Interview – Ben Affleck and Matt Damon discuss the Nike underdog story in ‘Air’

From award-winning director Ben Affleck (Argo, The Town), AIR reveals the unbelievable game-changing partnership between a then rookie Michael Jordan and Nike’s fledgling basketball division which revolutionized the world of sports and contemporary culture with the Air Jordan brand. This inspirational story follows the career-defining gamble of an unconventional team with everything on the line, the uncompromising vision of a mother who knows the worth of her son’s immense talent, and the basketball phenom who would become the greatest of all time.

Leading up to the release of the film, I was lucky enough to attend the press conferences for Air, in which director Ben Affleck and star Matt Damon discussed getting Michael Jordan’s blessing for the film, and casting Viola Davis for their ‘all-star’ cast.

Ben, this movie feels like it’s everything for you. It’s your love of sports, your love of filmmaking. And you’re working alongside your ‘film’ family again, including Matt Damon. You were involved in so many aspects of this film – did it ever feel too complicated doing everything?

Ben Affleck: I could see how it would seem that way. But actually, for me, it was made so much easier because this is a group of people who I had known for a long time and had an enormous amount of respect and regard for. I’ve worked with Matt Damon and Jason Bateman, Chris Messina and Matthew Maher multiple times. And I’ve made it my life’s goal to work with Viola Davis and Chris Tucker!

Chris can attest to the amount of times I’ve harassed him about wanting to do a movie with him. I think [Michael] Jordan and the subject matter brought him around! He really came in and created this role. I really needed him as a collaborator and your voice and experience. This movie is a massive failure if it’s just my voice, and everyone’s perspective is invaluable to telling a story.

In some ways, it feels like you assembled this cast like a coach would assemble a team. But an interesting aspect of that was the task of casting Viola Davis, and how you got that assignment from Michael Jordan himself.

Ben Affleck: I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with him a few times. I’m not gonna act like me and him are friends. I just idolise the guy! But, I went to speak with Michael and run it past him from a point of view of respect for him, his family and what he means to us all. It’s part of his story, and if he said: “don’t do it”, I just was not going to do it. That would be that.

And for our last conversation, I was prepared for that to be the result because I had no reason to think he would be open or welcome to it, particularly because it wasn’t the “Michael Jordan” story. However, I found he was very gracious, and I made him aware that not all of the ‘t’s’ would be crossed, and the ‘i’s’ dotted. This was going to have to be something of a fable, a parable and inspiring story. I’m going to take some liberties, but I don’t want to violate anything that was fundamentally important to Michael. And I found it so interesting that he never spoke about himself, he also spoke about other people who were meaningful to him made it into the story.

He talked about his mother, and the regard and the esteem in which he held for her. The adoration and love when talks about his mother—this is a very intimidating, powerful man, and I had never seen Michael Jordan like this. He spoke about her with such reverence and respect. It just shocked me, and shame on me for not assuming that this was the case. It’s a story about Dolores Jordan and what she means to Michael. That she is so emblematic of what some many mothers must have meant to so many athletes, entertainers and people in this business.

Michael said it had to be Viola Davis. If you’re getting a basketball team together, you get Michael Jordan, right? Well for this team, we needed Viola. Her saying yes to a role has been a lifelong ambition of mine and I really thought I made it as a director, and validated my movie when she said “yes”.

It’s no surprise that this movie is going to be loved by sports fans, but it’s such a crowd pleaser overall that so many people will enjoy it. Was that something you initially intended when producing the film?

Matt Damon: I mean, I’m bringing my kids to the premiere! It’s totally appropriate for them. It’s one of those stories that really is for everybody. We used to call them “feel good movies”. You’ll leave the theatre with a skip in your step.

After the SXSW premiere, I knew we were in good shape. When Viola Davis walked on the screen, the crowd went crazy. I’ve been to so many film festivals and that one just felt so excited. It was a great energy in the room that I will never forget.

Sonny is a character who will do anything to achieve the impossible dream. What was the process of bringing him to life on screen for you, Matt?

Matt Damon: A lot of it was really there on the pages that Alex Convery [screenwriter] wrote. We really tried to capture the spirit of these people in this time, more than anything else. Not the exact thing someone said at that exact moment.

It was really about the nostalgia and all of these people at Nike who were the underdogs, which is weird to think that with where Nike is now. Before this incredible deal, they were these renegades. These outsiders. All the character had this incredible, infectious energy that was really jumping off the page. The script was really quiet something.

Thank you to Warner Bros. Pictures for the chance to attend the press conference. Air is in cinemas April 5.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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