So I make my deal and get the shooting script for SPACE JAM. It’s actually not titled SPACE JAM yet. I don’t remember what they were calling it. No matter.
The script was simple and inoffensive. Not as witty or clever as the commercials we had done, but somewhat serviceable. It needed stuff. It needed The Riz, maybe Stacey, Spike wanted to get at it, and I thought that all that could improve it. I got The Riz involved, but not Stacey, and the studio didn’t want to deal with Spike. Maybe The Riz would be enough.
What the script lacked (and it lacked a lot, they’ve been working on this for years?), was baseball and family. The baseball stuff was just bad jokes and there wasn’t a line of dialogue for Michael’s wife. I asked one of the producers if we could cast with a headsheet. I think I’ve mentioned my issues with Ivan and his writing ‘team’ so I won’t elaborate. I just went to my basement office and wrote stuff myself, mostly from my years with MJ and stories he told.
It’s been a while, so I’m not really sure of some details bu the core of my issue was Michael’s playing baseball after ‘retiring’ from basketball. I was led to understand that MJ’s change to baseball had screwed up prior scripts and the unfinished nature in the present script were because of that.
The Riz had the Bugs stuff figured out and I worked on the family matters.
MJ and I had spoken about many things, and he had told me stories about his minor league experiences. The retirement scene was just there. Everyone had wondered why Michael had retired after three championships.
I worked diligently on the most important flaw in the script, the baseball arc. I’m not sure if the original writers knew how important baseball was to Michael (I never called him Mike, always, Michael). I don’t remember what was in the original, but I didn’t like it. The first scene was Michael’s father giving him advice and telling him that baseball was important. I actually read a lot of August Wilson for attitude and style. I loved Wilson’s play, FENCES, about football, and the relationship between father and son. Michael’s father’s first love was baseball, but he had passed a little while back and I didn’t dare discuss that with him. I’m not sure what I got from Wilson’s work, but I got what I wanted, satisfied (never happy), and sent it upstairs and it got its own color. That means it was inserted in the script with a different color. Additions to scripts were given different colors. WGA WEST has a coordinated color chart for script revisions starting with white (of course) then blue, pink, yellow, green… I don’t remember what color we wound up with, fuchsia? I heard that Ivan was never satisfied with a script until many many writers had their way with it. That was obviously the case with this mish-mosh and was evidenced in the previous meeting I had with the ‘writers’ and Ivan. I once had a project with David Mamet and he wouldn’t consider ‘notes,’ At a meeting, he shoved a producer’s notes back at him with the admonishment, ‘I know what you need, and I don’t need those.’ I had heard the same thing about Steven Spielberg as well. Two friends of mine had been commissioned to work on a script they had written, and that Steven had optioned. Spielberg told them that he needed many writers to explore the material. My friend asked him if he felt the same way about directors. I don’t think that went over well. I wonder whether Elizabeth had Marlowe rework Shakespeare. The Riz was working on Bugs and I was working on themes so I guess things could be alright.
Rome was (I guess still is) a famous sportscaster with a reputation for controversy and shock. Jim Everett (Rams QB) got so upset with him that he attacked him on the show. The producers had never heard of him (popcultureshock). I wrote a scene where Michael’s kids are watching a sports show where Rome attacks Michael’s baseball skills. Michael’s son is a terrific baseball player (as Michael was purported to be when he was a kid) who’s first love is baseball. He is hurt by the show and starts to speak to Michael about baseball.
When we shot the scene of Rome on television (green screen) I asked Michael to come shake Rome’s hand.
‘I’m not shaking his hand.’
‘C’mon, he’s in your film.’
‘He’s been a prick to a lot of my friends.’
‘That’s his schtick. Shake his hand.’
Michael grudgingly went over and barely touched him, but he technically shook hands.
The scene worked and we finally got to see MJ’s family in action.
Michael and I were chatting one day, and he told me some stories about minor league play. He said that that they were playing to full crowds for the first time in their lives and that they all wanted him to succeed. The opposing catchers even gave him the pitches.
I wrote a few scenes for the catcher.
‘Curve ball, don’t swing.’
‘Slider, don’t swing.’
‘Fast ball, swing.’
Michael swings and misses.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you another.’
‘Curve ball, don’t swing.’
Michael swings and misses, striking out.
‘I told you not to swing.’
‘Couldn’t help myself.’
‘Can you sign something after the game.’
‘Yeah, just come over to the clubhouse.’
I stole the end of SPACE JAM from THE NATURAL. I loved (everyone loved) Redford trotting around the bases with the sparks from the shattered lights falling around him magically. My friend, Phil Dusenberry, advertising legend, had written that scene based on a Darryl Strawberry home run he had seen. By the way, that studio tried to fuck Phil out of screen credit because he couldn’t be on the shoot day to day and they had to hire a hack to cover the day to day changes. I read Phil’s original script and it was far better than the final.
Back to SPACE JAM. The original script had Bugs Bunny coming out of a hole near home plate giving Michael advice. I rewrote the scene to have Michael getting a batting tip from his son in the stands, then hitting the home run. The advice had started in the Jim Rome scene, and it showed that the most important thing the little boy’s life was to see his father succeed in his new dream and become a new hero.
In those pre digital days, you could buy a cheap camera, with flash, for a couple of dollars. My idea was to have everyone in the stands take a picture with flash with the stands exploding with light.
Well, a bunch of issues came up, about the filming. I wanted the crowd to have these cameras. It wouldn’t have been that expensive (for a film so ‘important’ to the studio), maybe ten thousand dollars.
‘What if it doesn’t work?’
‘You’ll have to shoot Michael both ways.’
‘Blah blah blah blah blah.’
I made a huge mistake. I caved, filming without the flashes planning to do it in post. It didn’t matter because the scene was cut.
I never got an explanation why and by the time the film was finished I wasn’t speaking to the Troika (maybe Danny). Ivan had once told me that he was accused of not knowing how to properly end a film. He proved that.
I mentioned this family arc to the merch people and they just gave me blank stares.
Twenty- five years later, this New York Times article comes out. Someone out there got it.