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Free Solo Director Chai Vasarhelyi Is Swimming in Uncharted Waters

Director Chai Vasarhelyi looked down into a massive water tank meant to mimic the depths of the Straits of Florida, as Annette Bening swam across its length and back again. Bening spent a full year training to swim at a world class level in order to play the long-distance champion Diana Nyad. The believability of the biopic hinged on Bening’s stroke being effortless—and on her ability to spend up to six hours straight filming in unheated water. Until that first swim on set, all Vasarhelyi could do was hope it would come together. “When she first got in the water, I felt a sense of relief, a sense of awe,” she remembers. “It was one of those wondrous things.”

Codirecting Nyad, with her husband Jimmy Chin, required Vasarhelyi to plunge herself into a whole new world, too. The couple is known for high-octane films featuring gripping adventures, like their Academy Award–winning 2018 documentary, Free Solo. Filming a biopic made them learn a different set of skills: Rehearsals with actors, visual effects, and stunts were all things that Vasarhelyi and Chin had never dealt with before.

The story of Diana Nyad, a celebrated swimmer, journalist, and sports broadcaster, shared a hallmark of their previous work: its edge-of-your-seat suspense. It follows Nyad’s quest to swim 110 miles between Cuba and Florida, which she finally achieved at age 64 after four grueling failed attempts.

We like stories of challenging what is possible, and I’ve been interested for some time now in how that applies to women.”

As Nyad emerged from the Key West waters after the record-breaking swim in 2013, her shaky first steps on the shore were seen around the world, a remarkable example of perseverance and endurance. Vasarhelyi saw something in Nyad that reminded her of past subjects like Alex Honnold, whose mission to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan—a 3,000-foot summit—without the aid of climbing protection equipment was the focus of Free Solo, and the brave cave divers and young players and coach of the soccer team they rescued from Thailand’s Tham Luang cave in the 2021 documentary The Rescue. “We like these stories of challenging what is possible, and I’ve been interested for some time now in how that applies to women,” Vasarhelyi explains. “In describing to Jimmy what happened to [Diana] during the swim, he was like, ‘What?!’ As he kept on leaning more and more forward, we began to look at each other like, ‘I guess this is our [next] film.’”

Selling a story with a gay female lead in her sixties (and pushing for the role to be played by an actual woman in her sixties) was a challenge, and Vasarhelyi is grateful to have landed at Netflix, which allowed her to make the movie the way she saw it. “This whole film was a miracle,” she says. “Show me another studio that has financed a film about two queer women in their sixties, played by accurately aged women with no touch-ups.”

Bening was the only person Vasarhelyi believed could play Diana. “It probably would have been impossible if she hadn’t done the prep and hadn’t trained for a year, but because she did and because she’s [who she is], she was able to keep on shooting and be in the water for four to six hours a day, which is something not everyone will do,” she says. Jodie Foster was cast alongside Bening, playing Nyad’s best friend and coach, Bonnie Stoll. Foster, who knows Diana and Bonnie socially, was a natural in the role. “There was this really special moment,” Vasarhelyi recalls. “We had our first meeting with Jodie in person at Annette’s apartment in New York, and we were going to read through the script. So Jimmy and I were sitting there with Jodie Foster and Annette Bening. We’re used to living in tents!”

nyad annette bening as diana nyad in nyad liz parkinson netflix

Annette Bening in Nyad.

Liz Parkinson

Vasarhelyi, 44, grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the child of academics. For her senior thesis at Princeton, she made a documentary about seven young friends living in Kosovo in the aftermath of war. The film, A Normal Life, which Vasarhelyi directed with her classmate Hugo Berkeley, won the Best Documentary Feature Award at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival. Soon after, the legendary actress Lauren Bacall, whom she met at a party, told Vasarhelyi: “You’ve done this at 24; you could rule the world.”

After graduation, Vasarhelyi worked as an assistant to Mike Nichols on the set of the film Closer. Then she spent five years living in and out of Senegal. She made the documentary Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love, about the musician and his relationship to Islam. Part of the film featured the annual pilgrimage of Sufi Muslims to the Senegalese city of Touba, which inspired her follow-up film, Touba, about the pilgrimage itself. In 2011, she met Chin at a conference and began working with him on Meru—their first film—which followed Chin and two others as they climbed one of the most challenging peaks in the Himalayas. After marrying in 2013, Vasarhelyi and Chin followed Honnold’s 2017 climb for Free Solo. Winning the Oscar raised their profile and gave them the chance to pursue more ambitious projects.

This whole film was a miracle.”

When Vasarhelyi and Chin work together, they each have their own focuses. As a photographer and a pro-level skier and climber, Chin innately understands the visual aspects and the athletic mentality, while Vasarhelyi immerses herself in the narrative elements. “I’m always looking at the words and the structure of things, and the emotion behind it and the character part of it, whereas I’ll say to Jimmy, ‘Make it beautiful! Epic!’ And he’ll do it,” Vasarhelyi says. On their documentaries, they often work in separate spaces. Nyad had Vasarhelyi and Chin sitting close to each other. “Who knew that after over 10 years of marriage, two children, and five films we made together, you could grow in your relationship, both creatively and personally?” Vasarhelyi says. “I really never thought about that before in my life, and then suddenly on Nyad, we began to live it.”

In the end, the story she believed so deeply in showed her she had abilities far beyond what she’d known. “It took me a beat to understand that the instincts I had honed for 20 years actually do translate very well to fiction,” she adds. “I had this moment on this film, especially afterward, where I was like, ‘Wow, we grew. Who knew?’ I thought I was fully formed.”

A version of this article appears in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of ELLE.



Features Editor

Adrienne Gaffney is the features editor at ELLE and previously worked at WSJ Magazine and Vanity Fair.

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