Have you watched the original Space Jam recently? To be fully prepared for the new film I rewatched the original and it’s … maybe a lot weirder than you remember? (At one point Michael Jordan is folded into a basketball and dribbled. At another point Wayne Knight’s Stan Podolak is inflated with an air pump and he expands and floats away.) Here’s the thing: Malcolm D. Lee’s sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy, starring LeBron James, does not skimp on the “weird.” It’s now not just a simple Toon vs. Goon storyline with a star NBA player caught in the middle. Now the whole story is about an AI character named Al-G Rhythm (played by Don Cheadle, who hams it up like never before) who has access to a servers with every bit of IP that Warner Bros. owns and uses it to stage a basketball game with pretty much every character from the history of Warner Bros. in attendance.
When I spoke to director Malcolm D. Lee over zoom, a torrential storm was just starting to hit New York City (you may have seen the viral videos of people swimming through subway stations), which was so loud (Lee was at his offices in the Bronx, I was in Manhattan) we had to shout our answers at each other and a couple of times had to repeat what we were saying. Ahead, Lee goes into his strategy working with a lead actor, LeBron James, who isn’t really best known for acting (though, far from a lead role, he was pretty great in Trainwreck); if there was ever a possibility Michael Jordan would have come back to do a cameo; and, out of all the characters he had at his disposal in the Warner Bros. archives, what character he was most happy to have in this movie.
In the last 20 minutes, the weather has changed dramatically outside.
You can hear it out my window as well, man!
And now my natural light is gone and you can’t see me…
Yeah, I don’t know what this is. A tropical storm moving through?
I went through your old movies to see if you sneak some of your own characters into this movie, but most of your prior movies are Universal.
If I had done a Warner Bros. movie prior, I definitely would have put somebody in there.
Who would you have picked? Who would you want watching the game next to The Mask?
You mean for one of my movies?
Yeah, Tiffany Haddish or Kevin Hart. Tiffany Haddish from Girls Trip and Kevin Hart from Night School.
I watched the original Space Jam again the same day I watched your new one. I forgot how weird the first movie is and I also think you made a very weird movie.
You’re saying that the first Space Jam was actually the weird movie?
I think both of them are weird movies.
Well, listen, they start out grounded, but then we’re going through this other world: the world of Space Jam: A New Legacy. Where Al-G Rhythm lives in a computer, and lives in a Warner Bros. Server-Verse, and is the commander of all these different IPs, but doesn’t get the credit for it and then it brings it all to Tune World. Yeah, it’s loony, man.
I guess they don’t call them Looney Tunes for no reason. There is lunacy happening.
So, based on the first movie, how crazy did you want to get with this one? Because it feels like you went all-in on that.
I mean, look, the technology is at our disposal at this point – all the special little effects that we have from the movie, all the world-building, all the worlds that existed already – and how we can turn those on their head and make these IP planets was something that was in the script, was baked into it. And then we just helped to bring it to life. And I think we certainly wanted to be a different movie than the first Space Jam, because animated movies and family movies have evolved in such a way over the past 25 years that where it’s not just for kids, it’s for adults. It’s something that everyone is going to get something out of. Plus, they are emotionally resonant nowadays. You look at something like Toy Story 3 and they’re about to all get incinerated, you’re just like, oh my gosh, really feeling something.
I still think about that scene a lot.
Iron Man sacrifices himself in Avengers: Endgame, it totally makes sense, but it’s still sad. It still makes you feel something. So we wanted to be on that level of the movies that proceeded us at this point and then bend in between the two projects.
When you mention some things in there for adults, the scene that stood out to me was the MC Hammer “You Can’t Touch This” reference, a song six years older than the original movie. How many kids are going to be like, “Ah, yes, my old pal, MC Hammer?” Maybe they do know that song…
They’ve used that song in a lot of commercials lately.
My youngest, my 12-year-old knows that song. And by the way, before MC Hammer it was Rick James’s song.
Gen Z, also big “Super Freak” fans…
[Laughs] Right. Exactly. I love that joke. I love that thing with Bugs Bunny dancing to that with the chalkboard dance. It’s hysterical to me.
I’m curious what it’s like to enter this project and going, okay, the success of this movie rests, at least partially, on the acting of an athlete. Who has been in movies, in Trainwreck he’s great, but he’s not the star of Trainwreck.
Well, I think that, yes, he is the lead. But what I thought about was, okay, it’s the Tunes that are also going to bring us a lot of humor. And the actors around him that are going to elevate his performance and elevate the other stuff around it as well. So I guess, whenever I take on a project, you don’t know how an actor is going to be. Are they an edited actor or are they truly legitimately delivering their takes like bang, bang, bang? They’re just on? And so I thought, well, it’s going to work out. And I felt like in the limited interaction that I’d had with LeBron previously, I felt like he could do it. And I think he could be better than what he did in Trainwreck and what he did on SNL. I thought he’d have accessibility and that I’d be able to, as long as I got him to trust me, I think I can get him to certain levels.
I noticed in the first movie, Michael Jordan always seems to have a famous actor around him, almost in every scene. Even Wayne Knight as Stan Podolak, kind of hanging out, just so he doesn’t have to carry every scene. And LeBron is carrying a lot of scenes in this.
He does. He does. I mean, look, LeBron, I think, wanted to be good. He took it very seriously. He likes to have fun. He likes to be funny. He’s very open to direction, just like I think he’s open to being coached. It’s the same kind of principle. And so, he didn’t have an ego about any of it. I told him if I want to make an adjustment in the note, he’s like, “I got it.” And then he would try it. And if I needed him to do it again, he’d do it again. No ego whatsoever.
Was there any thought during the production if Michael Jordan was going to show up for a cameo in this?
I mean, by the time I got involved with starting to shoot it, my head was just down, and I was just like, “Okay, we’re just doing the movie.” As time went on, yeah, I mean, it would have been nice, particularly when you’re editing the movie during the time of a pandemic where nothing is on TV but The Last Dance.
He’s in a lot of people’s heads right now because of that…
Right. So it would have been great to have him. But it couldn’t happen.
Obviously, you know LeBron pretty well now, but in my head, both of them are very competitive and I could see LeBron not wanting Michael to upstage him and I could see Michael not wanting to play a small role in LeBron’s movie.
I will tell you, I think LeBron, I think he would love to have had him. You know what I mean? And I think LeBron is very secure in his legacy and where he is in the world, in terms of the impact he’s made on the world and the game of basketball.
Oh, no doubt.
And there seems to be, I don’t know if you’d call it a rivalry or whatever, but I think it’s more the fans than anybody.
Having all the characters from the history of Warner Bros. is really something. The Clockwork Orange Droogs are watching the game…. That is kind of stunning to see them show up to watch the Space Jam game.
Yeah, we wanted to have a mix of bad guys rooting for the Goon Squad. When people are in the stands, rooting for their teams, they get rabid. So we wanted to make sure we added the clown in It, we added the Penguin in there…
I saw Barney Rubble. I saw him up there getting very excited.
[Laughs] A real rabble-rouser, man.
But who are you most proud you got in there?
Probably Captain Caveman. That’s my guy, Captain Caveman. And during the Tune montage, the one I’m most proud of is Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. Love that cameo.
Captain Caveman and Austin Powers are in the same movie. You did that.
Yep, I did. I did. Not by myself though. A lot of support, a lot of collaboration.
‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ opens in theaters and streams via HBO Max this coming weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.