A Husband and Wife’s High-Wire Hollywood Act
Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have been on a whirlwind tour over the past few months with their film Nyad. Since its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September, the film has made stops in Toronto, London, Mill Valley, Savannah, Newport Beach, and New York. When we hop on a call for, the married couple (who are also parents to two kids) are back together at their home office in New York, just a day away from the October 20 theatrical release of Nyad (it’ll hit Netflix on November 3).
The seasoned documentary filmmakers, who won an Oscar for their intense free-climbing doc, Free Solo, admit that the promotional tour for their first narrative film has felt very different. “I think there’s just a lot of resources that go behind narrative fiction that you don’t necessarily experience with documentaries. The reach of it is quite different,” says Vasarhelyi. “It definitely makes me want to be more of an activist, in terms of getting docs that type of attention.”
Nyad, which follows open water swimmer Diana Nyad’s attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64, seems like a logical next step for Chin and Vasarhelyi, as it centers on yet another athlete pushing themselves to physical and mental extremes for their sport. But they both agree the stakes feel higher here. “I feel like I’m more self-conscious about this release, just because it’s a new space for us,” says Chin. “That’s part of the reason why we wanted to make a narrative feature, because we make films about people who push themselves and try to find their own potential. I think we wanted to walk the walk as well and push ourselves as storytellers and filmmakers, and grow as creatives.”
Vanity Fair: Having Annette Bening and Jodie Foster as your lead actors in your very first narrative film seems like a dream. Was it also nerve-racking?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: There were a lot of pinch-me moments. Yes, of course it was nerve-racking. In documentary, our job is to observe and to listen really closely. And suddenly, like, we had these two amazing creative partners who are at the top of their craft and as committed as we are to bringing these characters to life. That felt invigorating, empowering, and in so many different ways.
Jimmy, you mentioned to me before that you asked some of your actor friends what makes a good and bad director. What did they tell you?
Jimmy Chin: I think Chai and I are both big fans [of], but also friends with, Brie Larson, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Jared Leto. I said, “Tell me what I should know.” And they said the classic mistake of first-time directors is overdirecting, talking too much. Both Chai and I have worked with world-class athletes, and I think what we often do is just to kind of create the space and environment for them to perform at their best. And I think that’s what we brought or hoped to bring on set.