The oral history of Idiocracy, Mike Judge's time-travel triumph
“At a certain point, it went from a good vibe to thinking that this movie was cursed from the beginning.”
In 2006, Idiocracy predicted the future. The only problem? It did too good of a job. Mike Judge’s science fiction satire imagined what the United States might look like in the year 2505. From his perspective, that meant:
- A population made stupid by advertising
- A brash president who used to be a wrestler
- Crocs dominating the footwear landscape
Society seems doomed until a 21st-century everyman (Luke Wilson) gets frozen by the military and wakes up 500 years later, making him the smartest person in America and the only man who can save it.
Beset by a low budget and little-to-no-advertising support from 20th Century Fox, Idiocracy almost didn’t happen at all. The fact that it exists is a miracle. The fact that it managed to accurately predict the future is just a bonus, though Judge loves to downplay his prescience.
"I'm no prophet, I was off by 490 years,” Judge told Time in 2016, just months before a one-time WWE contender won the U.S. presidency. (Believe it or not, the original script didn’t even include Terry Crews’ iconic President Camacho, but more on that further down.)
In addition to being a warning of our dumb future, Idiocracy was a stab at the present. Into the script went all the features of modern American life that at the time were bugging Judge and his co-writer Etan Cohen.
“It was very cathartic,” Cohen tells Inverse. “You could just drive around, and if anything got you angry it could go right in the movie.”
The story of Idiocracy has more twists and turns than most films. With a tiny budget of around $3 million that couldn't hope to do justice to the necessary visual effects and a non-existent marketing campaign (it didn’t even get a poster), the film never stood much of a chance. It pulled in moderate reviews, but only $500,000 after opening in a handful of cinemas. Judge, who had had a similar initial experience with Fox and Office Space, could have been forgiven for thinking some kind of curse hung over his films.
“It was an impossible schedule, impossible budget,” Judge tells Inverse. “Every day, it seemed, was at least 16 hours. It was rough.”
Against these odds, Idiocracy touched a nerve. DVD sales grew to more than 20 times the film's box office. Audiences began to appreciate that its director seems to have seen into the future with superhero accuracy. (No one wore Crocs in 2006. Now everyone wears them.)
Fifteen years after the film’s September 1 release, Judge and six others remember how Idiocracy went from colossal disappointment to securing a place in history — and how people will always laugh at a guy's naked ass.
In the beginning
Mike Judge (writer and director): The first time I got the rough idea was in '96. I was thinking about evolution. In our modern world, pretty much everyone survives, so what would that mean in the long run if you're talking about purely genetics? I very quickly had the idea of some kind of time-traveler-frozen-in-a-coma kind of thing.
When Office Space was done, even though it didn't do well right away, Tom Rothman [then-president of Twentieth Century Fox Film Group] was just saying they still wanted to do another movie with me. I pitched them three or four ideas I had and oddly enough this was the one they said, “That's the big commercial movie you should do.” I called it 3001 at first before I realized that that's the year Futurama's set. And then it was the summer of 2001. I'd just broken my ankle and couldn't get around much, so I wrote an outline for it.
“There was no President Camacho; the country was run by just an operating system AI thing that was super-annoying.”
Timothy Suhrstedt (cinematographer): I have to be careful because I don't want to badmouth studios and people. It was a very frustrating process for Mike because he had his deal at Fox. He had done Office Space and he was still doing King of the Hill. I think it was pretty clear by the time he got around to making Idiocracy that not only did he not want to work with Fox, they didn't really want to work with him.
Judge: They were gung-ho about it. There are always battles with the studio and that's kinda the fun thing to talk about. Ultimately, Fox paid for both Office Space and Idiocracy, so credit to them.
Suhrstedt: I've seen this happen before but this was the most egregious — where a studio doesn't want to make the movie but, even more than that, they don't want another studio to have success with it if they turn it down.
“Conservatives thought we were making fun of liberals and liberals thought we were making fun of conservatives.”
Judge: I started talking to other writers; Etan Cohen was over at my house and I told him about the idea and the next day he said, “I really like that idea. I was thinking there could be a fart museum.” I thought, “Maybe his head's in the right place for this.”
Etan Cohen (co-writer): It was great because there wasn't a rush. It was a luxury to have that much time to generate the idea.
Judge: By the end of the year, we ended up getting a first draft and it was very different from what the movie is now. There was no President Camacho; the country was run by just an operating system AI thing that was super-annoying. That version we snuck out to some actors and it wasn't getting the reaction I'd hoped.
A year later, I looked at it and I thought, having this AI president running the country is the problem; you've got to have a human. I was sort of imagining if the WWE had a Gaddafi-type guy. I rewrote that on my own, and then it started to get better. And Etan came back and did a rewrite with me.
Cohen: One of the great things about the movie was it was very cathartic because you could just drive around and if anything got you angry it could go right in the movie.
Judge: When [Luke Wilson] agreed to do it, it kicked it up a notch. Terry Crews was different to how I imagined [President Camacho], but when he came in and read for it, it really clicked.
Cohen: One of the fun things to disassemble was the notion that evolution rewards the best. Something I was always proudest of was that conservatives thought we were making fun of liberals and liberals thought we were making fun of conservatives.
In the beginning, it talks about how the best people aren't reproducing enough and that's why we were sinking. And whoever was watching would assume that it's people like them that should be reproducing more.
Suhrstedt: I love the mock commercial with the couple stating why they can't have children.
Darlene Hunt (Yuppie Wife): This was a very specific character who was very coiffed and whatever. But we couldn't get my hair to look right. Then Mike came in and Mike was trying to fix my hair, which I thought was hilarious. That was a testament to how literally hands-on he is.
Money troubles for Idiocracy...
Darren Gilford (production designer): I remember having a conversation with Mike Nelson, who's the producer, back when I took the movie. And it was like, “Here's the money you have to make this movie; you either make it for this, or we're gonna find somebody else.” I remember sitting in that room thinking, “I'm gonna agree to do this movie knowing that there's no way in hell we're ever gonna be able to figure this out.”
Suhrstedt: The backdrop, the futuristic world has to be VFX. And here's where the problem came in – in budgeting the movie, the last thing [Fox] thought of was VFX.
Gilford: There was just no money on that movie.
“I put a big Frank Gehry structure of a woman holding the Washington monument like a stripper pole.”
Judge: It was an impossible schedule; an impossible budget. Every day, it seemed, was at least 16 hours. It was rough. I didn't want to be irresponsible and demand more money than the thing was probably worth. There was one meeting where we were arguing over a shot that cost $3,000 or something like that, and at some point, I just said, “I'll just pay for it. I'd rather pay $30,000 than ever have this meeting again.”
Gilford: It was a pretty ugly production as far as teams getting along… I don't really remember a whole lot of kumbaya on that movie, to be completely honest.
Making it look right
Judge: I wanted it to look like an epic, Laurence of Arabia-like gigantic movie. I wanted it to look like a big-ass huge Blockbuster hit.
Gilford: I did a bunch of concept art really early and I think I was overly ambitious. I did a bunch of stuff imagining what Washington DC might look like in the future, really dumbed down. I put a big Frank Gehry structure of a woman holding the Washington monument like a stripper pole. I remember I did the reflection pool like it was Lake Havasu — it was all these trailers parked around it, like spring break or Girls Gone Wild.
Shobie Partos (assistant location manager): Mike Judge sets a good tone. He's very likable, unlike some people who don't necessarily have realistic expectations of what can be done in terms of filming locations. The airport in Austin had recently closed and moved locations so we spent a lot of time filming there. The White House was built there.
Partos: The one that stands out the most was using the Bob Bullock museum — that was the Museum of Fart. Scouting museums, it was just very funny to talk to people: “We wanna come here and we wanna put up a big sign that says 'Museum of Fart'.” Fortunately, they had a sense of humor about it. Not everyone was into it but I think I've repressed those memories.
“Not everyone was into it but I think I’ve repressed those memories.”
Suhrstedt: I don't want to mention the VFX company that came in, but the guy that they sent down to Texas with us clearly didn't know what he was doing. We would ask him, “What do you need from us, and what's going to go behind here?” and he would get all flustered and nervous.
They found a VFX company that would do it for the price, but you get what you pay for. We were $10 million short of what we needed.
Gilford: The thing with Mike that I found really interesting — he's clearly a genius and he's an incredible musician so he hears things and he hears the cadence of a script and I think he tends to hear things probably more than he visualizes them. And I'm the exact opposite. It was hard for me because I'd have a vision or I'd be communicating that and I think Mike would be hearing it and I would be seeing the scenes.
Judge: Darren Gilford is a brilliant designer; [but] sometimes getting him to do...it's like asking a really great singer to sing out of tune.
Ass, the movie
Judge: We actually had to shoot the Ass movie, which wasn't fun.
Suhrstedt: They brought in about six guys with bare asses. Mike was literally saying, “I don't want any hair on his ass.”
Judge: They just sent Polaroids to casting people; I should apologize to them for having to do that.
Suhrstedt: We literally found a theater, a little bit south of Austin in a suburb, and we had the film of the guy's ass that we synched up on their projector. And we had probably 200 extras in there. We rolled the footage and everybody started laughing, exactly as they say in the script.
Judge: I remember saying to Tim, “What are we doing? We should just release Ass.”
Suhrstedt: Meanwhile, outside the theater, because we had put the word 'ass' on the marquee, parents who were taking their kids to school were phoning the police and the local radio stations.
“We were so rushed.”
Judge: What would have been nice is to have a few more days of shooting because we were so rushed.
Lampl: I think I worked for three weeks straight without stopping, sleeping at the studio off and on just because the demands were so great.
Judge: At a certain point it went from a good vibe to thinking that this movie was cursed from the beginning. It's supposed to take place during a drought; it was the rainiest summer in forever. We kept having to kill grass, which does not feel good. You put a big tarp over it for several days and even pour gasoline on it.
Killing grass while it's raining... such a bad vibe.
Gilford: I think it was really really hard on him [Judge]. And I don't think he got the support that he deserved and he needed. He was never rude and he was never disrespectful but it was hard.
Suhrstedt: I've read, and it makes sense to me, that because we attacked known brand names — Starbucks and Carl's Jr. and all those — maybe when the movie was done they started getting cold feet about how many companies they were involving.
Judge: They all tend to get very nervous.
Lampl: I think so many people see that it wasn't done in any kind of mal-intent except for just to make an overall statement about 'We are really directed by advertising and how it impacts our life' and we become part of advertising; we help perpetuate that marketing.
Gilford: I remember we were over budget by...in the money today it's pennies but it might have been $100,000. That was a huge number.
Suhrstedt: I knew he [Judge] was having a tough time in the editing room. I talked to him from time to time and he said, “They don't even want to cut a trailer together.”
“It was the first time that Fox ever released a movie with zero advertising.”
Judge: I gotta keep saying, Fox did pay for the movie; it's not like they were really the bad guy. Office Space, they spent money promoting it. It didn't do well at the box office. It caught on on its own on VHS and ended up making them a lot of money… so I think they looked at like, “Well, what did we do wrong there? We spent money promoting it. If the people are gonna find it they're gonna find it anyway.”
Gilford: It was the first time that Fox ever released a movie with zero advertising. I do not remember seeing any advertising at all for Idiocracy at the time of its release in Los Angeles. I only found a poster years later, after the movie had found an audience. The theater in Santa Monica that I originally saw the movie did not even have a poster. I thought that was odd at the time. I can’t be certain but I definitely didn’t see any advertising for Idiocracy when it was released and I was looking.
Suhrstedt: I don't think I've ever seen a studio release where there wasn't even an ad for the newspaper. It's so bizarre.
Gilford: It was a huge stain on my career for years before it became a cult classic and before it was something I was really proud of. Honestly, I had to keep it off my resume for years to try and get another movie.
Finding an audience
Cohen: It was definitely disappointing but I was also really proud of making something that I thought was good. After thinking that it had disappeared, someone would tell you, “Oh, that was my favorite movie in college.”
Hunt: I was disappointed that it didn't get a wider audience at the time because I thought Mike's work deserved that. It's such a special movie.
Cohen: A lot of what started to feel really scarily close to the movie was just the closeness between Terry Crews' President Camacho and Trump and the parallels between them as entertainers. When you have a president who would just try to appeal to the dumbest, easiest instincts of everyone, that's when it started to feel like, holy shit, this could actually happen in real life.
“I’m happy for the movie and sad for the world.”
Partos: How crazy that we end up with a president even more outrageous than anything that Mike Judge could have thought up when he was creating that character?
Hunt: Mike really does smart-dumb really well. And what I love about Mike is he's just got such a strong point of view that is just so crystal-clear to him, and it just never varies.
Judge: Crocs were just a start-up in Denver. Debra McGuire, the costume designer, showed me the pictures of these things and I said, “Yeah, they seem perfectly horrible and for our world” but I said, “If it's a start-up, what if by the time the movie comes out everyone's wearing them?” And she goes, “Oh, that's never gonna happen.” I'm happy for the movie and sad for the world, I guess.