Most people who grew up in the '90s already have their Space Jam facts and figures memorized, but they may not realize the story behind Space Jam is almost as entertaining as the film itself. While it’s undoubtedly a cultural touchstone, the movie once looked like a Hollywood long shot - it was, after all, a blockbuster film starring a professional athlete and a talking rabbit.
That improbable premise required a lot of unlikely real-world occurrences to help it come to life - and the world should be grateful it worked out. Space Jam isn’t just one of the funniest movies of the '90s - it’s an era-defining hit that raised the profile of basketball in America forever.
Though it eventually proved to be an all-time classic sports film, the premise behind Space Jam must have sounded insane at first. The idea came about as the result of a joint venture between Nike and Warner Brothers - the “Hare Jordan” commercials. The first of these advertisements, which featured Michael Jordan playing basketball with Bugs Bunny, aired during the 1992 Super Bowl and got a lot of buzz.
Seeing a tremendous financial opportunity - and already on the lookout for a movie in which Jordan could play himself - Jordan's agent, David Falk, approached Warner Brothers about adapting the Hare Jordan commercials into a feature-length film. After a bit of convincing, the project was greenlit.
The tone of Space Jam owes a lot to those Hare Jordan commercials, and one man directed both projects: Joe Pytka. While working on the advertisements, Pytka had to fight for his vision of MJ mixing it up in an authentic Looney Tunes world.
He recalled, "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."
Space Jam director Joe Pytka was known mostly for his work in advertising and music videos before taking the job, and he might have been a surprising choice. According to Pytka, he was chosen because few other directors wanted to attempt blending live action with animation - not even Who Framed Roger Rabbit director Robert Zemeckis.
Pytka said, "I think the producers weren’t that adept at mixing animation and live action. 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."
According to director Joe Pytka, Michael Jordan didn’t exactly enjoy the filming of Space Jam:
Michael turned to me and said, 'I thought you said this would be [expletive] fun. So, why isn't it?'
I just think he hated the whole experience, every aspect of it. Remember, in basketball, you're in total control of everything. In a movie, you're at the mercy of everybody - the director, cinematographer and in this case Bugs Bunny and a green screen.
Standing in front of a camera and remember your lines, acting is a devastatingly difficult profession, trying to create those emotions... We were very, very careful that Michael was comfortable when he came on the set.