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

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The making of “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was a head-spinning exercise in the unfamiliar for the director Malcolm D. Lee.

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

On top of all that, Lee was charged with taking care of a movie built around LeBron James, one of the most popular athletes in the world. James had appeared on the big screen before (most notably in a supporting role in the 2015 romantic comedy “Trainwreck”) but had never anchored a feature.

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

The director met James a decade earlier when they had discussed making a film together, but it never came to fruition. The new project is a gamble for both Lee and James: It will inevitably be compared to the now-beloved original in the same way that James is continually measured against Jordan. If it flops, a movie literally billed as “A New Legacy” may be damaging to James’s own.

The movie is, if nothing else, self-aware. At one point, James, playing himself, notes how poorly athletes fare when they try to act. (Similarly to the original, other pro basketball players — including Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis and Diana Taurasi — have cameos.) The film also features Don Cheadle as the villainous manifestation of an algorithm named, well, Al G. Rhythm, who kidnaps James, his youngest son (Cedric Joe) and the rest of the Warner Bros. universe.

In addition to preparing for the film, James, 36, also had to stay in shape for the N.B.A. season. Lee said that on shoot days, James would wake up at 2 a.m. and work out till 6 a.m., then show up for a full day on set.

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

Did you grow up playing basketball?

The third grade really is when I started playing organized basketball. I wasn’t as into it as my brother and my dad were encouraging me to. I started playing in this league in Brooklyn called the Youth Basketball Association. My dad coached a year. In fact, it’s funny, too, because Spike, who was living with us at the time, was the assistant coach. [Lee is 13 years older than his cousin.]

No kidding.

Swear to God. And Spike will tell you himself. There was one week when my dad went down to Alabama — that’s where he’s from — and Spike had to coach us. We had an undefeated season until that date, so Spike was sweating coaching us. And we actually got the victory. He didn’t want to spoil my father’s streak.

What was your first conversation with LeBron like when you took the “Space Jam” gig?

I think LeBron had the same agenda as everyone else in that he wanted to make the movie great. He wanted to make sure that I knew what I was doing, that my vision was clear and that he’d be taken care of. Not coddled, but that there was a leader aboard who was going to say, “This is what we’re going to do and this is how are we going to do it.” I assured him that there could be delays — I just don’t know — but I’m a professional, I’ve been in this for a long time and I will make sure that you’re taken care of.

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

Not really. LeBron’s been in front of the camera since he was 18 years old. Now, I mean, “Oh, those are just interviews,” but people get asked the same questions over and over again. So he’s got some rehearsed responses. He also was very funny. He wants to be good. He was good in “Trainwreck.” There’s some actors that get something and say, “OK, that’ll cut together.” And some that are just natural. I think LeBron has a lot of natural ability.

Without spoiling it, there is a scene where LeBron has to convey a vulnerable emotion toward his son. Is there anything in particular either you or he did to prepare for that scene? Because that had to be out of his comfort zone.

For sure. Look, the first thing that I try to get 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 they aren’t necessarily comfortable going. So yes, we did talk about something before he delivered some of those lines. Then we did a couple of takes — just let him get warmed up. If I’m not getting what I’m looking for, then I’ll say, “Why don’t you think about this? And don’t worry about the line so much. Just have this in your brain and then say it.”

Film is a director-driven medium, and basketball is very much player-driven in that players can get coaches fired or disregard them entirely. Did that dynamic ever come into play in the course of filming?

No. I don’t think there was ever any “I want to do it this way and I don’t care what you have to say.” I think LeBron likes to be coached. He’s a master of his craft. But at the same time, people are in your corner whose job it is to say: “Make sure you do this. Think about this. I’m seeing this on the court. You’re not seeing blah, blah, blah.” And I think he takes that information. Same thing with acting.

During the filming of the original “Space Jam,” Michael Jordan hosted scrimmages with other N.B.A. players. Was there anything like that here?

There was a court built for [James] on the Warner Bros. lot. I did go to one pickup game and that was thrilling for me, because I’m a huge basketball fan. Chris Paul was there, Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, Draymond Green.

You didn’t ask to play?

Hell no.

What an opportunity, man!

Are you kidding? The opportunity to get embarrassed. A lot of those guys come into the gym, they don’t know I’m the director of the movie. They’re like, “Who’s this dude?” I can’t be like, “Hey, how you doing? I played intramurals at Georgetown.” That’s not going to impress anybody.

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