William Goldman, the brilliant screenwriter wrote this and added, “not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.” The quote is from his book, ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, the title of which is adopted from Dylan Thomas’ scatological, unfinished novel, ADVENTURES IN THE SKIN TRADE, a farce often compared to…
‘Warner Brothers is doing a movie with Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny.’
‘Yeah. Have they talked to you?’
‘No. Actually it sounds like a dumb idea. A really dumb idea.’
‘They’re using Ivan Reitman.’
‘Do you want to do a movie with Michael Jordan?’
‘The Bugs movie?’
‘I thought they had a director.’
‘They want to meet you. They want to see you work.’
They visit me on a Nike job with George Plimpton and a great bunch of NFL players based on Plimpton’s book, PAPER LION. I’m on my best behavior. The crew wonders why. They are upset when Ivan’s people leave.
I have fun filming the commercials. Plimpton and the athletes are great, Jerry Rice, Drew Bledsoe, Barry Sanders, Steve Young, and some big defensive guys. The writer, Stacey Wall, is brilliant. We improvised quite a bit. Plimpton is witty as hell, as are Steve Young and Drew Bledsoe.
The commercials never run.
A Nike exec feels that the idea and Plimpton aren’t relevant.
A Warner Brothers exec feels that I may not be relevant.
‘Daly doesn’t like you.’
Daly, is Bob Daly, the co-chair of Warner Brothers.
‘I don’t even know him.’
‘He says you blew him off on a Jordan set once.’
‘Don’t remember, but I don’t mind if you find another director. Just let me know soon.’
The problem disappeared.
Bob Daly referred to the LOONEY TUNES as Warner Brothers’ CROWN JEWELS, something that Ivan Reitman parroted from time to time. Well, Bugs’ final regular cartoon was in 1964, so there wasn’t any significant new stuff since then. Thirty years had gone by when The Riz came up with the HARE JORDAN idea, but the animators and the studio clung to the thirty year old Bugs. If you look at the progress in the twenty years from the early forties to 1964, there was huge development in his look, but none since. That was my issue and that was The Riz’ issue (The Riz is Jim Riswold, the author of the Nike/Jordan/Bugs commercials).
I guess the CROWN JEWELS reference was from the money the studio milked from re-running old cartoons on the Cartoon Network and other ‘shows.’
The Riz told me that Chuck Jones contacted him after HARE JORDAN ran and said that it was nice to see BUGS again.
Meanwhile, down the street, Pixar was hard at work making TOY STORY, the first computer animated film, while BUGS’ model sheet hadn’t been touched for thirty years.
Ivan Reitman’s professional offices are on the Universal Studios backlot. They are doing the Bugs film for Warner Brothers, right down the street. Reitman has a magnificent building, offices, conference rooms, kitchen, editing suite. Impressive. I don’t know how Warner’s gets along with Universal.
We discuss a deal. The money’s not too good, but it’s something different to do and I can survive. I just want assurances that I can finish work I’m committed to. They agree.
‘It didn’t suck suck. There was a coherent structure. I felt that it could be fixed.’
‘But why did you want to do the film?’
‘I didn’t WANT to do the film. It was a diversion. I was also curious why it took so long to reach out to me since the script and film were inspired by commercials I had done, and, I thought it would be fun for my little girls as well, an animated film. Another thing, the schedule was short, in- town, five-day weeks, short days. In film terms, that’s heaven.’
‘Was it heaven?’
We were working out of Ivan Reitman’s offices on the Universal Studios backlot. A Warner Bros. film at Universal. Awkward. The first day I reported, Ivan treated me like ‘help.’ I guess this was the real ‘him.’
‘Go to animation and check things out.’
(long pause and stare)
I go to animation to ‘check things out,’ meet the supervisor, and walk around the room looking at the storyboards and character sketches.
Two years? They‘ve been working on this for two years, and this is all they have?
We’re shooting in a few months.
Elements in the script were heavily derived from the Nike commercials we had done with Bugs and Michael. There was also some attitude from the McDonald’s spot with Larry Bird, who was also written into the script. When Jim Riswold (The Riz), writer of the original commercials, sent me the scripts and storyboards, I commented on how dated the Warner Brothers drawn boards were. He agreed. No new Bugs work had been done for thirty years and his persona needed refurbishing. The Warners animators were reluctant, so I got Jim Lima, a terrific concept artist, to work on the character. We fought with the studio for months before they relented and let us do ‘our thang.’
After reading the SPACE JAM script and seeing the animation sketches, I realized I had to fight these battles again.
SPACE JAM was based on a bunch of commercials that had become popular by running on the SUPER BOWL. Two had won the infamous USA TODAY poll and a third did well and had a bunch of story details that were in the script.
HARE JORDAN was the initial spot and won the poll. It was said that Dan Romanelli thought that it inspired the idea for a film.
HARE-O SPACE JORDAN ran the following year. It didn’t win the poll but did well. The great director, Billy Wilder once said, ‘Never do a sequel.’
SHOWDOWN was a McDonald’s spot that featured Michael with Larry Bird. When I was presented with the idea for that spot, I felt that the idea was forced because Michael and Bird weren’t natural rivals and Bird had been retired for a while. I was wrong as the spot has become the most popular Super Bowl commercial of all time.
So far, the script ain’t much and neither is the animation. I guess they’re paid hourly.
The animation director gets gone. They ‘hire’ a new guy and I schedule a meeting for eight in the morning to go over everything so that we’re on the same page and don’t waste anyone’s time. We’re supposed to make a movie soon. I get to the offices a little before eight and I wait and I wait and I wait and he shows up at nine.
‘We had an eight o’clock meeting.’
‘Animation starts at nine.’
Are you fucking serious, on the first day?
Now he gets gone.
I got Jim Lima to work with us to do new boards. We had worked on a bunch of things, but the glory was a version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD for Michael Jackson where Jim designed a time where Leonardo’s inventions had come to life in ancient Venice (Italy). Jim did fabulous boards for the HARE JORDAN spot, but WB dug in. We fought and fought for some time and finally won our battle. I guess Warner’s needed the money.
On the commercial shoot, Darrell van Citters, the Warner Brothers animator, who had finally come to grips with our Bugs ideas, did a yeoman job but was somewhat restrictive on our shooting, rigid camera, etc.
Animators are a strange bunch. They are wary of outsiders and are loyal only to each other. They respect and admire the animation legends, in this case, Chuck Jones. That is why there was so much resistance to the NEW BUGS. In the end, the animators had to depend on one or two of Lima’s designs for specific shots as they couldn’t do them for some reason. Probably because it wasn’t on the model sheet.
Unknown to me, there was a Warner Brothers exec on the Nike HARE JORDAN shoot, Dan Romanelli. He loved what he saw, and the seeds of a movie may have been planted then, but Bob Daly, Lucy Fisher, and David Falk all claim some sort of credit.
I make jokes about this. Nike paid to make the spot. They paid to run it on the Super Bowl. They paid for the use of the characters. The spot won the Super Bowl Poll in USA Today. That means over a hundred million people in the States saw it and liked it better than any other. Nike did the market research for WB at the cost of millions and WB made a lot of money from Nike.
Great test market, for Warner Brothers, paid for by Phil Knight.
Darrell had left Warner Brothers Animation to start his own place, so Jim Lima and I faced a deadly team of assassins, alone.
I had three issues with animation, the NERDLUCKS, the RABBIT CHICK, and the MONSTARS.
The NERDLUCKS designs were disappointing. When I asked, they were a studio lock, orders from above.
LOLA BUNNY was a joke, an obvious commercial addition to the Looney Tunes. JESSICA RABBIT, from the ROGER RABBIT movie, was a terrific, sexy, animated character, but Lola was an obvious, corporate, inoffensive, commercial ploy, unfortunately, also a mortal lock.
The MONSTARS designs were just terrible. I likened them to Al Capp’s Shmoos, these fat balloon-like creatures from his L’il Abner cartoon series. The creatures were huge hits in the fifties and had strange powers.
I wondered whether the animators knew this, but it wasn’t on the page and they didn’t look anything like Monstars are supposed to look.
How are they supposed to look?
(During all this, the producers didn’t seem to have a clue about what was going on in the animation department. They stayed far far away).
The animators may have thought the Shmoo Shape was menacing based on Kubrick’s CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
But then I remembered these things from our HARE-O-SPACE commercial.
I hate borrowing, stealing, appropriating, or plagiarizing ideas but I did and I’m glad. Dave Kennedy had done an animated commercial with Charles Barkley as a superhero, monster (not Monstar). I pulled clips from the spot and showed them to the animators.
For the first few days, Lima and I would sit, doing the storyboards together and then I would dish them out to the various animators to ‘render.’ I had pasted thermals of Barkley that I wanted above each of their boards when they posted their work. After a couple of days of this, an animator, Tony Cervone, submits some Monstar concept art. It’s fabulous, dynamic, forceful, frightening.
The next day another animator comes up with equally powerful ideas, but different. We make Tony the head animator and start to roll. In the next few weeks we redo all the animation and it is the most creative fun I’ve ever had in my life. The group was terrific, smart, talented, fearless. The producers had to drag me out of there.
A few years later, Tony did me a huge favor with a brilliant piece of work, animating a John Lennon sketch for an important transition of a video I was doing for Yoko, a memoriam for the twentieth anniversary of John’s death. The biggest compliment I can make is that it was as if John had done it.
How is it possible to work on a script, with two teams of writers, for several years and not have it ready to go?
I met the writers at our first script meeting. The two writers and Ivan and I were there to begin to discuss issues. I had given Ivan notes on what my script concerns were and he agreed to most, maybe all of them.
The session was a joke.
At issue was a baseball scene. I spoke of my problems with the scene and a discussion began and then Ivan said he couldn’t work like this. He had his own rhythms.
‘I appreciate that, but we haven’t resolved the issues with this scene.’
The writers looked bewildered. Ivan insisted on moving on.
‘Well, move on, then. I’m moving downstairs. I’ll write my own stuff and give it to Danny.’
I hate to be cynical, actually I love to be cynical. These writers got paid for changes, not solving problems. All they had to do was listen to Ivan and write what he said, and they’ll get a fat WGA check and probably more money for returning and making more changes. They’re not there to solve problems. They’re there to take dictation. At least these guys did. I remember Capote criticizing Vidal or someone, maybe Norman Mailer, saying it’s not writing, it’s typing.
I worked diligently on the most important flaw in the script, the baseball arc. The baseball stuff was just there. 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 baseball, and the relationship between a black father and son. Michael’s father’s first love was baseball, but he had been murdered a little while back and I didn’t dare discuss it with Michael. I’m not sure what I got from Wilson’s work, but I got what I wanted.
August Wilson was a great playwright from Pittsburgh, my hometown. He wrote about an area of Pittsburgh, the Hill District, that was a black community much like Harlem in the thirties. There were two clubs that black friends took me to, the Loendi Club and the Crawford Grill.
The Loendi Club was for the black elite and the membership was insanely attractive and elegant. I had never seen such beautiful women and handsome men. I would be the only white person there, and I got those ‘what the fuck is he doing here,’ looks. The Crawford Grill was a jazz club that had the best. Again, I would be the only white person there. My date would be panicked but I went there alone most of the time, just to hear the music.
Wilson grew up in that neighborhood and wrote a number of plays, called THE PITTSBURGH CYCLE, that won the Pulitzer Prize. When I did the video, THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL for Michael Jackson, I wanted Wilson to write the prequel.
I had trouble with the baseball stuff in the SPACE JAM script because it didn’t reflect the truth of Michael’s relationship with his father and baseball. The baseball stuff was just ‘jokey,’ so I pillaged FENCES for idea about a relationship between a black father and son.
I don’t remember what I stole, but the scene I wrote was effective, though badly shot and awkwardly edited. I wanted echoes of that scene to resonate later in the stuff between Michael and his son. It did, but the producers (Ivan) removed the last scene that rendered the earlier scenes meaningless.
Satisfied (never happy), I sent the new pages upstairs and they got their own color. 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, fuschia?
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.
There was nothing for Michael’s wife in the script. She was just there. I spoke with The Troika about it. Blank stares. How can I cast a wife if there’s nothing for her to do? I pounded out a scene of Michael and his wife in the kitchen where Michael expresses his concern over ‘having made the right choices by retiring.’ I kept it in the kitchen because there was a touch of romantic closeness and I didn’t want to add that element to a cartoon network film. Bugs’ kiss was enough.
I also added a maid for a dash of humor. I had Bebe Drake-Massy in mind. She had played a waitress in several commercials, including the one with Michael in a diner, on the road, when he was playing minor league baseball. David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, said in his book about Michael that the commercial was the best one Michael had ever done. I wondered why there wasn’t a scene or two like that in the script since all the other commercials had been pillaged.
At some point, I suggested they get Jim Riswold involved, since he had written the two commercials that the movie was based on. The Riz was an expert on Bugs Bunny, claiming to possess all of Bugs’ cartoons. Whoa! A positive thing happened. They hired him. I once asked him what he had contributed to the script and he said he’d have to re-watch the movie to see and didn’t want to do that. The most obvious, is the iconic KISSING SCENE between Bugs and Michael.
There’s an interesting story behind the kiss. I had cast a bunch of actor/comedians for the various Tunes. They wore green so that they could be eliminated from the film easily, but they gave MJ something practical to work with rather than a script supervisor or tape marks for eye lines.
The kissing scene became complicated as the guy we had playing Bugs wasn’t about to kiss Michael. It was also the first day of the shoot and I hadn’t thought of that. We tried to fake it, but nothing was working. There was interaction with Bugs pulling Michael toward him that we needed.
Then someone came to the rescue. I had cast a beautiful and talented actress for the Lola Bunny part and she put on her green suit and came and gave Michael a helluva smooch. It worked perfectly and that was that. The shot became iconic, but later I heard that her husband became a bit upset when he saw the photo of the real shot (with her) in the SPACE JAM book. Whatever, she saved the day.
There is an accepted tradition in easel painting of copying works above you. In literature that methodology is unacceptable and is called plagiarism, but art students copy for training. Picasso is said to have said, ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ Bugs’ work is an amalgam of ‘borrowed’ ideas and jokes, often repeated, so it’s hard to say if The Riz stole the ideas or borrowed them, but who cares. The work of Bugs and his development is the work of many and no one person can take credit for Bugs’ popularity and emergence, and that’s why Chuck Jones’ ‘ownership’ of Bugs Bunny is disingenuous, as he didn’t have anything to do with the creation of the character. Bugs emerged in the late thirties through various cartoons and many many ‘creators.’ Jones benefited and was awarded (three Academy Awards) for his cartoon work, but Bugs was the creation of teams of cartoonists and writers much like the great writing teams of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS in the fifties, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and others.
‘What are you saying?’
‘What I’m trying to say is that The Riz can steal from any source. I just discovered The Riz’ ‘thefts’ by accident.’
Picasso would be proud.
I did my own Bugs ‘research’ and found these similar references. When I showed them to The Riz, he claimed that he had never seen them. Since the Riz has claimed to own every Bugs cartoon, I wasn’t sure I believed him. His career may be based on Bugs Bunny.
According to The Riz, these were all coincidences, but the original Bugs animators were responsible for their own ‘coincidences.’ The “is there a doctor in the house?” joke was taken from Groucho Marx, and he got it (coincidentally) from the humorist Robert Benchley.
These are the characters that the early animators used for ‘inspiration’ for Bugs’ character. Bugs’ first BUGS appearance was in 1940, so these guys were contemporary then. Nothing really changed as Bugs’ jokes an