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Nyad Breaks 11 Year Drought for Screenwriter
Julia Cox won the High Scribes Award at the 2024 Sun Valley Film Festival.
Wednesday, March 27, 2024


Screenwriter Julia Cox wrote screenplays for 11 years without seeing a single script come to the screen.

Her fortune turned when she submitted a screenplay for "Nyad," a biopic about Diana Nyad's 110-mile, 53-hour swim from Havana to Key West in shark- and jellyfish-infested waters. The film not only made it to Netflix but landed Oscar nominations for Annette Bening and Jodie Foster.

Cox got the gig after the directors were unsatisfied with the original script given them.

"They had hired a writer who gave them an interesting story but not what they wanted," producer Andrew Lazar told an audience at the Sun Valley Film Festival last week. "Julia came in with a script about the platonic relationship between Diana Nyad and her trainer Bonnie Stoll. She understood that was key to the story."

Cox was awarded the Sun Valley Film Festival's High Scribe award for her effort. And she happily shared her story for a packed crowd at the Community Library.

Cox, a native of Cape Cod, Mass., said she was into writing at such an early age that she asked her mother if she could get the Easter Bunny to bring notebooks, rather than candy. She took writing classes as a child, then went to the University of Southern California to study creative writing.

While there, she took a class in screenwriting and liked what it did for her writing with its emphasis on dialog.

"I've been writing movies that haven't gotten made for 11 years so to have this success...." she said.

Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi did not have a big budget, and it was not an inexpensive movie to make because shooting in the water is slow going time with multiple swims in multiple locations.

"But Annette was the most fun person you could write for--when I hear her voice, the story comes alive," said Cox.

Jodie Foster, who played Diana's friend Bonnie, is a great director with strong opinions, Cox added. She  had a great idea to have her character jump in the water when Diana was floundering in a move to break up the monotony of the swim. While the jump did not happen in real life, it was pivotal to the movie, Cox said.

"It conveyed a truth about the relationship between the two."

It was Foster who suggested cutting a scene in which Diana went to buy a swimsuit that Bening had found so hilarious that it sold her on making the movie.

The scene zeroed in on Nyad as she went to buy a swimsuit. When the teenage store clerk was disinterested in answering her questions about what materials were in the suit, Nyad tangled with her,  pointing out that the store clerk did not possess the same drive that Nyad had.

"Don't you want to do better?!" she asked.

Nyad was self-aggrandizing and, as a woman, she could not get away with it as the self-promoting Japanese daredevil Yuichiro Miura whose story was told in the documentary "The Man Who Skied Down Everest," noted Bening in an earlier talk at the Sun Valley Film Festival.

But, Cox said she was fascinated by Nyad, who had been the first to conquer the Mount Everest of swims because she fulfilled her dream on her own terms.

"Diana is so determined, but deeply flawed, also."

Cox accompanied the film crew to the shoot in the Dominican Republic where she learned that a writer's job is to manage all the different opinions.

"A big part of a writer's job is that you have to manage all the opinions, collaborations and chart the course while protecting the essential storyline. We had to do some rewriting, too, to fit the budget," she said.

Cox based a lot of her material on Nyad's memoir, "Find a Way," which detailed Nyad's failed attempt to make the swim in 1978 when she was 28 years old. She also watched a myriad of interviews of Nyad and Stoll.

"I met Diana during the pandemic,--even on the phone she has so much life force. She's so particular, so charismatic...She has a relationships with language that's so delicious and she's so smart and articulate. It was like drinking from a fire hose," she said.

Cox cautioned Nyad that she was not creating a carbon copy of Nyad but that she was trying to create the swimmer's essence.

"She jumped in the water and swam with Annette every shot. Typically, she has a hard time connecting with others because she's so single minded."

Cox said she and the others were blown away by Bening's athleticism when Bening showed up on set after having worked out, trying to mirror Nyad's swim stroke, for a year in advance of filming. Bening said she had worked with an Olympian for a year to get in shape, crying in the pool at times because it was so overwhelming.

"I thought I could jump in the pool and start swimming," she told a Sun Valley audience. "I found out quickly that was not a thing."

Bening's insistence on not using a stunt double only increased Cox's admiration of her: "She's unbelievable and a force of nature."

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