Malcolm D. Lee on ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ and Directing LeBron James

The making of “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was a head-spinning train within the unfamiliar for the director Malcolm D. Lee.

For one factor, the movie went into manufacturing lower than every week after he formally signed on to direct the movie. Lee was a late addition in summer season 2019, taking up directing duties from Terence Nance. The script was nonetheless in improvement. Lee, the veteran director of comedies like “Girls Trip” (2017) and “The Best Man” (1999), had by no means labored with animation earlier than and had by no means seen the unique “Space Jam,” the 1996 basketball-Looney Tunes crossover starring Michael Jordan.

On high of all that, Lee was charged with caring for a film constructed round LeBron James, one of the crucial in style athletes on this planet. James had appeared on the massive display screen earlier than (most notably in a supporting position within the 2015 romantic comedy “Trainwreck”) however had by no means anchored a function.

“It was organized chaos,” Lee, 51, mentioned in an interview this week.

The director met James a decade earlier after they had mentioned making a movie collectively, however it by no means got here to fruition. The new venture is a chance for each Lee and James: It will inevitably be in comparison with the now-beloved authentic in the identical means that James is regularly measured towards Jordan. If it flops, a film actually billed as “A New Legacy” could also be damaging to James’s personal.

The film is, if nothing else, self-aware. At one level, James, taking part in himself, notes how poorly athletes fare after they attempt to act. (Similarly to the unique, different professional basketball gamers — together with Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis and Diana Taurasi — have cameos.) The movie additionally options Don Cheadle because the villainous manifestation of an algorithm named, properly, Al G. Rhythm, who kidnaps James, his youngest son (Cedric Joe) and the remainder of the Warner Bros. universe.

James and Bugs share the display screen.Credit…Warner Bros.

In addition to getting ready for the movie, James, 36, additionally needed to keep in form for the N.B.A. season. Lee mentioned that on shoot days, James would get up at 2 a.m. and work out until 6 a.m., then present up for a full day on set.

In an interview, Lee, who’s the cousin of fellow filmmaker Spike Lee, mentioned his personal love for basketball and how he directed a star with out a conventional performing background. Here are edited excerpts from our dialog.

Did you develop up taking part in basketball?

The third grade actually is once I began taking part in organized basketball. I wasn’t as into it as my brother and my dad had been encouraging me to. I began taking part in on this league in Brooklyn known as the Youth Basketball Association. My dad coached a 12 months. In truth, it’s humorous, too, as a result of Spike, who was dwelling with us on the time, was the assistant coach. [Lee is 13 years older than his cousin.]

No kidding.

Swear to God. And Spike will inform you himself. There was one week when my dad went all the way down to Alabama — that’s the place he’s from — and Spike needed to coach us. We had an undefeated season till that date, so Spike was sweating teaching us. And we really bought the victory. He didn’t wish to spoil my father’s streak.

What was your first dialog with LeBron like once you took the “Space Jam” gig?

I feel LeBron had the identical agenda as everybody else in that he wished to make the film nice. He wished to make it possible for I knew what I used to be doing, that my imaginative and prescient was clear and that he’d be taken care of. Not coddled, however that there was a pacesetter aboard who was going to say, “This is what we’re going to do and this is how are we going to do it.” I assured him that there could possibly be delays — I simply don’t know — however I’m an expert, I’ve been on this for a very long time and I’ll just remember to’re taken care of.

Lee signed onto the movie late within the course of. “It was organized chaos,” he mentioned.Credit…Justin Lubin/Warner Bros.

Did you could have any reservations about working with a basketball star who doesn’t have the normal performing coaching that somebody like Don Cheadle has?

Not actually. LeBron’s been in entrance of the digicam since he was 18 years previous. Now, I imply, “Oh, those are just interviews,” however folks get requested the identical questions over and over once more. So he’s bought some rehearsed responses. He additionally was very humorous. He desires to be good. He was good in “Trainwreck.” There’s some actors that get one thing and say, “OK, that’ll cut together.” And some which can be simply pure. I feel LeBron has loads of pure potential.

Without spoiling it, there’s a scene the place LeBron has to convey a susceptible emotion towards his son. Is there something particularly both you or he did to organize for that scene? Because that needed to be out of his consolation zone.

For positive. Look, the very first thing that I attempt to get with any actor is belief, proper? I’ve to belief them. They need to belief me as a result of I’m going to ask them to go to some locations that they aren’t essentially snug going. So sure, we did discuss one thing earlier than he delivered a few of these traces. Then we did a few takes — simply let him get warmed up. If I’m not getting what I’m searching for, then I’ll say, “Why don’t you think about this? And don’t worry about the line so much. Just have this in your brain and then say it.”

From left, Nneka Ogwumike, Cedric Joe, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson and Diana Taurasi on the set. Credit…Scott Garfield/Warner Bros.

Film is a director-driven medium, and basketball may be very a lot player-driven in that gamers can get coaches fired or disregard them fully. Did that dynamic ever come into play in the middle of filming?

No. I don’t suppose there was ever any “I want to do it this way and I don’t care what you have to say.” I feel LeBron likes to be coached. He’s a grasp of his craft. But on the similar time, individuals are in your nook whose job it’s to say: “Make sure you do this. Think about this. I’m seeing this on the court. You’re not seeing blah, blah, blah.” And I feel he takes that data. Same factor with performing.

During the filming of the unique “Space Jam,” Michael Jordan hosted scrimmages with different N.B.A. gamers. Was there something like that right here?

There was a courtroom constructed for [James] on the Warner Bros. lot. I did go to at least one pickup sport and that was thrilling for me, as a result of I’m an enormous basketball fan. Chris Paul was there, Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, Draymond Green.

You didn’t ask to play?

Hell no.

What a chance, man!

Are you kidding? The alternative to get embarrassed. A lot of these guys come into the gymnasium, they don’t know I’m the director of the film. They’re like, “Who’s this dude?” I can’t be like, “Hey, how you doing? I played intramurals at Georgetown.” That’s not going to impress anyone.