It's the second week of shooting on the set of Office Space, and no one can find Mike Judge. Grips, assistants, and extras wander about, lazily searching the Austin-area location for the twisted mind behind King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-head. Finally, from in front of a bank of monitors rolling yesterday's jokey footage it comes: a low, frog-whacking, fire-starting, Butt-head-like chortle. ''Uh... huhhuh...huhhuhh.''
Ah. There he is.
You can't blame Judge for sneaking off to obsess about his movie: Set for release Feb. 19, Office Space marks the Texan animator's first foray into live action. Based on a series of shorts he created for Saturday Night Live in 1993, the film follows a band of alienated computer programmers seeking revenge against their pink-slip-happy employer. The movie will test not only Judge's ability to make the transition to a new medium but also whether he can extend his vision to the well-worn subject of corporate life.
''It seems like every city now has these identical office parks with identical adjoining chain restaurants,'' explains Judge, 36, who sold Fox on the $10 million pic after finishing the script and assembling an ensemble cast that includes Jennifer Aniston (Friends), Ron Livingston (Swingers), and David Herman (Mad TV). ''It's easy to despise and dismiss those places. Too easy. That's what I want to look at.''
In many ways, Space marks the completion of an artistic evolution for the director. Once regarded as a sophomoric analyst of lousy music videos, Judge has come into his own with King of the Hill, as a clear-eyed and affectionate critic of white middle-class America. It's proved a lucrative gig as well: Hill is expected to nab between $2.5 and $2.8 million per episode in syndication, and Fox recently inked Judge to a four-year development deal worth an estimated $16 million. On the film side, the sequel to the $63 million-grossing Beavis and Butt-head Do America is in development at Paramount, and there has already been talk of an Office Space follow-up should it perform at the box office. Not bad for a former struggling musician who once peddled 'toons about backwater morons playing baseball with frogs.
''Mike is at ease and completely without pretension,'' says Herman, who plays a pent-up programmer helping to mastermind the revenge scheme. ''You've got to remember, he's done King of the Hill. So he's experienced kinda. For a guy taking his career in his hands, he's actually really relaxed.''
Back on the set, though, Judge looks anything but relaxed. The director twiddles his wedding ring in his mouth as producer Daniel Rappaport needles him about his inexperience (''Did you remember to put film in the camera?'') and crew members pester him for a few trademark voices. Judge obliges with a few words from Hill's indecipherable Boomhauer and even offers some commentary about the cast (''Beavis and Butt-head would definitely light Courteney Cox on fire before Jennifer Aniston'').
Finally, an assistant director informs him that they can't find the camera operator and are delayed indefinitely. With a dramatic sigh and an under-the-breath curse, Judge extracts himself from the sweaty knot of crew members gathered around the monitors.
''Goddamn it,'' he sighs, voice steeped in mock frustration. ''The next time I decide to do anything like this, will somebody please remind me to draw it instead?''