‘Nyad’ Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi on Actors vs. Athletes, Controversies Over Swimmer Diana Nyad and “Bittersweet” Strike Premiere

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi premiered their latest movie, Nyad, at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday. The Netflix film, which stars Annette Bening as long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster as her coach, Bonnie Stoll, is the first narrative film from the married couple of co-directors, who won an Academy Award for their 2018 documentary Free Solo, about rock climber Alex Honnold, and also made the docs The Rescue in 2021 and Wild Life in 2023.

Chin and Vasarhelyi spoke with THR about working with actors vs. athletes, grappling with Nyad’s complex history, which included exaggerating some claims earlier in her career, and rolling out their film in the midst of Hollywood’s dual strikes. Nyad will also screen at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 12, before hitting theaters Oct. 20 and hitting Netflix’s streaming service Nov. 3.

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Were you actively looking to make a narrative film?

ELIZABETH CHAI VASARHELYI We had been thinking very seriously about finding a story that we were interested in that centered a woman. And when we read the script, Jimmy and I had this conversation where I was describing what happened, and he’s like, “No way. No way!” We kind of looked at each other and we’re like, “Oh…”

JIMMY CHIN We had talked about going into narrative at some point, just as storytellers and artists as a space to grow as filmmakers. But we were interested in doing a story we hadn’t seen before.

How did Annette come aboard?

CHIN We kind of had all our eggs in one basket. We were like, it has to be Annette, it has to be Annette. We hadn’t even considered anybody else.

VASARHELYI It was really important to us that whoever was cast, that the actor be of an appropriate age. And it’s a role that requires very deep work. Annette is such a committed actor. She demands so much of herself. She trained for over a year. And also the work that both she and Jodie did, spending time with the real Diana and the real Bonnie, was very, very meaningful.

When you were looking at the script and thinking about how to shoot it, how did you think about how to juxtapose the flashbacks versus the real-time action of the Cuba swims? 

VASARHELYI The script is excellent. Julia [Cox] did a beautiful job and she was also on set with us. But our films are very edit heavy in that we spend a lot of time breaking the movie. We break the movie over and over and over again, just trying different things. And it’s kind of the fun of it and the magic of it, at least for me. So we found that [structure] in the edit. it was always about how do you allow the swims to build? How do you allow audiences access to this very unique experience of marathon swimming?

CHIN The melding of the archival, it really gives it a different visceral experience. We’d shoot and then we edit it in some of the footage from the actual swims, and it added this grit to it.

What was it like to work with actors?

VASARHELYI I worked for Mike Nichols 20 years ago as his assistant on the Closer set. I got to go to the theater with him every night. I sat in every single rehearsal. And so I always thought, everyone rehearses, right? The lucky thing about working with Jodie and Annette and Rhys [Ifans] is that they rehearsed, and no one ever acted with a stand-in. They always did each other’s reverses. I was personally terrified in the beginning. Four hundred people are looking at you. And it just took one good decision to understand that the skills translate and the instincts translate. Nonfiction and fiction, it’s very similar muscles in terms of storytelling. It’s just, the resources in fiction are so much richer. Instead of waiting for two years for Alex Honnold to say “I love you,” Jodie can do it without even saying anything. It’s just different, the access to emotion.

CHIN Before we started, I was thinking, what is going to be the real challenge of this? And of course, I thought, is it going to be working with actors? And it turns out that that actually felt much, much more natural than I thought it would. Because you realize when you’re working with talent on docs, especially if you’re working with high-end athletes, which I spend a lot of time doing, it’s building the environment to allow them to perform at their best, the physical environment, the emotional environment. It’s not like I’m going to tell Alex how to climb, but if I set everything up and all the cameras are in place and everything’s moving smoothly and he can just come in and climb, then he can just do what he does. So much of directing is creating that environment in order to allow somebody like Jodie or Annette to do what they do best.

In the movie, Diana comes across as a remarkable athlete but a pretty flawed woman. Did she have editorial control over how she was portrayed?

VASARHELYI Diana made a very smart decision to just let us do our thing. It was very difficult for her, but everyone understood the intention, which was to show a woman in her full complexity. It was really meaningful to us to figure out this balance between honoring the chutzpah that the real Diana Naya had, and her intelligence, her fierceness, her drive, while also allowing people to get to know her so that ultimately you’re doing the swim with her. It was always the intention of being warts and all, but how do you ground it?

Earlier in her career, Diana exaggerated some claims about her swimming accomplishments, and some in the swimming community have complaints about how she completed her Cuba swim. How did you guys grapple with that?

VASARHELYI We try to address it in the film. There are moments where Bonnie makes fun of her for exaggerating things. We did our research and I spent a lot of time with Diana. We did our due diligence. This film is not about a record. It’s about a woman who wakes up at 60 and realizes she’s not done. And that woman has flaws. I think that if we were dealing with a man, people wouldn’t be picking on him quite as much. But Diana acknowledges her shortcomings and I respect that.

CHIN As a professional athlete and working with a lot of high-end world-class athletes, and people who are pushing the boundaries of sports, I’ve seen this happen a ton. There’s always going to be the skeptics and the purists and the armchair critics. The purists are always the ones that you will never find swimming a hundred miles or trying to ski Mount Everest. She had to wear a jellyfish suit. That’s how she solved a problem. And I was thinking outside of the box that allowed her to do it.

How are you handling the strike?

VASARHELYI We have the utmost respect for every member of SAG and the WGA. And I really believe they’re fighting for their lives. All creatives are kind of fighting for their lives right now. And it’s strange to be releasing a film and especially after these actors put so much work into it. Not having Annette be celebrated, or Diana [who is also SAG-AFTRA member because of her sports commentating]. We really want to support the strikes, and our actors can’t be present. It’s bittersweet.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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