For the inspirational Nyad that marks the narrative directorial debut of Academy Award-winning documentary filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, they teamed up with screenwriter Julia Cox to adapt the memoir “Find a Way” by Diana Nyad.
“We’ve always been interested in stories about people who strive for impossible dreams,” says director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. The grit and determination needed to transcend the impossible is a theme that Vasarhelyi and her filmmaking partner (and husband) Jimmy Chin have previously explored to great success with their against-all-odds, high-stakes documentaries The Rescue and Free Solo (for which the duo won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature).
The power of human will to succeed against all odds is at the heart of the main character’s journey in NYAD. It was one of the many reasons why Vasarhelyi and Chin decided to make this inspiring story.
Nyad recounts a riveting chapter in the life of world-class athlete Diana Nyad. Three decades after giving up marathon swimming in exchange for a prominent career as a sports journalist, at the age of 60, Diana (four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening) becomes obsessed with completing an epic swim that always eluded her: the 110 mile trek from Cuba to Florida, often referred to as the “Mount Everest” of swims. Determined to become the first person to finish the swim without a shark cage, Diana goes on a thrilling, four-year journey with her best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll (two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster) and a dedicated sailing team.
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From Page To Screen
After reading Nyad’s memoir, producer Andrew Lazar believed there was a universality in the story that made it perfect for the screen.
“Diana Nyad initially captured my attention with her inspirational story of someone never giving up hope and realizing her dreams later in life,” he remembers. “When you dig a little deeper you come to realize how complex and rich that journey is, filled with heartbreak, pain, joy and the uniquely human desire to be understood.”
Lazar and his Mad Chance Productions continued to develop the film—at one point in an early iteration,
Nyad even tried her hand at the script—before the pitch landed with producer Black Bear.
“We’ve all seen compelling films about athletes trying to achieve the impossible,” explains Teddy Schwarzman. “But Diana’s story had more layers. She was an outsider to her sport, a 64-year-old, gay woman who was never quite accepted, but despite the naysayers, had an almost divine-like conviction that she had this swim inside of her.”
Lazar and Schwarzman spent the next few years trying to find the perfect writer to tackle the script, ultimately landing on screenwriter Julia Cox who had a particularly humanistic approach to the characters.
When it came to who was the right director to understand the complexities of what drives an athlete like Diana Nyad to strive for something momentous, the producers gravitated to the filmmaking team of Vasarhelyi and Chin.
“Our producers had seen Free Solo and were aware of our work,” recalls Vasarhelyi. “Jimmy and I were also looking for a character like Diana. We’ve long been interested in putting strong, complex, capable women at the center of our films. I remember when this swim happened in 2013 and being absolutely captivated.”
“We tell stories about the edges of human existence, human potential and spirit, and Diana’s story was right in line with that ethos,” adds Chin. “ We hope the movie will move audiences to broaden their own perspectives about what is possible.”
The filmmakers became immediately engaged with the emotional and physical stakes of the story. Nyad is regularly celebrated for her tenacity and beloved by mainstream media, but those complexities also made her polarizing within the competitive swimming community. While she is a true original, Nyad also shares qualities that Chin recognizes in the other endurance athletes he and Vasarhelyi have profiled on film.
“I have been fortunate to work with some incredible people,” says Chin. “I’ve found their vision and deep
intention tremendously inspiring. One of the things I appreciate about Diana is that she has examined her
life very closely and made choices that maybe not everyone would make. I find that to be very courageous and brave. Nobody is perfect, and this story doesn’t shy away from the imperfections that might come with trying to achieve something great.”
For Vasarhelyi, Diana’s unrelenting strength is what makes her such a compelling main character: “She is a
brilliant, LGBTQ+ woman and journalist who has lived a full life and can speak up and self-advocate. Her sheer presence is monumental. And Bonnie cannot be underestimated either.”
Bonnie is Bonnie Stoll, Diana’s best friend, a former racquetball champion who became Diana’s coach
for the Cuba to Florida swim. Diana also worked with Bonnie on her fitness and training during the racquetball years. Stoll classifies her friendship with Diana as “so special. Not many people have a friend like her and everyone should have one. She is loyal and her love is unconditional.”
The deep emotion in Diana’s bond with Bonnie soon became the linchpin of Julia Cox’s script.
“It was immediately exciting because of the adventure of it all and the tension of this incredible feat, but the story of this special friendship became my way in,” remembers Cox.
“This is a story of two women at a certain stage in life that you don’t often see depicted in film. I was fascinated by their dynamic in the context of Diana’s crazy dream and her desire to do something so dangerous that she just knew in her bones she could do it. What does that do to a relationship? What does that do to the person who loves you more than anybody else in the world?”
Vasarhelyi and Chin collaborated with Cox to make sure the story leapt to the screen. “We worked really closely with Julia to honor Diana’s achievements,” says Vasarhelyi.“We needed to use her swimming as a narrative tool, while allowing audiences enough access to Diana as a character so they could begin to see the world through her eyes and root for her success.”
While she wrote, Cox spent time with Diana and Bonnie on Zoom. “I just immediately got a sense of who Diana was,” Cox says. “Obviously her book gave me that too, but there’s nothing like talking to her about this experience and just absorbing as much Diana and Bonnie as possible in order to get a sense of their voices. Before long the characters were just talking to me in my head.”
“I thought it was such a powerful story and just so completely unlike anything I had ever read,” says Annette Bening, who began her research by reading Nyad’s 2016 memoir and was even more impressed.
“She is such a well-spoken person and she’s a woman of the world who loves to travel and read and then at 60, there is this inflection point where she starts to swim again, almost as a secret from herself,” says the actress, “And that’s where our movie starts.”
For Bening, an actor whose 35-years-plus of lauded film roles include The Grifters, Bugsy, The American President, American Beauty, The Kids Are All Right and 20th Century Women, Nyad marked an opportunity to explore a real-life person who is lauded and celebrated but also deeply complex. That
offered many challenges as an actor, both mentally and physically.
For Jodie Foster, the opportunity to play Bonnie had to do with the film’s more central themes, which cut much deeper than swimming.
“It’s something that we haven’t really seen on screen before, two women of a certain age, who grew up in a pre-feminist time, who were asked to choose in some ways between their goals and their personhood and their identities, and who had to sacrifice some dreams because they didn’t have the same opportunities that men had at that time in their lives,” says Foster.
“To me, the heart of the film is the relationship between these two women,” says Bening. “What is true from my point of view about Diana and the swim, and her life, is that yes, she had this incredible desire, this obsession with this accomplishment that she wanted to achieve. But she couldn’t have done it without Bonnie. So when they said they were going to ask Jodie to play Bonnie, I was over the moon.”
“I almost always do movies all by myself and then various people come in and play bad guys,” laughs Foster. “It’s usually this solitary journey. This kind of relationship dynamic is new for me. That also was another draw, and then of course to work with Annette. She is somebody that I really admired and vaguely knew through other people who had worked with her who had said ‘Oh you’re going to love her.’”
For both actresses, having the real life Diana and Bonnie as a resource was a boon. “For Jodie and Annette, it was incredibly valuable. They made it their job for months and months to inhabit these characters,” says Vasarhelyi. “I don’t see that very often, where world class athletes have the opportunity to hang out with world class actors and really have that mind meld moment. Diana is a force of nature within herself. She and Bonnie were both incredibly gracious and open, and also brave and trusting with this story.”
For Nyad, Vasarhelyi and Chin’s approach was the perfect fit for telling her story.
“In terms of storytelling and the awe of the great outdoors, they have that in spades,” says Nyad of the directors. “We never had a doubt that they were the right ones to commandeer the directing of this film. They’ve shown incredible professionalism doing this story their way.”
The directors remain inspired by their real-life subject.
“Nyad wasn’t willing to accept that the world was done with her,” explains Vasarhelyi. “She had this audacious vision and put in the real work to make this Cuba to Key West swim happen. As filmmakers, her story has allowed us to work on a project that pushes the boundaries and examines the frontier of ability and greatness.”
Chin hopes that audiences are inspired by the film’s more universal themes: “I want them to feel something about the power of friendship. You have done something powerful when an audience walks out of a theater and takes a look at their own life. It’s easy to get caught up in life and we can forget to reflect. If we can move audiences to have that feeling of joy of having gone on this journey, feel that kinship, make them appreciate their friendships, be inspired to push themselves a bit more that would be the achievement.”
For Bening, Diana Nyad’s feat of accomplishing the Cuba to Florida swim is something anyone can identify with, regardless of their physical strength.
“Maybe Diana’s story will make people think to themselves, ‘I’ve been living my life this way, but I actually can do something else if I want to.’ It doesn’t have to be swimming from Cuba to Florida. It can be something much more mundane like planning a garden or taking up a new language, but the key is giving yourself permission to think about it.”
Diana Nyad is one of the most well-known figures in swimming history—a charismatic, lauded marathon swimmer globally recognized for triumphs in the water in the 1970s before embarking on an auspicious thirty-year career as a sports journalist and broadcaster for ABC Sports, NPR, and others. Find a Way and Nyad focus on one of Nyad’s later-in-life triumphs: the massive, hard-won, 53-hour, 110-mile trek from Cuba to Florida that the athlete completed without a shark cage in 2013 after a 30-year retirement. Nyad initially attempted the swim in 1978, but when she turned 60 in 2010, became invigorated by the idea of trying again, finally succeeding after her fifth attempt, at 64.
“The Cuba to Florida swim was a dream that never left me and was always in the back of my mind,” says Nyad. “There was something so powerful about connecting these two countries. When I didn’t make it at
28, I spent a year waiting for visas and the right weather to try again, ultimately becoming so exasperated that I decided to start my broadcasting career and leave the Cuba swim behind. I was living my life large but I always held the Cuba swim in a corner of my imagination. That epic adventure was always drawing me, and I didn’t want to leave it in a pile of regrets.”