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Ben Affleck screened the world premiere of his new film Air at South by Southwest Film & TV Festival in Austin, Texas, on Saturday and quickly made it clear how much he wanted his Amazon Studios project to succeed.
“Tonight is the most important night of my professional life,” Affleck declared from the stage, amid making some self-deprecating references to previous projects that were not widely popular. “This is an optimistic, hopeful movie about people. So I can’t hide behind being an auteur — [as if to say] ‘you don’t need to understand my movie.’ I really hope you like it…. So no pressure, but it’s all on you.”
Affleck directed and co-stars in Air, a biographical drama chronicling Nike’s revolutionary creation of the Air Jordan shoeline. Judging by the premiere audience’s reaction, Affleck need not be worried about its reception — the film and its cast full of scene stealers received a rapturous ovation. Air stars Matt Damon as the Nike executive who signed Michael Jordan to his first sneaker deal. Affleck plays Nike CEO Phil Knight, and the film also stars Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Tucker and Chris Messina.
Damon called his role — and reunion with his “best friend” and longtime collaborator Affleck — “the greatest job I’ve ever had.”
“I showed up every day and had five-to-seven [script] pages to do opposite actors like this, it was ridiculous,” Damon said. “I’ve never had more fun. Ben and I — from the moment we read [Alex Convery’s] script to the last cut we made in the edit — it was just absolute joy.”
Davis — whom Affleck called “the best actor I’ve ever seen” — spoke about what playing Jordan’s protective, business-savvy mother Deloris meant to her. “Deloris and my mom were born in a generation of people whose dreams were their kids. It’s the height of Jim Crow. It’s the height of Black people being told that their dreams didn’t matter. So for her to have that big vision for her son, and to believe it wholeheartedly, is sort of miraculous. It was an honor to play Deloris.”
Bateman seemed stunned by the crowd’s reaction to the film, “I couldn’t believe the amount of screaming and the yelling [during the screening],” he said. “What Ben and Matt were able to do with this story…it’s an American business story and they made a rock show out of it. They were somehow able to enhance what Michael Jordan means to all of us — which was already the zenith of greatness and excitement. I’ll never think of Michael Jordan or Air Jordans the same way again because of what Ben was able to do with this film, and create that kind of feeling that we all just had.”
In a rather bold creative choice, Jordan himself isn’t directly shown in the film, which Affleck explained was an effort to avoid having an actor impersonate a larger-than-life living legend with whom audiences were already so familiar. “How do you tell a story about Michael Jordan and never see him?” he asked. “When you are that person, when you become so much more than a hero or an athlete or even an icon, you start to become an idea to people. You touch them and just start to represent hope and excellence and greatness. You are one of a kind. And there is no way I was ever going to ask an audience to believe that anybody other than Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan – which was also out of my own naked self interest, frankly, because I knew [an actor impersonating Jordan] would destroy the movie. You will see him [in archival clips] in the movie, but you will see Michael Jordan as he truly is – in his authentic masterful genius which exists for all of us to see. It was a deliberate choice. I thought he was too majestic to have anyone impersonate him and – as I told him – ‘you’re too old to play the part.'”
Affleck said he showed the film to the real Phil Knight, “and halfway through I realized that might have been a gigantic mistake” given how the film somewhat satirizes the Nike co-founder. “But people like to make fun of the boss, that’s part of workplace culture,” he said. “I’ve been known to appear in an occasional meme.”
That said, he said he avoided contact with Nike and its executives during the movie’s development and production. “I didn’t want to have any communication or contact or accept anything from Nike because I didn’t want to be accused of making propaganda or a commercial or altering anything in order to curry favor with them.” Still, it’s difficult to imagine Nike not being thrilled with the film’s extremely positive presentation of its company.
In The Hollywood Reporter‘s current cover story profile of Affleck, the actor-director talked about the film and how he approached directing a film where corporate America intersects with Black culture. “I wouldn’t make a movie whose central premise is the appropriation of Black culture for profit by white Americans,” he said. “That’s not my film to make. I’m telling a story that’s about a combination of things, and this is one aspect of it. I’m not going to omit it because to omit it would further compound the disrespect. What I am going to do is talk to people who understand it better than I do and who can help me contextualize it, and that was [costume designer] Charlese [Antoinette Jones], that was Viola. Chris [Tucker], he gave me monologues, he gave me scenes, and it was very organic. And that’s why I was like, ‘I want Chris paid as a writer also. I want to be very clear that he is a contributing voice to this movie.'”
Air will mark Amazon’s first global theatrical release. The film hits theaters April 5.
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