Air Screenwriter Shares What Made His Spec Script Rise Above the Rest
April 5, 2023
The new film Air tells the story of how the iconic partnership between Nike shoes and basketball player Michael Jordan came to be way back in 1984. It’s one of those partnerships that really wasn’t supposed to happen, but when it did, it changed the world of sports marketing forever.
Directed by Ben Affleck, starring Affleck and his buddy Matt Damon, the script is written by Alex Convery and made the Blacklist in 2021. But just like the partnership between Nike and Michael Jordan, there’s a million reasons why this film shouldn’t have happened. We chatted with Convery over Zoom to find out how the stars aligned for this incredible project.
Just 30-years old, Alex Convery grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He assumed he’d become a doctor to please his parents, but after barely earning a C- in biology, he knew he’d have to come up with an alternate plan.
Like most teens, he loved movies but never considered film as a career path. After his father bought him a book of the Cohen brother’s screenplays, the mechanics of writing films started to pique his interest. “That was the first time I'd seen a screenplay. It was like, Eureka! You go back and watch those movies with that book open and it's like, ‘Okay, this is how it happens!’ From that moment I was like, ‘I want to try writing movies.”
After graduating college with a degree in film from USC, he became an assistant in Hollywood for a couple of years. But it was grueling work for this creative guy.
Navigating the Complicated World of Story Rights
After four years, his sports-adjacent screenplay, Bag Man, set in the world of college football, landed him on the Blacklist for the first time and got him representation. He thought his career would magically take off – but the Hollywood gods had other plans. When Bag Man didn’t sell, he wrote another spec (read more here on how to write a spec script) called Excelsior about the relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that explored the origins of Marvel comics. Convery was about to learn a big lesson in writing a screenplay about real, living people without first obtaining the story rights.
“Sony had [Stan Lee’s] life rights and it came pretty close to all coming together, but ultimately, at the end of the day it didn't, because I didn't control the rights. It's just a very dangerous thing to spec something that is a true story you don't control,” says Convery, who swore to himself that he’d never do that again.
“You know, it's just too heartbreaking! It's not smart from a business perspective which, you know, take business advice from a screenwriter at your own risk,” he says half-jokingly, but also half seriously.
A Tiny Moment Becomes a Movie
Still looking for that big idea that would launch his career while sitting at home alone in his apartment during the pandemic, Convery watched the sports documentary series The Last Dance in May of 2020. Bam! Inspiration struck. “There's that five-minute little clip of when they do that deal with Nike, who was just a jogging shoe company and Michael [Jordan] wanted to go to Adidas and Converse was the official shoe of the NBA. It never should have happened. And, as a screenwriter, you're sitting there like, ‘Whoa, this is a movie!’”
He started doing research to see if someone else had the same idea but he couldn’t find it being developed anywhere. “It was one of those moments where it's like, I know I promised myself that I wouldn’t do this again, but I just liked the story too much. It was like one of those gut feelings that's like, I’ve got to give this one a try,” he says.
Heartbreak be damned! Convery couldn’t deny that he was risk taker at his core. So it’s no surprise he gambled it all on a movie about Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon in the movie), who risked his own career in real life on developing a shoe line for Michael Jordan. A theme was developing here, but Convery didn’t see the connection. Until he watched the movie.
“I’m watching the movie and it’s like, man, this is a little how I was feeling. Like you're just stuck. You have these big dreams that, to this point, just hadn't come together. But I think that's so much of writing. You can't help but pour a lot of yourself into it, whether it's consciously or subconsciously, it’s going to end up on the page,” he says.
Finding the Right Collaborators
In the film, Michael Jordan’s mother, Delores, is played by Viola Davis (at the real Michael Jordan’s insistence). There’s a line in the original script where Delores says, “A shoe is just a shoe.” But on set, Davis added, “Until my son steps into it.” It is perhaps the most memorable line in the film. While Convery can’t take credit for the second half of that line, he said it blew his mind how much the actors added to the movie – in a number of ways.
“Jason Bateman [who plays Rob Strasser] obviously has insane comedic chops and added so much to the part. There was amazing banter with Sonny and Chris Tucker [who plays Howard White], who really wrote all of his own stuff. Chris Messina [who plays David Falk] was just going crazy with that part. It just became so alive in a way I hope was on the page but they just inhabited those roles and went out and crushed it. So, structurally it’s very much the movie that was always there. But the best parts of the movie are all due to the cast and crew and their pass on the script.”
And having Ben Affleck, an Oscar-winning screenwriter, direct the script can only help it soar.
Read More on Ben Affleck and Matt Damon collabs: 5 Screenwriting Takeaways: 'The Last Duel' is a true story of one woman's struggle in 14th century France
Convery feels very grateful for the incredible luck that helped his script find the right people at the right time. But we have to acknowledge that it wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t work really hard on the script in the first place. His secret? He let himself have fun.
Having Fun While You Write Pays Off
“I had so much fun writing this. But in my heart of hearts, I never thought this would be more than a good writing sample. I thought it might get me other jobs or maybe land on the Blacklist. That gave me permission to really focus on it as a written document because I thought that was the only form it would ever be consumed in,” he says.
He spent a year working on the script, making it highly readable. He even broke some of the rules he learned in film school and went against advice he’d read on screenwriting Twitter.
“I talked to the reader [in the script]. I talked about what was going on in characters’ heads. I wrote stuff that couldn't be shown on camera. I just thought this has to be as readable as possible because it will only ever be read,” he says.
The big takeaway for other writers is to remember that when you're writing something on spec, you're writing something to be read.
“A spec will first be consumed as a written document whereas, writing to be produced is a little different. Once you have producers on the project, or you're writing specifically for a director, then you should focus on how it's going to show up on screen. I just think the fun I was having on the page showed up in the read – that's something I heard more than anything about the script. People said, ‘I had fun reading it!’ That's because I had fun writing it, it was that simple.”
Convery’s other advice to writers trying to launch their career with a spec script is deceptively simple: finish your script!
“It's funny, it's like we forget sometimes that there's nothing more valuable to a screenwriter than a finished screenplay. Three times in my career now, when I was stuck in a rut, having a finished screenplay is always what accelerated me to where I was trying to go. So just finish it!”
Air is currently playing in theaters and will likely stream on Amazon Prime starting in May.
Written by: Shanee EdwardsShanee Edwards is an L.A.-based screenwriter, journalist and novelist who recently won The Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer and was honored to be mentored by actress/producers America Ferrera. Shanee's first novel, Ada Lovelace: The Countess Who Dreamed in Numbers was published by Conrad Press in 2019. Currently, she is working on a biopic of controversial nurse Florence Nightingale. Shanee’s ultimate goal is to tell stories about strong, spirited women whose passion, humor and courage inspire us all.