‘Nyad’ Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin on Star Annette Bening, Jodie Foster and Navigating a Watery Shoot
Oscar-winning doc makers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin chose an appropriate subject for this move into traditional narrative feature: Diana Nyad, the athlete who swam from Cuba to Florida in 2013 at the age of 64.
The “Nyad” directing duo won an Oscar for rock climbing doc Free Solo in 2019, and earned much critical praise 2015’s “Mero” and 2021’s “The Rescue” (which, even though it’s not an extreme sports movie, does feature physical acts of courage and daring).
Nyad burned with a passion to complete the swim, a feat that she had to abort four times before; her first time in her twenties. So at an age when most people are planning retirement, she planned a hundred-mile swim. Nyad, played with stunning conviction by Annette Bening, was greatly aided by her friend and coach Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster as the quiet heart of the movie) and ace navigator John Bartlett (a wonderful Rhys Ifans). The film also makes liberal use of actual historical footage of Nyad, as it covers all of her attempts in which she encounters storms and jellyfish.
“Put it this way, I always thought shooting in the Alpine or up on [Yosemite’s] El Capitan would be very, very challenging — and it is — but when you’re filming in water, there’s just so many more variables,” says Chin.
Chin credits DP Claudio Miranda, who also shot “Life of Pi,” with the immersive feeling and look of the film.
But Diana Nyad isn’t a warm and fuzzy character — and the screenwriter Julia Cox wrote a selfish, aggravating, smart, charismatic and driven woman who manages to inspire those around her to help her achieve her goals. “I think one thing that’s kind of tricky about Diana is she’s so well-spoken, and so intelligent and that is also intimidating. But we really wanted to be able to show her warts and all,” says Vasarhelyi adding that Foster’s character helped audiences be introduced to Nyad.
Both note that Foster and Bening came to set loaded with research. And both started training more than a year before the cameras rolled.
Bening’s skill in the water blew everyone away. “Were like, holy shit. She’s a legitimate graceful, beautiful swimmer, and that was a huge in a lot of ways — that set the tone because then everybody’s like, OK, she put in the work. She’s elevated herself to become an athlete at this age, to do this movie. Everybody needs to step up to the level that she’s playing at,” says China, adding: “And granted, we had all these stunt doubles. Well, they never swam.”
The real Diana Nyad of course was also around to consult on things like what does skin look like after being in the water for 20 hours? How do you get nutrition to a marathon swim? What goes through a marathoner’s mind when swimming? (For Nyad, it is rock hits in 4/4 time, better to keep a steady pace.)
A contingent of marathon swimmers have claimed that she cheated on her successful attempt. It’s not overtly addressed in the film, and the filmmakers sound weary when asked about this, while acknowledging some of Nyad’s past exaggerations of her feats. Vasarhelyi reminds that they are nonfiction filmmakers and came to the project with tons of research and fact-checking. “And honestly, we were very aware of this. … she’s a triggering, complicated person and I think that we wouldn’t necessarily be having the conversation if she was a man.”
Chin says that there were 40 people in five boats documenting her swim: “All 40 people kept some sort of secret to over however many years. There’s no doubt that she swam 110 miles from Cuba to Florida.”
In the end, it’s a story of triumph, friendship and humility. “It was really inspiring to see these incredibly formidable actors put in that sort of work. There was something about the grace of the crew and the actors that allowed this very difficult or ambitious shoot to go forward.”
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