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

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Making”Space Jam: A New Legacy” was an unusual dizzying exercise for the director Malcolm D. Lee.

For one thing, the film went into production less than a week after he was officially signed to direct. Lee became a late addition and takeover in the summer of 2019 Directorial duties from Terence Nance. The script was still in development. senior director of comedies like Lee “Girls Trip” (2017) and “best man” (1999), had never worked with animation before and original “Space Jam” 1996 basketball-Looney Tunes crossover starring Michael Jordan.

More than anything, Lee was tasked with looking after a movie built around one of the world’s most popular athletes, LeBron James. James has appeared on the big screen before (most notably Supporting role in the 2015 romantic comedy “Trainwreck”) but never anchored a feature.

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

The director met James ten years ago when they were discussing making a movie together, but it never came to fruition. The new project is a gamble for both Lee and James: Inevitably, it will be compared to the now-loved original as James has consistently measured against Jordan. If it fails, a movie that is literally billed as “A New Legacy” could hurt James himself.

The film is self-aware if nothing else. At one point, James, who plays himself, notes how unsuccessful the athletes are when they try to move. (As in the original, other professional basketball players have cameos, including Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, and Diana Taurasi.) Also in the movie, Don Cheadle is featured as the malevolent manifestation of an algorithm called Al G. Rhythm that kidnapped James. , his youngest son (Cedric Joe) and Warner Bros. the rest of the universe.

In addition to preparing for the movie, 36-year-old James also had to stay in shape for the NBA season. Lee said that on filming days, James would wake up at 2 a.m. and work until 6 a.m., then appear on set all day.

In an interview, Lee, who is a cousin to fellow filmmaker Spike Lee, discussed his love of basketball and how he managed a star without a traditional acting background. Here are edited excerpts from our talk.

Did you grow up playing basketball?

Third grade was when I really started playing organized basketball. I wasn’t as involved as my brother and father encouraged me. I started playing in this league called Youth Basketball Association in Brooklyn. My father coached for a year. It’s actually funny because Spike, who was living with us at the time, was the assistant coach. [Lee is 13 years older than his cousin.]

I am not kidding.

I swear to God. And Spike will tell you himself. There was a week when my dad went to Alabama – where is he from – and Spike had to coach us. We had an undefeated season to date, so Spike was sweating to coach us. And we actually got the victory. He didn’t want to spoil my father’s winning streak.

How was your first conversation with LeBron when you attended the “Space Jam” concert?

I think LeBron had the same agenda as everyone else because he wanted to make the movie great. He wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing, that my vision was clear and that it would be taken care of. It’s no joke, but there was a leader on board who said, “This is what we’re going to do and how are we going to do it.” I reassured that there might be delays – I just don’t know – but I’m a professional, I’ve been in this business for a long time and will make sure you are taken care of.

Did you have any reservations about working with a basketball star who didn’t have the traditional acting training that someone like Don Cheadle had?

Not exactly. LeBron has been on camera since he was 18. Now, I want to say, “Oh, these are just interviews,” but people get asked the same questions over and over. So they have some rehearsed answers. He was very funny too. He wants to be good. He was good in “Trainwreck”. There are some actors who take things and say, “Okay, this is going to come together.” And some are just natural. I think LeBron has a lot of natural talent.

Without spoiling it, there’s a scene where LeBron has to convey a vulnerable feeling to his son. Is there anything special you or he did to prepare for that scene? Because that had to be out of his comfort zone.

Exactly. Look, the first thing I try to achieve with any actor is trust, right? I have to trust them. They have to trust me because I’m going to ask them to go to some places that are not very comfortable to go to. So yeah, we talked about something before he passed on some of these lines. Then we took a few shots – just let it warm up. If I can’t find what I’m looking for, then “Why don’t you think about it? And don’t worry too much about the line. Just get that in your brain and then say it.”

Film is a director-driven environment and basketball is multiplayer-focused because players can fire coaches or ignore them entirely. Did this dynamic ever come into play during filming?

No. I don’t think there is such a thing as “I want to do it like this and I don’t care what you say”. I think LeBron loves coaching. He is a master at his job. But at the same time, his job is to tell you, “Make sure you do this. Think about it. I see this in court. You don’t see it blah blah blah.” And I think he’s getting this information. It’s the same as acting.

Michael Jordan during the filming of the original “Space Jam” Hosted with other NBA players. Was there such a thing here?

There was a court built for [James] Warner Bros. on the land. I went to a game and it was exciting for me because I am a big basketball fan. Chris Paul was there, Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, Draymond Green.

Didn’t you ask to play?

Never.

What an opportunity, man!

Are you kidding me? An opportunity to be ashamed. Most of these guys come to the gym, they don’t know I’m the director of the movie. “Who is this man?” they say. “Hey, how are you? I played school plays in Georgetown.” This will not affect anyone.

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