How ‘NYAD’ Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi Challenged the Boundaries of What’s Possible

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Photo Source: Jimmy Chin, Jodie Foster, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and Annette Bening on the set of “NYAD” Credit: Kimberley French/Netflix

For documentary fans, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are already household names. The husband-and-wife directing team established their bona fides with films like 2021’s “The Rescue” and 2018’s “Free Solo,” which won an Oscar for best documentary feature. But like the extreme athletes who are often their subjects, the filmmakers aren’t afraid to push themselves to the next level: tackling their first-ever narrative feature.

“NYAD,” written by Julia Cox, tells the true story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, who shattered records—and expectations—when she swam 110 miles from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, at the age of 64. Though it’s an edge-of-your-seat sports tale, the biopic focuses just as much on the complex relationship between Nyad and Bonnie Stoll, her best friend, ex, and swim coach. (It doesn’t hurt that Hollywood legends Annette Bening and Jodie Foster portray the pair.)

We spoke with Vasarhelyi about her and Chin’s decision to make the leap from documentary to narrative, and why she believes it’s vital to center older women onscreen. 

What first drew you to Diana’s story? It’s so rare to see films that spotlight older women, particularly athletes.

We are interested in stories about people who challenge the boundaries of what’s possible. When we read the script for “NYAD,” we were like, This is a woman who does just that…. And then having the opportunity to craft two roles for two of the greatest actors of their generation that have depth and layers. It was exciting. So, we dove in—no pun intended.

Biopics have a tendency to over-idealize their subjects, and I love that “NYAD” doesn’t shy away from showing what a difficult, stubborn person Diana can be.

It was very intentional. I talk about Diana as [being] like a mille-feuille—a thousand-layer pastry. And we need to see more stories about women like that.

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Diana and Bonnie’s relationship in the film feels so real and specific—they’re two queer women who dated for a hot second, then went on to become each other’s family.

It’s a great testament to our writer, Julia Cox, who spent a lot of time with both Diana and Bonnie—and also to Jodie Foster, who is a queer woman of a certain age, and [concepts like] chosen family are really important to her. She was very generous and giving of herself when we were developing the script. Especially in the nonfiction space, it’s always the little details that sing. You can’t understand Diana and Bonnie’s relationship if you don’t understand the idea of chosen family.

Did you always have Annette in mind for the lead?

It was always going to be Annette. She is just such a formidable actor, and she’s an angel in every way. She understood that the role would turn on the training. She took it really seriously and thought about it quite deeply; and she committed and trained for a year. Her comfort in the water was the one thing we could never control, but it was also the most important thing to the logistics of the film, because she would have to be in the water for a long time. She just did a beautiful job.

I remember the first time she got in the water—everyone was on set, water safety, etc. And when she swam one lap, everyone was in awe and wonder. And also her comfort with her own body—there are no touchups; there’s nothing. And that is very special. And then we got really spoiled when Jodie said yes. It’s Bonnie’s support and friendship [with] Diana that’s the beating heart of this film. 


Liz Parkinson/Netflix

You intersperse archival footage of a younger Diana—such as her initial failed attempt at the Cuba-to-Florida swim in 1978—with flashbacks using actors. How did you make the decision to blend the two?

Well, for one, Diana’s clip on “Johnny Carson” is one of the sexiest clips I’ve ever seen. [Laughs] Diana’s life force in that archival material is amazing…. I was really interested in the idea that her body remembers; what is it like to re-experience exactly what you experienced 30 years earlier and failed [to do]—and that sort of pain and psychological complexity? That’s where the archive worked really well, because it was our way of [showing the] audience what that experience would be like. I feel lucky that it worked.

How closely did you and the cast work with the real Diana and Bonnie?

To Jodie and Annette’s great credit, and Diana and Bonnie’s, they spent a lot of time together. It was important to [the actors] to understand how [those two] interacted and kind of get into that DNA. And Diana and Bonnie…just let us run with it. Once we finished filming, I was like, “We need the space to make the film now. Trust us—we’ve done all the research, and we pay lots of attention to detail.” The fact that Diana was able to just let go in that way was very special; I don’t think I would be able to do it. She’s just a very, very intelligent woman, and she knew this is what had to happen.

You and Jimmy have worked on lots of documentaries together. What made you want to tackle your first narrative feature, and why this subject?

There were elements to [Nyad’s] story that were similar to what we had handled in our nonfiction work…. Like, Alex [Honnold] climbing [in “Free Solo”]—there’s only so much rock you can look at [after] a while. But these are vehicles to get you involved emotionally—to see the world through [the subjects’] eyes. Like, in “Free Solo,” when my mom, who’s a little Chinese lady, knew what “the boulder problem” was, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, We did our job. So there were all these elements of stuff that we [already] knew how to do…. It just felt like testing a muscle we already had and seeing how it translated.

What was it like to film so much in the water?

We shot a lot of [the movie] in a tank in the Dominican Republic. People always say that water and children are the hardest things to shoot. I think it was fortuitous that it was our first narrative feature, because we didn’t know better; and Jimmy and I just throw ourselves into things. But it was really, really challenging, and I have to credit our [director of photography], Claudio Miranda, who is famous for “Life of Pi” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” He ran a really tight ship with his team; they were fast and allowed us to use multiple cameras at once, and we had the best underwater [DP], Pete Zuccarini. And because Annette was so comfortable in the water, we could keep on shooting. It was a lot of different pieces that had to come together.

Though it’s very realistic, there are some very stylized narrative elements in “NYAD,” like when Diana starts hallucinating near the end of her swim. What was the inspiration for that?

Well, the real Diana had a hallucination about the Taj Mahal. And that’s amazing, right? We were like, We have to do that; it’s so much fun. And I think we really needed that moment of levity and wonder [during that] final swim, especially after she struggled through all these [past] swims…. It’s like a birthing scene; when she gets out of the Taj Mahal, she’s almost ready, you know?

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Financial hardship doesn’t make for great art, so it’s always OK to ask. And you can ask for anything you want, as long as you’re prepared to [be respectful]. Why would you not ask for the moon? Dream that Jodie Foster will say yes to your movie, or that Claudio Miranda will shoot it. Or my favorite is [Oscar-winning composer] Alexandre Desplat, who we’ve asked probably six times to do the score for our docs, and he finally said yes. So just don’t be afraid to ask.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.