Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have given audiences thrilling and sometimes terrifying front-row seats to incredible feats of human ambition in their documentary work.
From Alex Honnold’s white-knuckle climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan in the Oscar-winning “ Free Solo ” to the claustrophobic blackness awaiting the cave divers who rescued the trapped soccer team in Northern Thailand in “ The Rescue,” their understanding of the personalities capable of such impossible accomplishments is almost unparalleled in filmed storytelling.
It is not surprising, then, that they’d be interested and uniquely equipped to tell the story of Diana Nyad and her treacherous 110-mile (177-kilometer) swim from Cuba to Key West at age 64 for their first narrative film, “ Nyad,” now available to watch on Netflix.
But there would be at least one big difference in bringing “Nyad” to life: actors.
“In nonfiction, you observe. You’re like the closest listener,” Vasarhelyi told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
In fictionalized narrative, she found creative collaborators in their decorated core cast: Annette Bening, who plays Nyad, Jodie Foster as her friend and coach Bonnie Stoll, and Rhys Ifans as the ship’s navigator.
“It felt like a super-sizing of something,” she said. “Like, suddenly your creativity can go further because you have these resources and partners.”
Both Chin and Vasarhelyi, who are married and have two children, had been exploring opportunities in fiction when the script for “Nyad” came their way. Always drawn to characters with impossible dreams, they loved that this was wrapped in a female experience.
Vasarhelyi wasn’t without any experience working with actors, either, and in fact learned from the best. Twenty years ago, she was Mike Nichols’ assistant while he was making “Closer.”
“I thought everybody rehearsed for a month with Julia Roberts in the room and Jude Law and Clive Owen and Natalie Portman, and that everyone gets a private screening room in Covent Garden to watch the dailies every day and that Tom Stoppard stopped by all the time afterwards,” she said with a knowing laugh. “But what I took away from it was that rehearsal is everything and the text is everything.”
Thanks to a nine-month postponement, they were able to really dig into the story with their cast and their screenwriter, Julia Cox. And, it turns out, aside from things like blocking and scheduling, their experience filming top athletes also applied to performers.
“Really, 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 said. “But it was an extraordinary experience working with some of the greatest actors of our time.”
Some of the lessons were hard learned, though. Chin recalled that on their first day of filming their first scene, Foster was out on the boat. They didn’t have enough time to shuttle a boat out in between shots, so the first notes they gave to their two-time Oscar winner were over a megaphone in front of the entire crew.
“It’s 450 people on set, everyone’s highly conscious that we’re first-time directors. We’re conscious that we’re first-time directors. The actors are conscious of it,” Chin said.
Though perhaps not ideal, they realized it was the only way to stay on schedule and a compromise they needed to make.
“There’s just different challenges,” he said.
Bening and Foster dove into their preparation, both intellectually and physically, spending time with their real-life counterparts and transforming their bodies. Bening spent a year training to swim and perfecting the strokes, getting comfortable with the five-hour stretches 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 would she walk after 55 hours. And she was not afraid of playing a complicated, 360 (degree) woman who is sometimes unlikable.”
Some in the small community of marathon swimmers have cast doubts on Nyad’s swim, which has not been officially ratified, but Nyad and her team have always maintained that she did what she said in 2013 — swim the distance unassisted and without a shark cage. The film casts her in a complex light, prickly and egotistical, but also repeatedly shows her adherence to rules.
“Diana Nyad was not afraid to pursue her dreams, to be ambitious, to be hungry and fight for what she wants,” said Vasarhelyi. “This opportunity to create two very rich roles for two pretty remarkable women that you don’t normally get to see, I think that was the reason why we did this.”
They got some of the best in the business to help, as well, including Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who had plenty of experience in the water shooting Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” The resources on “Nyad” were a little different, though. Vasarhelyi laughed that if “Life of Pi” gave Miranda a Formula One racecar, their film could only get him roller skates.
“Everything just takes so much longer,” Chin said. “Even the prosthetics, it’d be four hours in the chair and then you only get a few takes. Or you’d get a perfect take but the wave machine wasn’t working. So you have to reset, move the boat all the way back. It was a lot.”
But then sometimes everything would come together on the first take, like Nyad’s triumphant moment stepping on the beach.
“We didn’t know what Annette was going to bring in that moment, you know? Even in a table read, you’re not sure what you’re going to get,” Chin said. “But she nailed it on the first take. Everyone was crying. We’re not so much proud for us, but proud for our cast and crew.”
The ongoing actors strike, in which Hollywood’s film and television actors are fighting for fair contracts with major entertainment companies like Netflix has made the rollout of “Nyad” a little bittersweet. With their other films, the filmmakers had loved watching their subjects get to see audiences respond to them and their work.
“We respect the fight that’s happening now. It is really important and urgent,” Vasarhelyi said. “But we haven’t had that sharing of that experience with the people who gave the most to the film.”
And, she said, “I really wish that Annette could be present so people will see how people celebrate her performance.”