Space Jam: The story behind Michael Jordan's improbable victory
Director Joe Pytka talks Spike Lee, Bill Murray, and 'Space Jam 2'
“I thought the first Space Jam was a silly idea,” Space Jam director Joe Pytka tells EW. “I didn’t know how it could become a movie [but] it did.”
Silly, maybe. Then again, some of the most entertaining buddy pairings in film have been just that, from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, to Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, and Schwarzenegger and DeVito, again. But teaming the greatest basketball player of all time with a popular animated character — one who seemed to be losing all relevance — was downright crazy. Yet, the bold move proved to be a success in the beloved classic, Space Jam.
It’s been 20 years since Michael Jordan suited up with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Tweety Bird to take down the Monstars, helping save the Looney Tunes and ensuring that Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues, and other athletes got their basketball groove back. To mark the anniversary, EW talked to director Pytka about convincing Bill Murray to expand his role, initial desires to cast Michael J. Fox, and turning down a high-profile NBA player’s request to make a sequel.
“We had a tough time getting it together.”
Space Jam wasn’t the first time Jordan and Bugs had joined forces on the basketball court. A few years earlier, Pytka was recruited by ad executive Jim Riswold for a Nike ad featuring the duo. The prolific commercial and music video director initially declined, citing the old-school appearance of Looney Tunes’ leading man.
“We had a tough time getting it together,” he recalls. “We fought with Warner Bros. for months, trying to modernize Bugs’ character for the commercial. They finally came around to accepting what we wanted to do, we then did the spot, and it was a huge success on the Super Bowl, which meant that it was a nice bit of research for Warner Bros. to understand that the Bugs character still had relevance and to tie it in with Michael.”
Pytka would go on to make another “Hare Jordan” ad, in addition to the McDonald’s “Nothing But Net” campaign, starring Jordan and fellow basketball legend Larry Bird, who later appeared in the film. Considering the financial and pop culture success of the commercials, the director was surprised when talk of a Jordan and Bugs movie began and he hadn’t been contacted. Finally, only months before production, Pytka was brought onboard.
“I think the producers weren’t that adept at mixing animation and live-action,” he says, adding it was easier for him thanks to his experience on the campaign. “I know that Robert Zemeckis had told one of the producers that Roger Rabbit was the most difficult thing he’d ever done and he would never do anything like that again. So I don’t think they realized how complicated the process was.”
“They’re going to work with an animated character and an athlete — are you serious?”
Coming on later than he would have liked, Pytka immediately began crafting the project to his liking. The first step was reworking the script and sprinkling in his own flavor, including an extended version of Jordan’s return to Earth, in which he would hit a momentous home run reminiscent of Robert Redford’s in The Natural. While the scene didn’t make the final cut, there was a much bigger “what if” when it came to the script.
“Spike Lee is a friend of mine and he approached me to do a polish on the script,” says Pytka. “I thought that Spike would have added some stuff that would have been cooler, but Warner Bros. didn’t want to deal with him because of their issues with him when they did Malcolm X together. Remember, Spike got his friends to put money into finishing Malcolm X and the corporation hated the fact that he did that.”
The lack of involvement by Lee wasn’t the only roadblock the director faced. While the NBA players in the film were easy to recruit — other than a failed attempt to bring in 7’7″ Romanian center and future My Giant star Gheorghe Mureșan — filling the non-basketball roles proved challenging.
“We had a hard time casting a lot of the minor characters because people just didn’t want to be in a movie with Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny,” says Pytka. “I mean, they’re going to work with an animated character and an athlete — are you serious? They just didn’t want to do it.”
The biggest obstacle was finding someone to play Stan, the lovable dork and human sidekick to Jordan. Wayne Knight, popularly known as Newman on Seinfeld, ended up taking on the role, but the director had initially aimed elsewhere. “Originally, I wanted Michael J. Fox to play that character. The studio didn’t want him,” Pytka explains. “Then, I wanted Chevy Chase because I had worked with Chevy on some Doritos commercials, and they didn’t want to go for that kind of stuff.”
“Michael and I played a lot of one-on-one.”
Pytka might have struck out with some of his casting hopes, but there was some comfort in reteaming with Jordan, even if the star did have a limited acting background. It’s rare for a major studio film to get built around an inexperienced lead, but this was a unique case.
“He did what Michael does. We tried to recast him and we couldn’t find anyone better,” jokes Pytka. “He did as well as he could do. He played himself, and remember, a lot of the film is based on his life, so there were realistic references there. He was very professional — he showed up, he knew his lines, we made it as easy as possible.”
Part of making the process comfortable for Jordan, who had recently made his return to the NBA after a brief foray into professional baseball, was building an on-set dome with a full basketball court. In between shooting the film, Jordan, often accompanied by players including Reggie Miller, would play for hours on the court, training for the upcoming season. Serving as the director had its perks, as Pytka would often join in. “Michael and I played a lot of one-on-one,” he recalls. “Once, Michael came up and asked, ‘Why are you never on my team?’ I said, ‘Because I want to see the ball every once in a while.’”
According to Pytka, his role as director even extended off the set as well, playing a part in getting eccentric former Detroit Pistons player Dennis Rodman to Chicago, where he would subsequently be an integral component in Jordan’s second three-peat as NBA champion.
“I said, ‘Why haven’t you guys gone after Dennis Rodman?’ Because Michael was going back to the Bulls later that year,” Pytka says. “He said something about [how] he didn’t know whether he could play with Dennis. I said, ‘Look, the guy doesn’t shoot, he plays defense, he rebounds, and he doesn’t get in your way. You should go after him.’ That night, Dennis Rodman was at this Beverly Hills Hotel with Michael and they made the deal that Monday.”
“First, I’m glad Murray showed up.”
When he wasn’t playing one-on-one with the greatest player of all time or helping build championship teams, Pytka was directing the complex combined animation and live-action scenes in the film.
“I cast a group of actors and they wore green suits, so [Jordan] could play a scene normally with an actor and then it was easy just to pull him out of the green and put the animated characters in,” says Pytka. “I think we had six or eight really good actors to play the different characters and they played them in character, they used the voices, so it was really easy to edit that. And we had the animators on set and if we improvised a scene, we would do a computer printout of the acting and they would draw the characters in relationship to Michael in the scene.”
The process also involved bringing in basketball players to stand on platforms and play the larger-than-life Monstars to help Jordan act properly when staring up at the massively intimidating animated creatures. Pytka’s strategy didn’t just help his leading man, it convinced another key player to expand his role.
While Jordan and Bugs may be the stars of the film, Space Jam’s secret weapon is undoubtedly Bill Murray. Playing himself, the beloved actor gave a scene-stealing performance, first appearing in his own absurd hat for the golf course scene, in which Jordan is transported to Looney Tunes land, then later joins him there to help vanquish the Monstars. Yet, according to Pytka, that scene almost never happened.
“First, I’m glad Murray showed up,” he jokes. “Bill only came in for the golf course stuff because he didn’t like the idea of working in animation. While we were shooting the golf course scene, he asked how I was dealing with the actors dealing with the animated characters. When [he] found out how we were doing that, we wrote a couple of extra scenes for him at the end of the movie, when he comes back to the basketball game.”
“I think it’s ridiculous to try and make a different movie out of it.”
By all metrics, when Space Jam was released in November 1996, the film was a smash hit. It opened No. 1 at the box office, was a merchandising juggernaut for all parties involved, and helped relaunch the Looney Tunes. In today’s Hollywood, those kinds of results would immediately warrant an immediate follow-up. Now, 20 years after the original, a sequel from Fast Five director Justin Lin and NBA superstar LeBron James is reportedly in the works, a move that baffles Pytka.
“I think it’s ridiculous to try and make a different movie out of it,” he declares. “I can’t see it. I can’t imagine how it could be what that film was. Not that Space Jam is a great movie, but it had something that touched that period of time because of who those athletes were and it doesn’t exist anymore.”
A few years ago, Pytka says representatives for Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard approached him to helm a sequel. He turned down that overture due to his belief that a new film wouldn’t work without the unprecedented global reach and appeal of the original production’s star.
“I’ve worked with LeBron and I’ve worked with Steph Curry, and as good a player as LeBron is and as good a player as Steph Curry is, they’re not Michael Jordan,” he argues. “We will never see another player like him. He was a transcendent figure, much like Muhammad Ali. He was beyond his sport. These guys aren’t.”
Despite Pytka’s strong opposition to a follow-up to his nostalgia-inducing classic, which is the last feature film he has directed, a sequel seems inevitable, especially with the star power assembled behind it. Maybe coming to that realization, the director jokes about the true reason for his opposition: “I don’t see how it could work. Plus, I don’t want them to make it. That’s probably the real reason, isn’t it?”
Then again, sillier ideas have become movies. Just ask Joe Pytka.