said, “I’m gonna rip this off and I’m gonna go in there and impersonate it and see what happens.”
Judge: When Gary came in I just … I couldn’t get enough. I thought what he did took it to a new level. At that time I was sort of on the fence about making the movie at all. I kept thinking, “God, this could be a huge disaster. Maybe I’m making a movie that is only gonna make me laugh and a couple of my friends and my brother.” When Gary read for Lumbergh, I thought, OK, if nothing else if I can get that in a movie … and that’s gonna be at least something.
Root: We had a studio read. I knew the script, because I was doing the hypnotist that has a heart attack. I was doing one of the Bobs, which I still did during the read. I did at least three roles in that read. [David Herman and I] were all at Fox anyway for King of the Hill. It was easy for him to get me. We were starting to walk over, and Mike said, “I just wanna hear you do Milton.” You know, thanks for the prep! He showed me the two-minute pencil sketch. He knew I was a character guy. I think physically at that time I was maybe 20 pounds heavier than I am now. I kind of fit that.
Judge: I had this epiphany of Stephen Root doing Milton because I knew him well enough and so this is 10 minutes before I’m gonna start [doing Milton in the read]. I played him those tapes of the four shorts and was just watching him. I knew he was gonna kill it.
Root: [Milton] was this insecure guy … and I’m a very shy, insecure guy. I really wanted to give him more of a lisp, as well, than Mike had done in the sketch. Even the shuffle walk — he said, “No, I walk like a human.” I said, “OK, but I want to put something of this in there.”
David Herman (Michael Bolton): He claims that I was the one guy he had written the part of Michael Bolton for. So I’m only repeating what he’s told me. But he and I hit it off right away. We had been working on King of the Hill for two years at least, I guess. I think there was some point in which I was involved in the auditioning.
The script in general just felt like it was really putting a mirror up to those passive-aggressive workplaces. And I thought of [Michael as an] angry, subverted worker. To me, he felt like this really miserable, desperate character and yet, somebody who probably today is still working in tech. You know: You’re angry but this is what you do. And he has to try to still maintain his balls and his machismo somehow in the midst of being really shat upon.
Ajay Naidu (Samir Nagheenanajar): First of all, [Samir] wasn’t from India. He was very specifically from Jordan, and I worked on that. I mean, the reason for that is because yes, there was obviously many different people coming from many different places. But there was a little bit of a [tech] wave at that time from the Middle Eastern countries. Jordan was an interesting choice because of the nature of that particular immigrant pool.
None of these dudes read as nerdy, subservient, defeated guys. They read as really cool guys. When I looked at it, I thought, “Oh, well, you know, this is just a guy who’s cool all day long, but then gets smashed up against obstacles that come his way.”
Judge: He really studied the accent and got it down. Recently, I had a couple of Middle Eastern people tell me that he really did the accent really well. I had a woman tell me he sounds just like her dad.
Diedrich Bader (Lawrence): I had just seen Bottle Rocket and I really loved Owen Wilson in it. So when I got the audition I thought it’d be really great to do a kind of impression with his phrasing, his style — an Owen Wilson homage. So I worked on this character and then when I went to the audition, Owen Wilson walks out! True story. So I had to come up with another character in the threshold of the doorway to the audition. And that’s when I came up with Lawrence.
I tell everybody else that because I’m from the South, he’s like a lot of people that I grew up with, but that’s not really true. I’m not gonna lie to Rolling Stone. I just pulled it out of my butt. I just thought, [Mike’s] from Texas, he’ll love a Southern character! I just stuck to it. And he started giggling, so the first take was really ruined. I had to do it again, but I knew that I was onto something, I’ll say that. I didn’t know if I was gonna get it. But I knew that I had hit something that he liked because he ruined the take.
Judge: I was surprised how many pretty big actors were interested and came in and read. I think some of it was responding to the script; maybe some of them were fans of a couple things I’d done at that point.
Livingston: Jennifer [Aniston]’s name got kicked around … and the reason that I think I was told that was because that was pretty crucial to me being able to get the job. The fact that a bona fide star would be willing to step in and take the role of Joanna, it took a lot of the heat off of who was gonna play the role of Peter.
I was a little surprised [she took the job]. Again, I think the reason she took it is that she’s got really good taste. There was just something about that script that was … She was a bigger star than that part at that moment, so I think she took the role because she wanted to play it. Or because she wanted to work with Mike. You’d have to ask her.
Judge: The daunting part was it was my name on a movie with real actors — one of them being Jennifer Aniston. I didn’t want to be responsible for ruining her movie career before it started. But the writing part was probably more daunting to me. I felt like maybe I hadn’t completely cracked what the third act was, so I was worried about that. There was definitely all kinds of stress.
“This isn’t supposed to be a cool place they’re working in.”
Rehearsal and shooting took place in an office building in suburban Austin, which was transitioning from the cool, artsy town people saw on MTV’s Austin Stories to a high-tech hub that attracted huge companies as well as a number of startups.
Livingston: I remember in the beginning [Mike] was like, “Do you guys usually do rehearsal?” I’d never done a movie that had rehearsal before, but I said, “Ideally, yeah, rehearsal’s good.” “How much? How long do you do it for?” I was like, “A week? Two weeks? I don’t know.” The next thing we know, we had two weeks rehearsal which I think was supremely helpful.
Judge: Some actors like rehearsing some don’t and, but everybody seemed pretty game for it.
Root: I can specifically remember him standing there, while they’re setting up cubicles, literally with the drill guns. I remember him saying, “This is an amalgamation of guys that I really knew.” I can remember him saying to Gary, “I want you to draw out this ‘yeahhhh’ thing.” He was really specific with people about what things worked. What they were for every individual person, I don’t know. But I remember that, because we were rehearsing in the room that we were doing [the shoot] in.
Judge: Just so you know, it wasn’t a soundstage — it was actually a real office. It used to be either Sprint or AT&T, I think, and we just moved in right after they had moved out. The exterior like you see in the movie? That was actually the exterior of where we shot.
Livingston: Austin was going through a tech boom, and they had trouble finding a spot that was even available, let alone kind of fit all the needs of the production. By the time I got there, the set decorators had had their time with it, and it looked very different than it looks in the movie. I remember Mike went in to check on it and took a look at it and he was just: “No, this would never be here. This little bobblehead figurine, all this sort of junk they use to kind of just make it visually appealing and break it up, and have the colors, and these plants wouldn’t be here.”
He basically went through and, much to the art director’s dismay, just said, “OK, lose that, lose that, lose that.” Stripped it all down to just the barest, ugliest version of it that it could be. It’s kind of perfect. The soul of what the movie is about is the impersonality of that space and that environment.
“Mike was really specific about every detail. He was forever looking for the best glasses for Lumbergh. I’d be in those aviator glasses and he would just go, ‘Do you have anything bigger? A lot bigger?’”
Judge: I was very specific about what I wanted and he had gone and ordered all these cubicles that had ripple glass on them. They were kind of cool-looking, like it was a cool ad agency. It really bummed me out. I said, “This isn’t gonna work. This isn’t supposed to be a cool place that they’re working in. I want it to look like the cubicles I worked in.” Then he went and ordered some … and they were all too short. You could look right over them. So the whole thing with Milton peeping over the cubicles to see if Lumbergh was [around], all these physical comedy things I had, they weren’t gonna work ’cause the cubicles were too short. Just budget-wise and timing-wise there wasn’t enough time to get taller ones. So what I had him do was order a set of four cubicles just for close to camera [shots] that were tall, and the rest were just hoisted up on apple boxes. I wanted it to look fairly kind of grayish, bluish fluorescent light tones. Like the way real offices look.
Herman: He wanted to put a mirror up to his experience — he didn’t want the cinema version. Today, people don’t even think about that aspect of the movie as groundbreaking, but it really was. You didn’t see those lights in movies previously. You didn’t see those gray cubicle walls. And now it’s just every FedEx commercial. Now it’s a genre.
Root: It’s the first film that shows the real drudgery of day-to-day life in it. You’ve seen glimpses of it in other movies, but this is the first one that actually dealt with it. People trying to pull crap out of copiers, things that don’t work, annoying people right next to you.
Judge: It was kind of funny. Here I was making this movie about an office that I didn’t like that I worked in — and then I created this situation where I’m now actually working longer hours and more stressed so that it looks like an office and feels like an office. But at least it was only 10 weeks.
Cole: He was just really specific about everything, every detail. The wardrobe, that was all him. The glasses. He was forever looking for the best glasses for Lumbergh. They would come back and I’d be in those aviator glasses and he would just go, “Do you have anything bigger? A lot bigger?” They took up half my face. He wanted every annoying thing he could get out of that character so that when [Lumbergh] would walk into a scene with somebody, they were all just kind of repulsed, except they couldn’t outwardly be. That kind of fake politeness: “If you could do this, that would be terrific.”
The most annoying thing about him is that he’s talking to somebody but he seems to be so focused on anything else other than the person he’s talking to. He’s talking to them because he has to, I guess, because that’s the way things get done. But he’s much more interested in his coffee or the end of his fingernails or whatever.
Root: [Milton’s] glasses were already set up, because they had to order me contacts to be able to see through the glasses. Otherwise, I couldn’t see. I still had no depth perception, anyway. I would have to practice touching things or grabbing the stapler. If I took them off, I couldn’t see at all, because I had the contacts on. I had to leave them on, but again, I would have fallen over. There’s more wide-eyed buggy-ness going on than a human would normally do. That’s just part of the character.
“This movie is not for 13-year-olds!”
While the actors mostly stuck to the script, Judge did give people room to improvise. In fact, lines like “I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it” or “I’m gonna give her my O-face” came out of improvisation. Judge especially encouraged Herman to let things fly, resulting in Michael’s classic reaction to getting laid off: “Cock gobblers!” Ditto the gangster-rap-backed montage of Peter, Michael and Samir hatching their plan to deposit the company’s rounding error into their pockets, including some awesome breakdancing from Naidu.
Herman: I never thought this movie was going to be quotable — I didn’t know what this movie was going to end up being at all. That “cock gobbler” stuff and a lot of the particular vulgarity was shoehorned in by me, because at the time there was hints at them looking for a PG-13 rating. I was like “This movie is not for 13-year-olds! This is for people who have at least experienced to some degree that passive-aggressive workspace, that system you’ve got to enter into.”
Root: I think [Mike] never wanted it to be a PG-13 movie. It’s not about kids. It’s about headier stuff. I mean, the music was a huge part of that movie. He had to fight really hard to get that in there. He fought tooth and nail to get that rap in there. That’s what makes the movie.
Judge: I had seen it in movies like Colors and Boyz n the Hood; I thought the music just had this amazing feeling to it. But I thought this doesn’t have to just be about movies like that. I thought there’s something really funny about music that was that angry and using it to score angry people in cubicles. And I did have the idea from the very beginning — it’s in the original treatment I wrote — that Michael Bolton was a guy who has gangster-rap posters in his cubicle.
Naidu: We did a series of increments of [the break dancing]. Like, OK, this is the time of the night when we’re just drinking, and this is the time when we’re all tired, and this is the time when we’re really getting loose. That’s when we were dancing and Mike was like, “Yeah, you guys can use the whole space.” We were just moving around, and I just went out there and started doing stuff. He was like, “OK, that’s staying.”
Other oft-quoted lines are Milton’s “I’m going to burn the building down” — which Judge tweaked until the mumbled dialogue was barely audible — and Lawrence’s “cornhole” line.
Root: I certainly went louder than [Milton was in the finished film]. Mike said, “No, no, no, no. I really want just barely to hear that. Just barely.” We got down to whatever is in the film. That was specifically a Mike direction. I don’t think he wanted to telegraph what was gonna probably happen. Just to have it as a throw-off, so low that you barely heard it and didn’t think about it, that was the right way to go.
Bader: After I’ve shot a line five or six times and I’ve got it the way that they want it, I have like Tourette’s. I just start saying other things. I’m totally undisciplined that way and sometimes I get in trouble. But Mike loved it. So for example, “Watch your cornhole” came out with me just … I get tired of saying the same line over and over again. And then Mike was like, “Well, let’s just do a few in a row and just see what happens.”
Judge: We shot like 15 different versions, but that was … I can’t remember what was in the script. That was another one that wasn’t that great. It was like “Don’t drop the soap” or something. I wanted him to say something stupid in sort of emotional goodbye moment, something really lame. So we tried a bunch of different stuff and I think Diedrich … they were all along those same lines as don’t get raped in prison basically.
Root: My main [improvisation] that people talk about is I’m explaining why there’s two squirrels fucking on the wire outside. Mike asked, “How would you get Milton to describe that?” I said, “The only way he could even get it through his head is that if they were married.” He keeps trying to explain what he’s seeing. That kind of stuff made it in.
Bader: I guess they had rented Peter’s apartment for the month or whatever so that they could shoot there, but they didn’t really work out so well with the neighbor. And what ended up happening was that the guy wanted the money for Lawrence to come out of the door, but he was really resentful that we were there. He was actually a guy from Pakistan, had a great big bushy mustache and he would stand in the middle of the living room. Every time I’d open up the door, he would glare right at the camera. I mean like stare it down. And he would not move, no matter what we said. Mike comes over and he goes, “Hey look it looks like … You gotta close the door behind you because it looks like Lawrence has a lover.” I was like, “Oh man. Yeah, you don’t want that.” So you’ll notice in the movie when I open up the door, I close it behind me superfast. It was like I found the camera almost every take.
“Dave almost really injured himself. It’s in the movie.”
In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, Peter steals the office’s temperamental printer after the boys hatch their embezzlement scheme. The three of them give it the GoodFellas treatment, complete with a baseball bat. Michael is so mad he’s seen punching the printer repeatedly.
Judge: We put down some sand bags and let those guys rehearse it. And they were so good. There’s no talking — it’s just them beating this thing. I thought, this could be really good and then [director of photography] Tim [Suhrstedt] said, “Let’s dig a hole and put the camera down in the hole and look up at it.” I got down there in the hole looking through the lens and had ’em do it a couple of times and thought, “Oh this is great.” We scheduled enough time where we just shot it from a ton of different angles.
Keep in mind, this was the second day of shooting. So this is my second day as a director. I told Dave, like, “Yeah, maybe you can just run up to it and just like jump up in the air and smash down on it with your foot.” And Dave almost really injured himself. It’s in the movie. He slips on it and really could’ve messed himself up, cut his leg or something. I remember my first A.D. said, “OK, Mr. Landis.” [Laughs.] “OK, we got to really got to be careful here.” And what we did do after the fact with the second unit was, we shot a matching foot landing on the thing and slipping. Because I think right after that I yelled cut, we all wanted to make sure Dave was OK.
“One time I was standing out front of this cigar shop with a bunch of GoodFellas-looking dudes hanging around it. They looked tough and scary. [One] guy was like, ‘Hey, come over here. We thought the way you did the printer was very authentic.’”
Livingston: We shot the scene where I’m out with Diedrich and Jen and we’re fishing, and it was this whole thing where, because the ASPCA was out there and they send a monitor to sets whenever there’s an animal working, we kind of weren’t allowed to do anything with the fish other than pick it up in the net. You couldn’t pick it up by a line. I remember it just bugged Mike that the fish was sacrosanct, so we added the scene of gutting the fish — which you’re allowed to do because the fish is already dead — just to revel in it a little bit.
Bader: The fucking fish wrangler, man. That fucking fish wrangler took his job so goddamn seriously and then he got really mad at me. I was like, “Dude, it’s a fish.” And also he had this whole thing where he was talking about the fish and the safety of the fish and blah blah blah — and then he didn’t even heat up the tank, or cool down the tank, whatever it was. You know, so that the water would be the same temperature as when we were putting it in? So when we put the fish in the water, it went into shock because of the temperature differential. I had to pretend that the fish was flopping all over the place and the only way I could do that was to stick my thumb down its throat and flop it against the side of the boat. And then he’s complaining when I’m beating up his fish. What the fuck?
Judge: I’d say my one big mistake as a rookie director was … originally, at the very end of the movie, when [Peter] says, “Fuckin’ A, fuckin’ A,” and they start digging and the camera pulls back, I had a construction boss come up to him and he basically kind of talks like Lumbergh: “Yeah if you guys could just quit talking and get back to work.” It was something like that. And the guy I got to do it, he did so much like Lumbergh, only with a hard hat on.
But when the camera pulled back, at the first test screening people actually thought it was Lumbergh again. And because we’re in a wide shot, you couldn’t quite tell that it wasn’t him. I never shot a close up of him. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that no one … I just never thought anyone would think, Oh there’s Lumbergh again. But they did. So that’s why I cut it.
“Fuck the movies. I don’t even know why I do them.”
The film was released on February 19, 1999, to generally good reviews. But Judge had the sense early on that his first live-action film wouldn’t be a hit.
Judge: I definitely didn’t expect it to do well in the theater, but it wasn’t really because of Fox. It wasn’t tracking well, I guess. I wouldn’t blame Fox for that. I don’t think putting more money into that campaign would’ve helped. I didn’t have any better ideas. But I definitely didn’t like the Big Bird-looking thing out there. The original poster didn’t have Stephen Root in it. It was just that guy covered in Post-its, which just looks like an Office Depot ad.
Root: Mike said, “They’re not gonna support this movie. You should be aware of that.” I don’t know what the reason for it is, but they just didn’t promote it. He said, “It’s a drag. It’s what it is. I’m really proud of this movie. We’ll see what happens later on with it.”
Bader: I had a really rough time. I’ve only seen the movie twice and that’s because when I went opening weekend with my wife … I missed the premiere because we were shooting The Drew Carey Show that night. So I went Saturday night on opening weekend, with my wife … and we were two of three people in the theater. I was so thunderstruck that it was going to be a bomb, that it was actually a really searing, awful, painful moment for me. I loved every frame of the movie, I loved the script, I loved the shooting, I was happy with the way I sold my character. My wife laughed at everything I said.
I thought, I have different taste than America. My taste is never going to be the same. I just can’t trust my own judgment because this is going to bomb and I clearly can’t pick ’em. I was really like, “You know, fuck the movies. I don’t even know why I do it. It’s so painful. This build-up is so huge and then it doesn’t hit and then nothing.” It’s just a real disappointment.
“Nobody saw this movie. How could you know that?”
After about a year, as the movie circulated on home video, the stars of the movie — the one that no one saw, that bombed hugely and threatened to derail everyone’s film career — began getting people quoting lines back to them again. And again. And again.
Cole: A year after the movie was released, I was doing a play in Chicago. I lived near the theater, so I was walking on the street a lot and people started yelling or coming up to me, saying dialogue from the movie. “Did you get your TPS reports?” “I’m gonna need you to come in on Saturday.” Doing the “yeah” thing. Yelling “Lumbergh!” across the street. I was pretty baffled by it because I thought this movie kind of disappeared, but it hadn’t. It had stayed on in DVD form and by then it was starting to gather some kind of other momentum that had nothing to do with its run in the theater. That would’ve been from 2000 on. And the more I was out in an airport or whatever, people were continually bringing it up to me. I thought, “Well, I guess it found an audience.”
Naidu: One time I was standing out front of this store in Midtown [Manhattan] and across the way was this cigar shop with a bunch of GoodFellas-looking dudes hanging around it. They just looked tough and scary. And the guy was like [in Sopranos-esque voice], “Hey, come over here.” I was like, What is this about? When I walked in all the guys were like, “Oh! It’s the guy!” And they’re like, “Listen, listen. We love you. We love you. We thought the way you did the printer was very authentic.”
Root: A year after that, literally when I would go to auditions with people like Gary Cole or Richard Riehle [who plays Tom Smykowski, the “jump to conclusions” character], I would say, “Are you having people come up to you for this movie that nobody saw apparently?” They go, “Yeah. Yeah. It’s the weirdest thing in the world.” It was all word-of-mouth and people going to buy the DVDs. They actually did spend money advertising it as a DVD. There was the paper filler guy, they would have figures of that in Blockbuster Video — back when Blockbuster was huge. They did a pretty good job promoting it then. We were shocked. People would come up with lines from the movie: “I’m gonna burn the building down,” or “I was told. I was told. I was told” — that was the stuff that I got. Nobody saw this movie. How could you know that?
Livingston: Every once in a while, rarely, somebody would come up and say, “Hey, I saw that movie. I really liked it.” Then that started happening a little more often and a little more often and a little more often and then you’d see a piece about how … “it’s this cult movie that people are watching at office parties.” And it just kept going. That’s the thing for me that’s been kind of wonderful about it. We’re still talking about it.
Bader: I tried to forget about the movie and then I was driving downtown with my wife, we were gonna go to a play, and these two guys pull up in a pickup truck. One of the guys nudges the other guy and they both look over to me and they start laughing. I’m thinking, “Maybe it’s [from] The Drew Carey Show. Whatever.”
So I give a little nod and a wave to them and I roll down my window, I’m like, “How you doing?” And then one of the guys goes, “Hey what would you do with a million dollars?” I was like, “What?” Then I went, “Two chicks at the same time, man.” And they just went crazy, they thought it was the greatest thing ever. I turned to my wife and I was like, “That was Office Space.” She went, “Yeah, I thought I remembered that.” And I went, “What’s going on with Office Space?!” She goes, “I don’t know.”
Judge: I think it plays better on TV, for sure.
Herman: I was hearing from other people that “Dude, there’s an office plaza that’s obsessed with it.” That kind of thing. “Dude, and it’s not just my office, it’s the entire two buildings” or whatever it was. So I was hearing that it was having some impact I guess when it had come out on VHS, DVD, whatever it was at the time. That’s when people could get their hands on it at, I guess, a Blockbuster Video.
Judge: I was in Blockbuster one night, and there’s a girl and a guy and she’s deciding what movie to get. She says, “OK, Office Space. Have you seen this?” I’m just eavesdropping. She goes, “Oh my God you’ve got to see this. It’s really amazing.” They sort of argue over it and then I listen to her convince him why he should watch it. And I’m thinking, “She should’ve been in charge of marketing for the movie.”
Cole: I think the bottom line is the movie is identifiable, especially to people in that culture, and that’s a big part of the population, people that work in offices. I didn’t understand that, like I said, because I didn’t work in an office, so I didn’t know what that culture was. But the people who did, they’re the ones that kept the movie afloat initially. Then it gained momentum and other people came later.
Naidu: I really think that it’s about people maintaining their dignity in the face of their job. The movie is about dehumanization, and to me it feels like a caper, like The Killing, where money becomes insignificant in the end. It’s about how you feel and what you want.
Bader: Any time the writer has a distinctive voice, there’s nothing cooler. I mean, look, a lot of people live in an office with a terrible manager. But what Mike brought to it was his own sense and sensibility, and it’s that perspective that makes it a classic. His jokes stand the test of time. The more you watch them the funnier they get.
Judge: The way the workforces started switching into offices, just because of tech, and the way the world’s changed, there’s just … I don’t think you can try to reinvent the office. I think human beings are always gonna be annoying in the same way. As long as you have to make people do things they don’t want to do you, can only dress it up so many ways. To me the Lumbergh character is like sort of what happened when the boomer generation came along. Because I think in the 1950s someone would just say, “Hey Milton, move your desk. Thank you.” Which I would actually prefer.
And then the baby-boom generation came along and everybody had to be cool. “I’m not the 1950s boss, I’m the cool one! I say, “Yeah what’s happening? Yeah, if I could get you to sort of go ahead and move your …” It doesn’t make it any better.
Root: I’ve heard people saying that made them quit their jobs. I mean, Ron gets that. I don’t get it. Ron has told me that he’s had several people come up and say, “I decided to get out after this movie, because it was too depressing.” That’s the power of cinema.
Livingston: I still get that. It’s one of my favorite things about the experience of having done that movie because, at its heart, it’s really a movie about a guy who’s miserable doing all the things that everybody’s telling him he’s supposed to be doing. He spends the movie trying to give himself permission to just stop doing those things and do something that he thinks might make him happy — and once he does, he’s happy, you know? We don’t know if he’s gonna stay happy, but he’s happy. That’s a powerful message. That’s just something that I think that you need to remind yourself of every once in a while, and I think that movie brought that up to the surface.