Before he was an animator, before he created “Beavis and Butt-head” and “King of the Hill,” before he directed cult comedy classics “Office Space” and “Idiocracy,” Mike Judge was an engineer working in the Bay Area. So his new HBO series “Silicon Valley” finds him coming full circle in a idiosyncratic and impressive career, even as he takes on the very contemporary world of tech startups.
Judge has always had a keen eye for everyday absurdities, and “Silicon Valley” finds plenty of hilarity in an industry dominated by awkward, hoodie-wearing coders who suddenly have a shot at being billionaires. The series, which premieres on April 6th at 10pm in a prime spot between the returns of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep,” is Judge’s first for premium cable, and he seems a little bemused by the creative freedom he’s received — “HBO doesn’t focus test anything,” he noted. “They just put it out there.” Indiewire caught up with Judge on the phone to talk about the new series and why TV’s gotten so good.
You’ve had shows on basic cable and on some of the big networks. What has the experience at HBO been like?
There’s this direction that TV seems to be going that I think started with HBO. A smaller number of episodes — like this first season is eight — and having a series arc. There’s something really nice about it. There are no restrictions except for having it be under 30 minutes, which, TV has gotten down to 21 minutes with more commercials. TV’s getting better.
We’re seeing so many more ambitious series in terms of comedies and dramas, in part because, as you said, of HBO. Do you see there being any more openness at networks to these ideas?
Yeah — Louis CK’s show is on FX. That’s a pretty groundbreaking show. It’s a real good time to be at HBO, though. I think it was a year and a half ago, my manager called and said HBO would like to meet with me. Sometimes I don’t go after things as much as a lot of Hollywood people do, but I’m at a place where my younger daughter graduated high school and I’ve got more flexibility to be out in LA working. Just landed in a great place here.
Can you tell me about the decision to do a live action series?
Yeah, this is the first live action television I’ve done. There was never a moment I would have thought about making this animated. I’ve only done live action movies. I’ve wanted to do live action TV for a long time, I really like it. I did a pilot for Fox in 2001 and had such a horrible experience, I said I was never going to do it again.
In fact, I didn’t even do television again except for “King of the Hill” until I had an animated show [“The Goode Family”] that didn’t go very long. At one point before “The Office” had come on, they talked about doing “Office Space” as a TV show, and I’d had such a bad experience I just said no.
What were some of the things that were bad about that experience?
Executives coming in and saying, “No, we hate that music cue, take it out. We hate that.” There was an executive on the set who I don’t think had ever been on the set of a live action shoot… you usually shoot your first set-up wide, and then go in for a close-up, and in every single set-up, she would come up behind me and say, “Are you gonna get a close-up?” And I’d say, “Yes.”
It was like someone coming up behind me and saying, “Are you going to put your shoes on today?” “Yeah.” “Okay, good.” It felt like, “Okay, you guys direct it. Why do you want me here?” I know another director around the same time did a pilot at Fox with the same group of people, and had a major anxiety attacks, wanted to quit the business. So it’s not just me.
How much has shooting “Silicon Valley” been living a movie for you? You’ve already got your season order, so you know how long you’re running and where you’re going, what your endpoint is. Is it really that different in terms of production?
We shot them all in a row, so it was like making one long movie, but from a writing standpoint, it’s different. It does have that feel of being able to feel like you can really develop the characters.
It’s hard to explain. I always think of classic TV that I grew up on, and “Beverly Hillbillies” or “The Bob Newhart Show,” you just want to check in with those characters, and it doesn’t have to be an epic story. With this, we are making it more of a series arc, so it kind of feels like a hybrid of a movie and a TV show.
You have a background working in Silicon Valley. What sparked your interest in Silicon Valley culture now?
These type of people, had they been born 200 years ago, would not be the wealthiest people in the world. You look at whoever the richest person in television is today, and they probably spent 20 or 30 years just working their asses, off, staying up until three in the morning, writing episodes, and then you look at the Tumblr guy, who’s a billionaire.
There are these guys in college who were smart but introverted people who suddenly have a billion dollars, and they’re still socially awkward. That’s just really great for comedy.
And that money often comes from concept that can seem very frivolous.
They’re ideas that aren’t even making people any money. They’re all just on spec. It’s the prospect that maybe it’ll make some money. Very simple apps get funded, and people get rich. To me, when I’ve met these people, they just remind me of engineers I knew when I did it, and people I knew in college in computer science. The type of people who’d get rich 100 years ago — Rockefeller, Carnegie– are very different personality types than Mark Zuckerberg.
“Office Space” is one of the great films about office life, and that was set at a ’90s software company. The tech world in “Silicon Valley” is very different — do you see any carryover?
There’s a little bit. Even though “Office Space” came out in ’99, to me it’s kind of set in ’88 or ’87 when I was working in that world. If those guys were around twentysomething years later, if they were around today, I could see them working on some kind of a startup. You can take two routes: be a well-paid programmer at Google or somewhere, and that’s a decent life, or you can take a risk and try to start something, and there are more people doing that now than when I was in it.
There are people in the crew who are “Office Space” fans who are saying, especially in some of the later episodes, that it has a similar feel. I don’t know what it is, maybe just a point of view about things that seems similar to “Office Space.”
With this series, “Office Space,” “Extract” and “King of the Hill,” to a certain extent, you’ve done some very memorable portrayals of workplace environments. What’s your interest in that as a setting?
Watching television, there’d be a lot of times I thought, “Wait, what do they do for money?” Because for so much of my life I was worried about how I was going to make a living. I was in denial in college, and then I was like, “Oh, shit, I’m going to be a homeless bum. I gotta figure out a job.”
My sister used to read all these Nancy Drew books, and she would say, “Nancy Drew just says ‘so I hopped on a plane.’ How does she pay for the ticket?” And I just think sometimes that’s lacking in the entertainment world. People seem to have endless cash no matter what they do.
That’s where it started. But also, I think everyday life and work has a huge effect on people. I find that stuff interesting, and there’s a lot of comedy there that other people don’t look at. One thing about [“Silicon Valley”], when we first started writing it, at one point we were talking about, “Okay, they get funded, they get some office space somewhere,” and we were going to do an episode about that. And I started to realize, since I made “Office Space,” there have been a lot of really good office workplaces.
So we decided to have this be about guys working in a house together, which is actually the reality. We met with a lot of startups, and it’s just five guys living in a two-bedroom apartment, and they got funded for $200,000, and they’ve got five months. That’s how a lot of this goes.
“Silicon Valley” playing at SXSW in the festival’s first-ever TV section, and the idea of TV at film festivals is becoming a little more prevalent. Do you see the lines between TV and film getting blurry?
Those lines are blurry. Everything’s in hi-def, TV screens are better now — there’s no difference between what’s in a theater and what’s on a TV screen. And TV is getting better — cable networks where you can say whatever you want, for the most part. TV is becoming a lot like movies. And with series arcs and shorter numbers of episodes per season, it makes sense that nowadays they’d be playing in festivals.