Inside the making of Space Jam's big game and Michael Jordan's epic stretch dunk
Joe Pytka isn't one to mince words, especially when it comes to the original 1996 Space Jam.
Back in 2016 for the 20th anniversary, the director shared plenty of secrets, from his unsuccessful attempts to recruit Spike Lee, Chevy Chase, and Michael J. Fox to his (according to him) successful attempt to convince Space Jam star Michael Jordan to bring eccentric former rival Dennis Rodman aboard the Chicago Bulls, on which he would subsequently be an integral component in Jordan's second three-peat as NBA champion. Now, ahead of the film's 25th anniversary and July 16 release of LeBron James' Space Jam: A New Legacy, Pytka is sharing the untold story of cinema's looongest dunk.
After helming Nike's "Hare Jordan" commercials, Pytka was a late addition to the now-classic film's production. "We went through several animation directors, because, frankly, they sucked," he says, having eventually hired Tony Cervone (Scoob!). "Remember, this is 25 years ago, the only animation in town is Disney, and everybody was like a Disneyite." They decided to handle "almost all" of the storyboard work on set, including for the climactic game between Jordan's Tune Squad and the rival Monstars. "We'd print out a background shot of Michael and then Tony would animate the characters around him."
But Air Jordan wasn't playing against air: "We cast a lot of really big guys and put them in green suits. Sometimes you'd put them on platforms so they're even bigger. We would choreograph the scene, and be careful that they didn't intersect certain parts of Michael, so that you didn't have to animate over that."
Jordan got an important assist from another eccentric teammate in Bill Murray, who was initially only contracted for an earlier golf scene with Jordan and Larry Bird. "Murray asked, 'How are you doing the green screen?'" recalls Pytka, adding that Jordan needed to "beg" Murray to even be in the movie. "I told him, and his eyes lit up. He says, 'On Ghostbusters we had to look at dots on the wall.' He sneaks over to [Ghostbusters director and Space Jam producer] Ivan Reitman, and all of a sudden he's in the last scene. That day we quickly wrote and shot something to set it up."
Murray proved to be a steal, with his clutch takeaway setting up Jordan's very extended Tune-like game-winning jam. "It was a pain in the neck, and some of those were the things Michael was uncomfortable with...those acting moments, like when he was stretching with the ball," says Pytka."It wasn't fun. All of the digital stuff was incredibly grueling. Back then, there weren't many people who could do this. I wasn't crazy about the animation on the long arm stretch. I would look after it had been mostly done; by then, there wasn't time to change."
So did Pytka's issues with the final product keep him up at night?
"We finished, and I jumped on a plane to do a video for the Beatles [1995's 'Free as a Bird'] the next day."
To read more on Space Jam: A New Legacy, order the April issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning March 19. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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