Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarheli in Diana Nyad – The Hollywood Reporter

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarheli premiere their latest film, naiadat 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 feature film debut for the co-director pair, who won Academy Awards for their 2018 documentary. solo freeon rock climber Alex Honnold, and also did the docs Rescue in 2021 and Wildlife in 2023.

Chen and Vasarheli spoke with THR about working with actors versus athletes, and grappling with Nyad’s complicated history, which included exaggerating some claims earlier in her career, and putting their film out amid Hollywood’s double whammy. naiad It will also be shown at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12, before hitting theaters on October 20, and hitting the Netflix streaming service on November 3.

Have you been actively looking forward to making a feature film??

Elizabeth Chai Vasarheli We were very seriously thinking of finding a story we were interested in that centered around a woman. And when we read the script, Jimmy and I had this conversation where I was describing what happened, and he said, “No way. No way!” We kind of looked at each other and said, “Oh…”

Jimmy Chin We’ve talked about delving 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 that we hadn’t seen before.

How did Annette come on board?

chin We put all our eggs in one basket. We were like, It must be Annette, it must be Annette. We didn’t even think of anyone else.

vasarheli It was really important to us that the actor be of the right age, whoever the actor is. And it’s a role that requires very deep work. Annette is a committed actress. She demands a lot of herself. I have been training for over a year. Also, the work that she and Judy did, spending time with the real Diana and the real Bonnie, was very helpful.

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When you were looking at the script and thinking about how to film it, how did you think about how to reconcile the flashbacks with the real-time action of Cuban Swimming?

vasarheli The script is excellent. Julia [Cox] She did a beautiful job and was with us too. But our films are so full of editing that we spend a lot of time breaking the film. We break the movie over and over again, just trying different things. It’s kind of fun and magical, at least to me. So we found it [structure] in editing. It was always about how to let the build swim? How do you allow fans to access this unique marathon swimming experience?

chin Incorporating the archive gives it a different profound experience. We were shooting and then editing some footage of the actual swimming, and that just added grit to it.

How was working with the actors?

vasarheli I’ve worked for Mike Nichols for 20 years as his assistant in… closer hiring. I have to go to the theater with him every night. I sat at every rehearsal. And so I’ve always thought that everyone trains, right? The lucky thing about working with Judy, Annette, and Rhys [Ifans] is that they trained, and no one ever acted as a substitute. They have always done the opposite of each other. I was personally terrified at first. Four hundred people are looking at you. And it took one good decision to understand that skills do translate and instincts do. The real and the fictional, they’re very similar muscles in terms of storytelling. It’s just that the resources in fiction are much richer. Instead of waiting two years for Alex Honnold to say “I love you,” Jodi can do it without saying anything. It’s completely different, getting to the point of emotion.

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chin Before we started, I was thinking, what is our real challenge? And of course I thought, Will I work with actors? And it turns out that that was actually a lot more natural than I thought. Because you realize when you work with talent on documents, especially if you work with high-profile athletes, which I spend a lot of time doing, it builds the environment that allows 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 you set everything up and all the cameras are in place and everything moves smoothly and he can get in and climb, he can do his thing. A lot of directing is creating that environment in order to allow someone like Judy or Annette to do what they’re good at.

In the film, Diana is shown as a great athlete but a deeply flawed woman. She is also the producer of this movie. Did she have editorial control over how she was photographed?

vasarheli Diana made a very smart decision to let us do our thing. It was very difficult for her, but everyone understood the point, which was to show women in all their complexity. It’s been really rewarding for us to find that balance between honoring the real Diana Naya’s sass, her intelligence, her ferocity, and her drive, while also letting people get to know her so you can finally go swimming with her. It was always intended to be warts etc, but how do you fix them?

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Earlier in her career, Diana exaggerated some claims about her swimming achievements, and some in the swimming community had complaints about how she completed her swim in Cuba. How did you guys handle that?

vasarheli We try to process it in the movie. There are moments when Bonnie makes fun of her for overdoing things. We did our research and spent a lot of time with Diana. We have done our due diligence. This movie isn’t about a record. It’s about a woman who wakes up at 60 and realizes she’s not over yet. And that woman has flaws. I think if we were dealing with a man, people wouldn’t bother him so much. But Diana admits her flaws, and I respect that.

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

How do you deal with the strike?

vasarheli We have the utmost respect for every SAG and WGA member. And I truly believe they are fighting for their lives. All creative people are fighting for their lives right now. It is strange to have a movie released especially after these actors put so much work into it. Not celebrating Annette or Diana [who is also SAG-AFTRA member because of her sports commentating]. We really want to support the strikes, and our representatives can’t be there. It’s bittersweet.

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