Inside the ‘Insanity’ of Making — and Editing — the Scrappy Nike Drama ‘Air’

Oscar-winning editor William Goldenberg, who will soon direct the "Unstoppable" wrestling biopic for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, discusses the film's '80s vibe and breaking out of the mold at Nike.
Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in AIR                                       Photo: COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS                                            © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC
Matt Damon and Viola Davis in "Air"
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When director Ben Affleck first approached William Goldenberg, his Oscar-winning go-to editor (“Argo”), to cut “Air,” the sports biopic about Nike’s revolutionary Air Jordan basketball shoe line, it was only a couple of months before shooting began. Yet Goldenberg had to wait a month before reading the script while Alex Convery finished his rewrite.

It was a tight turnaround, but it led to a fast and loose production that perfectly fit the film’s recreation of the scrappy, underdog culture at Oregon-based Nike in 1984, which was then on the verge of bankruptcy.

“It’s about taking risks and greatness,” Goldenberg told IndieWire. “It’s about a lot of things that people can relate to…breaking out of the mold. And what’s great about working on a film like this is I have to watch the movie a lot, and I never got tired of it.”

“Air,” which had a strong pre-Easter box office opening for Amazon Studios and MGM, recounts the obsession of Nike basketball talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) to sign Chicago Bulls rookie sensation Michael Jordan to an unheard-of branded shoe line. But there were several hurdles: Vaccaro had to get the support of Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), director of marketing, and Howard White (Chris Tucker), director of athlete relations, while also winning the approval of Nike’s eccentric co-founder Phil Knight (Affleck).

However, before Vaccaro could even have a chance against Adidas and Converse, he had to impress Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), since the young basketball phenom had no interest in signing with Nike.

“Air” was shot in a very quick 23 days. The set was mostly at an empty office building in Santa Monica renovated to stand in for the Nike offices by production designer François Audouy. The production office and editing rooms were there as well, which was convenient for Goldenberg. Affleck reteamed with cinematographer Robert Richardson (“They Live by Night”), who shot with the Alexa 35 (Super 35 format) but minimized its dynamic 17-stop range to match the more limited color palette of the ’80s. This was especially effective when intercut with stock footage highlighting iconic cultural signposts of the period.

The three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer (“Hugo,” “The Aviator,” “JFK”) makes us feel like a fly on the wall at Nike’s struggling basketball shoe division. Richardson’s early doc experience serves him well in capturing this extended, often dysfunctional family, and he delivers some of the most powerful close-ups of his career. This includes a late phone call between Vaccaro and Deloris and a soul-searching exchange about selfishness and sacrifice between Strasser and Vaccaro, which later pays off with a 360 around Vaccaro looking at his colleagues in the “bullpen.”


“It was just insanity in the best possible way,” Goldenberg said. “They were shooting anywhere from three to five cameras all the time. Ben and Matt would come into the room, watch stuff, and they would say, ‘I think we need to transition here between these scenes. What do you think we should shoot?'”

One moment that changed on the fly occurred during Sonny’s pitch to the Jordans. After struggling through a video highlight reel that wasn’t working, Sonny stops the video and lays out Jordan’s future — his triumphs, his tragedies — intercut with actual stock footage from Jordan’s career. “Originally, there was way more stock footage of Michael and way less of Matt on camera,” said Goldenberg. “And when it was shot, we were like, ‘Matt’s so good.’ Then we realized the video footage needed to be more snapshots and cut back more to Matt.”

The other last-minute change that worked wonders was not hiring a composer. Instead, the film kept the temp instrumental cues from such ’80s faves as “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Body Double,” “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Firestarter,” “Raw Deal,” “Risky Business,” and “Three O’Clock High.” This went well with the ’80s needle-drops compiled by music supervisor Andrea von Foerster that included “Ain’t Nobody,” “All I Need Is a Miracle,” “Born in the U.SA,” “Money for Nothing,” and “Time After Time.”

Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser in AIR Photo: ANA CARBALLOSA © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC
Matthew Maher, Matt Damon, and Jason Bateman in “Air”Ana Carballosa/Amazon Studios

“What happened was we were gonna have a composer, and then I started temping the movie with music,” added Goldenberg. “Ben and I both talked about it, and it seemed appropriate. Attempt the movie with scores from the era. It was more of a feel than being hard and true with the dates [like the song needle-drops]. There are a couple of things from ‘Jerry Maguire’ from the ’90s, but it was trying to fit that Tangerine Dream sort of thing. But it was very hard sometimes to find who owned the music. I think there were like 20 times where Andrea couldn’t find who had the rights because the person who wrote the music had died, and the studio didn’t know, and that person didn’t know, and she found a couple people on social media. It was probably the hardest issue between the songs and buying the score.”

Meanwhile, as a result of reuniting with Affleck on “Air,” Goldenberg was able to set up a passion project he’s been trying to direct for years: “Unstoppable,” the sports biopic about Anthony Robles, the three-time All-American wrestler born with one leg into poverty, who won a national championship at Arizona State. It will be the second movie after “Air” produced by Affleck and Damon under their new Artists Equity banner for Amazon Studios. It stars Jharrel Jerome (“When They See Us,” “Moonlight”) as Robles and Affleck’s wife, Jennifer Lopez, as his mother. It will be shot by Salvatore Totino (“65”) and edited by Brett Reed, Goldenberg’s former assistant, who recently cut “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” with him.

“Ben and Matt have been incredibly supportive and are really excited for me,” Goldenberg said. “They don’t know anything about wrestling, but they know what a good story is. We’re closing deals and we shoot in five weeks. Anthony’s gonna double himself in the wrestling [scenes]. I just felt it was time for a new challenge.”

“Air” is now in theaters.

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