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August 2014
Issue: October 1, 2009

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: MIKE JUDGE - 'EXTRACT'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 16 years since the multi-faceted Mike Judge first burst onto the scene with Beavis and Butt-Head, which debuted on MTV back in 1993. Now the writer, actor, producer, director, composer, animator and musician, whose credits include the cult hit Office Space, the film Idiocracy and the animated TV series King of the Hill, is back with a new film comedy, Extract, in which he returns to the fertile territory of the American workplace.

It stars Jason Bateman (Juno, Arrested Development) as a company owner about to sell his flavor extract factory and retire to easy street. But then a freak workplace accident (a worker loses a testicle) sets in motion a series of disasters that put his business and personal life in jeopardy.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Judge talks about making the film, which also stars Ben Affleck, Kristen Wiig (SNL, Ghost Town) and Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), his love of post, and how his degree in physics helped with visual effects.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
JUDGE: “Another workplace comedy  that’s more about ordinary daily life than most movies, but this one is told from the point of view of the boss, as opposed to that of the employees, like Office Space. And it’s also about a guy who’s in a bit of a mid-life crisis. He’s reached a point where he’s had some success, but doesn’t quite know where to go from there.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges?
JUDGE: “First off, I was a little afraid we weren’t even going to be able to make it because it’s set in this factory that makes vanilla extract (laughs) and to build one of those is really expensive and to do it digitally is also really expensive. So it wasn’t going to happen unless we could find a place that looked just right. We also had to find a factory in LA.
“We actually began discussing different ways we could greenscreen half of it, storyboard and shoot all the coverage one way, and then rent a bottling machine and shoot it all again that way. But then we found the perfect location — a real water bottling plant that was laid out exactly as I’d imagined. That made it much easier. It was still tough, because it was a working factory and they had to keep bottling while we were shooting.
“We ended up adjusting things so we could run our own bottles and labels when we had to, but there are a lot of times, especially in the office scenes, where the workers in the background on the floor aren’t pretending to work — they are working, and they didn’t even know we were shooting a lot of the time. We shot there for a couple of months, and we hardly ever went over on a day. We actually made all the days and came in under budget, enough so I could pay a little more for visual effects and music. And it was nice to have that extra money for post.”

POST: Do you like the post process?
JUDGE: “It’s my favorite part, other than writing. I love editing and all the post stuff. Every time I’ve shot a movie I can hardly wait to sit down in the editing room and put it all together and do the sound and effects and so on.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
JUDGE: “We did most of the post in LA and rented some offices in Encino and spent about five months. I have an Avid on my Mac laptop, and with just a couple of external hard drives I could work on the edit. I’m based in Austin half the time, so I could be there and work on the edit and just email EDLs back and forth.”

POST: Extract was edited by Julia Wong. How did that relationship work?
JUDGE: “She came to the set a few times for specific scenes. She’d only bring something to my attention if it was something she didn’t understand or that didn’t seem to work. One I remember was the scene where the whole assembly line jams up because the woman refuses to shut it down, and Julia came to make sure we got all the coverage we needed because it was a tricky scene.
“Assembly lines now are designed to safeguard against glitches like that, so it was difficult to do, and make it look right. She’s a really great editor. I was planning to edit a lot of the scenes myself, but right away we got a great system going that made it very easy for me. She taught me about a selects reel, where you string all the bits you like together. Mostly she’d do an assembly, but in some scenes I’d do the selects reel and then she’d mold it into a real scene. It was a great experience.”

POST: Had you worked with post supervisor Christy Dimmig before?
JUDGE: “No. She just showed up (laughs). I think she’d worked with Miramax before, and she was great too. Really, the whole post experience on this was great compared to Idiocracy, which was a train wreck! That had a lot of different effects houses and Fox was losing interest in it and sort of dumped it. And we did a test screening for that with unfinished effects scenes that were literally just a drawing on the screen — not even greenscreen with actors in front! We had a shot that was supposed to be the Washington Monument, and it was just a drawing and so out of focus and low-res you didn’t even know what it was. There was a bunch of stuff like that. So, of course, it scored really badly and then they started pulling money out of post left and right, and cutting shots. But this was actually a pretty fun movie to edit and do post on.”

POST: How many visual effects shots are there and how did it break down between Pixel Magic and Look Effects?
JUDGE: “We had a bunch of typical opticals and about 30 visual effects shots, the main ones being the establishing shot of the factory, which Look Effects did, and then the testicle getting blown off, which was Pixel Magic, and then all the bong scenes smoke stuff. We did use some real effects smoke that’s neutral, and originally it was just going to be one effects shot. But Jason did a great take where he starts coughing, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if with every cough he just blows out more and more smoke?” At first, the Pixel guys just thought I was a little crazy. They didn’t think it was that funny, but after they did it, they all laughed hysterically.”
 
POST: What was that the most difficult effects shot to pull off?
JUDGE: “The bong smoke scene. We had to shoot it a few times, as it didn’t work at first. It’s a combination of this air-blower with smoke and this guy who matched every one of Jason’s breaths. You shoot smoke against blackscreen, and it’s not easy to do. The vapor trail stuff on the testicle scene was also tricky. I wanted it to seem slow-motion, but also to give it the look of something with so much momentum that it’s not going to be slowed down by anything. All we shot was the pipes breaking open.
“I like to do stuff like that, in broad daylight, high and wide, and not do a bunch of multiple cuts to try and confuse people. I often feel when I see an action or fight scene in a movie, they make it so disorienting and confusing that you don’t know where you are. So especially for comedy, I just like that flat-out Buster Keaton-style approach. The camera’s locked off — there it is!
“I think on the first take, we had the actor and glass behind him squibbed, and he hit his mark, and the rate at which the thing blew out his pants and the glass broke seemed like the perfect distance. So I went back to my physics background and said, ‘OK, that’s the right distance, put green markers all the way across so the thing doesn’t even slow down at all.’ It’s similar to what you do in animation. I’ve always been amazed by Chuck Jones and the Roadrunner stuff, how they handled speed and momentum. It was just amazing, and you don’t see that stuff so much now.”

POST: You have a great soundtrack. How important are sound and music to you?
JUDGE: “It’s huge, especially the music, and that’s another thing that went really well. Normally, I run into problems. On my other films I’d put in some songs and they’d work like magic, but then we could never afford them. On this, I ended up getting every song I wanted. That’s the first thing I did. And it all cleared, to my surprise. We did the mix at the Sony lot with supervising sound editor Steve Ticknor and sound effects editor Marty Lopez, and we recorded the score at The Music Shed in New Orleans.”

POST: Did you do a DI?
JUDGE: “This will shock people, but no. My DP, Tim Suhrstedt, who shot Little Miss Sunshine, told me, ‘Don’t let them talk you into doing a DI.’ Usually you’re really pushing for one, and now there’s only eight movies a year that don’t do a DI, but I really like the way film looks and what happens when you go to the internegative and interpositive and all that. It thickens it up.
“I love the way old Technicolor movies look. I wish we could go back to that look. It’s the reason 24 frame looks better than 30 frame, because you don’t want it to look like reality — you want it to look dreamlike. They spent all this time and energy over the decades trying to make film look more like reality, and they lost that dream quality. But I think film stocks are better than they were 10 years ago.”

POST: Is film dead?
JUDGE: “Not yet, and I hope there’s enough business to keep labs and Kodak and so on busy, as I’d hate to see it disappear. It’s interesting, because when I did Idiocracy, everyone pushed me to shoot it digitally, even though it wasn’t really any cheaper. And now studios are backing off a bit. There’s just so much more information in a negative. But I’m not knocking digital. There’s some really crazy, cool stuff you can do digitally, and it just depends on the project. And for this, I wanted it to look like those old Technicolor movies.”