Vasarhelyi and Chin, who won an Academy Award for their intense, free-climbing documentary, “Free Solo,” in 2019 and have received critical acclaim for “Meru” and “The Rescue,” have long been interested in telling stories about athletes pushing themselves to the mental and physical extremes of their sport.
“I think there’s probably an autobiographical element to it where I’m just trying to understand my own husband over and over and over again,” Vasarhelyi said of Chin, an accomplished mountaineer, photographer and skier, in a video interview with NBC News.
In “Nyad,” the filmmakers recognized an opportunity to tell a remarkable story of human ambition that both aligns and extends their existing body of work, which, up until that point, had only included documentaries.
“I think that this film does set itself apart because it is about a woman’s experience,” said Vasarhelyi, who worked as director Mike Nichols’ assistant while he was making “Closer” two decades ago. “After making so many nonfiction films, it was a really fun challenge or question to think about, ‘How do you tell a true story in narrative fiction? Are there truths you can bring that you don’t have access to in nonfiction?’”
For their narrative feature debut, Vasarhelyi, Chin and their creative team decided to cast four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening as Nyad and two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster as her best friend turned coach, Bonnie Stoll. After buying the rights to the film in early 2021, Netflix executives elected to push the starting date of production back by nine months to avoid hurricane season in the Dominican Republic. The delay proved to be a blessing in disguise, allowing Bening and Foster extra time to delve deeper into the psychology of their characters and undergo their own physical transformations.
Bening, also 64, “had spent a year training with an ex-Olympic swimmer, but we didn’t know how it was going,” Chin recalled of the first time the actress swam in front of the rest of the cast and crew. “She told us that she was swimming every day, and then when she showed up and she swam across the tank that we were shooting in, we were just floored — everybody, including the stunt team. Her stroke was beautiful. Her body had transformed; she looked like an Olympic swimmer, and we just were so moved by that commitment. And from that point on, it was like everybody had to elevate their game to the level that Annette was bringing to the set.”
Given that so much of the dramatic tension in “Nyad” takes place in the water, the directors worked closely with Claudio Miranda, an Oscar-winning cinematographer best known for working on “Life of Pi” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” to make each of the swimming sequences feel visceral and unique.
“We wanted to push the cinematography; we wanted to shoot swimming in a way that had never been shot before,” Chin explained. “We tried to shoot big and expansive to give people a sense of the scope and scale of the environment she was in, but we also wanted to shoot something intimate that brought people into Diana’s internal struggle.”
By spending a lot of time with the real-life Nyad and Stoll, who are both out lesbians, in Los Angeles, Bening and Foster were also able to develop their own version of the pair’s platonic friendship, which is the beating heart of the story. While her films with Chin “sometimes show these extraordinary feats,” Vasarhelyi argued that they are “really just vehicles for exploring a certain emotional truth — and in this case, it’s friendship.”
“We were interested in this idea of chosen family and showing a platonic friendship between two women that is complex, where you can grow with one another,” Vasarhelyi added. “The focus always was that Diana Nyad had to go on a journey of emotional growth, and it was only through the support and friendship of Bonnie [that] she was able to move beyond certain traumas and find the freedom to make it to the other shore.”
But that does not mean that Nyad and Stoll have always seen eye-to-eye. Stoll, a former racquetball champion who said she is “transported back” in time whenever she watches the finished film, said that while Nyad’s single-minded approach to achieving her goal may not have ruined their friendship, it “definitely put a lot of stress” on both of them. Not long after Nyad nearly died of a jellyfish sting during a failed attempt, Stoll decided that she could no longer work as her coach, which one could interpret as a kind of breakup. In order to work through these issues, Nyad and Stoll went to see Steve Munatones, the former head of Open Water Swimming, who acted as a kind of mediator between them.
“At the end of it all, I said, ‘Steve, is this swim humanly possible?’ And he thought about it, and he said, ‘Highly unlikely, but if anyone can do it, it’s Diana.’ We drove back an hour and a half — not one word was spoken between us; we’re both in our own thoughts,” Stoll recounted to NBC News. “I got out of the car, and the next morning, I called her. I said, ‘I’m in.’ … I didn’t know how determined on some level she actually was. As she got more determined, the whole team got more determined, and it became all of our goals to get to the other shore, not just Diana’s.”
At this point in their lives, Nyad and Stoll are more than just friends: “They’re family through thick and thin,” Vasarhelyi said.
“There’s a generation of women who made certain life decisions that they probably didn’t have the luxury of their family’s support, and no one really talks about that often enough,” she added. “I think that Bonnie made an extraordinary decision. It was better to be there with her friend, even though her friend might die, than not be part of maybe why she didn’t make it. I think that I was always kind of humbled by the strength of that commitment to one another, the respect that was required of one another.”
Some in the small but fervent community of marathon swimmers have questioned the legitimacy of Nyad’s achievement, which has not been officially ratified and was recently the subject of an investigation by two prominent organizations in open water swimming. In light of this film, decade-old questions about the way Nyad’s swim from Cuba to Florida was conducted and documented, along with accusations about Nyad’s character and tendency to inflate her own accomplishments, have resurfaced.
Vasarhelyi and Chin, who said they conducted their own research into these claims and found them to be of little merit, have repeatedly insisted that “Nyad” has never been about claiming a record to begin with; instead, they wanted to tell a story about how it is never too late to pursue one’s dreams. The filmmakers also hoped to show Nyad in all her “thorny” complexity, with Vasarhelyi comparing the swimmer to a mille-feuille, a multilayered French pastry that is both “complicated” but “vulnerable.”
“I just think as a society, people are uncomfortable with women showing ambition, or it’s often called being ‘dislikable,’” Vasarhelyi said. “People are uncomfortable with seeing aging bodies that are no longer 25 years old. Both Annette and Jodie were adamant that there was no touch-up to their bodies, there was no fixing of whatever, which is incredibly admirable, and it takes a real commitment to your craft to be like that. It seemed incredibly important to be able to create these roles for two of the best female actors of their generation where they could throw themselves into playing a complete woman.”