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-iconic “Air Jordan” sneaker line in 1984 at the advent 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 pleads to convince a skeptical Knight to allow him to spend the fledgling company’s modest basketball budget entirely on Jordan, the third pick in the 1984 NBA Draft.
It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Jordan, who became arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, ultimately signs a groundbreaking deal with Nike. Because of the savvy negotiating of his mother, Deloris (played by a mesmerizing Viola Davis), the deal includes an unprecedented perk: She made sure her son got a percentage of sales of the gear bearing his name. Jordan has made more than $1.3 billion off that part of the contract.
Jordan was not directly involved in the movie, which was Affleck’s brainchild and written by Alex Convery. But Affleck did seek his approval to make the film, and Jordan was a de facto casting director with one particular role, telling Affleck he wanted Davis, an EGOT winner, to play his mother during an early meeting. As Deloris, Davis is the fulcrum of the film, while the face of the actor playing Jordan is never shown. Julius Tennon plays his father.
In separate recent phone conversations, Affleck and Damon both acknowledged that their desire to tell the origin story of Air Jordans was sparked in part by its similarity to the intentions of their Artists Equity production company, which prioritizes providing fair pay to film crews, actors, and other personnel who have seen their paychecks squeezed in the age of streaming. It’s about making sure talent is properly compensated — similar in spirit to what Deloris did for her son. Granted, improving the pay of the craft service staff has considerably less of a financial impact than Jordan’s nearly 40-year Nike windfall.
“I don’t want to claim that it’s in giant radical ways,” said Affleck, who called while waiting to appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Tuesday night, “but even small changes in terms of making owners of the artists in front of and behind the camera, and really dedicating your spending to that, would create a better environment to work and better films.”
Damon noted that with “Air,” the first film produced under the Artists Equity banner, they went over budget in three areas: construction, cast (one that also includes Chris Tucker as Nike executive Howard White, and Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent David Falk), and … food trucks. On set in Santa Monica, “we had five food trucks in our little office park at all times. A coffee truck, a Korean barbecue, a Mexican place, and a couple of others,” said Damon, chuckling. “After having made movies for three decades each, we know what really matters.”
The other theme — that other parallel between the movie and their lives — is the one they say matters even more to them. In the film and real life, Deloris Jordan is a relentless 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 when they lived blocks from each other in Cambridge, the former 8 years old and the latter 10, have been unwavering in their mutual support, from their meteoric rise to superstardom with 1997′s “Good Will Hunting” through the inevitable turbulence that comes with decades spent in the Hollywood spotlight.
“I love Matt, he’s my best friend, and we just looked at each other at one point and said, ‘Why in the world are we not doing more stuff together?,’” said Affleck, who previously teamed up with Damon on “The Last Duel” two years ago.
“We’re old enough now to look back at 25 years and go, well, who you spend your time with at work turns out to make up a very big part of the quality of your life. If you’re really lucky, you love what you do and you love who you work with, and as they say back home” — he broke into a slightly exaggerated Boston accent — “ya nevah work anothah day in ya life!”
Damon said the lesson about never taking for granted the chance to work with people you like and admire was instilled in him early in his career, when he was wrapping up 1997′s “The Rainmaker,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
“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 total sincerity and he said, ‘so do I,’” Damon recalled. “I realized, ‘oh my God, even this incredible director, this master director, isn’t entirely in control of who they work with. So I’m very mindful of when I do get to work with people that I love. I appreciate those moments because they are so hard to come by.”
For Affleck, whose personal life has long been tabloid fodder, the desire to work with people he likes, control his own circumstances, and be there for his family — he is married to Jennifer Lopez and has three children with his ex-wife, Jennifer Garner — has only intensified.
“I mean, that’s the whole thing. Like, that’s my life switch here,” said Affleck. “It’s both creating time for my family and my children. 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 that anymore, with half-custody … I feel like I’m losing half the time. Breaks my heart. I can’t do it anymore. It doesn’t matter what it comes against. Whatever the other thing is, that’s gonna lose. You can [expletive] keep it.”
He echoed Damon about the importance of working with people you care about — and who care about you.
“I think you do get to a point where you’re just too old for the games, the bull----,” Affleck said. “Look, there’s a lot of people who have to punch the clock. … There’s honor in that and I respect it, believe me. But if you have the chance to work with who you want, it makes a lot of sense to try to make that part of your life.”
While Affleck and Damon are longtime Boston avatars in Hollywood, Affleck noted that he’s lived in Los Angeles longer than he lived here. But “Air,” though focused on a basketball player who made his legend in Chicago, features amusing nods to Boston that we won’t spoil here. What about all those Boston sports Easter eggs that slip into his movies? He immediately recalled a line from “The Town” about an overpriced, underperforming Red Sox hitter of a certain vintage.
“No one has robbed the Sawx like that since Jack Clark,” recited Affleck with clear delight. “Those are always fun. Because there’s a collective sense of me being in on the joke there in Boston. It’s special.”
He then brings up the Dunkin’ commercial, featuring him working a drive-thru window in Medford. “We had a couple of hours where people were legitimately surprised and then it kind of blew up, but that’s all we needed,” he said. “We got great stuff because I just was like, ‘let me tell you something, we’re gonna go to Medford, we go to Revere, it’s gonna be spectacular. You guys have gotta trust me. I’m gonna build this campaign and this is a commercial for you guys in a way that’s authentic to the brand. I mean, I already feel like I work for the company anyway since they’re constantly running pictures of me carrying the coffee.”
Damon has yet to do any ads for local doughnut and coffee chains, but he said part of the reason the bond with Affleck remains unbroken is that they still have similar sensibilities about so many things. In fact, he said, an observation Affleck made decades ago remains an inspiration to this day.
“He said to me really one of the most profound things, God, 30 years ago,’’ said Damon. “So he was 20 years old and I was 22 and we were starting to write ‘Good Will Hunting’ and he said, ‘Judge me for how good my good ideas are, not how bad my bad ideas are.’
“What it unlocks is your ability to throw the window as wide open as you can and just throw out every idea that you have without any ego at all,” Damon continued. “Sometimes you have to get 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, and I’ve carried that with me through everything that I’ve done, and everything that we have done together, and I always will.”