Academy Award-winning filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ’00 is no stranger to true stories too wild to be made up. With her husband and collaborator, Jimmy Chin, she directed Free Solo, profiling Alex Honnold’s staggering climb of El Capitan; Meru, about the first ascent of the shark fin route to Meru Peak; and over a dozen other projects. Their latest film, Nyad, premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September.
“Jimmy and I have always been interested in individuals who push the boundaries of what’s possible and have this innate human audacity to dream big,” says Vasarhelyi. “Free Solo, Meru, and The Rescue were all movies about men. With this, I wanted to show what that experience was like for a woman.”
Nyad tells the story of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who, in 2013, at the age of 64 and on her fifth attempt, successfully swam 110 miles from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, in 53 hours. The film stars Annette Bening as Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster as Nyad’s close friend, Bonnie Stoll, whose emotional and tactical support was critical to the success of the swim.
To cross the straits of Florida, Nyad and her team had to navigate turbulent and ever-changing weather conditions and the threat of sharks and venomous jellyfish. With the help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Vasarhelyi and Chin capture this odyssey — its beautiful, rough, sweeping environments and the dazzling visions of yellow brick roads and the Taj Mahal that Nyad began having after hours in the water. “Once she starts to hallucinate,” says Foster, as Stoll, in one scene in the movie, “you go with it.”
The film is Vasarhelyi and Chin’s first narrative feature. “It let me push the boundaries of the creative process I was used to,” says Vasarhelyi. “That said, it was scary, but once I made my first good decision on set, I had this moment where I realized all the instincts I have trusted and relied on for the past 20 years would translate. I relaxed into it. I realized the muscles were the same.”
The film also incorporates archival footage of Diana Nyad. “The archive of the real Diana on Johnny Carson is the sexiest stuff you’ll ever see,” says Vasarhelyi. “She’s brimming with confidence. She’s 28 years old and teases Johnny Carson. I was intoxicated by it.” Vasarhelyi’s favorite story that didn’t make it into the film was from Nyad’s early 30s: When she witnessed a mugging in Central Park, Nyad chased down and apprehended the fleeing thief.
During a Vanity Fair interview after Free Solo, Vasarhelyi found herself hanging off the side of a cliff in Telluride, Colorado, for a photo shoot with Chin and Alex Honnold. “I told Alex, ‘You’re going to be behind me the whole time. You’re going to clip and unclip me. I’m not taking my hands off,’” she remembers. When they finished the climb, Honnold asked her what was the “gnarliest thing she’d ever done?” She replied: “I had a baby with no epidural.”
“Not to say that having a baby is what Diana does in our movie,” she says, “but it was that sort of question that drove us.”
Vasarhelyi has filmed in a war zone and says she’s “always run towards the action, not away.” Still, Nyad feels like a new frontier.
“Diana’s not afraid to want something really badly. So often, women aren’t supposed to want something or express that they want something. She’s not afraid to be a complicated, ambitious person,” she says. “There’s something about Nyad that empowered me to be myself. I’m sometimes rough around the edges. I don’t mince my words. I’ve always been apologetic for that. This film made me feel comfortable in my skin in a way I wasn’t. ... It’s interesting when that happens when you’re 44.”
Nyad is streaming now on Netflix. Vasarhelyi and Chin’s upcoming projects include Endurance, a documentary on the epic search to find the lost ship of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, and Photographer, a six-episode series following some of the world’s best photographers for Disney+.
Watch the trailer for Nyad: