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Ben Affleck, Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina & Matthew Maher – In the Air Tonight

Ben Affleck, Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina & Matthew Maher

In the Air Tonight

by Jay S. Jacobs

There are lots of iconic moments in history, many of which are turned into films. However, who would have thought that one of the better films of the year would be about the meeting of Michael Jordan and the Nike sneaker company?

Well, apparently Ben Affleck and Matt Damon would, because they have put together an all-star cast to recreate the 1984 events in which Nike, which at the time was a second-tier sneaker business, hitched its star to an unproven rookie basketball player and ended up changing the sport of basketball, sports management and contracts, and the entire direction of athletic wear. The agreement made all of them billions of dollars and changed all of the rules of celebrity endorsements.

And yet, while Michael Jordan looms over the entire proceedings, he is barely in the film itself. This is a film not about the player but about the people who got together to make his brand one of the biggest in the world. This included a real-life group of former athletes and garment workers, played by a cast of Damon, Affleck, Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans and Matthew Maher. Also intimately involved were Jordan’s parents – played by Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon – and Jordan’s agent (Chris Messina).

Soon before Air was set to start a limited theatrical release, we were able to sit in on a virtual press conference with several of the stars and director of Air. (A second story with additional cast members will be coming in a few weeks when the film is released on Amazon Prime video.)

Chris, what was it like to play this real-life role?

Chris Tucker: It was so much fun. Ben told me up front we’re making a movie with friends and having fun. I knew Howard White. I had all access to him, talking to him for hours. Everybody he mentored, like Charles Barkley. People from his childhood. He played hopscotch. He played teachers and coaches. I thought it was just going to be quick conversation, but he said, “No, no, no all, hold up, I’ve got somebody else that you want to talk to.” I really got a lot of information together to really embody his spirit, his dialect. I put it all together and put it into the character. Everybody said he was like Confucius, this nice guy who thought about the world glass half full instead of half empty. I wanted the character to be positive. Yeah, just be a lot of fun.

Jason, when Ben asked you to be a part of this, you were probably wrapping Ozark. When you were joining Air, what was the attraction?The sports aspect? You had at least one very dramatic scene.

Jason Bateman: To be honest, the draw was really Ben. It was Matt. The subject matter? While yes, it was a big, big deal for people my age – 15 or 16 when Jordan came into the League. The shoes and everything like that. I’m a big sports fan, that was a big draw. But it's really the people that you work with [that] is a big draw for us. Because it's 12 hours a day. Spend more time on set than you do at home. So that was a big, big pull for me. I loved it. As far as that scene goes, yeah, there's a lot of really, really great writing in this movie. That scene is definitely one of them. So they did all the tough work there. I just got the lines right and sat on the right mark.

Ben, this was another time where you're directing, acting, working on the screenplay. I feel like it's everything. It's your love of sports, it's your love of filmmaking and then also bringing your film family with Matt Damon along with it. It’s a lot of things at once. What was it that stood out about making the film?

Ben Affleck: I can see how it would seem that way but actually for me it made it so much easier. This is a group of people who either I had known for a long, long time or I had an enormous amount of respect and regard for. Matt Maher, Chris Messina, obviously Matt Damon, and Jason Bateman all of whom I've worked with multiple times and know well and adore and admire. And people who had been my life's goal to work with, in 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 the Jordan subject matter brought him around. He's really being humble. He came in and created this role. I said, “I need you as a collaborative filmmaker, your voice your experience, your perspective. This movie is a massive failure if it is just my voice and my experience and perspective.” Chris and Howard and Viola and Marlon and Jason, everybody who brought it… all those things are invaluable to telling a story. So, it's actually like walking on air. (looks at the others.) Thank you. Thank you so much. See how I wrap it up? That was the media training. That's what they told me to do.

Jason Bateman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Work Air into it now.

Chris, you do “angry on the phone” very well. Was there a daunting aspect to joining this one because you're so separated physically from the story, but are so essential to it?

Chris Messina: When Ben calls you up, you don't even need to read the script. I've gotten to work with him now three times. It's always an amazing experience. It'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, shit, these are a lot of phone calls.” But Ben 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 with you. But Matt and I were down the hallway from each other. We each had three cameras on us. Ben would go back and forth from room to room. We'd all get together and we had a blast doing it. The script was amazing. But we could play, we could overlap, we could improvise. I keep saying this, 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 people is phenomenal. You get very spoiled.

Ben, the other aspect of that I thought was so great was how much you spoke about the task of hiring Viola Davis and getting that assignment from Michael Jordan.

Ben Affleck: I really didn't understand the movie, actually, as it turned out, until I went to speak to Michael. I've been lucky enough to come across him a few times. It’s not like me and him are friends. Just like I idolized the guy and every now and again, I've had a chance to spend time with him. It’s been very memorable for me, and he’s probably forgotten it. So I had at least enough of an in to say, “Hey, can I come see you and just run this past you?” Because to be honest, from a point of view of respect for him, his family, who he is, what he means, from a selfish point of view for a movie, the stupidest thing in the world would be to go make a movie he's not in, but nonetheless, invokes his name and tells a part of his story that he was opposed to. If he said, “Don't do it,” I just was going to not do it. That would be that. Over. Last conversation. I was very, very prepared for that to be the result, because I had no reason to think that he would be open to it or that he would welcome it, particularly since it wasn't the Michael Jordan story. We hadn’t bought his rights. That sort of thing, which I was thinking might be discomforting. However, what I found was that he was very gracious.

Very nice.

Ben Affleck: Actually, when I said, “Look, this is not historically accurate, in the sense that I can't dot every I and cross every T. What time every phone call was made. This is going to have to be something of a fable, a parable, an inspiring story. I'm going to take liberties in order to make it an hour and 30-40 minutes. But I don't want to violate anything that's fundamentally important to a true to you. So, if you would please tell me what those things are and I promise you, they'll be sacrosanct.” I think it was telling that he wasn't somebody who was like, “Well, you got to talk about when I did this, and I did that.” There are people who take that approach. He was not one of those people. He only talked about other people. He wanted to make sure that other people who were meaningful were included in the story.

This does feel like a coach assembling a team. You did bring a lot of folks onto it.

Ben Affleck: George Raveling was one of them, which was why Marlon’s role is in the movie. Again, brought Marlon in. [He] helped me figure this out. Researched this. Found out about the [Martin Luther] King speech story, that being true. He also said Howard White. Howard White is integral to this. So, my first thought was, finally I’m going to maybe get Chris Tucker. Then I said, “What was your dad like?” Because initially, to be honest, I was going to have it be a story about Michael himself saying, “This is what I'm worth. This is what I deserve.” A person saying, “This is what I need and I'm going to ask for that.” His parents weren't so much a part of the story and so I was trying to flesh that out. He said my dad had the best personality in the world and I think with Julius we got the exactly that – the perfect person.


Ben Affleck: He said, “You know, I didn't want to go to Portland. I would have signed my shoe rights away for life for a red Mercedes. My mom told me to go big. I saw how he talked about his mother and the regard and esteem in which he held her. This is a very intimidating powerful man. Michael Jordan, it really is like being on Olympus. You're around somebody who is as close to a deity as you're going to find, and yet there was this moment where I saw awe and reverence and respect. Adoration. Love. We talked about his mother. It just shocked me. And shame on me for not assuming this was the case. But when I heard it, I realized right away. This is the story. It is a beautiful story. It's a story about Deloris Jordan, and what she means to Michael. She's emblematic of what so many mothers must have meant to so many athletes, and entertainers. People in this business are oftentimes very young and thrust into a world of fame and money. It can be confusing. We see people take different roads all the time and require an enormous amount of guidance. So, I thought, actually, this is brilliant. This is what the story is. This is beautiful. This is the protagonist.


Ben Affleck: I said offhandedly, which is always a mistake, “Who do you think can play your mom?” He said, “It has to be Viola Davis.” I was like, okay. That’s like saying, can I get a basketball team together? Sure, but it has to be Michael Jordan. Well, all right. Then I thought, this is very typical of who this guy is. Like, it has to be the very best. Absolutely. So I knew that it was incumbent on us to build a role that was worthy of Viola. We tried to do that. Her saying yes has been a lifelong career ambition of mine. I thought I really will have made it as a director if I have Viola Davis in my movie. When she said yes, I tried to think it was me. I think a lot of it had to do with Michael Jordan wants you to play his mom.

How do you say no to that? Another role that gets to shine within this film is your character, Matthew. Did you have to dive into sneaker knowledge?

Matthew Maher: It wasn't so much time to dive in. And weirdly, Peter Moore had just passed away, like a week before I was offered a movie. I definitely did dive in. I read a lot about him. I watched documentaries where he was featured. What struck me was looking at his designs and looking at his ideas, which were so amazing and ahead of time. Then he’s talking and he’s just a regular guy. He's talking about, like, “Yeah, there was too much red, and then we decided to just leave it that way.” Being very direct. thought the biggest parallel was listening to pro athletes talk about what they do, which is like, “Well, we just kept at it,” even though they're doing these amazing things. A genius doesn't always express himself very well when he's talking about what he's genius at. It was hard in a way. So I just decided not to try and get into his genius mind, but really play the character that was written in the script.

Makes sense…

Matthew Maher: [He] is a genius, but he's also at a crossroads in his life. He's going through a midlife crisis. He's waiting to have something come along where he can really apply himself. What is really clear from the documentary, which the script captured really well, he is a brilliant collaborator. He's not precious about his ideas. The idea itself is bigger than he is. That's what really drew me to the script, the scenes where they're working together really felt like authentic problems. I really appreciated the energy of those scenes. There's a mega aspect too because that’s also what it was like working on the movie. It’s the best minds problem solving. Creativity and genius is happening, because everybody working on the movie is so good at what they do. It’s just like, are we going to do this or this? It's very engaging. So, I think for me I just lean into that in terms of thinking about the character and not trying to even touch imagining what it'd be like to create the things that he created.

What I think is so incredible is those scenes when you guys are working on the problem. It's the team, everybody coming together. How did you set that up? What was the motivation behind it?

Ben Affleck: Well, it was interesting because the movie thematically paralleled the things we were trying to do, and we had admissions for, philosophically. We wanted to raise money to create a mini studio, and in some ways what Nike wanted to do, which was change the rules a little bit. Change how the process was undergone. Also ultimately fundamentally [they] ended up changing the way compensation worked to afford more responsibility and also more rewards to the people. I really firmly believe the artists behind the camera who make a massive difference in the quality and cost and experience of the movie, as well as the performers who I often feel are so meaningful and not compensated appropriately [deserve compensation]. Also to try to eliminate waste and streamline the process so that the important things are kept and the stuff that has to do with ego. The ways in which sometimes money can be wasted or left behind. It was a function both of my experience over the years and talking to other directors and going, “Why are we doing this? Do we need that?”

I get that.

Ben Affleck: It's a very humble aspiration. We're trying to change things a little bit, which is a very difficult thing because we have a model that we've inherited in terms of how films are made from the 30s and 40s. Big cameras and slow film and lots of lights and a certain crew structure and all kinds of ways in which ownership and compensation are set up. I've heard the speech already that Sonny gives Deloris here, “That's just not how it works,” and I certainly don't like it myself. The profound and significant way in which that deal not only changed Michael's life but had a ripple effect on hundreds of billions of dollars for athletes down the line. I don't believe it is yet, even an equitable relationship would be my guess. But it was a step in that direction and we're trying to take a similar step. Really because I think that's how I get the best work. I believe you spend more on better, gifted people. Recognize them, value them. Value alternate multiple voices and collaboration. Then hopefully we can have a company that's known for making original interesting stories about people and what they say and how they relate to one another. [Hopefully a company that] generates empathy and we can be a supplier of films that people like.

Ben alluded to the fact that all of you had relationships or built them through the course of this. Chris, particularly your friendship, I had no idea of the depth of it. How did that play out on screen?

Ben Affleck: It isn’t a friend; it’s more like a stalker. (Everyone laughs.)

Chris Tucker: Ben and Matt, they are legends in their own right man. When I heard they wanted to work with me, that's a good thing. A compliment, working with this guy. He didn't have to beg too much because I wanted to work with them guys. I remember being on a set like, “Man, these are big dogs. I'm ready to rock and roll.” It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of comfort. Ben and Matt made it so comfortable. One time they came to my trailer, just friends having fun. That’s all I have to say.

Ben Affleck: I feel like humor is the highest form of intelligence. Actors like Chris are the smartest, most interesting people you can meet. People that find humor and joy in life is just a magic that I want to be around. Like a few times I made him laugh and I took a secret pride in that.

Chris Tucker: I was laughing. I laughed all the time. From all these guys. Oh, man. Good comedy in this room. Humor.

I want to ask you all about the Austin reception. What was the best aspect of going down there and just receiving that both with critics and fans?

Chris Messina: It was amazing, like a rock concert. I'd never experienced anything like it. And I don't know if I ever will again. It was really, really fun and it seemed very genuine. I had seen the movie twice before, with just a few people. So this is a film that I'm so happy is going to be in the movie theaters and groups of people can come watch it. It's a film that's inspiring, and really funny and really moving. To feel that with an audience was tremendous.

Jason Bateman: Oh, yeah, I had a blast. You're getting the results of me growing up in a household where I was taught to deflect everything. I'll always err on the side of whatever that is. But yeah, like Chris, I saw just me and my wife before, and it was incredible to see it with an audience. What really stands out when you see it with an audience, the shared experience, is that underdog sense. It's a combination of the underdog sense and the shared experience we all had with Michael Jordan at that time. We were all separated. We all experienced Michael Jordan. Then to all come together in the same room and learn what was behind all that story. What became this legend and the whole Air Jordan shoe stuff. That was a real eye opener for me. And like, Chris, I'm really glad it's in theaters.

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: April 4, 2023.

Photos #1 & 2 © 2023 Jay S. Jacobs/ All rights reserved.

Photos #3 – 8 © 2023 Ana Carballosa. Courtesy of Amazon Studios. All rights reserved.


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