Oscar-winning documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi threw themselves into the deep end by making their debut scripted feature with endurance swimming true tale Nyad. They tell Screenabout life on the water.


Source: Liz Parkinson / Netflix


Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi do not make things easy for themselves. The husband-and-wife directing team is best known for Free Solo, a nerve-shredding, Oscar-winning documentary that required them to film climber Alex Honnold while he was hundreds of metres up a cliff face in Yosemite national park. Their debut narrative feature Nyad was just as demanding. “We’ve certainly filmed in some of the more challenging environments in the world, from the Himalayas to Antarctica to big walls in Yosemite,” says Chin. “But I think water is the most challenging environment to shoot in, especially for a narrative film, just because everything takes three or four times as long.”

Water was not the only obstacle the team had to get past. Adapted from Diana Nyad’s memoir Find A Way, Chin and Vasarhelyi’s inspirational drama recounts how a 60-year-old former swimming champion (played by Annette Bening) decides to embark on an epic 102‑mile open-water swim from Cuba to Florida, enlisting her best friend and old flame Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) to be her trainer. “The film is kind of a miracle,” says Vasarhelyi. “It’s about two elder women who are lesbians, and it’s about swimming, which you would think is very monotonous. On paper, I don’t understand why any studio would make the movie.”

Luckily, Netflix disagreed. Before the streamer offered to finance the project, Nyad’s memoir had been optioned by Black Bear’s Teddy Schwarzman and Mad Chance’s Andrew Lazar. When they brought the project to Chin and Vasarhelyi, the couple’s response, says Vasar­helyi, was “we love the story, we don’t like the script”, so they hired writer Julia Cox to pen a fresh adaptation during the pandemic.

It was not so much the shift from documentary to scripted drama that appealed to the directors, as the shift in gender. “I know that Chai and I have explored individuals trying to achieve these impossible dreams,” says Chin, “but it was always through the point of view of men, and we were interested in exploring this through a woman’s perspective, particularly a woman of a certain age.”

Casting complexity

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Source: Ricky Middlesworth / Netflix

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Both of them had one specific woman of a certain age in mind. “It always had to be Annette,” says Vasarhelyi. “It was important for us to cast age appropriately. We needed someone who was incredibly dedicated to their craft because of the physical demands of the role. And it also had to be someone who was unafraid to play a woman in her full complexity, likeable or not likeable.” One of the pleasures of Nyad is that its heroine is an insensitive egotist, and yet, says Vasarhelyi, Bening “is so fundamentally likeable and beautiful” that viewers love her anyway.

Bening dived into an intensive training regime — although it was not as inconvenient for her as it might have been for some. “She and [husband] Warren Beatty have this beautiful pool in their house in LA,” says Vasarhelyi, “and she had a former Olympian as her coach.”

Having signed on to play Stoll, Foster went into training, too — not that Chin and Vasarhelyi could be sure their stars were putting in the requisite hours. “It was during the pandemic,” says Vasarhelyi, “and we couldn’t check on how [Bening] was training. We’d ask her how it was going, but she always wore these baggy T-shirts [on Zoom]. When they all turned up on set and Jodie had these abs and muscles and Annette was this amazing swimmer, it was pretty extraordinary. We saw that these people were at the top of their craft and they brought their A-game.”

Bening’s year of swimming training didn’t just help her look convincing in the title role, it effectively added vital time to the production schedule. “One of the things that we hadn’t anticipated was how much endurance Annette had built,” says Chin. Her scenes in the ocean were shot over 37 days in a water tank in the Dominican Republic. “The only reason we were able to shoot on schedule was that she was willing to spend four to six to eight hours a day in the water, and that allowed us to continue shooting and get the most out of each day.” The training also motivated her colleagues. “When your number one is willing to go that distance on set, it raises the bar for everybody. Nobody was complaining.”

Still, Nyad — which premiered at Telluride and released theatrically before landing on Netflix in early November — is not just about the fitness of the actors and the characters, but about Nyad and Stoll’s friendship. It was this aspect as much as the extreme-sports angle that persuaded Lazar and Schwartzman that Chin and Vasarhelyi would be the right directors for the job. “They were both big fans of Free Solo,” Chin says of the producers. “They felt that the climb was well-documented and interesting, but that the strength of the film was the subtext of the story and the love story [between Honnold and his girlfriend Sanni McCandless]. From the outside, there’s a common misperception that chasing these kinds of dreams is a personal, selfish endeavour, but at the heart of what we do is the shared experiences with partners, and with people who are part of the team, and the depth of this type of relationship.”

There is no mystery as to why Chin and Vasarhelyi should be so well suited to films in which one person is driven to risk life and limb, and another person worries about them. Chin himself is a professional athlete who has scaled Mount Everest and skied back down again, while Vasarhelyi comes from an arts background — she was Mike Nichols’ assistant on Closer — who declares, “I have always liked words and feelings a lot.” Can it be assumed Free Solo and Nyad are veiled portraits of their own marriage?

“I mean, aren’t all films autobiographical in a way,” laughs Vasar­helyi. “But I do have a burning interest in this human thing of being so audacious, of having that crazy dream, and having that perseverance and grit to achieve it. So, yeah, I probably married Jimmy for those reasons, among others. He has many charms.”

Personal connection

The key to their directing partnership, Vasarhelyi says, is that Chin can ensure every detail of the sporting endeavours is authentic, while she understands the hopes and fears of everyone involved. “Our interests are like a Venn diagram, and the overlap is very slim, so if [a story] moves both of us then we know it’s the right thing, and we know we’ll give everything to make it the best it can be,” she says. “You give so much to every film, it has to have some personal meaning that can sustain that fire for however many years you’re going to suffer and cry for it, and bleed for it and hate it and love it and deal with it in your marriage.”

The couple’s production company Little Monster Films has several such projects in the pipeline — and the next one for Chin and Vasarhelyi will be a documentary about Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.

“There’s no extreme sport but there is extreme exploration,” says Vasarhelyi. “And again, it’s just an amazing story of friendship and leadership and the courage to fail. That’s right up our alley.”