Ben Affleck showed the world premiere of his new film Air at the South by Southwest Film & TV Festival in Austin 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 some self-deprecating references to past projects that weren’t very popular. “This is an optimistic, hopeful film about people. So I can’t hide behind being an auteur – (as if to say) ‘you don’t have to understand my film.’ really hope you like it… So no pressure, but it’s all up to you.”
Affleck directed and stars in Air, a biographical drama depicting Nike’s revolutionary creation of the Air Jordan line. Judging by the reaction of the premiere audience, Affleck needn’t have worried about its reception – the film and its cast of scene-stealers received a rapturous ovation. Air stars Matt Damon as the Nike executive who signed Michael Jordan for 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 reuniting with his “best friend” and longtime collaborator Affleck — “the best job I’ve ever had.”
“I would show up every day and have 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 — who Affleck called “the best actor I’ve ever seen” — talked about what it meant to her to play Jordan’s protective, business-savvy mother Deloris. “Deloris and my mother were born into a generation of people whose dreams were their children. It’s the height of Jim Crow. It’s the height of black people being told that their dreams didn’t matter. So far she’s having it great vision for her son, and to believe it wholeheartedly, something miraculous. It was an honor to play Deloris.”
Bateman seemed amazed by the audience’s reaction to the film, “I couldn’t believe the amount of screaming and 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 pinnacle of greatness and excitement. I will never think of Michael Jordan or Air Jordans the same way again because of what Ben was able to do with this film, creating the kind of feeling that we all just had.”
In a rather bold creative choice, Jordan himself is not directly featured in the film, which Affleck explained was an attempt to avoid an actor impersonating a larger-than-life legend with whom audiences were already so familiar. “There’s no way I would ever ask an audience to believe that anyone else was Michael Jordan,” he said. “Which was out of my own interest, frankly, because I knew it would ruin the movie.” He also added, “This is not a documentary. This is not meant to be the absolutely perfect story of who did what and said what … all the mistakes in the film are mine.”
Affleck said he showed the film to the real Phil Knight, “and halfway through I realized it could have been a giant mistake” given how the film somewhat satirizes the Nike co-founder. “But people like to make fun of the boss, it’s part of the workplace culture,” he said. “I’ve been known to appear in the occasional meme.”
That said, he said he avoided contact with Nike and its executives during the film’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 doing propaganda or a commercial or changing anything to curry favor with them.” Still, it’s hard to imagine Nike not being thrilled with the film’s extremely positive presentation of its company.
IN That The Hollywood Reporters 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 didn’t want to make a movie whose central premise is white Americans appropriating black culture for profit,” he said. “It’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 leave it out, because to leave it out would add to the disrespect. That, what I want 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 thought, ‘I want Chris paid as a writer, too. I want to be very clear that he’s a contributing voice to this film .”
Air will mark the first film from Amazon to be released theatrically without a simultaneous release on Prime Video. The film will be released in theaters on April 5.