‘Nyad’ Filmmakers on Moving from the Documentary World to Narrative Features and Learning the Language of Actors

Documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have transported audiences to the front lines of incredible human feats, both thrilling and terrifying.

Netflix has released an image showing Annette Bening as Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll in a scene from the film “Nyad.”

Acclaimed filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have consistently delivered awe-inspiring and sometimes nerve-wracking documentaries that showcase extraordinary human achievements. Their portfolio includes the Oscar-winning “Free Solo,” which captures Alex Honnold’s harrowing ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan, and “The Rescue,” which delves into the daring cave rescue of a trapped soccer team in Northern Thailand. Their ability to understand the individuals behind these incredible feats is unmatched in the world of filmmaking.

Their latest endeavor, the narrative film “Nyad,” now available on Netflix, tells the gripping story of Diana Nyad and her perilous 110-mile swim from Cuba to Key West at the age of 64. This project marked a departure for them as it involved actors, a significant change from their usual nonfiction work.

“In nonfiction, you observe. You’re like the closest listener,” Vasarhelyi explained in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

In the realm of fiction, they had the opportunity to collaborate with a distinguished ensemble cast. Annette Bening takes on the role of Diana Nyad, Jodie Foster portrays her friend and coach Bonnie Stoll, and Rhys Ifans plays the ship’s navigator. This transition expanded their creative horizons.

“It felt like a super-sizing of something,” Vasarhelyi noted. “Like, suddenly your creativity can go further because you have these resources and partners.”

Chin and Vasarhelyi, who are married and have two children, had been exploring opportunities in fiction when the “Nyad” script came their way. Their penchant for characters with impossible dreams and the fact that the story revolved around a female experience appealed to them.

Vasarhelyi also had some prior experience working with actors, having served as Mike Nichols’ assistant 20 years ago during the making of “Closer.”

Thanks to a nine-month delay, they had ample time to delve deeply into the story with their cast and screenwriter, Julia Cox. Their experience in filming elite athletes proved beneficial when working with the performers.

“Our job has been to create the space and the environment for them to perform at their best and bring a certain vibe on set as well,” Chin explained. “But it was an extraordinary experience working with some of the greatest actors of our time.”

The journey was not without its challenges, though. Chin recalled a moment when they had to give directions to Jodie Foster over a megaphone on a boat with a large crew on the first day of filming. The pressure of being first-time directors was palpable.

Bening and Foster undertook extensive preparation, both mentally and physically. They spent time with their real-life counterparts and underwent physical transformations. Bening trained for a year to master swimming techniques and acclimate to the extended periods in the water that would be pivotal on set.

“What was amazing about Annette is she made her own Diana,” Vasarhelyi said. “She did the work to know and anticipate what her body would feel like and how she would walk after 55 hours. And she was not afraid of playing a complicated, 360-degree woman who is sometimes unlikable.”

Despite doubts from some in the marathon swimming community regarding Diana Nyad’s swim, the film portrays her in a multifaceted light, highlighting her adherence to the rules. The filmmakers aimed to depict two rich and unconventional roles for women, which they saw as a compelling reason to undertake this project.

The production also enlisted the services of acclaimed cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who had significant experience shooting in water from his work on “Life of Pi.” The resources for “Nyad” were more limited, but the team embraced the challenges.

The film’s rollout coincided with an ongoing actors’ strike in Hollywood, where actors are advocating for fair contracts with major entertainment companies, including Netflix. This has made the release of “Nyad” a bit bittersweet for the filmmakers, as they haven’t been able to share the experience with their cast and crew as they would have liked.

“We respect the fight that’s happening now. It is really important and urgent,” Vasarhelyi emphasized. “But we haven’t had that sharing of that experience with the people who gave the most to the film.”

She expressed a desire for Annette Bening to witness the audience’s celebration of her remarkable performance.

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