Ben Affleck Q&A: How new movie on Nike’s pursuit of MJ came together

SALT LAKE CITY – Ben Affleck as Phil Knight. Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro. Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan. Chris Tucker as Howard White. Marlon Wayans as George Raveling.   

 ‘Air,’ the new movie directed by Affleck and written by Alex Convery, tells the story of Nike’s pursuit to sign Michael Jordan and rescue the shoe and apparel company’s fledgling basketball division.

Nike’s gamble and Jordan’s decision changed the sneaker world almost immediately and continues to have an impact in fashion, sports and marketing 40 years later.

Air Jordans turned into a cultural phenomenon, selling millions shoes, making millions of dollars and leading to the Jordan Brand line of shoes and apparel under the Nike umbrella.

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The film does not include anyone playing Jordan – “Because I thought that the minute I turned the camera on somebody and asked the audience to believe that that person was Michael Jordan, the whole movie falls apart,” Affleck said.

Jordan had just one request: Viola Davis must play Jordan’s mom.

Affleck met with a small group of reporters to discuss the film, which reunites him with his good friend Matt Damon. ‘Air’ is the first film with their new production company called Artists Equity. The film is out in theaters on April 5.

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What was the inspiration for this movie?

Affleck: ‘There is no one inspiration for this. It’s not a story from any one person’s point of view. It’s really my own look at these events, and if it’s about anything, it’s about what Michael Jordan meant to the sporting world, to the world at large. The way he was and what he did transformed sports, transformed sports marketing, transformed the way athletes were compensated, treated.’

Q: This is nothing like ‘Argo,’ of course, but it’s a period piece where the audience knows the ending going into it. Is there something about telling these types of stories that you like where, you know, it’s not so much about getting to the ending, but how it got done?  

Affleck: ‘That’s interesting you say that because it’s actually very much like ‘Argo’ in that regard from a purely technical standpoint. Like, if you remove what the actual plot details, the specifics of the plot details are, and look at it from a mechanical structural point of view as an exercise, it’s exactly that. Like, I hate that. It makes your job just much harder, and I looked at it like, ‘(Why do) I keep painting myself into this corner where (I) choose this story and then realize, like right at the beginning, the audience knows how it ends.’

‘So you’ve lost the ability to surprise the audience with the ending in any way. But I think what it does for me as a director, because I’m a real believer in the simple principle of, the sort of duality inherent in filmmaking, which is that have-to-have: the movie has to feel realistic, it has to feel authentic, and it has to surprise the audience. … Initially what I remember talking to Matt and saying is ‘I feel like this movie’s got to be 90 minutes.’ Like you could never be bored at any moment. What people are telling you has to be new, funny, insightful, revelatory, or it’s going to be out of the movie.’

Q: What kind of level of cooperation did you get from Michael and/or what are some discussions you might have had before the meeting?

Affleck: ‘There’s no story without him. I’m not interested in doing a movie that Michael feels is inappropriate or doesn’t reflect how he feels about the story. By the same token, when I reached out to him – and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few interactions with him, get to know him a little bit over the years – one of the things that was really telling about Michael was that I got the sense that he was not interested in somebody doing hagiography or a self-aggrandizing.

‘He was like, ‘Hey, here’s a few things, that this is what I know and this is what’s meaningful to me.’ He didn’t seek to have any input about anything around at all that happened that he didn’t have first person information about. I thought he had an extraordinary integrity in that way. He was probably the only person I talked to who didn’t want to editorialize about everybody else.”

Q: How did this come about?

Affleck: ‘I wasn’t thinking about doing the story at all until I got the script from Skydance and Mandalay, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a spectacular story,’ and what I liked was that it was a story about people aspiring to something and struggling, each of them struggling, and it felt very real, but also felt like an opportunity for humor, pathos, and passion, and meaning. Also, a big part of this was we started this new company, this new studio, that sought to build this new model of financing and producing movies that would compensate artists in a reputable, equitable way, and I want to try to fight to demonstrate and show the value in dramas. …

‘Got the script, talked to Matt. I said, ‘Hey, do you want to play this part, work on this with me?’ He loved it. We were starting this company, we were like, ‘This is a perfect movie to use to launch this company,’ and we were engaged in closing the financing, and putting together the deal, and one of the things we were looking for was a project that we could use to prove the model. The themes of this movie were really resonant with some of the ideas underpinning this new business that we wanted to start. So it was a really fitting effort in that way.”

Q: What was it like working with and directing your friend Matt Damon?

Affleck: ‘I can’t imagine having more fun, and the one thing that made me think is why haven’t we been doing this for 20 years? I think we kind of made a mistake, and thought, ‘Oh, people associate us with one another too much, and it’ll get over-branded, or associated as sort of Matt and Ben,’ when we first came out, and then we ended up going our own ways, and I remember sitting there with him, saying, ‘I wish we hadn’t. I wish we had spent more (time doing movies together).’ Because what happens in life is that your life in large measure just turns out to be the people you’re working with, because that’s the people you’re spending so much time with, and the lesson for me was it matters so much more (spending time with) the people that you love and respect, and like being around, and who respect you and treat you well, and you feel comfortable with, than it does how much money you make, or whatever accolades you get, or titles, or something that people give you. That’s the fruit of life, and I’m glad I figured it out for us.’ 

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