Middleburg Interview: Nyad Screenwriter Julia Cox

Published 11:39 am Friday, November 24, 2023

NYAD, Netflix’s latest crowdpleaser, is so much more than a biopic on record-breaking swimmer Diana Nyad (played by Annette Bening). It is a character study that is not afraid to show Nyad’s prickly and problematic personality as she relentlessly attempts to achieve her dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida, despite being in her 60s. On top of that, it is a beautiful depiction of platonic love and the incredible sacrifices that Nyad’s best friend Bonnie (Jodie Foster) makes to support her friend on this adventure.

I saw NYAD at the Middleburg Film Festival and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it; it was a hit with the crowd as well. By the end of the film, at least 70% of the audience was crying, including myself. Nyad’s determination is truly a sight to behold, but more than that, I was really moved that Netflix provided a platform for a film about women of a certain age and from the LGBT community; this demographic is so rarely focused on in film and I love that NYAD was able to bring their story to life. The film also had strong female representation behind the scenes, including co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and screenwriter Julia Cox, which was another reason I think the tone and viewpoint of the story was so spot-on.

I was lucky enough to talk to Cox about her experience working on the film. Its female-focused representation was one of the main reasons she was so drawn to the story. “The details of the swims, the challenges that Diana has to deal with…all of the obstacles are amazing and strange and incredibly attractive to a writer. But the thing that really got me excited was the potential to tell a character story, not just of one fascinating, audacious and powerful woman but of two. And then to tell this friendship story… we have this mature, lived-in friendship that is definitely not without its ups and downs and conflict, but it is built on unconditional love. These two women who know each other in their bones and are chosen family… that you just don’t get every day, especially for women of a certain age. What an opportunity! And what an opportunity to write something that I dreamed would attract good actors. I had no idea we would get the cast we got.”

NYAD is Cox’s first feature script and she was pleasantly shocked that two of Hollywood’s most formidable actresses, Jodie Foster and Annette Bening, signed on to star in the film. “I couldn’t have chosen a better cast; it’s incredible. And (Bening and Foster) had never worked together before and didn’t really know each other. But they had this electric chemistry and this sense that there is years of history between them. I got to watch them work and it was really amazing.”

And the set seemed to be a very collaborative environment. “I made changes for Anette and Jodie; they had incredible ideas. Jodie pitched that scene of Bonnie jumping into the water with Diana. Annette pitched a million beautiful moments. There’s a moment in the trailer where Diana looks out over the pool as she starts to train again. It’s a quiet moment but one of my favorites. And we really worked on the dialogue so that it felt right coming out of their mouths, which was really important to me that it felt naturalistic.”

And again, Cox does not pull any punches to try to make Nyad more likable for audiences, despite Bening’s charisma and inherently amiable persona. It is never a secret that Nyad is a tough cookie who has faced hardship in her life, which has gotten her to this moment. “Truly, the character Diana and the real Diana are two separate entities. The character Diana in the film is a cooked down, distilled version of the real Diana; she’s saltier and she’s a little more potent. She’s a separate entity. Diana herself is very charming and charismatic, a more highly evolved version of the character that we see in the film. She was really generous with me in letting me anachronize some of her internal struggles that she was going through early in life, feeling like a lone wolf, feeling like she was swimming angry a little bit, needing to open up and embrace the love and help of the team. I moved those psychological elements and placed it in the timeline I wanted to focus on for the film to create a character that had some flaws that we can also relate to. We all have our selfish and single-minded side. Or if we don’t, maybe we relate to Bonnie who can be a little self-sacrificial and has to find her own agency and come back to the swim on her own terms.”

This biopic is different from others in that it is very focused on a few years of Nyad’s life, with some real documentary footage sprinkled throughout and some flashbacks that helped peel back the layers of Nyad as a person. “I didn’t want to do an epic biopic that was linear and spans decades. I really wanted to focus on this moment, at 60 years old, when Diana said I’m not done. I want to pick up this old dream and dust it off and see if I can still do it. The structure of the platonic love story really emerged as the spine of this. Honestly, that speaks to me even more than the sports movie stuff. The sports stuff could be the meat on the bone, but this was the spine. There was a really natural structure. There was a courtship period where Diana had to convince Bonnie to do this wild thing with her. There were the vicissitudes of act two and the intensity of the mission and the challenges to the friendship that that caused… and then the breakup at the end of act two and coming back together better than ever. It laid out for me beautifully.”

The element that struck me most when watching this film was how tough of a shoot it must have been. Bening is swimming in the ocean for a majority of the scenes, demonstrating each attempt Nyad made to get from Cuba to Florida in incredibly harsh conditions. “What was wild about the set was for most of the work, Annette is in the water. So we shot in a tank, which was about four or five Olympic-size swimming pools put together on a cliff over the ocean so it creates an infinity pool effect where it looks like Annette is swimming in the open water. So she’s swimming and the wave machine turns on and it has to turn off before the cameras roll. She’s swimming through the waves and she has to hit an underwater mark or listen for an assistant director on a bullhorn to say ’emerge,’ and play a scene with Jodie who is on a boat, held by guys in wetsuits and ferried along that has to stop at a mark. Meanwhile, they have to play that scene together and there’s a camera on a crane and a camera underwater with our underwater director of photography… You can imagine how complex it is. Then you think about shooting the storms and jellyfish scenes… it was really quite complicated.” Phew! That makes me exhausted just to listen to.

And it didn’t stop there with Bening’s work ethic on this film. It is impossible to not be blown away by her performance and how tough the scenes must have been to shoot. “You cannot overstate what a good sport and force of nature Annette is. She would be in the water for hours and hours a day, bringing all of her brilliance and humanity and humor and genius as an actor to the acting, not to mention the physical demands were wild! Even when we were on night shoots, shooting from 7 in the evening until 6 or 7 in the morning… we were exhausted, it’s a million degrees and Annette would be in the water filming for maybe 8 hours. I would wake up at 1 in the afternoon the next day, go to get my coffee, and I would see Annette swimming in the pool getting in another training session before going to work that night and swimming all night. She’s incredible.”

Cox was able to speak to the real Diana and Bonnie, whose relationship is still just as strong as it is depicted in the film. “When I talked to them, their patter and nature as friends was so infectious, cool, and beautiful. They are so funny. They are always ripping each other. They have so much to say. They are like an old married couple, but it’s a totally platonic friendship. It really jumped off the page.”

NYAD, with its story of friendship, tenacity, and courage, was one of the best films I saw at Middleburg this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bening and Foster’s performances are in the conversation for Oscar nominations this award season. This film is easy to recommend, not only in its feel-good, unbelievable story but in its representation of a distinctly female story.