Director Malcolm D. Lee on pulling off Space Jam: A New Legacy’s most surprising cameo

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This article discusses some of the surprise cameos of Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Watching Space Jam: A New Legacy is a bit like scrolling through the HBO Max library: You might be looking for some classic Looney Tunes animation, but there’s plenty of other Warner Bros. properties there to distract you. By sending star LeBron James—and by extension, the audience—into the “Warner Bros. Server-verse,” the belated sequel becomes a playground for the storied studio’s most recognizable IP, nodding to its cinematic history, from Casablanca to Mad Max: Fury Road, and even making room for Rick And Morty to pop in for a quick gag. And that’s all before we get to the big game, The Tune Squad vs. The Goon Squad, which draws in quite the crowd: an eye-popping array of characters big, small, and wholly unexpected. There are so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos, Easter egg hunters are probably better off streaming at home, where they can hit “pause” every second just to take it all in.

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But A New Legacy’s most memorable cameo isn’t from a Warner Bros. character at all; it’s from a real person, someone whose appearance feels both obvious and unexpected. It’s also one of the few ways the sequel makes reference to its predecessor—though not in a way you might think. Ahead of the film’s debut, The A.V. Club spoke with director Malcolm D. Lee to find out how he and his creative team pulled off the surprise. But, before that, Lee shed some light on what a massive undertaking this new Space Jam was, discussing how they wrangled so much WB IP and made it all feel appropriately looney. No stranger to ensemble comedies (Lee’s credits include Girls Trip, Undercover Brother, and The Best Man), the director confessed an initial reluctance to jump into a project this expansive, but was aided by a Tune Squad of his own to bring it all together. You can watch the discussion with Malcolm D. Lee in the video here, or read the full interview transcript below.

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The A.V. Club: You’re a director that’s worked with a lot of amazing ensembles, but the scope of this movie is kind of mind-blowing. There’s LeBron James and his family, the Looney Tunes, as well as many, many worlds of Warner Brothers characters—how did it feel to play in this massive sandbox?

Malcolm D. Lee: You know, it was pretty intimidating at first. Because I hadn’t had this experience, and [had] kind of shied away from movies of this size, because I was like, “I don’t know anything about that,” and didn’t really have a great interest in it. I always felt like those were movies that you had to have a certain storytelling brain to do it. And I felt like they get so big [that] you don’t get to be the director, creatively, you get to be a traffic cop! Because there’s so many different cooks in the kitchen. But, once I understood it, once I got it and got thrown into the mix, and had such great partners—in the producing team to ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] to the Warner Animation Group—it just became like, “Oh, these are just all storytelling tools for me at my disposal.” And so, because I’ve had this 20 years of experience, I was able to bring my expertise to the table and use them as people that can help me realize the vision.

AVC: So, in terms of balancing all these different properties, did it feel like there was a responsibility to represent them in certain ways?

MDL: You know, you try to present them as they are, then just put a little twist on it, [like] when you’re gathering the Tunes up and trying to build a team together when they are scattered across the server. So, you take footage from those movies, and you insert your characters. And hopefully it’s fun and it’s funny and quick because we want to be like, “let’s get on the ride as soon as possible and get to the game!” So it wasn’t so much a responsibility, but more like just trying to pay homage to that movie and also make something fun and funny for the audience.

AVC: Right, and the Looney Tunes, historically, have been able to be inserted into anything and make it their own.

MDL: Right! I mean, I love the Looney Tunes. I grew up with Saturday morning cartoons, and that’s my memory of them: it’s that, having a bowl of cereal, and then watching them until Mom was like, “get out of the house!”

AVC: As you mentioned, much of the movie is building to this big showdown basketball game, and—from the minute we saw the first trailer—we’ve been fascinated by what was off the court, this audience of characters. Even just on the immediate sidelines, you’ve got people dressed like White Walkers and other villains. What was your experience like reining all of those folks in?

MDL: The good thing about it was that they were all in character, right? They all loved being those characters, and it was all about them being fans of the game, particularly The Goon Squad. So, “cheer for your team,” is basically what [the direction] was, in character. And sometimes, you know, they went a little too far in some ways, or they got distracted, and it was like, “Okay, please stop doing that; the action is here, not back there.” But they had great enthusiasm, and these folks had to get in hair and makeup from like three o’clock in the morning, and they’d be with us all day. I mean, kudos to the the background talent. Because, all of times, your background talent is just there to pick up a check—but these folks were here to really be a part of the movie. And they were incredible!

AVC: Again, there are so many properties and characters involved, especially in the audience—is there one you were personally excited about, or surprised by, that made it into the movie? Anything audiences should keep their eyes peeled for?

MDL: We had the live-action portion of it, and the fun part was to be able to pepper in all the other [animated] characters, like King Kong, and The Iron Giant, and The Flintstones, and The Jetsons, and the Scooby Doo crew, and Captain Caveman and those kind of Hanna-Barbera characters. That was a lot of fun to play as well, because, you know, you’re building a world! And that’s what was so incredible about working in the sandbox in this platform, and with a company as dynamic and amazing as ILM: You don’t even realize, when you’re shooting, what it’s going to be. You have to have somewhat of an imagination, like what it could be, but then they show you what else they’re building, and it’s like, “Wow!” Every time we did the visual effects review, I was amazed by what I saw. And, at the same time, it was like, “Okay, well, how do we improve upon how on it, how do we make it better?”

AVC: Finally, there’s one more specific cameo I want to ask about, and it may be the best gag of the entire movie: When the Tunes accidentally bring in Michael B. Jordan to help the team. Could you tell me about how that came together?

MLD: Yes, it was a great gag in the movie, and it’s very unique to Space Jam—only we could have that in our movie, and have the payoff that it does. But it was kind of a favor from [his] relationship with LeBron and Ryan Coogler. We just said, “Hey, this would be a great thing!” I wasn’t sure it was going to make the movie, and I didn’t know what kind of impact it was going to have, but, once we once we put it in front of an audience, everyone was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s hilarious.” So, you know, we wanted to make sure that we had something great in there, again paying homage to the predecessor.