The movie that made cubicle rats quit their daily grind
Cult 1999 comedy ‘Office Space’ had a real-life effect on the workplace, never mind inspiring Ricky Gervais
Perhaps it was a burst of fin de siècle creativity. Perhaps it was just happy coincidence. Either way, 1999 turned out to be a vintage year for film. We’ll soon be celebrating the 20th anniversaries of (deep breath) Fight Club, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Notting Hill, Magnolia and The Matrix.
A rather less trumpeted film came out 20 years ago this week: Office Space, an underrated satire of corporate culture from writer-director Mike Judge. It might have flopped upon release but Office Space became a word-of-mouth phenomenon on VHS and DVD, finding the devoted audience it deserved. What’s more, this influential cult comedy remains as relevant and as funny as it ever was.
Office Space (tagline: “Work sucks”) was based on the “Milton” cartoon shorts that Judge created and voiced in the early 1990s. About a Dilbert-esque clerical worker and his condescending boss, they aired on Saturday Night Live. When 20th Century Fox suggested a film version, Judge decided the Milton character couldn’t carry a feature on his own (“You don’t want to know what Milton does at home after work,” he reasoned). Instead he settled on an ensemble piece: “Like Car Wash but in an office.”
Judge chose his setting to reflect a homogenising trend he’d noticed all over the US. “It seems like every city now has these identical office parks with identical adjoining chain restaurants,” he said. “People suggested setting it in Wall Street but I wanted it very unglamorous – the kind of bleak work situation I’d been in.” Think Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs mixed with Herman Melville short story Bartleby The Scrivener.
Inspiration came from two of Judge’s own temping jobs: a mind-numbing stint putting purchase orders in alphabetical order and another as a Bay Area engineer “in the midst of that overachieving yuppie thing – just awful”. Hence his story about a lowly everyman employee at a software firm called Initech, railing against his stiflingly boring job, taking refuge at Chotchkie’s diner next door and hatching a plan for revenge.
Perma-shrugging, pathologically unmotivated programmer Peter Gibbons (played by then-unknown Ron Livingston) was the put-upon protagonist, trapped in a soulless cubicle and updating bank software to ward off “the Y2k bug” (how quaint does that seem now?). He would provide a generation of desk-bound drones with a folk hero. Poor Pete had an irritatingly chirpy customer relations rep in the cubicle on one side of him and a mumbling misfit (that man Milton, played by an unrecognisable Stephen Root) on the other. His punchably smarmy boss was Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole, channelling David Brent-meets-Gordon Gekko). “Sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays,” trilled colleagues to cheer up Pete, which only made him more hangdog.
Company bureaucracy was Kafka-esque in its pointless tedium but Pete found kindred spirits in co-workers Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu), indignant that nobody could pronounce his surname, and Michael Bolton (David Herman), cursed by sharing his name with the mulleted crooner he memorably described as a “no-talent ass-clown”.
With Pete’s disaffection derailing his relationship with girlfriend Annie, she persuaded him to attend an “occupational hypnotherapy session”. However, the therapist keeled over from a heart attack while putting Pete in a trance. He awoke next morning in a state of Zen-like calm and set about changing his life. He broke up with Annie, skipped work and asked out Chotchkie’s waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) after bonding over their mutual loathing of idiotic bosses and love of retro TV series Kung Fu. When Pete could finally be bothered to turn up to Initech, he did so with a new devil-may-care swagger: breaking the dress code, taking Lumbergh’s reserved parking spot, openly playing Tetris at his desk and dismantling his cubicle with a power drill to give himself a window view. When a pair of “efficiency consultants” called “the two Bobs” arrived to downsize the Initech workforce, they were so impressed by Pete’s frank insights into office life that they promoted him – but also confided that they were about to fire Samir and Michael.
Ever loyal to his buddies, Pete warned them and the three amigos decided to get even with an embezzlement scheme inspired by Superman III. They infected Initech’s accounting system with a computer virus designed to siphon off fractions of cents into their bank account – transactions small enough to avoid detection but which would accrue a fortune over time. Would they be caught or get a happy ending? And what of the increasingly disgruntled Milton, who was also being downsized? No spoilers, in case you haven’t yet had the pleasure. Office Space was Judge’s first live action project, bridging the gap between his early animations (Beavis & Butt-Head, King Of The Hill) and his later, live action work (Extract, Idiocracy, Silicon Valley). A novice director when it came to dealing with real sets and human actors, he relied heavily on his crew, admitting: “I had a great team. It’s good going into it not pretending you’re an expert.” However, he was exacting when it came to realising his vision. Judge was obsessive about the look of Initech HQ, even screen-testing different types of grey cubicle to make sure they were “oppressive” enough. Watching daily rushes from the shoot in Dallas and Austin, Texas, studio bosses became increasingly spooked by his downbeat, deadpan style and determination to depict the blandness of everyday work life. Judge recalled them telling him "More energy! We gotta reshoot!” and asking for Livingston to smile more.
They tried to make him cast Ben Affleck or Matt Damon, who were riding high off the back of Good Will Hunting, as Peter. Judge insisted the role shouldn’t have “star energy”. His solo concession towards casting more famous names was Friends star Aniston, then halfway through the mega-hit sitcom’s 10-year reign. She loved the script, knew Livingston from high school and it made a bracing change from the samey romcoms that still dominate her non-Central Perk career. The studio also hated the film’s gangsta rap soundtrack – a pounding mixtape of Ice Cube, Kool Keith, Biz Markie and, most memorably, Houston trio Geto Boys. In post-production, Judge reluctantly conceded that he’d rethink the music if the next focus group disliked it too. Fortunately, a young man in the group declared, unprompted, that he loved the contrast of nerdy office workers listening to hardcore hip-hop, so the studio relented. Thank goodness, as Office Space’s rap playlist played a considerable role in sealing the film’s cult status. The slo-mo montage when Pete strolls into the office and commences his small acts of rebellion, set to Geto Boys’ euphoric Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta, is a proper punch-the-air moment.
Another such sequence is the infamous printer scene. A running joke was our heroes being enraged by the malfunctioning office printer with its endless paper jams (“PC Load Letter? What the fuck does that mean?”). On Michael and Samir’s last day at Initech, Peter stole the pesky printer as a leaving gift – whereupon they took it to a field and vented their frustrations by systematically smashing it to pieces with baseball bats, feet and bare fists, as the Geto Boys song Still played on the soundtrack (“Die, motherfucker, die!”).
It’s a sly Mafia movie pastiche with Pete playing the “don”, circling behind as the other two strike blows. The scene has been widely parodied (memorably by Family Guy) and become a perennial online meme. An advert during Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign even paid tribute, mocking Hillary Clinton’s alleged deletion of incriminating emails by having a lookalike smash up a server to the strains of “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Clinton”. The printer wasn’t the only piece of office equipment to become a breakout star. The pivotal role played by Milton's coveted red stapler – which was spray-painted by the prop department to provide a pop of colour in the grey cubicles – created such real-world demand that manufacturer Swingline added one to its product range. Actor Stephen Root said he realised the film’s impact when people started asking him to sign their staplers. To this day, every time Root arrives on a set to shoot a new role, the crew will have laid on a red stapler in his trailer. For Office Space’s 20th anniversary, Swingline is selling a special “Milton’s Red Stapler” edition.
It’s one of the many unexpected ripple effects created by this slow-burning film phenomenon. The term “ass-clown” was added to Webster’s dictionary, crediting Judge for first coining it in Office Space. Even TGI Friday’s, the inspiration for Chotchkie’s, axed its waiting staff’s striped shirts and mandatory badges – known as “flair” – after being so mercilessly mocked. “A few years after Office Space came out, TGI Friday’s got rid of all that flair because customers would come in and make cracks about it,” explained Judge. “So maybe I made the world a better place.” Aniston says that even today when she’s eating “at a certain type of restaurant”, staff will ask if she likes their flair.
Judge once went into a Starbucks and heard the baristas doing impressions of Lumberg (“Hello Peter, whaaat's happening? Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Saturday, mmmkay?”). Judge asked if they were doing it for his benefit but the barista looked nonplussed and asked if he’d ever seen Office Space. The film tanked at the box office, making $12.2m in the US – barely recouping its $10m budget – but didn’t go unnoticed among the Hollywood cognoscenti. “Jim Carrey invited me to his house,” recalled Judge. “Chris Rock left me the best voicemail ever. I even had dinner with Madonna. She said she found the Michael Bolton character’s anger ‘sexy’.”
After repeated airings on Comedy Central in the early 2000s, Office Space steadily developed a cult following. “It kind of went viral before that concept even existed,” said Livingston. On VHS and DVD, it outsold far bigger 20th Century Fox box office hits – which came as such a surprise, even the studio wasn’t initially aware of it. The head of Fox’s home-release division was told of Office Space’s sales during an interview with Entertainment Weekly magazine. He immediately looked up the receipts on his laptop and exclaimed: “That’s incredible!”
Office Space’s cast, little-known at the time bar Aniston, now pop up everywhere. Supporting turns Gary Cole (Veep, The Good Wife, Suits, Entourage), John C McGinley (Scrubs, Burn Notice) and Stephen Root (Boardwalk Empire, Barry, Dodgeball, Get Out) have become Emmy-nominated character actors. Cole and Root later worked together on The West Wing, as vice president Bob Russell and Republican speechwriter Bob Mayer respectively.
Leading man Ron Livingston went on to become a familiar 2000s face as Captain Lewis Nixon in Band Of Brothers and sardonic writer Jack Berger in Sex & The City, who memorably dumped Carrie Bradshaw via Post-It note.
Twenty years on, Livingston still gets reminded regularly of Office Space’s legacy. “I get a lot of people who say: ‘I quit my job because of you.’ That’s kind of a heavy load to carry. It’s like after seeing the movie, it gave them the confidence to get out of whatever it was they were doing that was making them miserable and move on to something else. I only hear from the people for whom that worked out. Hopefully not too many that regret it.”
The film’s influence was also felt on 21st century film and TV. It paved the way for the grey-officed, white-collared, suburban business park absurdity of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, which came along two years later. Indeed, because of Office Space, NBC offered Judge the chance to shape The Office’s US remake. Among the material the network sent him were some reviews of the UK version, one of which said the series “succeeds where movies like Office Space failed”. Judge passed. Ironically, the show wound up under the supervision of his King Of The Hill co-creator Greg Daniels. Parks & Recreation, The IT Crowd and Boots Riley’s recent film Sorry To Bother You all contain traces of Office Space’s DNA. It’s also, of course, the forerunner to Judge’s current HBO sitcom Silicon Valley, with its geeky coders, blustering bosses and hip-hop soundtrack.
Judge believes Office Space originally bombed because “it was a hard movie to make a trailer for. Hard to market in general. I mean, it was a weird movie at the time.” Yet he says that more people talk to him about it than anything else he’s ever worked on. Everyone can relate to its clock-watching heroes, frustrated with the office grind, idly daydreaming about telling their boss where to go.
Now acknowledged as a cult classic, Office Space will be celebrated at the upcoming Texas Film Awards, where it will be inducted into the state’s cinematic Hall of Fame. Judge and the cast will reunite for a special 20th anniversary screening and panel Q&A in Austin, where much of the film was shot.
When they get together, speculation about an Office Space comeback is inevitable. ”There’s been talk of doing more with it, as a TV show or sequel, but the time hasn’t seemed right,” Judge says. “Could a sequel ever happen after all this time? Never say never.” Unjam your printer and write your name on your stapler, just in case.
- © The Daily Telegraph