Why Ben Affleck and his film editor rough cut scenes on set for the ‘Air’ actors

There’s an ensemble scene late in Ben Affleck’s shoe-centric saga, “Air,” in which principal cast members, including Affleck as Nike founder Phil Knight, are seated at a boardroom table as rookie Michael Jordan decides whether to sign with the underdog shoe company.

“They already know the story, they already know Michael Jordan, they already know how it ends,” Affleck tells The Envelope about building drama in a scene that everyone already knows the outcome to. “They better be learning information that’s new and kind of interesting or has to be genuinely funny. And it all has to be rooted in reality.”

The tipping point comes when Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, addresses Jordan directly. “A shoe is just a shoe until somebody steps into it, and then it has meaning. The rest of us just want a chance to touch that greatness. We need you in these shoes not so you have meaning in your life, so we have meaning in ours. Everyone at this table will be forgotten as soon as our time here is up, except for you. You’re going to be remembered forever, because some things are eternal. You’re Michael Jordan, and your story is going to make us want to fly.”

The monologue, made all the more famous after Donald Trump used it without permission in an ad for his 2024 presidential bid, was by screenwriter Alex Convery, but rewritten by Affleck and Damon to reflect the price of fame. It’s part of the process for Affleck, a two-time Oscar winner, who welcomes dialogue input from all his cast members, who include Viola Davis, Chris Tucker and Jason Bateman.

“Writing is creating the word, but it really is a process of acting, especially with great actors. The way I earned trust on this movie was by having editorial on the set,” offers Affleck, who invited his editor, William Goldenberg, to rough-cut scenes for actors to observe before moving on. “I think they all found a great place to be, and I think that’s because they were able to see the movie as they were filming it.”

An Oscar winner for “Argo” and veteran editor of such movies as “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Heat” and “The Imitation Game,” Goldenberg had no compunction about letting so many cooks into the kitchen. “I don’t usually get to meet the actors, so on that level it was fun,” he says. “Ben and I have worked together for a long time. I know his sensibility, he knows mine, so we’ve developed a shorthand together.”

As lifelong friends, Affleck and Damon last appeared together in Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel.” But “Air” represents a creative collaboration between them not seen since the beginning of their careers on their breakout hit, “Good Will Hunting.”

Ben Affleck wears a track suit and sunglasses as he sits behind an office desk in "Air."

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in “Air.”

(Amazon Studios)

“The person who ends up with the stronger opinion tends to win out,” Affleck says about any on-set differences between himself and Damon. “I have respect for him, and I think there’s a reason why he feels so strongly about it. The fights are about who cares more about this. What’s interesting with Matt is I have to earn his respect like I would with any other actor. He doesn’t want to be in a bad movie. He’s not doing me any favors. And I wouldn’t expect him to treat this any differently.”

Their most significant collaboration to date is Artists Equity, a new production company formed with Gerry Cardinale of RedBird Capital. Employing an innovative business model, they aim to streamline the production process and partner with creators who will share in the commercial success of projects. “Air” is the company’s first production, with a couple future projects in the works — “The Instigators,” starring Damon, Casey Affleck and directed by Doug Liman, and “Small Things Like These,” directed by Tim Mielants and produced by Cillian Murphy, who leads a cast starring Ciarán Hinds and Emily Watson.

“It’s very director-based, it’s very rooted in treating people fairly and reflecting what people bring to the project,” Affleck says of Artists Equity, mentioning another project — “Unstoppable,” Goldenberg’s directorial debut, currently in production.

A portrait of William Goldenberg

Film editor William Goldenberg will make his feature directorial debut this year with “Unstoppable,” starring Jennifer Lopez. “She’s extraordinary to work with,” he says.

(Amazon Studios)

“It happens there’s a phenomenal part for Jennifer in it,” Goldenberg notes, mentioning Affleck’s wife, Jennifer Lopez, who plays mother to Anthony Robles, a three-time All-American wrestler born with just one leg. “She’s extraordinary to work with. She’s a consummate professional and so helpful to me as a first-time director, whether it’s blocking or little script changes or ideas for her character.”

Affleck has been burned in the past, working with Lopez on “Gigli,” a 2003 rom-com that got scorched by critics and was a box office flop. But that didn’t keep him from producing “Unstoppable,” although he won’t be appearing in the movie.

“With Jen, it was more like she would come home and talk about her day and how it’s going. And I’m secretly trying to find out about dailies,” he says. “I work with my wife the same way I work with Matt or any of the other actors in a movie. The whole thing is geared around respecting the contribution of these incredible artists and what they bring, and giving them the environment and the space to do their best stuff.”

Reflecting on his Oscar wins — in 1998 for the “Good Will Hunting” screenplay, which he co-wrote with Damon, and in 2013 for best picture winner “Argo,” which he produced and directed — Affleck notes that such honors can change your work life but not your inner life.

“I won the Oscar as a very young guy,” he says. “I did appreciate how meaningful it was, and it really changed my career. My life changed overnight. Before that show and after, my life has never been the same. And the second time, I’d been through a lot and had sort of managed to be all over the place in terms of ups and downs, and it was nice for me to be affirmed as a director. But one of the things it told me was it doesn’t make you feel any better or any different. A lot of people go through a depression, because they get the thing they thought their whole life was supposed to be a meaningful thing, and they find ‘This doesn’t change anything about how I feel.’ ”

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