Here’s a screenwriting prompt not too many would-be writers get to toy with: What’s it like when you get the call thatAir” screenwriter Alex Convery, it was thrilling — but he also approached it with some hard-earned skepticism. While the Michael Jordan-centric drama “Air” marks Convery’s first produced feature, he’s long been a rising star in Hollywood, with three of his original screenplays earning spots on the Black List over the years (including what was then known as “Air Jordan,” back in 2021). He’s been down this road before, but this time, it finally panned out.
“From time to time you hear, ‘This big actor read the script, they’re interested, they want to do it,’ and when I was first breaking in, it was like, ‘Holy shit, I made it!’ Then you learn the way Hollywood works, [which is] you never hear that they’re not doing it, you just never hear about it again,” Convery said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “If you ride the emotional ups and downs of every call you get from your agent about talent interested in your script, you’ll go nuts. I knew who the script was out to, and you assume these are our five crazy names and they’re all going to pass and then we’ll move on. I got a call that said, ‘Ben read the script, he’s interested in directing it, he’s going to think it over some more, talk to his team, and we’ll see.’”
Two days later, Convery got another call: “Clear your schedule, on Tuesday we’re sitting with Ben.”
“Obviously it’s a call you want to get on something like this, but a movie can fall apart a million different times, so just because Ben wants to meet doesn’t mean the movie’s happening,” he said. “Just like you don’t get a call when people aren’t doing it, you also don’t get a follow-up call being like, ‘Yes, this is for sure, Ben’s doing it, paper signed.’”
Within weeks of their early 2022 meeting, they were shooting the film in Los Angeles. In January, Amazon Studios announced a massive theatrical rollout for the film. In March, it debuted at SXSW to overwhelmingly positive reviews. This week, it hits 3,000 theaters.
Not bad for a secret project Convery cooked up during the early days of lockdown as a way to reinvigorate his writer’s brain, a script he “certainly never thought would get to where it is now,” and a screenplay he expected would be shot down from all sides.
Breaking the Sports Movie Mold
Convery is a self-professed “sports guy” — he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago during “the Jordan years” and the Bulls’ wild championship title runs, and some of his earliest memories involve sitting around watching the Bulls and Jordan with his dad — but he’s not really a sports movie guy.
“I generally don’t like sports movies for a lot of reasons. Typically it just has to do with [how] hard it is to authentically capture sports on film, which makes character and the story you’re telling that much more paramount,” Convery said. “A lot of times, I just find them [to be] Disney-fied or emotionally manipulative in a way.”
Ana Carballosa/Prime Video
In the early days of lockdown, Convery was feeling stuck. His scripts were well-regarded and he was booking gigs at studios, but he’d yet to have a produced feature. He was rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting, and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
“I was at a place where I was, honestly, really frustrated,” Convery said. “I had booked an OWA [open writing assignment at a studio] and was working on that. I was rewriting my script ‘Bag Man’ for the tenth time. I was just trying to get something. And I was just sitting there watching ‘The Last Dance,’ like everyone else in those early months of lockdown, and there’s that two-minute segment on Nike and, where my brain was at that time, I was just looking for a logline like that or an idea like that. It was one of those rare eureka moments where I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is a movie.’”
Convery knew, at the very least, people would read a script about Michael Jordan and Nike. “You always look for ideas that will catch someone’s attention, at least they can read the logline and be like, ‘OK, I know what this is,’” he said. “The script still has to be good, but at least you can try to stack the deck.”
He went crazy with research, reading “a lot on everything,” from Phil Knight’s “Shoe Dog” to “Swoosh” by J.B. Strasser (the wife of Jason Bateman’s character in the film, marketing chief Rob Strasser, who was Nike’s first advertising manager), but things really started making sense when he found Nike’s “basketball guru” Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon in the film) who made it his mission to sign a then-rookie Jordan to an unprecedented sponsorship deal, brokered by Jordan’s sharp mother Deloris (Viola Davis).
“A Lot of People Telling Your Protagonist This Could Never Work”
“That unlocked the narrative engine of the movie because there’s a big question of, which point of view do you tell it from?” Convery said. “Once you get him and Deloris Jordan, these two just everyday characters who really have no business being a part of a deal of this nature, that really interested me.”
It also tickled Convery’s always-ticking screenwriter brain. “It’s like, ‘Active protagonist, clear stakes, a lot of people telling your protagonist they’re crazy and this could never work,’” he said. “That’s all very ripe dramatically, especially when you’re talking about a movie that’s mostly just people talking. You need to find the dramatic tension in sometimes unusual places. We don’t have the luxury of pulling out a gun or saying the world is about to explode or having Thanos walk in.”
Convery started working on the script during his off-hours — “kind of a nights and weekend project” — and he didn’t even tell his team about it. “Not having those safeguards or a safety net really helped me in a way. I didn’t have anyone saying, ‘Where’s the script?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ or ‘You shouldn’t write a spec script about Michael Jordan and Nike,’” he said. “It gave me the freedom to take some risks and try some stuff on the page that I probably wouldn’t have if I was writing this for a producer or a studio.”
About a year into the process, Convery had his first complete draft. Then he sent it to his team — a dare we say it real Sonny Vaccaro kind of move? — knowing they might flip out.
“I sent it out to my agents and managers and basically said, ‘You’re going to kill me, because I wrote another spec biopic type thing that we don’t control any of the rights to,’” Convery said. “They read it and were like, “OK, yes, this will never get made and you’re crazy for doing this, but we’ll send it out.’ I just thought it would be a good writing sample and it may get me another paying job. I’d be lying if I said I ever thought it could get to this point.”
But interest kicked up quickly. Within weeks of Convery’s team sending the script around in early 2022, Convery was sitting with Affleck.
Broad, but Not Stupid
“Sometimes, it’s just the right person reading the right script at the right time,” he said. “This one really benefited from Matt and Ben starting this new company, Artists Equity, and wanting to return to make movies like the ones we all grew up loving, the mid-budget adult dramas that are broad but not stupid, as Ben would put it. If they weren’t looking for a script like this at that time, this script may still just be sitting on the Black List like my other two, and I may just still be chasing jobs.”
It may sound like a fairy tale, but Convery admits he remained on edge for months, even when Affleck started assembling an aces cast, including Affleck himself as Nike founder Phil Knight, plus Davis, Bateman, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, and Marlon Wayans.
“It’s very casual, as Ben is about these things, you get a phone call and it’s like, ‘Yes, Viola’s probably going to, she wants to do it, we’re probably going to get her. And I think Jason Bateman’s right for this other role. I called him, he wants to do it. And Messina will play [Jordan’s agent David] Falk,’” Convery said. “It’s just like, ‘OK!’ You don’t say, ‘Holy shit,’ because you can’t.”
And what about casting his BFF and longtime collaborator Matt Damon in the lead role of Sonny Vaccaro? “When I knew I was meeting with Ben, obviously you think about Matt too, just because, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to say anything,’” he said. “I’m not going to be that amateur that’s like, ‘What about Matt Damon? Is he busy?’ It’s just very casual. Ben’s like, ‘Matt’s read it, he wants to do it, too, so yes, we’d love to do it together.’ You have to double-check, like, I think he just said that.”
Ana Carballosa/Amazon Studios
But the scariest time? That was when Affleck went to meet with Jordan. “The most stressful 24 hours was when I got the call that Ben was meeting Michael Jordan and going down to get Jordan’s blessing on the movie,” he said. “We had dotted every other i and crossed every other t but it was still, if Jordan doesn’t want to do the movie, then we’re not going to do it.” (Jordan gave his blessing.)
And then they were cooking. “I really didn’t believe it until day one of shooting,” Convery said with a laugh. “Well, really day three of shooting because I had COVID and I couldn’t go to the first day of set. But day three when I was on set, it was just like, ‘OK, this is happening.’ … It goes back to right place, right time. Especially the final 20 minutes of the movie are, in a way, an opening mission statement for their new company and what they want to do with it. [Ben and Matt] were in a spot where it was like, ‘We want to do something different. We want to break the rules and we want to invest in things that may seem like crazy ideas.’ It was kind of a kismet thing.”
While Convery is the only credited screenwriter on the film, Affleck and Damon added plenty of their own touches. “Ben and Matt took the script and ran with it from that draft that was on the Black List, they did a full pass on it. So much of what was on the screen was their doing,” Convery said. “There was never any doubt that they’re great writers, they are A-plus writers.”
“You Make a Movie Three Times”
That collaboration extended on set, Convery said. Chris Tucker cooked up most of his own dialogue. Viola Davis improvised, by Convery’s own admission, “the best line in the movie” (that would be “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it”). A lot of Chris Messina’s “agent ranting” was the product of Affleck egging him on.
“Look, it’s a cliche saying, but it is true: You make a movie three times,” Convery said. “You write it and then you shoot it and then you edit it. I really did feel like that second part, shooting it, they were making a new movie. They took what was on the page and just elevated it to a whole new level.”
But some of the most daring elements of the film were already in place in Convery’s draft. While he originally hoped to include a shot of the actor playing young Jordan at the very end of the film — “as written, you did see his face in that final signing meeting, that was the big moment of OK, you finally reveal it” — he sparked to Affleck’s idea to never show his face.
“Ben, from the first time I sat with him, was like, ‘We’re not going to show him,’” Convery said. “Ultimately, he was right. The minute you announce that you’re casting someone as Michael Jordan, all of the headlines about the movie are going to be, ‘This guy is playing Michael Jordan,’ and then everyone’s going to show up to the theater and they’re going to realize that you literally only see his face in one shot. … You can fake Phil Knight, you can fake Sonny Vaccaro, you can fake David Falk. The minute you turn the camera on some poor kid trying to play Michael Jordan, it takes you out of the movie.”
Courtesy of Prime
Affleck and Damon also beefed up a key final speech that Sonny lays on the Jordan family during their Nike meeting, a dazzling, go-for-broke monologue from Damon that basically walks the Jordans through every single thing — good and bad — that will happen to the trio as Michael’s star rises.
“The advice of, ‘I’m going to look you in the eyes and tell you the future,’ was there from the beginning,” Convery said. “Ben and Matt took that monologue and made it more about celebrity, as really only they would know. That monologue becomes a lot about what it’s like to live a life in the public eye and what is expected of you when you live such a life. But that device was in the early draft of the script, and that was the hardest scene to write, just because it has to live up to the moment. You can’t spend a whole movie working up to that point and it’s like, ‘Oh, interesting speech.’ It has to meet the moment.”
Other elements of the film didn’t fall into place so quickly. Even now, Convery said, he’s just starting to really understand the full power of the story he told.
“A lot of times, you don’t even know what these things are about until you sit down and watch them,” Convery said. “Now I’m on viewing whatever, 500, of all these screenings. The movie is about work and purpose, and if we know it’s all going to end, why do we roll out of bed in the morning and try to do something to begin with? It comes back to why the movie has to be about Sonny and Deloris, because they are these two people who are stuck in a system and told you can’t do something and really have no reason to do what they do, but they do it anyway.”
No wonder that speaks to Convery, who did just that with “Air.” So, how do these past few weeks feel now?
“Well, I got married last August, so I contractually cannot say it’s been the best month of my life,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been exciting, surreal, overwhelming, and socially stressful, all simultaneously. I’m a writer, I’m kind of used to just being alone with Final Draft and doing it, but [this is] where I wanted to be and hoped to be and dreamed to be.”
An Amazon Studios release, “Air” is now in theaters.