“Nyad” is the real-life story of Diana Nyad (Annette Bening), a world class swimmer who decided, at age 60, that she wanted to do something that had previously seemed impossible after she’d tried it when she was younger and was unsuccessful – to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.
With her coach and former romantic partner Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) at her side, she made several more attempts, battling box jellyfish, turbulent storms and constant naysayers. Somehow insurmountable feels like too mild a word to describe what she was attempting.
And it feels like filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin were keenly equipped to capture her story. The team, who are also married in real life, are Oscar-winners for their documentary “Free Solo” and have helmed several more movies about human beings pushing themselves to the brink (like “The Rescue” and “Return to Space”). Nyad’s story, full of inspiration and physical endurance, is very much in their wheelhouse.
TheWrap spoke to the filmmakers about what attracted them to the story, mixing documentary footage with dramatic recreations and how they divvy up duties on their films. They also weigh in on the controversy that has been brewing around the movie.
You’re both clearly drawn to people who push the limits of what is possible. But what specifically drew you to this story?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: Well, you’re right. We love these stories about individuals who pushed the limits of what’s possible. But I think after “Free Solo,” “Meru,” “The Rescue,” we were really interested in what that experience is like for a woman. And when we received the script for “Nyad”, because we were sent scripts, we read it and just was like, Diana Nyad’s story is just that. Here’s a woman who is unapologetic about her ambition and not afraid to fail. We were really moved. And it provided a great opportunity to create two rich roles for two fabulous female actors and to see women in a fuller, more complex character.
Was part of the appeal the mixture of nonfiction elements as well? Was that always there from the beginning?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: It wasn’t. To tell you the truth, it was in this for the opening to contextualize her, but that is something we very much found in the edit. It was the non-fiction chops that facilitated that more because that clip of her on Johnny Carson is the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen and it reveals everything about her character but it was only because Annette’s performance was so profound and true that it somehow allowed your brain to believe Annette as Diana and also believe Diana as Diana at the same time. That was something that we didn’t know if it would work or not.
Right because so many movies end with footage of the actual people, but to have this at the beginning is really striking. When did you know it would work?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: It was the first time we screened it for people, and that was just in the room. And it’s just so interesting because it could have competed with Annette’s performance, but it doesn’t, and it’s Annette’s performance that really adds credibility. There’s something also about our exploration of how to tell a true story in fiction that that was related. And also this idea of the same way that it’s so important to have opportunities to have roles like this for women, it’s also important to underline women’s truth because so often their words are dismissed, the same way that you’re discarded when you’re 60. It’s like this idea that this is true.
Directing partnerships are always so fascinating. How did you divvy up duties?
Jimmy Chin: I think we’ve grown very accustomed and comfortable with each other’s strengths and what we each bring to the table. We have very different points of view, which can make it challenging, but is also, I think, our strength.
On this project, unlike on docs, and we were aware of this going into it that we really had to show up as a unified voice and vision on set, and so we did a lot of prep work every day, knowing what we were shooting that day, what the shot list looked like. We’d talk about everything before we went on set so that we could show up as a unified voice. We wanted to work together with the actors, and that was really important, is that we would always be together and we could share different ideas with them, but we were always together.
It’s one thing to be directing your first narrative feature and it’s another thing to be directing two of the greatest actresses of their generation. What was that like and how did that evolve during production?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: I mean, I had only worked in one narrative feature before, and that’s 20 years ago when I worked for Mike Nichols on “Closer,” so the only experience I had was you have Julia Roberts and Jude Law and Natalie Portman, everyone sits down and rehearses for weeks with a writer in the room. I also thought that every director got their own Covent Garden screening room for dailies. But I was from that kind of world. We really, we rehearsed a bunch and we read a bunch and we worked through the characters a lot before we ever got to set. We did a lot of prep. I worked on the script which I think really helped the actors and helped us become more comfortable. But Jimmy was going to describe our first day on set.
Jimmy Chin: Well, we show up on set and there’s almost 500 people on set. We actually chose to do one of the more challenging action sequences out on the boat on our very first day. Jodie is out on a boat about 100 feet from us in the tank.
And we do our first shot, and I look over at the first AD, and Chai and I are like, “Can we get a boat out to the boat to give a note to Jodie?” And he’s like, “Are you kidding? There’s no time to do that.” And handed us a megaphone.
Everybody on set is conscious that we’re first-time directors, of course. And we’re very conscious that they’re conscious that we’re first-time directors and we have to give our first note to Jodie over a megaphone in front of 500 people. And then we had to get over it very quickly because there was really no time to be self-conscious. But it was a moment where we looked at each other and we were like, “Oh, shit.”
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: But it was amazing. Once we made one good, well, at least for me, once I made one good decision on set, it was like this flood of confidence that happened where I was like, Oh, the instincts translate and I can rely on this 20 years of experience we have. It’s still there. It’s still good. And that was really meaningful.
Diana Nyad is still a controversial figure, with some people very outspoken about her even having a movie. Did you think about incorporating any of that into the film and what is your take on the controversy?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: Our intention was always to show a full, complicated woman. We never wanted to shy away from it. And so I feel like you see the abrasiveness and you see how she’s sometimes unlikable and you see how charismatic she is. It’s there, it’s in the film, it was very much our intention to include it.
The actual controversy is not about whether or not she did the swim. I think it’s more about what rules were followed in that they are English Channel rules, there’s this, everyone has different rules. But the film was never about a record, so we’d never claim she’s the first person to do this. The film is about a woman who wakes up at 60 and decides that even though the world is done with her, she’s not done.
The controversy is about the rules and then the controversy really is about more people finding they just don’t like her. I mean, that’s the point of the character. As my dad would say, because he’s used to us making docs that in the old days didn’t get enough attention, he’s like, “Any news is good news. All press is good.” And I’m like, “Ah.” But you can speak to this better because also it’s very common in the climbing world.
Jimmy Chin: Yeah, I guess it wasn’t a big surprise to me just because I work with world-class athletes for the last 20, 25 years. All of the athletes who are pushing the front edge of these sports, and often because they think outside of the box or they’re trying to do it in a different way, it can be threatening to the old guard or to traditionalists, but it’s also, they’re targets. We call them the armchair critics. It’s like these people don’t actually do any of it but they’ve got plenty to say about how you did it. And that’s pretty typical. It is what it is. It’s part of it. I see it all the time. You get the critics who are like, “Yeah, he climbed Everest but they use supplemental oxygen.” And you’re like…
“Nyad” is streaming on Netflix now.