The filmmaker dishes on what it meant to work alongside LeBron James to reboot an iconic brand 25 years later.
Last week at a block party in East Harlem — one that doubled as an announcement of the refurbishment of basketball courts at Mae Grant Park — Boardroom caught up with Space Jam: A New Legacy director Malcolm Lee to talk about the new and much-anticipated film.
Lee dished on working with LeBron James, the challenges in following the iconic original Space Jam, and what he wants viewers to take from the movie ahead of its world premiere Friday in theaters and on HBO Max.
The following is Boardroom’s chat with Lee, lightly edited for clarity.
SHLOMO SPRUNG: What was the process like in directing the film?
MALCOLM D. LEE: Well, it was a long one, almost two years to the day. First time I was ever dealing with animation and visual effects on this level. But at the end of the day, the story is about a father and son and how Looney Tunes helped them to bridge the divide that they’re experiencing right now. And we do that through a great basketball game. So it’s pretty epic, and I’m extremely proud of it.
SS: What were the challenges in doing this movie after the success a couple of decades ago of the original Space Jam?
MDL: You have big shoes to fill. I wasn’t really concentrating on trying to make it as a comparison to that movie. We did pay some homage to it. Structurally it’s kind of similar in the beginning. But then it was all about making sure that the Tunes felt authentic — they were back to the Tunes I fell in love with when I was a kid — and telling a different story.
LeBron James is a global, iconic superstar who transcends sports. And it was taking his story and trying to make it as best we can, using the new technology at our fingertips. Family movies, animated movies, they’re on a different level now. They’ve certainly advanced and evolved a lot more since the first Space Jam. So we had to make sure we were current and up to date.
SS: What are some examples of that?
MDL: The extensive amounts of visual effects that we had, making them. The Tunes in CGI, for one. Making sure it was resonating emotionally. A lot of times with so-called kids movies, they were primarily for kids.
Those movies now, they make sure there’s something in there for adults as well. And we also wanted to appeal to teens. We didn’t just want to make a movie that was for kids and parents of children. And through the music, through the coolness factor, I think we’ve achieved that.
SS: What are things you learned from previous movies you’ve directed?
MDL: If I hadn’t had the career I had over 20 years, I wouldn’t have been ready for this movie. It really taught me to make sure I knew how to use crew members and have them help me achieve my vision. And that was the main thing, being able to use the tools in the toolbox that were at my disposal.
Visual effects and animation are just tools in the director’s toolbox. I didn’t realize that before. I was very intimidated by doing a big movie like this. But once I got behind the veil, behind the curtain, it wasn’t easy but it was certainly something that having done all the work that I’d done prior helped prepare me for this moment.
SS: What was the most surprising thing you experienced working with LeBron?
MDL: Nothing really surprised me about LeBron. He’s a total professional. He likes to act. He likes to be funny. I was pleasantly surprised by two things. That he has an emotional depth that he was able to deliver on-screen. I knew it was in him, but you had to bring it out.
SS: Was it tough to bring that out?
MDL: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that tough. Once I gave him the right direction, he tapped right into it. And the other thing is, he never left set. He was always around, interacting with his co-stars, interacting with the background talent. He was really a leader on and off the screen.
SS: What’s the biggest thing you want viewers to take from this movie?
MDL: First of all, I just want to make sure that everyone feels safe to go back to the movies and have that shared experience of going to a movie. It’s the most inexpensive thing you can do. And people want to have that communal experience again. But hopefully they feel safe enough to go to the theater, because Space Jam was built for the theatrical experience, and they’ll have a good time and laugh.
They’re gonna be wowed by the spectacle and I think they’re gonna feel something as well and taking them back to their whole families.