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What Happened to Office Space?

Anyone who’s ever worked in an office knows what a mind-numbing, soul-sucking experience it can be. And if you haven’t worked in an office, you know someone who has because they’re probably intent on telling you what a depressing bummer it is, day in and day out. 

We’ve seen plenty of movies take place in the corporate world, but few of them have ever touched upon the monotony of the experience quite like “Office Space,” Mike Judge’s incisive takedown of cubicles, office managers, and the drudgery of a Nine to Five in a soulless office building. In fact, one needn’t have worked in an office to relate to its characters who search for something meaningful in their boring jobs. Most everyone’s had a job that made them want to slam their head against the wall, and “Office Space” seems dedicated to those of us who’ve known that pain. 

When it came out in 1999, “Office Space” landed with a thud and seemed destined to be tossed into the filing cabinet of cinema history, but thankfully, this underdog eventually had its day – becoming an endlessly quotable cult classic featuring characters you can’t soon forget. So we’re gonna need you to go ahead and file your TPS reports – mmkay? -because then we’re gonna go ahead and take a look at What Happened to “Office Space.”

What Happened to Office Space?

The creator of “Office Space”, Mike Judge, knew a thing or two about being a cog in a corporate machine. Before he was known as the mind and multiple voices behind animated hits like “Beavis and Butthead” and “King of the Hill,” Judge spent plenty of years working in offices when he was considering a career in science and engineering after graduating with a Bachelor’s in physics. Imagine if he had taken that path… But growing bored with the culture and lifestyle that came with devoting his life to science, Judge abruptly turned his attention to animation, quitting his job and focusing on creating weird, short animated films. You know how that went: Judge eventually developed a short called “Frog Baseball” into the “Beavis and Butthead” series for MTV, putting him on the pop culture map almost immediately. Not long after, Judge created another hit series, “King of the Hill”, which premiered on Fox in 1997 to great acclaim and ratings. Judge ended up getting an overall deal at Fox, whose president at the time, Peter Chernin, liked one of Judge’s other low-budget animated shorts, “Milton,” about a distressed office drone whose life is made miserable by a smarmy boss. Naturally, Milton was based on someone Judge had encountered during his time as an engineer, a sad sack whose desk was constantly getting moved around the office for no particular reason.

The shorts aired on SNL and MTV’s Liquid Television and became something of a cult hit, and Chernin suggested to Judge that he develop a feature film about the Milton character. Judge didn’t think there was a whole feature there, instead offering to create an ensemble workplace comedy in the vein of 1976’s “Car Wash.”  He came up with a treatment that Fox liked and eventually wrote the screenplay in 1996 after completing work on the first season of “King of the Hill.” Chernin’s interest in making the workplace comedy stemmed from the fact that while Fox was having success with big-budget event pictures like “Independence Day” and “Titanic,” he thought they should – to borrow a cringe-y term – balance their portfolio, with potential hits in different genres.

Initially, Judge was made to understand he didn’t need to cast big stars in the film, with the studio apparently telling him they just wanted the best actors for their low-budget movie. Judge put together a table read with a few actors he’d been working with on “King of the Hill” – David Herman and Stephen Root – while some other actors were there to audition for different parts. The character of Michael Bolton, the gangsta rap-loving programmer with a temper, was written for Herman specifically, but all the other roles were up for grabs. Judge was initially going to play Milton himself, but he asked Root to look at the animated short right before the table read on a whim. Root nailed the character’s signature mumble and instantly won the part. When the shooting started, Root’s eyeglasses were so thick that he had to wear contact lenses just to see through them. He had no depth perception while wearing them and had to rehearse all of Milton’s movements beforehand because he could barely see what was in front of him.

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What Happened to Office Space?

Judge didn’t think the table read was a success, however, disliking the rest of the actors they had brought in. At a certain point, Fox changed its mind about not wanting a star in the movie and sought out Matt Damon to play the lead role of Peter Gibbons. Recently, an Oscar winner for Good Will Hunting, Damon was allegedly interested in the role, but Judge was hesitant because he didn’t think Peter should have quote-unquote “star power.” Still, Judge met with Damon to talk about potentially teaming up on the project. 

Meanwhile, the film’s casting director, Nancy Klopper, auditioned Ron Livingston, then best known as the “third guy” in “Swingers.” Klopper was knocked out by Livingston’s audition, thinking he had nailed the very specific way in which Judge’s characters speak. After sending Judge the audition tape, he too was convinced Livingston was the man for the job. 

The studio, however, was not thrilled with casting Ron Livingston over Matt Damon. They wanted Livingston to do an official screen test for them and wondered if he could lose some weight via fasting before then. Thinking his reps were playing a trick on him when he was told this, Livingston said, “haha good one,” – only to find they weren’t kidding. The studio really wanted him to slim down for the screen test in a matter of a few days. Livingston later said he did a little jump rope, but that was about it.

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What Happened to Office Space?

Once shooting got underway, the studio still made their dissatisfaction with the leading man known. When they’d look at the dailies, the studio heads would tell Judge that Peter needs to smile more, not look so miserable. Naturally, Judge noted the obvious and said that was the entire point, that Peter is unhappy with his life in the first act. But it just seemed like the studio was not excited to be in the Ron Livingston business, and Judge began worrying that they were going to make him recast Peter only a few days into shooting. Obviously, Judge stuck by him and Livingston stayed on the project, evidently using the work of famed screen curmudgeon Charles Grodin as inspiration. 

While Judge was allowed to fill out the supporting roles with all manner of veteran character actors and comedians, the studio still felt that they needed an A-lister somewhere in the film; if not the main protagonist, then his girlfriend Joanna. The script went to Jennifer Aniston, world-famous by then thanks to “Friends,” and because she wasn’t getting offered smaller character parts like Joanna, the actress agreed to do the film.  Livingston would later joke that she probably agreed to be in the movie thinking she’d be sharing the screen with Matt Damon. For his part, having Aniston be a part of his movie made Judge nervous, so fearful was he that he might end up ruining her movie career. 

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The crucial role of Bill Lumbergh was nabbed by Gary Cole, not exactly known for his comedic chops back then – unless you count the “Brady Bunch” movies. Cole based the entirety of Lumbergh on the animated version of the character,  pinning down the voice just right. While the character wasn’t based on any one specific person, Lumbergh had his roots in fast food managers Judge would have to deal with when he was slaving over fryers as a teenager. His bosses would say things like “why don’t you go ahead and change the fryers, okay?” which would understandably enrage the young man. Judge would say he hates that kind of passive-aggressive style of management, hence why the Lumbergh character is so easy to despise.

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What Happened to Office Space?

Another of the vast array of memorable characters is Lawrence, Peter’s beer-guzzling neighbor. Lawrence was indeed based on someone Judge once knew while he was still in engineering; his neighbor was an auto mechanic who made more money than Judge did and seemed completely content with his blue collar life, in stark contrast to Judge’s unhappiness with his fancy science job. Judge auditioned several people for Lawrence, including up-and-comers Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, but Diedrich Bader’s take on the character completely won him over. 

Judge took on the role of Stan, the obnoxious manager at Tchotske’s – where Joanna works – because he couldn’t find an actor he thought fully understood the part, everyone played it well over the top. After deciding to tackle it himself, Judge donned a wig and fake mustache to the set to complete the transformation, resulting in most of the crew not realizing it was Judge under the facade. The scenes discussing Joanna’s flair weren’t in the original drafts of the script; they were added later in the production because there was the feeling that Aniston didn’t have enough to do in the movie. 

Principal photography took place in Austin, Texas, in May of 1998. Judge made his home in Texas and thought the anonymity of many of its towns was perfect for the film, even though he’d received suggestions that it should be set in New York City. He wanted the atmosphere to be the same as the one he’d been in. The main shooting location was in an actual office building that they’d cleaned out and made into their own cubicle-filled purgatory. Unsurprisingly, it was hot in Texas in May, with a brutal heatwave seeming to coincide with the start of production. The second shooting day was dedicated to the brutal beatdown of the office copy machine, and if the actors are convincingly pissed off-looking, that’s because the temperature was near 100 degrees by then. Incidentally, Judge really did have himself an enemy in the form of a copier while making the “Beavis and Butthead” movie, once telling a friend he was going to destroy the thing and videotape it for posterity.

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What Happened to Office Space?

During production, there were numerous fires burning through Mexico and Central America due to a drought, and the smoke would gradually make its way up to Texas. In addition to playing havoc with the air quality, the skies of Texas were consistently white from all the smoke, forcing the production to wait until clearer days for the exterior scenes. The opening traffic jam sequence was continuously postponed until they could find a day without such oppressive smoke. 

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When the film was finished, Fox still wasn’t sure what it had on its hands. Marketing the film was going to be difficult, with the film’s unique sense of humor and worldview fairly challenging to sum up in a 30-second commercial. Judge didn’t like any of the marketing material suggested by the studio, especially the one-sheet which depicted an office worker covered in post-it notes. They sent him several cuts of the theatrical trailer and he hated two of them specifically, while of course those were the two the studio liked the most.  

Then-president of the 20th Century Film Group, Tom Rothman, hated the use of rap music throughout and was trying with all his might to get it all cut from the film. Judge didn’t want to do it, arguing that the fact you don’t associate that kind of music with this type of movie is exactly what made it funny, but he agreed that if a focus group didn’t like it either, he’d remove it. If they went for it, Rothman would acquiesce. When they showed the movie to a theater of about 20 people, the woman in charge of the focus group attempted to persuade them the rap music was too aggressive, but every single one of the participants enjoyed it. Rothman, who was at the theater for this, simply shrugged to Judge and allowed him to keep it in. 

“Office Space” opened in wide release on February 19, 1999. It came in eighth place, well behind titles that had been in theaters for weeks. The news his Judge hard; convincing him he’d made a huge error and ruined his and everyone else’s career.  The film finished its domestic run with a meager $11 million and for all the world looked like it would be forgotten by the next quarterly earnings report…

But then a funny thing happened. As so often occurs with good movies that are box office bombs, cable and home video gave “Office Space” an extra life. Comedy Central specifically would show it often, exposing it to an audience that might not have even heard of it when it was in theaters. Suddenly Mike Judge was hearing from people like Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, and John Landis that they loved the movie. Madonna even told Judge she liked it, admitting she had a crush on Michael Bolton. 

Dave Grohl walked up to Ron Livingston on the street and told him “Office Space” changed his life, to which Livingston could only reply, “mine too.” Gary Cole suddenly found himself confronted by Lumbergh-quoting pedestrians wherever he went. 

Eventually, “Office Space” became one of Fox’s highest-selling DVDs, helping to usher in a factory’s worth of quotable dialogue and meme-friendly references. Hell, we only say “TPS report” because of “Office Space,” and you can probably credit the movie with popularizing the term “O-face” as well. The stapler company Swingline was forced to come out with red staplers because people were demanding them and even making their own. 

The cast has gone on to do plenty, but the majority of them will probably always be remembered for their work on this droll comedy. As for Judge, his TV work will always be his primary calling card, but there’s no doubt we’re all better off that he decided to take a swing at the live-action world with “Office Space.” Now we’re gonna need you to go ahead and watch it today around 9, mmkay? Greeeat.

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