INTERVIEW: Animation director Tony Cervone on the SPACE JAM gag that got him yelled at by the producers
On the heels of the upcoming Space Jam: A New Legacy, Warner Bros. is celebrating the original Space Jam by releasing the classic on Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital just in time for its 25th anniversary. Watching such a bizarre concept as Michael Jordan playing basketball with the Looney Tunes against evil aliens is one thing, but you can only imagine what it must have been like to work on the film like Tony Cervone, the animation director for Space Jam, did.
The Beat had the chance to chat with Cervone about his experience on Space Jam and why, despite some of the difficulties in making the film, it still has a fond place in his heart.
Taimur Dar: I don’t think anyone could have predicted the genuine love and affection for a film like Space Jam 25 years later. From reading the oral history of the film, I know despite the incredibly tight and difficult production schedule there was still a sense of camaraderie. Looking back, what was your attitude about working on the film and has it changed or evolved since then?
Tony Cervone: On a personal level, I made great enduring friendships on that movie. Even though, yes, it was a very tight schedule and there were a lot hurdles to overcome, we held together as a group very well and stayed friends and stayed close for 25 years. I met my wife [working on the movie]. Space Jam has been an active part of all our lives for 25 years. On a personal note, there’s never really been anything like it before or since.
And 25 years is a long time and the reception of Space Jam has changed and evolved over the years too. I don’t know if it was always as loved as it is now. I think that’s because it hit a really big generation at a perfect time. People have embraced it and grown up with it and still love it, and that’s great.
Dar: Space Jam featured the first appearance of Lola Bunny and it’s a testament to the film that she’s now become a regular fixture of Looney Tunes. In hindsight, Lola Bunny is definitely a product of the times but I’m fascinated to see how she’s evolved and been reinvented into this really eccentric character voiced by Kristen Wiig for The Looney Tunes Show, which you actually worked on.
Cervone: It’s interesting. She does have a long history. She’s been here for 25 years now. And yes, she definitely has evolved into a different character and then kind of back into an original Lola Bunny but maybe a little bit more adapted to this day and age too. But I did love the eccentric Kristen Wiig Lola. I thought it was very funny and that was always kind of a joy.
Dar: It seems that’s the name of the game for a lot of cartoon characters. If you look at Bugs Bunny in the “Elmer’s Pet Rabbit” cartoon, for example, he is completely different from the Bugs we know today. Is it fair to compare the evolution of Bugs to Lola?
Cervone: Here’s the thing about the Looney Tunes characters that is different from other cartoon characters. It’s that in their heyday they were made by six different directors who did six completely different styles of cartoons. They did their own versions of Bugs Bunny and could care less about what other people were doing. So yeah, the classic Bugs is a completely different Bugs than the [Chuck] Jones Bugs, and the [Robert] McKimson Bugs is different, and the [Friz] Freleng Bugs is different. Audiences over the years just got used to the fact that Bugs could be a number of different things.
And that’s why I think that Space Jam Bugs is kind of a unique Bugs but it didn’t seem to upset anyone. The Looney Tunes Show version of Bugs, the sitcom version of Bugs, is very different from other versions of Bugs. The Bugs that’s on HBO Max is kind of a return to a more classic origin but also very modern and relevant and reflective of the people who make it right now. They’re very durable characters.
Dar: It’s pretty obvious you know your animation and Looney Tunes history which segues nicely into my next question. As a kid, seeing all those Looney Tunes characters in the stadium blew my mind. It seems like you guys did an incredible deep dive finding the most obscure characters. What was the challenge in finding the characters to fill the stadium?
Cervone: You’re 100% correct. That was really the animation team just going, “Remember this character? Remember that character? We love this guy! Remember that one from that cartoon?” [We were] just digging them up out of our memories and putting them into that stadium. It was a lot of fun. We didn’t think of it as an Easter Egg. We were just doing it to please ourselves for the fun of it.
Dar: I guess it’s been a long while since I last saw Space Jam because I didn’t realize until I recently rewatched it that Ivan Reitman was a producer. From what I read, he was really instrumental in the film and stepped up during the production. I know Reitman had worked in animation before with the Heavy Metal film, so what was the experience working with him on Space Jam?
Cervone: Ivan knew a lot about animation to begin with and was a fan of the medium. It was great working with him. He really helped us shape the movie and find where the jokes were. I’ve always been an Ivan Reitman fan, so it was an honor to work alongside him and learn from him. That was another great aspect of making this movie.
Dar: What I love about Looney Tunes and cartoons in general is laughing at gags even if you don’t understand them as a kid and then years later when you’re older finally getting the joke. It’s perfectly illustrated in Space Jam with that hilarious Pulp Fiction bit with Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, so I have to know how that came about.
Cervone: Again, it just came out of the animation group where we were all just trying to make each other laugh and come up with some fun stuff. I believe I came up with the Pulp Fiction gag and it almost wasn’t in the movie. That 10 seconds of “Misirlou” by Dick Dale was extremely expensive. I was yelled at by the producers of the movie for that gag because it cost a ton of money. But it is a memorable gag. It got a big laugh and people still remember it. You just brought it up so it was worth every cent. It was a very expensive joke.
Dar: Since Space Jam, you’ve been working in various capacities for a number of different Warner Bros. Animation projects like the animated sequence for the recent “The Satanist’s Apprentice” episode of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.
Cervone: That was super fun. That got more and more ambitious the longer we were doing it. That actually took a while to make that. Probably more than six months to make that short animated sequence. I really loved working with everyone on that show. Everyone is so great and encouraging. That was just nothing but pure fun, and fun from a fan perspective as well from beginning to end. I was very pleased with the way that came out.
Dar: I don’t suppose you have any future Warner Bros. Animation projects you can tease or perhaps can’t due to NDAs?
Cervone: Well, we are working on something that hasn’t been announced yet but is a return to the universe we created in Scoob!.
Dar: I will leave it at that then!
Space Jam is available now on Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital.