Space Jam proved an immediate smash, and 20 years later it remains the highest-grossing basketball movie of all time. And while everyone knows Michael Jordan saved the day, that went way beyond helping Bugs Bunny vanquish a mob of intergalactic aliens: He was the only guy who could get Bill Murray to the set.
“Murray was in the script from the beginning,” director Joe Pytka told UPROXX, “but even after we started shooting, Michael personally had to call him over and over to get him to be in the movie.” Thankfully, Jordan’s string-pulling paid off. Murray stole every scene he was in.
The genesis of Space Jam was a watershed conversation in which Jordan asked agent David Falk why he had turned down the myriad movie roles he had been offered over the years, mainly cameos. Falk said there was only one type of movie he would consider green-lighting.
“What’s that?,” Jordan joked. “The first black James Bond?”
Falk responded that the only role he should play — and probably could play — was Michael Jordan.
“If you think about it, an actor plays a different role every six months,” Falk told UPROXX. “Sometimes they’re the hero, sometimes they’re the villain. Sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s comedic. Unless you know them personally, you don’t really know what they’re like behind the scenes.
“Michael wasn’t an actor. He was always himself. Even though he was sort of unbelievable on the court, he was totally believable off the court.”
After successfully pitching the concept for Space Jam to Warner Bros., Falk endeavored to put Jordan in the right environment for him to flourish. To direct the film, they tabbed Pytka, whom Jordan liked from working together on several ad campaigns, including the popular and groundbreaking Hare Jordan spot from the 1992 Super Bowl.
“When I first heard about it, I honestly thought it was stupid,” Pytka said with a chuckle. “I didn’t know how they could make a movie out of that. I’ll tell you the truth, even while we were shooting, I wondered how it would go over, because it was unique.
“I had to put a lot of humanity into it that didn’t exist in the original script. It was just like a bunch of jokes.”
Famously, Falk negotiated into the contract that Warner Bros. would build an air conditioned arena — Pytka called it “The Jordan Dome” — so Michael could keep his skills sharp and blow off steam after long hours in front of a green screen. Those post-shoot pickup games became something of a cult fascination, with Falk citing luminaries like Reggie Miller, Magic Johnson and Dean Cain of Superman fame.
Pytka, who is 6-foot-5 and played college and independent ball, was a regular at The Jordan Dome. That begs the question: What was it like playing against the greatest player of all time?
“We were just messing around, but he was serious about it,” Pytka said. “He was coming down on the fast break once, and I stood in the middle to take a charge from him. He jumped right over me. I don’t know how he did this. It was the most graceful thing, it was magic what he did. He turned around and said, ‘Don’t ever try to take a charge again.’”
The movie was filmed during a unique period in Jordan’s timeline; he had recently returned from his dalliance with baseball and was about to launch his second championship three-peat. Pytka recalled how he lobbied a dubious Jordan to get the Bulls to acquire mercurial forward Dennis Rodman, whom the director had grown fond of while shooting a Nike commercial.
“The guy doesn’t shoot, he works his ass off on defense and rebounds his ass off,” Pytka said he told Jordan. “Between you and Scottie Pippen, you’re taking all the shots anyway. Get the guy!”
“That very night,” Pytka continued, “Dennis Rodman ended up at the Beverly Hills Hotel with Michael, and then they signed him. From then on, every time I would see Michael, he would call Dennis ‘your boy.’”
He paused for effect, or maybe just to reflect.
“I take full credit for that.”
The Jordan Dome aside, Space Jam had some unique challenges and pressures. Though Jordan took to it reasonably well, filming almost exclusively in front of a green screen is tricky even for experienced actors, much less an athlete feeling his way through his first movie. There were plenty of distractions and interruptions, with the studio constantly bringing guests through to meet Jordan while they had him at their disposal.
Even with all that, the end result was a wild success. There was truly something for everyone — Looney Tunes for the kids, NBA legends for sports fans, Murray as the secret weapon, the exultant R. Kelly song. Even President Obama appears to be a fan.
Still, once you get past the cartoon aliens and slapstick humor, the true backbone of the film was how it portrayed Jordan in real life. An indomitable supernova on court, Jordan had always come across as genuine; the time he spent playing baseball, which they worked into the script, made him that much more relatable.
“His dad had died, and his dad had always wanted him to try to play baseball,” Falk said. “For a person who’s the best in the world at what they do, to give it up and walk away in the prime of your career and try something you know you’re not going to be as good at, that takes a lot of confidence and courage.”
All things considered, Jordan actually was pretty good at baseball; to even hit over .200 in Double-A was a testament to his natural ability and work ethic. But like Falk said, it was endearing that he even dared to try something that far out of his comfort zone, and it was fun to watch Space Jam’s good-natured and self-deprecating depiction of his efforts.
(Interestingly, when the opposing team’s catcher told Jordan which pitches were coming and advised him whether to swing, that was based on real-life events. “He was such a hero to them,” Pytka said. “They wanted him to look good.”)
Just like Jordan wasn’t quite Barry Bonds at the plate, Space Jam wasn’t exactly The Godfather, but it was a cherished movie that transcended generations. It’s fun to watch, it holds up reasonably well and there’s a legitimate undercurrent of heart.
“Space Jam was based on Michael’s life – his family, his kids and all that other stuff – and everyone knew his story,” Pytka said. “So there was a certain human element even though it was a complete fantasy. The reason I don’t think another one would work is that Michael was at the top of the wave at that period of time — a world-class, worldwide superhuman.”
Translation: We might someday get a Space Jam 2, but there will never be another Space Jam.
Luckily, we’ll always have the first one.