After his Best Picture winning success with Argo, star/director Ben Affleck is having a go at another unconventional biopic with Air, the story of how Nike revolutionized the footwear industry through its association with future basketball icon Michael Jordan.
Amazon Studios provided us with the opportunity to attend a press day featuring Affleck and his stellar cast, including Chris Tucker, Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Viola Davis and Marlon Wayans. Check out their comments on the film below, and be sure to see Air in theaters now!
Here is the official synopsis: “From award-winning director Ben Affleck, 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 moving 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.”
In addition to his directing duties, superstar Ben Affleck (Batman v Superman, Gone Girl) portrays Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight. Assembling the stellar cast around him proved to be an intuitive process.
“This is a group of people who I had known for a long, long time, enormous amount of respect and regard for Chris Messina and obviously Matt Damon and Jason Bateman, all of whom I’ve worked with multiple times and know well and adore and admire,” Affleck enthused. “Then there were people who had been my sort of life’s goal to work with like Viola Davis and Chris Tucker. I think Chris can attest to the number of times I’ve harassed him, like he passed me by in a hotel lobby, ‘Chris, Chris, Chris… I want to do a movie with you.’
“Finally, I think Jordan brought him around, or the Jordan subject matter, or just because as he’s really being humble. I mean, he really came in and created this role. I said, ‘I need you as a collaborator, filmmaker, your voice, your experience, your perspective, this movie is a massive failure if it’s just my voice and my experience and perspective…’ Chris and Howard and Viola and Marlon and everybody… all those things are invaluable to telling a story.”
Air is the inaugural release from Artists Equity, the new production company from Ben Affleck and longtime film partner Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, The Last Duel). Damon is the head of content for the company, yet even for a star of his stature, living up to the story of Michael Jordan was a cinematic challenge.
“It all started with the script, really,” Damon mused. “I just thought it was so great, and I didn’t know the story. Then it was kind of step by step, because the first step was getting the blessing of Michael Jordan. Before we got too excited, Ben said we should go see him. My kids were up to something in New York and I couldn’t go, so Ben went to Florida to see Michael and Michael said, ‘No, it’s fine. If you make the movie, it’s okay with me.’
“But Ben said, ‘Well, what I really would love to know is what’s most important to you.’ It was out of that meeting that he said George Raveling, Howard White, and then he started to talk about his mom. Ben called me afterwards and it was, you know, ‘Michael’s very intimidating guy.'”
Wayans portrays Raveling, who was an assistant coach to Jordan on the 1984 Olympics team and pushed him towards the Nike deal. For Wayans (Scary Movie, White Chicks), he had an accelerated schedule to learn about the celebrated man he was playing.
“I was the first one to shoot,” Wayans confirmed. “I got the call on Friday and we were filming on Monday so YouTube was my friend. Crash Course on George Raveling. I learned a lot about him, I learned he was a fantastic man, the first black coach to win a national championship. That was real, that he still has the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in his possession. I thought that it was an amazing character to play. The more you research, the better you can do in terms of your performance.
“When we went on set, Matt and Ben were like, ‘You know, we’re not impersonating. You can bring you to it.’ The best thing you can do is when I can mix that person with my emotions and what you bring. The script was already written so beautifully, but we got to play and then I could get out of my head and really have fun. That’s what it was when I left the set. I just felt like, if every day on that set felt like the first day, that’s going to be a magical moment.”
“It was so much fun,” commented Rush Hour icon Tucker. “Ben told me right up front it’s like making a movie with friends. I knew Howard White, so I had all access to him, talking to him for hours. Everybody he mentored like Charles Barkley. I thought it was just gonna be a quick conversation when he said, ‘No, no, no, hold up, I got somebody else, I need you to talk to them.’
Tucker continued: “I really got a lot of information together to embody his spirit, his dialect, and put it all together into the character. He was like Confucius, this nice guy, thought about the world, glass half full instead of half empty. I always wanted the character to be positive.”
“When Ben calls you up, you don’t need to read the script because I’ve gotten to work with him now three times, it’s always an amazing experience,” says Messina, who appeared in Affleck’s Argo and Live by Night. “He’s always surrounded by great artists in front of the camera and behind the camera. When I read it, and I loved it, I was like, ‘Oh, sh*t, these are a lot of phone calls.’ But then I did something that I’ve never done in my career… and I’ve done a lot of phone calls.
“Usually, you call the other actor, the phone disconnects, or a script supervisor does it with you. But Matt and I were down the hallway from each other. We each had three cameras on us, and then we’d go back and forth from room to room, we’d all get together and we had a blast doing it.
“We could play, we could overlap, we could improvise. The hardest part of doing this job is going on to the next one, leaving these guys behind. Because the way he puts together a team of peoples is phenomenal. You get very spoiled.”
Oscar winner Viola Davis (Fences, The Help) focused on the trust that Affleck and his team built around them through their choices and confidence. “That’s who she is, Zen neutrality… That’s what I see with this woman, this incredible woman,” Davis said of playing Deloris, Jordan’s mother.
“Here’s the thing with Ben and Matt. There’s a lot of times you go on set. You don’t trust anyone because, truth be known, there’s a lot of people in our profession that don’t know what they’re doing. I’m not saying that from any place of condescension or giving anyone shade. Everyone sees a result of a movie or a career but they don’t see the journey, and it’s the journey. It’s the process where you see the artistry.
Davis added, “The people that actually know what they’re doing know how to piece it together, know what they want, know what they’re seeing in the camera that’s not working, knowing how much, how little. I’ve had a 40-year career where I’ve trusted certain people, and they have done me wrong, because you don’t always see it.
“You do need help, sometimes. I trusted him, I trust what he saw, I trusted his process, I trusted his choice, even an actor’s that they were going to deliver, and then you have to ultimately trust they chose you for a reason, because that’s the one thing that training school beats out of you is any sense of confidence and mental health.”
“To be honest, the draw was really Ben and Matt,” added Jason Bateman (Ozark, Arrested Development), who plays Rob Strasser, Nike’s vice president of marketing. “The subject matter? Yes, it was a big, big deal for people my age, when Jordan came into the league and the shoes and everything. That was a big draw. But it’s really the people that you work with, because it’s 12 hours a day. You spend more time on set than you do at home. So that was a big, big pull for me.
“I saw the movie and it was incredible to see it with an audience. What really stands out when you see it with an audience is this shared experience, that underdog experience we all had with Michael Jordan at that time. We all experienced Michael Jordan, then to come together in the same room and figure out and learn what was behind all that story, the whole Air Jordan shoe stuff, that was a real eye opener for me. I’m really glad it’s in the theaters.”