Directing “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was a head-turning exercise for director Malcolm D. Lee.
For one thing, the film went into production less than a week after officially signing on to direct the film. Lee was a late addition in the summer of 2019, taking over the managerial role from Terence Nance. The script was still in development. Lee, the veteran director of comedies like “Girls Trip” (2017) and “The Best Man” (1999), had never worked with animation before and had never seen the original “Space Jam”, the 1996 Looney Tunes basketball crossover with Michael Jordan.
On top of all this, Lee was tasked with handling a movie built around LeBron James, one of the world’s most popular athletes. James had appeared on the big screen before (notably in a supporting role in the romantic comedy “Trainwreck”) but had never anchored a feature film.
“It was organized chaos,” Lee, 51, said in an interview this week.
The director met James a decade earlier when they had discussed making a movie together, but it never came to fruition. The new project is a bet for Lee and James: it will inevitably be compared to the now-beloved original in the same way that James is continually measured against Jordan. If it fails, a movie literally billed as “A New Legacy” can be damaging to James’ own.
The film is, at the very least, self-aware. At one point, James, playing himself, notes how badly athletes do when trying to act. (Like the original, other professional basketball players – including Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, and Diana Taurasi – have cameos.) The movie also features Don Cheadle as the villainous manifestation of a named algorithm, well , Al G. Rhythm, who kidnaps James, his youngest son (Cedric Joe) and the rest of the Warner Bros. universe.
In addition to preparing for the film, James, 36, also had to stay in shape for the NBA season. Lee said on filming days James would wake up at 2 a.m. and train until 6 a.m. and then show up for a full day on set.
In an interview, Lee, who is cousin to fellow filmmaker Spike Lee, spoke about his own love for basketball and how he led a star with no traditional acting experience. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Did you grow up playing basketball?
Third year is really when I started playing organized basketball. I was not as interested as my brother and father encouraged me. I started playing in this league in Brooklyn called the Youth Basketball Association. My father was a coach for a year. It’s actually also funny, because Spike, who was living with us at the time, was the assistant coach. [Lee is 13 years older than his cousin.]
Swear to God. And Spike will tell you himself. There was a week my dad went to Alabama – that’s where he’s from – and Spike must have coached us. We have had an unbeaten season so far so Spike was sweating to train us. And we actually won. He didn’t want to spoil my dad’s streak.
How was your first conversation with LeBron when you took the “Space Jam” gig?
I think LeBron had the same agenda as everyone else in that he wanted to make the movie great. He wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing, that my vision was clear, and that he would be taken care of. Not pampered, but there was a leader on board who was going to say, “This is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it.” I assured him there might be delays – I don’t know – but I’m a professional, I’ve been in this for a long time and I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.
Did you have any reservations about working with a basketball star who didn’t have the traditional acting training that someone like Don Cheadle has?
Not really. LeBron has been in front of the camera since he was 18. Now I want to say, “Oh, these are just talks,” but people get asked the same questions over and over again. So he has repeated answers. He was also very funny. He wants to be good. He was good at “Trainwreck”. There are actors who understand something and say, “OK, this will go together. And some that are just natural. I think LeBron has a lot of natural abilities.
Without spoiling it, there is a scene where LeBron has to convey a vulnerable emotion towards his son. Was there anything in particular that you or him did to prepare for this scene? Because it had to be out of his comfort zone.
For sure. Look, the first thing I try to get with an actor is trust, right? I have to trust them. They must trust me because I will ask them to go to places they are not necessarily comfortable going. So yeah, we talked about something before he delivered some of these lines. Then we did a few takes – just let it warm up. If I don’t get what I’m looking for, then I’ll say, “Why don’t you think about it? And don’t worry too much about the line. Just have this in your brain and then say it.
Cinema is a director-driven medium, and basketball is very player-driven in the sense that players can get coaches fired or ignore them altogether. Did this dynamic already come into play during the filming?
No. I don’t think there ever was a “I want to do it this way and I don’t care what you have to say.” I think LeBron enjoys being coached. He is a master of his trade. But at the same time, there are people in your corner whose job is to say, “Make sure you do this. Think about it. I see that on the court. You don’t see blah, blah, blah. And I think he’s taking that information. Same thing with acting.
While filming the original “Space Jam”, Michael Jordan organized scrimmages with other NBA players. Was there something like that here?
There was a court built for [James] on the Warner Bros. I went to a pickup game and it was exciting for me, because I’m a huge basketball fan. Chris Paul was there, Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, Draymond Green.
Didn’t you ask to play?
What an opportunity, man!
Are you kidding? The opportunity to embarrass yourself. A lot of these guys come to the gym, they don’t know I’m the director of the movie. They’re like, “Who is this guy?” I can’t say, “Hey, how are you? I played intramural in Georgetown. It’s not going to impress anyone.