Ben Affleck and Matt Damon Talk Friendship, Family and Their New Movie Air


“You get to a point where you’re just too old for the games,” says Ben Affleck, who directed her new film about the rise of the Air Jordan brand.

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in Air. Ana Carballosa/Amazon Studios

The thematic parallels between “Air,” starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and their own friendship are as clear as the baselines on a basketball court.

“Air” tells the story of the creation of Nike’s now legendary “Air Jordan” sneaker line in 1984 at the beginning of Michael Jordan’s NBA career.

Affleck, who directed the film, plays Nike founder Phil Knight. Damon is Sonny Vaccaro, a scout and Nike representative who asks to convince a skeptical Knight to allow him to spend all of the fledgling company’s modest basketball budget on Jordan, the third pick in the 1984 NBA draft.

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in
Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in Air. – Ana Carballosa/Amazon Studios

It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Jordan, who arguably became the greatest basketball player of all time, ultimately signs a landmark deal with Nike. Thanks to his mother Deloris’ (played by the intriguing Viola Davis) adept negotiating skills, the deal comes with an unprecedented benefit: she arranged for her son to receive a percentage of sales of the gear that bore his name. Jordan made more than $1.3 billion from this part of the deal.

Jordan was not directly involved in the film, which was Affleck’s idea and was written by Alex Convery. But Affleck sought his approval to make the film, and Jordan was a de facto casting director with a specific role, telling Affleck he wanted Davis, an EGOT winner, to play his mother in an early meeting. As Deloris, Davis is the lynchpin of the film, while the face of the actor playing Jordan is never shown. Julius Tennon plays his father.

Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan and Julius Tennon as James Jordan
Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan and Julius Tennon as James Jordan in Air. – Ana Carballosa/Amazon Studios

In separate recent phone calls, Affleck and Damon both acknowledged that their desire to tell the origin story of Air Jordans was prompted in part by the similarity to their Artists Equity production company’s intentions of paying film crews, actors, and other employees fairly who have seen their paychecks squeezed in the age of streaming. It’s about making sure talent is rewarded appropriately – much like Deloris did for her son. Admittedly, improving craft staff pay has significantly less financial impact than Jordan’s nearly 40-year Nike windfall.

“I wouldn’t say it’s radical in a gigantic way,” said Affleck, who called while waiting to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Tuesday night, “but even small changes in terms of owning the artists in front of and behind the camera and really putting your money into it would create a better work environment and better films.”

Damon noted that with Air, the first film to be produced under the Artists Equity banner, they went over budget in three areas: construction, casting (one that also included Chris Tucker as Nike executive Howard White and Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent David Falk includes ) and … food trucks. On the Santa Monica set, “We always had five food trucks in our little office park. A coffee truck, a Korean barbecue, a Mexican joint, and a few others,” Damon said, chuckling. “Having made films for three decades each, we know what really matters.”

Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in
Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in Air. – Ana Carballosa/Amazon Studios

The other issue – this other parallel between the film and their lives – is what they say is even more important to them. In film and in real life, Deloris Jordan is a tireless advocate for her son, someone he can lean on and trust, someone who loved him before the world knew his name. Affleck and Damon, who met while living blocks away from each other others at Cambridgethe former 8-year-old, and latter 10, have been steadfast in their support for one another, from their meteoric rise to superstardom with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” to the inevitable turmoil that comes with decades in the Hollywood spotlight.

“I love Matt, he’s my best friend, and at one point we just looked at each other and were like, ‘Why on earth don’t we do more stuff together?'” said Affleck, who previously worked with Damon on The Last Duel ” two years ago.

“We’re old enough now to look back 25 years and say, well, who you spend your time with at work turns out to be a very big part of the quality of your life. When you’re really lucky you love what you do and you love who you work with and as they say at home’ – he adopted a slightly exaggerated Boston accent – ‘you don’t work a day in your life! “

Damon said the lesson he learned early in his career, never to take for granted the chance to work with people you like and admire, was when he was filming 1997’s Francis Ford Coppola-directed The Rainmaker completed.

“When it was over I said, ‘Francis, this is such a meaningful experience for me. I really hope we can work together again.” And he looked at me with absolute sincerity and said, ‘Me too,’” Damon recalled. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, even this incredible director, this master director, doesn’t have full control over who he’s working with. That’s why I’m very careful about when I’m working with people I love. I cherish those moments because they are so hard to come by.”

Director Ben Affleck on the set of
Director Ben Affleck on the set of Air.

For Affleck, whose personal life has long been tabloid fodder, a desire to work with people he likes, control his own circumstances and be there for his family — he’s married to Jennifer Lopez and has three children with his ex-wife Jennifer Garner – has only intensified.

“I mean, that’s the whole thing. This is my life switch here,” Affleck said. “It’s both making time for my family and my kids. So I don’t want to travel. I can’t go to New Orleans for three months or Austin for three months. I don’t want to do this anymore with half custody… I feel like I’m wasting half the time. breaks my heart I can not anymore. It doesn’t matter what speaks against it. Whatever the other thing is, that’s gonna lose. You can [expletive] keep it.”

He reiterated to Damon the importance of working with people you care about — and who care about you.

“I think you get to a point where you’re just too old for the games, the cop…” Affleck said. “See, there are a lot of people who have to stamp the watch. … There is honor in that, and I respect it, believe me. But when you have the option of who you want to work with, it makes a lot of sense to try and make that part of your life.”

While Affleck and Damon are longtime Boston avatars in Hollywood, Affleck noted he’s lived in Los Angeles longer than he has here. But “Air,” while focusing on a basketball player turned legend in Chicago, contains amusing references to Boston that we won’t spoil here. What about all the Boston Sports Easter Eggs that hatch into his movies? He immediately recalled a line from The Town about an overpriced, underperforming Red Sox racquet of a certain vintage.

“Haven’t robbed the Sawx like this since Jack Clark,” Affleck recited with evident delight. “They’re always fun. Because there’s a collective feeling that I’m involved in the joke over there in Boston. It’s something special.”

He then brings up the Dunkin commercial in which he works on a drive-through window in Medford. “We had a couple of hours where people were legitimately surprised and then it kind of exploded, but that was all it took,” he said. “We got great stuff because I was just like, ‘Let me tell you something, we’re going to Medford, we’re going to Revere, it’s going to be spectacular. you have to trust me I’m going to build this campaign and this is a commercial for you guys that’s authentic to the brand. I mean I already feel like I work for the company as they keep posting pictures of me carrying the coffee.”

Damon has yet to run ads for local donut and coffee chains, but he said part of the reason the bond with Affleck remains unbroken is that they still share similar sensibilities about so many things. In fact, an observation Affleck made decades ago is still an inspiration today.

“He really said one of the most profound things to me, God, 30 years ago,” Damon said. “So he was 20 and I was 22 and we started writing ‘Good Will Hunting,’ and he said, ‘Judge me by how good my good ideas are, not how bad my bad ideas are.’

“What it unlocks is your ability to open the window as wide as you can and just throw out any idea you have without any ego,” Damon continued. “Sometimes you have to go through a lot of bad ideas to get to the good ideas. It was a really incredible thing for a 20-year-old kid to say that, and I’ve carried that with me through everything I’ve done and everything we’ve done together, and I always will.”

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