AIR – Behind the scenes on Ben Affleck’s Nike movie

Michael Jordan is one of the most successful stars in US sporting history. By signing a deal with Nike early in his career, he secured one of the most profitable endorsements: a range of sports shoes that have netted billions for Nike and Jordan.

The deal was unprecedented, the biggest that Nike had ever done, and the story of how a shoe changed an industry is told in Air, directed and starring Ben Affleck alongside Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina, Marlon Wayans, and Julius Tennon. We made our way to the global press conference to find out more…

Ben Affleck takes the lead as the film’s director and plays Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike. The cast includes many actors he has worked with before, and Affleck says it is easier to take on directing and acting when you have a long standing working relationship with your cast.

“This is a group of people I have known for a long time and have enormous respect for. Chris Messina, Matt Damon, and Jason Bateman, all of whom I’ve worked with multiple times and who I adore and admire. But there were also people who it had been my life’s goal to work with, like Viola Davis and Chris Tucker. Chris can attest to the number of times I’ve passed by in a hotel lobby and would [shout] I want to do a movie with you. This movie is a massive failure if it’s just my voice, but everybody was invaluable to telling a story.”

Affleck says the key to getting the film right was casting Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother, Deloris, but it was different from how he originally envisioned the film’s direction.

“I didn’t understand the movie until I visited Michael Jordan. He was very gracious when I said this is not historically accurate in the sense that I can’t dot every I about every phone call that happened [in the negotiations]. This will be something of a fable, so I’m going to take liberties, but I don’t want to violate anything fundamentally important to you. Please tell me what those things are; I promise you; they will be sacrosanct.”

“He said he didn’t want to go to Portland [Nike’s office], that he would have given the shoe rights away for a red Mercedes [from Adidas]. His mom told him to go. When I saw the reverence, respect and adoration he talked about his mother, I immediately realised this was the story. Michael said he wanted Viola to play his mom, and I knew it was incumbent on us to create a role worthy of Viola.”

Asked about being chosen by Jordan, Davis says although it was flattering to be handpicked, it brings added pressure.

“It is flattering because I go in with a sense of do I belong and imposter syndrome. It’s nice to feel wanted, but then the next thought is now I got to step into the role. Deloris is a study in Zen neutrality. The woman is very, very steady and quiet. I would imagine that even when she gets mad, she’s probably very steady. To envelop that spirit was a challenge for me because I’m the woman who always has a chip on their shoulder. I go in bombastic. It was both flattering, challenging, and then just a joy to work with Matt and Ben and all these terrific actors.”

Davis’s real-life husband, Julius Tennon, plays her onscreen husband and Jordan’s father, James. Deloris was the savvy person in the family, and James stood back and let her negotiate on behalf of their son, an unusual thing for a husband to do in the more conservative 1980s. Tennon says it was important that the film respects that element of the couple’s relationship.

“I wanted to bring dignity and liberty to Mr Jordan. I’ve seen a video of him. I’ve seen him with his son. [He is a] father who is proud of his son, a man that is protective of his wife. [I have a line] call me if you need me; it’s letting her go do her thing because I know she could do her thing, but I wanted her to know that I’m there. He was just a simple man, a blue-collar guy. I just wanted to depict that.

Matt Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, Nike’s basketball talent spotter and the man responsible for bringing Jordan into the folder. Damon, who is also one of the film’s producers along with Affleck, says that their style is collaborative when it comes to working with actors.

“One of the great things about this cast is that everybody is a filmmaker. Viola and Julian are great producers. Marlon, and Chris, are writers as well as actors. Jason Bateman is a director and producer. Part of our process since Goodwill Hunting till today is to lean into what your actors bring. The actor is always in the moment and always knows; that’s always the way to the best scene.”

Chris Messina plays David Halk, a hard-as-nails agent determined to keep Michael Jordan away from Nike in favour of a higher-profile deal with Adidas. He spends all his screen time on the phone and says Affleck took a unique approach to film his scenes.

“When I read it, I loved it, but I was like, oh shit, these are a lot of phone calls. But then I did something that I’ve never done. Usually, a script supervisor does the scene, but Matt [Damon] and I were down the hallway from each other. We each had three cameras on us, and Ben would go back and forth from room to room. We could play, we could overlap, we could improvise. It was a blast. The hardest part of this job is going on to the next one. Leaving these guys behind is hard because the way [Ben] puts together a team of people is phenomenal. You get very spoiled.”

Words – Cara O’Doherty

AIR is at Irish cinemas from April 5th