While Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were writing “The Last Duel,” their first screenplay together since their 1997 breakthrough, “Good Will Hunting,” they noticed that something in their winding and usually separate careers had been missing.
“I remember my wife said to me one day: ‘I haven’t heard you laugh like that in 15 years,’” says Damon. “We came out of that experience going: Why aren’t we doing this more often? And getting into your 50s you just go: If we don’t make it a priority, it’s just not going to happen.”
Now, more than 25 years after they set out to make it in Hollywood — so entwined that they once shared a bank account — Affleck and Damon are once again a team. Affleck directs and Damon stars in “Air,” the new film about Nike’s courting of Michael Jordan that opens in theaters Wednesday.
That film, an Amazon Studios original being released theatrically by MGM, is only part of their new collaboration. It’s the first release from their new production company, Artists Equity. Affleck is the chief executive, Damon is head of content. Part of its mission is to give prominent crew and cast members a piece of profits.
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To Affleck, “Air” — in which the then-upstart Nike pursues a sneaker deal with Jordan while his mother (played by Viola Davis) advocates for his worth — represents what they hope to do with their new company.
“We believe there are a lot of really meaningful artists on the crew who are underappreciated and undervalued and make a huge difference in the quality of the experience in a film,” Affleck said in an interview alongside Damon. “We want to sort of take the approach taken towards Michael Jordan, which is to recognize the artists and say: You’re the ones who deserve to be compensated for this. You’re generating the art, the beauty, the majesty.”
And with “Air,” they may have already generated a hit. The film, which co-stars Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina and Julius Tennon, has drawn rave reviews since its premiere at SXSW. Amazon was so pleased with it that the streamer decided to give it a nationwide release in theaters.
All of which accounts for some of the reasons why Affleck — despite the “Sad Ben Affleck” memes and viral videos of him looking morose at the Grammys — is genuinely happy. There have certainly been ups and downs; Affleck has previously been candid about past battles with alcoholism. But Affleck now finds himself, as he says, “famously unhappy” despite feeling the opposite.
Those memes? Affleck blames them on out-of-context moments and the result of always having a dozen cameras pointed at him.
“The photograph in isolation looks like: Look at this unhappy fellow,” Affleck says. “But actually, I’m pretty happy. I have a good life. I’m very lucky. Despite the memes. Maybe my resting face leaves something to be desired.”
“You have resting b---- face,” chimes Damon, laughing.
But after a tumultuous run as Batman and another turbulent run in the tabloids, Affleck is back to making the kinds of movies that won him best picture a decade ago, with “Argo.”
The Los Angeles-based Artists Equity is a kind of bookend to the duo's fabled beginning. They launched it to help set the course for their next chapter (Damon is 52, Affleck 50) and make spending time together more of a requisite. It also allows Affleck to be regularly with his kids from his previous marriage to Jennifer Garner. Last year, he wed Jennifer Lopez.
One person they’ve convinced in their new endeavor is Viola Davis. Though Jordan’s mother was originally a very small role, the NBA legend stressed her importance to the story when meeting with Affleck. Jordan said Davis was the only actor for the part.
Davis recognized what Affleck and Damon were trying to foster. She has her own progressive production company, Juvee Productions, that she runs with her husband, Tennon. (It was behind last year’s “The Woman King.") Davis calls working on “Air” one of the best experiences of her career.
“What they’re doing is bringing filmmaking back to the artists, which is where it should be,” says Davis. “There are so many obstacles in your path as an artist and the biggest obstacle in your path is the business itself. It sometimes looms in front of you.”
“What they’re doing is what our fantasy is as actors, especially once we’ve reached a certain level,” adds Davis. “We want autonomy and agency.”
Upcoming films for Artists Equity include “The Instigators,” a heist film starring Damon and Casey Affleck, and “Unstoppable,” with Lopez and Jharrel Jerome. Though Lopez’s range has been on display in recent films like “Hustlers,” Hollywood has often seemed unsure of how to utilize her talent.
“I agree with that observation,” says Affleck. “By having a set of expectations thrust upon her, it was inherently limiting. You saw with ‘Hustlers’ she was really able to show what she can do.”
In “Unstoppable,” Affleck says, she plays a part not unlike Davis’ in “Air,” as the mother of a college wrestling champion born with one leg.
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“I think she’s in her prime,” says Affleck. “She’s doing extraordinary work in large measure because she’s taking that step to take responsibility for what she’s doing rather than say, ‘This is what I’m being offered.’”
The notion of personal branding is at the center of “Air.” Nike at the time was a distant third to Converse and Adidas, but its executives hit on a concept that would presage much of what’s since followed in marketing: The shoe wouldn’t just worn by Jordan but epitomize him. Now, Affleck notes, people take for granted that they’re brands.
“I’ve always found that idea confusing and kind of anathema. People are very complicated and contrary and nuanced, and brands are simple,” says Affleck. “So the idea that a person can be a brand is a hard thing for me to reconcile. I’ve never been good at it or had interest in it. Obviously, Michael’s brand — excellence, greatness, majesty — if you’re going to have a brand, that’s one to have.”
But the Damon-Affleck brand — if that is a thing — is doing alright. There have been plenty of hiccups along the way for both stars. But the notion of them as a creative duo and two of Hollywood’s fastest friends has endured. Who hasn't dreamed of making it in the movies with their best pal? There’s affection for them because they have affection for one another.
“Air” did present one new twist in their persisting partnership, though: For the first time, Affleck was directing Damon. It recently dawned on Affleck that the whole tenor of the project was due partly to Damon’s support of him as the director.
“It was a very gracious and kind gesture that’s characteristic of how Matt’s treated me, and this friendship, his whole life,” says Affleck. “It’s like why you have good friends. When things like this happen, you almost don’t even notice that they’ve made the right choice and been gracious. It’s a testament to why we are still friends. I know it’s not me.”
Damon, not missing a beat, smiles. “I only undermined you behind your back.”