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The Untold Truth Of Space Jam

Everyone remembers where they were in 1996, when Swackhammer, an evil amusement park owner from space, tried to kidnap Bugs Bunny and the other major members of the Looney Tunes gang, only for Bugs to challenge these bad guys to a game of basketball, prompting Swackhammer's alien goons to steal the talents of some of Earth's best basketball players, which led to the legendary Michael Jordan joining the fight to save the toons from alien defeat. 

Okay, so that didn't really happen. It's the plot of Space Jam, the 1996 blockbuster and Millennial cinematic touchstone that deftly combined animated characters and their cartoon antics with the otherworldly but somehow real basketball talents of Jordan. Space Jam offered an undeniable combination — wacky cartoon characters loved worldwide for almost a century, plus the most popular and successful basketball player to ever hit the court. It became one of the most fondly remembered films of the '90s, so here's a look behind the scenes of how the Toon Squad beat the Monstars and what made Space Jam so special.

Space Jam was inspired by some TV commercials

In 1992, Michael Jordan — a seasoned pitchman who's appeared in spots for Gatorade, Hanes, and McDonald's — starred in a prominent Super Bowl ad for Nike, producer of his Air Jordan sneakers. Titled "Hare Jordan," the commercial had an animated Bugs Bunny and a live-action Jordan team up to defeat a bunch of gym rats in a pickup game, both with basketball skills and cartoon hijinks. "Originally, I just couldn't think of a bigger star to pair Michael with than Bugs Bunny, so that's how it started," ad man Jim Riswold told the Chicago Tribune. 

After the commercial proved popular, Jordan's agent, David Falk, went to Bugs' parent company, Warner Bros., and pitched expanding the idea of Jordan playing ball with toons into a full-length film. Intrigued by the potentially lucrative marketing potential and already looking for a way to revive the largely dormant Looney Tunes characters, the studio signed on.

Interestingly, Bill Murray makes a cameo appearance in Space Jam, portraying himself and declaring his basketball prowess. This references more TV commercials, which, unlike "Hare Jordan," weren't particularly popular. In 1995, Murray starred in some promotional spots for the NBA, where he played one-on-one with a tween and monologued about his love of basketball. The overarching premise was that Murray was quitting show business to play basketball, a sly but obvious crack about how, at the time, Jordan had quit basketball to give baseball a shot.

How Michael Jordan acted with cartoons

Apart from that time he hosted Saturday Night Live or all of the TV commercials he appeared in — including the ones with Bugs Bunny that inspired Space Jam — Michael Jordan had very little acting experience when Warner Bros. placed him at the center of an $80 million movie. "Standing in front of a camera and remember your lines, acting is a devastatingly difficult profession," director Joe Pytka told the Chicago Tribune. "We were very, very careful that Michael was comfortable." 

At least other actors generally enjoy the benefit of acting opposite or alongside other human actors. Not newbie Jordan, as most of his scenes were shot on a green screen, with his not-real cartoon co-stars added in after the fact. However, Pytka found a novel way to make Jordan "comfortable." He brought in a bunch of trained comic actors, covered them from head to toe in the same green material as the green screen so they could be edited out later, and had them portray physical versions of the Looney Tunes characters. Not only did that give Jordan someone to play off of, but it also made for correct eye lines. As Jordan is a very tall basketball player and Bugs, Porky, et al. are very short, the actors moved around on their knees so Jordan's actions and dialogue would be spatially accurate after the animation was added in.

Introducing Lola Bunny as Lola Bunny

Space Jam was more of a reboot or reinvention than anything new or original, taking well-known Warner Bros.-controlled cartoon characters and teaming them up with the most famous athlete on the planet. It really only offered one new major cartoon character to the Looney Tunes universe — Lola Bunny, a comic foil and romantic interest for Bugs Bunny who could also play basketball pretty well. 

So where did Lola come from? Well, there weren't a whole lot of female characters from the old Looney Tunes cartoons that Space Jam filmmakers could use — if any. The original plan for the movie's animated female lead was to use Honey Bunny, a character who never starred in an old cartoon short but made multiple appearances in video games, books, and other such spinoff products. A Space Jam artist drew up some concept art of Honey Bunny in athletic clothing with a bow on her head, but otherwise, she looked exactly like her more famous male counterpart. (Another artist wrote on the model sheet, "Bugs in drag?") New names were suggested, including Daisy Lou and Lola, leading to the creation of a completely new character rather than an update of an obscure one.

Michael Jordan had his own basketball court on set

Space Jam had to film during the NBA offseason so as to not interfere with Michael Jordan's game schedule. Because Jordan would need to keep up his rigorous preparations for the next NBA session, he had to work out while he filmed Space Jam, and the production accommodated by building him his very own training facility right on the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank, California. "Initially, what they were going to do was just paint some lines on the parking lot and put a couple of hoops up," Jordan's trainer Tim Grover told Air Jordan. "And I was like, 'No, no, no. This is Michael Jordan. We're not playing basketball in a parking lot." Instead, Warner created a pop-up gym with a weight room, showers, and a court. All of it was topped with an inflatable roof, earning it the nickname "the Jordan Dome."

In the evenings, the gym became a hotspot for NBA stars who lived or played in the Los Angeles area. "Michael would go up there, and everybody in town would come to play basketball there and challenge him," director Joe Pytka remembered. It attracted celebrities, too. "That was the hottest ticket in town," said set photographer Bruce Talamon. "You would have the biggest Hollywood stars who would want to come into the Dome and watch him play."

Wayne Knight beat out some big-time stars for his role in Space Jam

While Space Jam boasts one of the biggest cartoon all-star lineups ever assembled in one place, its human cast is also impressive. Alongside Michael Jordan and a bunch of toons on the Toon Squad are comedy legend Bill Murray and Wayne Knight, who in 1996 played in two extremely popular NBC sitcoms — 3rd Rock from the Sun (as melodramatic Officer Don) and Seinfeld (loathsome postman Newman). 

While a recognizable star and capable actor, Knight wasn't the first choice to play publicist Stan Podolak. According to the Chicago Tribune, director Joe Pytka initially pursued Michael J. Fox, who turned it down. Next, he went after another Seinfeld supporting cast member, Jason Alexander. He said no also, as did Murray's Caddyshack co-star Chevy Chase. Knight was apparently far down the list but also the only one willing to share the screen with cartoon characters who would upstage him, as well as playing alongside Jordan, who'd never starred in a movie before.

The producer secretly directed a lot of the movie

Space Jam starred Michael Jordan, who'd never headlined a movie before, and it was directed by Joe Pytka, helming just his second feature. Fortunately, Warner Bros. balanced out the rookies with a veteran superstar, producer Ivan Reitman, who'd overseen some of the biggest comedy hits of the '80s, including Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Twins. He knew his way around a film set, in other words, and he wound up doing a bit more work on Space Jam than what he was credited for. 

"Pytka was definitely the director of the movie, but in fact, I was the director of the movie because I ended up doing all the animation," Reitman told Mr. Wavvy. "When it came to the big game, between the all-stars and the real basketball players, I ended up doing most of that stuff." While Reitman credits Pytka as the one who "really created this form of working with Jordan and these characters," he just didn't have a lot of narrative filmmaking experience, wasn't used to Hollywood scheduling, and didn't recognize that the studio was ultimately the one who willed creative control over a project. "I was much more used to all that," Reitman said.

A Looney Tunes icon hated Space Jam

Chuck Jones was an architect of cartoons. As an animator and director at Warner Bros. between 1933 and 1963, he helped to create and develop the studio's classic roster of characters, including Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, and Daffy Duck. (Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner were entirely Jones' creations.) Jones directed, wrote, and produced hundreds of cartoons, but he had nothing to do with Space Jam, a made-for-the-'90s project loaded with the characters that sprung forth from his brain. And he didn't like it one bit. "I thought it was terrible," Jones told Booo Tooons.

The animator (who passed away in 2002) rightfully considered himself something of an expert on Bugs, Porky, and the like, and he didn't think some of the plot points accurately reflected the characters. "I can tell you, with the utmost confidence, Porky Pig would never say, 'I think I wet myself.'" Jones also took issue with the entire premise of Space Jam, that Bugs Bunny would round up a bunch of other toons to outsmart some aliens. He believed that Bugs would work alone in defeating the bad guys, and that it wasn't in his character to recruit other animated stars to help out, let alone Michael Jordan. And even if he had, Jones thinks Bugs only would've needed about seven minutes — the length of an old cartoon — to do it, not 90 minutes of screen time.

The film's very '90s website is still online

Space Jam hit theaters in November 1996, and as was the emerging custom for movies at the time, Warner Bros. commissioned a promotional website. Since this was the early days of the commercial, mainstream internet and high-speed service wasn't in wide use, the Space Jam site was rudimentary and simple, consisting primarily of press releases, some low-memory Shockwave-based games, and a cast list, all rendered in hard-to-read fonts against an eye-killing starry background. 

In other words, it's a typical '90s website. Amazingly, more than 20 years later, long after Space Jam wrapped up its theatrical release and more than a decade after Michael Jordan retired, the website is still live and almost completely unchanged. "At the time, we never thought that it would live this long," one of the original programmers, Jen Braun, told Rolling Stone. "There's no way we would have ever imagined this."

Larry Bird was a snack Monstar

The NBA paths of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird often collided. In 1986 and 1987, Bird's Celtics swept Jordan's Bulls in the first round of the NBA playoffs, and the two were teammates on the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball "Dream Team." And Bird may have gotten the upper hand in the long run, quietly and secretly undermining His Airness on the set of Space Jam, in which he co-starred

In his book Bird Watching (via ESPN), Bird recounted the making of Space Jam. "They had this big room in the hotel filled with food, drinks, anything you wanted. One cooler had beer, another had soda, another had sandwiches," he wrote. "And then there was this big cooler marked MICHAEL ONLY." That was off-limits, loaded up with special treats acquired just for Jordan, but Bird was apparently curious to see what would happen if he poked around inside. So one day, he lifted the lid, only to be stopped by a production employee whose "only job was to make sure everything was just right for Michael Jordan," who screamed at Bird to stop. Once she left the room, he grabbed everything he could out of the cooler and distributed it to anyone and everyone. "For the rest of our stay, every time I went by that cooler I took something out," Bird wrote.

A proposed Space Jam sequel with Michael Jordan fell apart

The first Space Jam earned $230.4 million at the worldwide box office and generated more than a billion dollars in merchandise sales, all of which meant that a sequel was inevitable. In 1997, Warner Bros. rehired the original film's director Joe Pytka and some animators, including Tiny Toon Adventures veteran Bob Camp. His first big task? Draw a character design for Berserk-O!, the slated villain of Space Jam 2

However, as the screenplay had yet to be completed, Camp received very little information about plot or character, such as why the bad guys hated the good guys to begin with. "They didn't really talk to me about it," Camp told Animated Views. "They just said draw him." When Camp received word that Mel Brooks was in negotiations to voice Berserk-O!, he redesigned the character to more closely resemble the comedian. After going to all of this trouble, Camp and his cohorts found out that one crucial part of the project was yet to be locked down — Michael Jordan hadn't agreed to star in Space Jam 2 yet. He ultimately said no, and just weeks into pre-production, Warner Bros. shut the whole thing down.

A follow-up starring a different athlete playing a different sport was similarly doomed. "I was called in to look at a script for Space Jam 2, and Tiger Woods was written into that," Pytka told Complex. "It never came to be. It was a strange script."

A whole new Space Jam is on the way

Michael Jordan left the NBA nearly 20 years ago, seemingly ending his viability as the star of another Space Jam. But a number of promising stars rose up to fill that void, notably four-time MVP, three-time NBA champion, and occasional actor LeBron James. While James quickly established himself as a basketball great, it took a lot longer for Space Jam 2 to get going. In 2014, Warner Bros. announced that it had started developing a new Space Jam starring James, and two years later, it looked like Fast & Furious 6 director Justin Lin would helm the thing. Two years after that, Black Panther's Ryan Coogler came on as a producer, while Terence Nance, creator of the HBO sketch comedy show Random Acts of Flyness, got the director gig. A teaser trailer was set to drop on Instagram TV in July 2018, immediately after free agent James announced where he'd play the next season, but that was scrapped when that Space Jam 2 news leaked early.

Like its predecessor, the cast of Space Jam: A New Legacy will include professional actors and professional basketball players. Sonequa Martin-Green of Star Trek: Discovery will portray James' wife, and Don Cheadle is playing a part being kept secret. In June 2019, TMZ caught James filming an all-star game sequence. In attendance, there was Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steph Curry turned down roles.) The film arrives in 2021.