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New film dramatizes Diana Nyad's 2013 feat: swimming from Cuba to Florida

(CHEERING)

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was a feat of human endurance, almost unbelievable. In 2013, Diana Nyad swam more than 100 miles from Cuba to Florida. She spent more than 53 hours in shark- and jellyfish-infested waters, and she was 64 years old at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIANA NYAD: I got three messages. One is we should never, ever give up.

MARTIN: Her lips were swollen from the saltwater, but she got her message out to the crowd that welcomed her on shore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NYAD: Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's right.

MARTIN: A new film dramatizes that quest with Annette Bening playing the role of Diana Nyad.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NYAD")

ANNETTE BENING: (As Diana) And three, it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That's right.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is the co-director of "Nyad," along with her husband, Jimmy Chin. The filmmakers are best known for their documentary work, like the Oscar winner "Free Solo," about an especially dangerous rock-climbing expedition.

ELIZABETH CHAI VASARHELYI: Many of our films explore this idea of an individual who believes in the impossible, who dares to dream and has an audacious dream. But, you know, we never had, really, a film that centered on a woman, and we were curious what that experience would be like for a woman. So then when we received the script for "Nyad," Jimmy and I had this moment, being like, this is exactly it. Like, Diana Nyad is someone who's unafraid.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NYAD")

BENING: (As Diana) I want to do it.

JODIE FOSTER: (As Bonnie) Do what?

BENING: (As Diana) Cuba to Florida, my swim.

FOSTER: (As Bonnie) Huh? (Laughter) You're hilarious. Serve.

BENING: (As Diana) No, I'm not kidding, Bonnie. I'm going to do it.

FOSTER: (As Bonnie) No. That's insane. You tried that when you were 28, and you did not make it when you were 28. You're 60.

BENING: (As Diana) Yeah, I don't believe in imposed limitations. I don't believe in any limitations. And that's the reason to do it, not the other way around.

MARTIN: So for people who aren't as familiar with this story or who are just coming to it, what kept Diana Nyad going? I mean, one of the things that the film makes clear is that endurance swimming is no joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NYAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, screaming).

MARTIN: I mean, especially endurance swimming in open water.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NYAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) UMiami says it sounds like a box jellyfish. They shouldn't be here. I mean, these things can kill you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Holy hell, let's get them out the water.

MARTIN: Jellyfish, the sun, trying to figure out how to get nourishment - I mean, what kept her going?

CHAI VASARHELYI: Well, I think she believed in her bones that she could do it. And she was willing to fail. She had the courage to fail over and over and over again. So, you know, that's - the why is something I don't think we can ever really answer. I mean, I really can't imagine anything worse than swimming 110 miles, like, in terms of athletic feats. So, you know, why? It's a good question.

MARTIN: And what about her coach and best friend - or, actually, best friend before she was coach - Bonnie Stoll? I mean, she's played by Jodie Foster.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NYAD")

FOSTER: (As Bonnie) You really don't get it, do you, what this is like for us? We're broke. The time, the emotional toll - I mean, it's been years, Diana.

BENING: (As Diana) Well, suck it up. We're a team, right?

FOSTER: (As Bonnie) Wow. Your superiority complex is really screwed up. You know that?

BENING: (As Diana) Yeah, well, everyone should have a superiority complex. Everyone should feel like the star of their own life.

MARTIN: What kept her going?

CHAI VASARHELYI: Bonnie's character is like the beating heart of this film. You know, Bonnie would just say simply, like, if she tried it and failed and Bonnie wasn't there, Bonnie would blame herself. If she did it and Bonnie wasn't there, Bonnie would also, like, kick herself. So it was just one of those things, like, accepting the terms of a friendship and accepting and admiring someone for who they really are. Like, Bonnie sees Diana for who she is and has decided she loves her, you know, as a friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NYAD")

FOSTER: (As Bonnie) I watched you die, Diana. For 15 seconds, I thought you were dead because I said OK to you again. I said, oh, yeah - OK, sure. I can't do that again, I can't.

BENING: (As Diana) Yeah, but I wasn't. I didn't. I'm here. I'm here, I'm OK, and I'm not quitting. OK?

MARTIN: I have to tell you, that was one of the things that really struck me is that, you know, when you get to be older, it's harder to make friends. I mean, some people listening to our conversation won't know that yet, you know, good for them. But, you know, it gets harder. And there was something really just gorgeous, you know, about the way their relationship was depicted in the film, where, you know, especially the - Bonnie kind of knew that Diana was a piece of work, and she loved her anyway.

CHAI VASARHELYI: No and I think it's very much - that's very intentional because this is about a chosen family, because they both - like, both Bonnie and Diana are members of, like, a generation where gay women probably didn't have kind of the same communities available to them as today. Like, or your families didn't, like, support you or whatever it is. It was really important that we honor this idea of chosen family.

MARTIN: I mean, you have to know that at this point, there are people who question Diana Nyad's kind of whole story. People know she made the swim. I mean, there were plenty of people around who saw that she made the swim. But there are aspects of her career that many people in the endurance swimming community just say, she's exaggerated it, and over the years, given lots of interviews where she's kind of puffed up her resume, as it were, and they're not happy about that. And this is not a documentary, but you are documentarians. I know for a fact that documentarians tend to do a lot of research. Did you know that there was this whole thing around the way she's presented herself over the years before you took this project on?

CHAI VASARHELYI: I find great joy in the controversy and complexity around Diana, and we worked really hard to build that into the film itself. And if you watch it closely, like, it's all there, you know? Like, she's exaggerating the size of the check or when Bonnie is like, it's not always the way Diana explains it. And, you know, I think it just - she's a complicated character and that's OK.

MARTIN: But she does say she was the first woman to swim around the Manhattan Island. She wasn't, I mean, she was the seventh. You know, stuff like that, that's just not true. I mean, so that's not...

CHAI VASARHELYI: She was the fastest human...

MARTIN: OK.

CHAI VASARHELYI: ...To swim around the island.

MARTIN: Oh, OK.

CHAI VASARHELYI: And yeah, I totally agree. Like, you know, at 28 years old, I think she was very much a hustler, and that's part of the character. I actually - I really take great joy in the fact that Diana is so kind of tricky and complicated and charismatic and unlikable, but likable sometimes, you know?

MARTIN: (Laughter) Yeah. That is Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. She and her husband, Jimmy Chin, are the co-directors of the film "Nyad." You can look for it on Netflix. Chai Vasarhelyi, thanks so much for talking to us.

CHAI VASARHELYI: No, thank you, this was so much fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "FLORIDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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