Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi 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 first feature film for the co-director pair, who won an Oscar for their 2018 documentary. Free soloabout rock climber Alex Honnold, and also prepared the docs Rescue In 2021 and Wildlife In 2023.
Chen and Vassarhelyi spoke with THR About working with actors versus athletes, grappling with Nyad’s complicated history, which included exaggerating some claims earlier in her career, and releasing their film amid the double whammy of Hollywood. Naiad It will also screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12, before hitting theaters on October 20, and arriving on Netflix’s streaming service on November 3.
Have you been actively looking to make a feature film??
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi We were thinking very seriously about finding a story that 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 Chen We’ve talked about delving into narrative at some point, just like 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 have put all our eggs in one basket. We were like, it must be Annette, it must be Annette. We didn’t even think about anyone else.
Vasarhelyi It was really important to us that the actor, whoever the actor was, be the right age. It is a role that requires very deep work. Annette is a committed actress. She demands a lot of herself. I have trained for over a year. And also the work that she and Judy did, spending time with the real Diana and the real Bonnie, was very rewarding.
When you were looking at the script and thinking about how to film it, how did you think about how to juggle the flashbacks with the real-time action of the Cuban swim?
Vasarhelyi The scenario 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 film over and over again, just trying different things. This is kind of fun and magical, at least for me. So we found it [structure] In editing. It was always about how do we allow the swimming pool to be built? How do you allow fans access to this unique marathon swimming experience?
chin Integrating the archive gives it a different, visceral experience. We were filming and then editing some footage of the actual swim, and that added this grit to it.
How was it working with the actors?
Vasarhelyi I have 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 in on every rehearsal. And so I always thought everyone was training, right? The lucky thing about working with Judy, Annette and Reece [Ifans] It’s that they trained, and no one ever acted as a substitute. They always did the opposite of each other. I was personally terrified at first. Four hundred people are looking at you. It took one good decision to understand that skills translate and instincts translate. Realistic and 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, accessing emotion.
chin Before we started, I was thinking, what is our real challenge? And of course I thought, will I work with actors? It turns out that it actually looked a lot more natural than I thought. Because you realize when you work with talent on docs, especially if you work with elite athletes, which is what I spend a lot of time doing, that 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 I set everything up and all the cameras are in place and everything moves smoothly and he can get in and climb, he can do what he does. A lot of directing is creating that environment in order to allow someone like Judy or Annette to do what they do best.
In the film, Diana is shown as a great athlete but a very flawed woman. She is also a producer of this film. Did she have editorial control over how it was filmed?
Vasarhelyi Diana made a very smart decision to let us do our work. It was very difficult for her, but everyone understood the point, which was to show women in all their complexity. It’s been really helpful for us to figure out that balance between honoring the sass of the real Diana Naya, her intelligence, her fierceness, her leadership, while also allowing people to get to know her so they can finally swim with her. It was always the intention for it to be warts and all, but how do you fix it?
Earlier in her career, Diana exaggerated some claims about her swimming achievements, and some in the swimming community had complaints about how she completed the swim in Cuba. How did you guys deal with that?
Vasarhelyi We try to address it in the film. There are moments when Bonnie makes fun of her for exaggerating things. We did our research and I spent a lot of time with Diana. We did 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 finished yet. And that woman has flaws. I think if we were dealing with a man, people wouldn’t bother him so much. But Diana acknowledges her flaws and I respect that.
chin As a professional athlete and working with a lot of world-class athletes, people who transcend the boundaries of sport, I have seen this happen a lot. There will always be skeptics, fundamentalists, and critics. The purists are always the people you would never find swimming a hundred miles or trying to ski Mount Everest. She had to wear a jellyfish suit. This is how a problem was solved. I was thinking outside the box which allowed her to do that.
How do you deal with a strike?
Vasarhelyi We have the utmost respect for every member of SAG and the WGA. I truly believe they are fighting for their lives. All creative people are fighting for their lives right now. It’s strange for a movie to be 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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