Not everyone has a direct line to NBA icon Michael Jordan. But Ben Affleck, director of the upcoming film “Air,” revealed during a press conference Monday how important it was to get approval from the greatest basketball player of all time.
“Air,” which arrives in theaters on April 5, chronicles the game-changing partnership between MJ and Nike. The final version, however, is far different from what Affleck had envisioned.
“Initially, to be honest, I was going to have it be a story about Michael himself saying, ‘This is what I’m worth and this is what I deserve.’ A person saying, ‘This is what I mean and I’m going to ask for that,'” Affleck said Monday during a press conference.
The direction of the movie changed after a meeting with Jordan himself.
“I idolize the guy and every now and again I’ve had a chance to spend time with him — it’s been very memorable for me but probably he’s forgotten it,” Affleck said with a laugh. “I had at least enough of an in to say, ‘Hey, can I come see you and just kind of run this past you?’
He continued, “The stupidest thing in the world would be to go make a movie that he’s not in — doesn’t appear 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.”
Although based on a true story, during his conversation with MJ, Affleck said he explained that he would have to take creative liberties to create the film.
“I said [to MJ], ‘This is not historically accurate in the sense that I can’t dot every I and cross every T. This is going to have to be something of a fable, a parable, and inspiring story so I’m going to take liberties in order to make it an hour and 30 or 40 minutes — but I don’t want to violate anything that’s fundamentally important or true to you, Affleck explained. “If you would, please tell me what those things are and I promise you, it’ll be sacrosanct.”
Affleck, who referred to MJ as “gracious,” said the NBA icon wanted to make sure other people who were meaningful to both him and this moment were included in the film.
This led to the inclusion of former college basketball coach George Raveling, who also worked at Nike for two-plus decades in basketball sports marketing. Raveling’s character was played by Marlon Wayans. It also led to the inclusion of Jordan Brand VP Howard White, who was played by Chris Tucker.
Affleck said he also asked MJ about his parents, since they weren’t a large part of the much a part of the story to that point. This led to Julius Tennon being selected to play his father, James Jordan Sr. It also spurred a conversation about who should play his mother, Deloris Jordan.
“When 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. It’s sort of 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 an awe, a reverence and a respect, an adoration and love when he talked about his mother,” Affleck said. “It just shocked me — and shame on me for not assuming this was the case. When I heard it, I realized right away, ‘This is the story,’ and it’s a beautiful story. It’s a story about Deloris Jordan and what she means to Michael and that she’s emblematic of what so many mothers must have meant to so many athletes and entertainers and people in this business who are oftentimes very young and thrust into a world of fame and money. It can be confusing, and we see people take different roads all the time and must require enormous amount of guidance.”
He continued, “I said offhandedly, which is always a mistake, ‘Who do you think should play your mom?’ He said, ‘It has to be Viola Davis.’ That’s kind of like saying, ‘Can I get a basketball team together? Sure. It has to [have] Michael Jordan.'”
Affleck, who said it has been a lifelong career ambition of his to have Davis in a movie he’s directed stated it was a must to “create a role that was worthy of Viola.” Davis, who also addressed media during Monday’s press conference, said MJ’s request was “flattering.”
“I do go in with a sense of, ‘Do I belong,’ imposter syndrome, so it’s nice to feel wanted,” Davis said. “But then the next thought is, ‘Now I’ve got to step into the role.’”