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Space Jam: A New Legacy director talks Looney Tunes, LeBron, and rethinking Lola

It’s been 25 years since basketball legend Michael Jordan teamed up with Bugs Bunny and various other Looney Tunes characters in Space Jam, a big-screen blend of live-action and animation that broke new ground — and a few box-office records — with its mash-up of cultural icons.

Arriving in theaters and on streaming service HBO Max this week, Space Jam: A New Legacy goes back to that well, but this time around it’s four-time MVP LeBron James, whose accomplishments have earned him frequent comparisons to Jordan, teaming up with Bugs and the Tune Squad. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, Space Jam: A New Legacy has James — portraying a fictional version of himself — join the Tune Squad for a high-stakes game in order to rescue his son from a diabolical A.I. within the Warner Bros. servers.

Digital Trends spoke to Lee, the director of the critically acclaimed 1999 romantic comedy The Best Man and its 2013 sequel, as well as 2017’s hit comedy Girls Trip, about the experience of diving into the world of animation and the massive Warner Bros. vault, and directing a global icon in his first leading role.

LeBron James and the Looney Tunes in a scene from Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Digital Trends: Animation hasn’t been a big part of your films so far, so when the opportunity to work on Space Jam came your way, what went through your head? Was there any hesitation?

Malcolm Lee: When I was approached to come on board, I thought, “Why? I don’t know anything about animation. I haven’t worked on any visual effects movies like this.” When my representatives were like, “You should engage on Space Jam!” I told them it’s not the kind of basketball movie I want to make. I want to make something more like He Got Game or Love & Basketball, you know? Not Bugs Bunny dribbling a basketball. Can he even play?

But once the ask came, I had to consider it. All the people that I hold dear and consider confidants were like, “You have to do it.” And then I got reassurances from the studio. They said, “Look, that stuff with the animation and the visual effects? You’re covered. We’ve got great people on board for that.” And once I jumped in, I started to understand that visual effects people and animation people are like your production designer and costume designer and director of photography. [They’re there] to help you achieve your vision. It’s all storytelling tools. Once you realize that, it’s like, “Okay, I can actually do the job as a director and storyteller and tell the story I want to tell here.”

How did your filmmaking style change for a film like this with so much animation?

When you’re doing the live-action part of it, it is very much the same process. You just have to have a bigger imagination. It’s like, “Okay, that’s where Daffy Duck is going to be, and Tweety is going to be flying up here, so look up here, then look down there…”

What’s great about a movie of this size is, you don’t get told “No” too often. You say, “Oh, I really wish we could do this,” and they’re like, “Yeah, go for it!” So the next thing I know, I get a crane to use every day. There are so many toys at your disposal that the process is largely the same, except with a little extra imagination.

But when you get into the post-production process, developing the Goons and building worlds and having this whole digital design happen, that’s when the job becomes saying, “I like this. I don’t like that. We need less of this, and more of that.” That’s the job of any director. … You’re offered choices. So on this one, it’s a bit longer process, but the process is still about decision making and leadership.

A scene featuring LeBron James in Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Did you have a connection to Space Jam before this? Was this a sort of seminal movie for you?

Space Jam? No. The Looney Tunes? Yes. I grew up with the Looney Tunes. Saturday mornings it was me and a bowl of cereal, watching the Tunes in action. I loved them. Daffy, Porky, Bugs, Roadrunner, Coyote, Sylvester, Tweety… Those were great childhood memories. But I hadn’t even seen the original Space Jam until I started working on this movie. I’d seen bits of pieces of it, but at that point in my life, when it first came out, I was just finishing film school. I was trying to figure out what my big movie was going to be, and how I was going to make my debut. I was trying to figure out why I wasn’t the next Orson Welles, and why I hadn’t made a movie by the time I was 22, like John Singleton.

Working with someone as high-profile as LeBron James has to be a very unique experience. How did LeBron’s involvement affect the filmmaking process?

The thing about LeBron is, he’s a human being. I’ve worked with people who are considered movie stars and global icons before. Kevin Hart, Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle… The thing you need to assure them of is that you know what you’re doing — what your vision is. You need to be clear about it. You need to say, “Here’s what I need from you.” When you do that, they’re going to be confident about what they’re doing. That’s always been my approach when it comes to any actor.

I was a fan of LeBron from the very beginning, and we had met previously, about ten years ago. We were talking about doing a movie together, and now here we were: Him as the producer and star, and me directing him. And as long as I was trying to do my job and not trying to be his friend, I knew it was all going to work out.

LeBron James and director Malcolm Lee on the set of Space Jam: A New Legacy.

This film packs so much into it as far as references and cameos and call-outs to the past and other franchises, and I’m sure there are plenty of elements that didn’t make the final cut. What was the process like for you in deciding what to cut and what to keep?

We wanted to make sure we had a great visual spectacle at the big game, the main event. So we had King Kong and the DC characters there, and we had Iron Giant and all these great Hanna-Barbera characters: Captain Caveman, Penelope Pitstop, The Flintstones, The Jetsons… But we also wanted to make what’s happening on the court exciting, too. We wanted the game to feel like it was a streetball game at Rucker Park, where the fans are right there — not only watching the game but standing right on the sidelines.

When it came to gathering the Tunes and going through all the different IPs, that was a longer process. It got to the point where some scenes ended up a lot longer. We originally went to The Bachelor. We went to Friends. We went to Thundercats. But eventually, we had to ask, “What’s the best joke? What’s going to be the quickest joke?” We didn’t have an enormous amount of time to work with. At one point, we thought about not having most of the Tunes off-world at all. We thought about having them only get Lola, with everyone else already on Tune World [in order to save time]. It went through a number of iterations, and we eventually landed on what we thought worked best.

What’s the scene you’re most proud of — or most excited about audiences seeing — from the film?

It’s not really one scene. It’s the game itself. I love the momentum. This is your classic sports movie. The good guys are getting beat. Will they triumph? [Watching] their comeback and how they do it is exciting. To see it all come to fruition like that in a way that makes the audience stand up and cheer, to get excited and have some tense moments, I love that kind of stuff. I love how it came together.

Lola Bunny celebrating in a scene from Space Jam: A New Legacy.

This is your first film that’s made for families with kids and that all-ages audience. Did that affect your approach to it?

Well, I knew we weren’t going to be cursing or having anything inappropriate in it. That was one of the reasons I wanted to shift Lola Bunny a bit this time. It was like, “Let’s not objectify her. Let’s make her a real character.” It’s not that she wasn’t a real character in the first film, but I wanted to make her a real cartoon bunny.

But shifting to my first PG movie, I’m glad I got to do it on such a cool one. This movie has a little bit of edge to it. It has a cool factor. And it was all about the storytelling and this father-son dynamic I really wanted to tap into and make relatable and universal. And yeah, it was also about saying, “Hey, we can’t have Megan Thee Stallion talking about her butt in a song here.” But even if we can’t have that, let’s have something a little more fun.

What’s next for you?

I’m gearing up to do a limited series with Peacock about The Best Man and wrapping up that series. I just shot the pilot for NBC, so we’ll see if it happens. I would like to get a lot of sleep and spend time with my family. That’s what I would love to be able to do next.

Warner Bros. Pictures’ Space Jam: A New Legacy premieres July 16 in theaters and on HBO Max streaming service.

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