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For ‘Air’ screenwriter Alex Convery, the best time to create is when no one is watching

Alex Convery rests his arms on a table as he sits for a portrait.
Writing “Air” on spec allowed Alex Convery to “take chances on the page. ... I was just trying to get the reader to turn the page.”
(Julien James / For The Times)
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“Air” began with a broken promise. A promise to myself — the easiest type to break.

I was fresh off the heartbreak of a Stan Lee biopic I wrote on spec getting traction at a studio, only to be killed the same way most projects in Hollywood are killed: without a phone call. I swore to myself I wouldn’t write another true story unless I first controlled the rights.

But I was stuck, running on an endless treadmill of chasing open writing assignments, rewrites or anything that would allow me to quit my day job.

The calendar turned to March 2020, and suddenly we were locked inside. And with the industry all but shut down, my manager gave me fateful direction: “You have a month or two to write whatever you want.”

Sometimes all you need is an excuse.

The actor talks about scripting his ‘Air’ character, Howard White; the prospects for ‘Rush Hour 4’ and returning to ‘Friday,’ and more.

April 3, 2023

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I didn’t find the idea — it found me. Sitting on the living room floor watching the Michael Jordan docuseries “The Last Dance,” just like I used to do with my dad watching the Bulls in the late ‘90s, I saw the clip about a third-rate jogging company named Nike that beat all odds and signed a paradigm shifting endorsement deal.

They say all good stories have a personal connection. As a kid from Chicago, the Michael Jordan draw was natural. But finding Sonny Vaccaro unlocked the story for me. Could I relate to a character working in an industry where all the odds seemed stacked against him, trying to do something that seemed impossible, desperate to make something happen? It wasn’t a stretch. Ultimately, the shoe deal became a Trojan horse for a more human story.

So, within a month, I was back to doing the one thing I promised myself never to do again. I didn’t tell my reps out of fear that they would (wisely) tell me to stop. The script was a secret, and like any good secret, it belonged to me and I belonged to it.

I never thought it had a chance to get made. In my head, I was writing something solely to be read, a writing sample that could book me a job. And, in a way, that finally freed me. It gave me permission to take chances on the page. I wasn’t worried about it being producible, I was just trying to get the reader to turn the page.

It didn’t take a month or two. It took a year.

I’m superstitious by nature. I often expect the worst. Probably because I’m a Bears fan. So, anytime a script goes out, I try to find ways to distract myself, because the part of the process you control is over. You’re left to the mercy of phone calls and secondhand news. And in Hollywood, the phone rarely rings with good news. But sometimes ….

It can.

A man sits across a picnic table from a woman as they talk in a scene from "Air."
Matt Damon as Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro, and Viola Davis as Michael Jordan’s mother in “Air.”
(Amazon Studios)

I usually take calls on our balcony. I can’t tell you how much bad news that balcony has borne witness to. But that’s where I was standing, afternoon sunlight pouring through a thin marine layer, when I got the call that Ben Affleck wanted to make the movie. And again, two months later when I heard that Amazon was on board to finance it. Some days you never forget.

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It’s the smaller moments I remember the most after that:

Sitting across from Sonny on a warm December afternoon in the desert, going through the original draft of the script, watching his eyes fill with memories and ghosts.

Hearing a sentence I don’t think will be repeated again in my life: “We have notes from Michael Jordan.”

Cinematographer Robert Richardson asking if I was aware you could write scenes whose slug lines start with EXT.

Getting home after the final day on set, my wife turning on music louder than it should be played at 11 p.m. and just dancing. We were so stupidly happy.

You never quite believe it’s going to happen. At least, I didn’t. Not until you’re standing on set, taking it all in. There’s Viola Davis. There’s Matt Damon. The director actually says “Action.” They’re making a movie.

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But that’s why I believe in spec-ing.

Success in Hollywood, like most fields, often comes down to being in the right place at the right time. For a writer, that means having the right script at the right time. And you can’t have the right script without having a script first. And the only way to have a script is to write one on spec.

In an odd way, it was only when I gave up hope of getting something made that I was able to write with full intention. Of course, that’s the script that ends up getting produced. Hollywood. It rarely operates on reason or logic. Nor, infamously, and luckily for me, promises.

But there’s one constant. Every project starts in the same place: on a blank page. All you must do is start.

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