Getting to The Other Shore: the Inspiring Diana Nyad Documentary (Part One of Interview)
We’re celebrating the opening of our latest VOD offering, The Other Shore, with a splash: a two-part interview with director Timothy Wheeler and producer Kevin Abrams. Make sure to read part two, and be sure to watch the film after you read about its journey into being (or the other way around if you’re afraid of spoilers) (Spoiler: it’s awesome).
Determination and dreams. At the end of the day this is the combination that gets most films made—and the potent cocktail that led Diana Nyad, the legendary long-distance swimmer, to accomplish what was thought to be an impossible feat. By now you’ve probably heard of Diana. Her successful swim from the shores of Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida, at the young age of 64, flooded the Internet (as has her recent theologically-charged appearance on Oprah, in which the talk-show host challenged Nyad’s atheism). But what the online hype-machine hasn’t blown up is the epic journey that preceded her improbable success, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that stood in her way, and the heart and body-breaking failure that took place.
Directing The Other Shore was Diana’s nephew, Timothy Wheeler, who also served as one of the cinematographers and producers. MovieMaker had the exclusive opportunity to speak with Timothy and fellow producer Kevin Abrams of Ketchum Labs about Diana’s impossible swim, which intertwines with their attempt to capture a historical moment that kept evading them all. As Diana Nyad says in the film, “get to wherever your other shore is;” which serves as reminder to us all that if you can envision it, you might just be able to accomplish it—with some very, very hard work.
Lara Colocino (MM): When did you first hear about Diana Nyad?
Timothy Wheeler (TW): Because I’m her nephew, I’ve known her my entire life. So this is a bit of a personal project for me. In fact, I was born a month after she attempted her first swim. I’ve known her as this legendary swimmer and always known that she would make a fantastic subject for a film. I was always going make a film about her, but I didn’t imagine that at 60 years old she would be coming out of retirement and attempting this incredible feat.
Kevin Abrams (KA): Timothy and I have worked on a bunch of other projects together, including Discovery/Animal Planet’s Whale Wars. I remember one day we were working on another documentary and he was telling me about his aunt and I said, “You should do a documentary on her.” And a week later he pulled me aside and said that she was announcing that she was going to try to do the swim again. From that moment he started following, chronicling, and shaping her story.
MM: What’s Diana like in person?
TW: Her personality is just as large as the feats she attempts. She’s very gregarious, she’s a storyteller, she’s magnetic, and you can tell right away that she’s a special human being—even when you’ve just met her. Which is part of the reason I knew she was going to be a really great subject for a film, even without the recent decision to attempt the swim again.
MM: Besides The Other Shore being sort of a personal project, why else did you want to share the Diana’s story?
KA: I love stories where people honestly try the impossible. When I heard about Diana and all that she initially accomplished and did, and the fact that at 60 she was going to try to do this again, it brought out the dreamer in me. I thought, “I have to find a way to help the film.” Luckily we were able to find the investor and provide a bunch of resources to get it done and get it finished.
MM: That brings me to some pre-production questions. What was the budget for the film?
KA: The budget for the film, altogether, was about $400,000, including marketing and digital distribution.
MM: For how long did you shoot the film?
TW: We shot for about four years.
KA: We followed Diana from the actual notion of trying the swim again, all the way up until recently in September when we literally shot her finally succeeding and had to turn around and re-edit the ending five days later.
MM: It was really great to see her finally succeed after trying so many times, but you guys had already finished and screened what was the “final” cut of the film.
TW: Yeah, we had actually already screened our world premiere at SXSW, we had done our international premiere at Hot Docs, and we had actually signed a deal with Showtime to air this fall, so the film was essentially in the in the can.
To be frank I gave up the idea that Diana would ever make the swim—I never doubted her physical ability to make the number of hours, but the number of natural obstacles between Cuba and Florida, I just didn’t think any actual human being could do it. And she proved me wrong. This most recent swim was the first time we didn’t have a crew filming from the time she left Cuba all the way to Florida, so we had to rush down there when we realized she would make it. We were able to capture the grand finale and we re-cut the ending of the film.
KA: In the initial cut of the film it was just going to sort of trail off with Diana swimming, saying that she was going to continue to chase her dream. Her making the swim successfully was a missing piece in the film. We all thought she could do it and we all saw her come really close to succeeding. When it did come together, it was the kind of happy ending we all imagined from day one.
MM: So how had the audience response changed from when you were showing the film at SXSW with the original ending, to having this great ending where Diana is triumphant?
TW: There’s been an incredible response since SXSW. People realized what I always knew, which was this film was never about Diana actually making and accomplishing walking up on that shore. It was about her putting her all into this and the amount of commitment it takes to do something that’s on the brink of possibility.
People have been gravitating towards the story and have received it incredibly well. The dream-ending scenario means everything, though The film feels very different. I think her success has definitely brought a much larger historical context to it. People recognize this as a historical feat and as a documentation of history.
MM: Is it hard to film the failure?
TW: Yes, it’s very hard to film the failure. And very difficult to film these moments where she almost died. I’ve worked in a lot of difficult areas with war and violence. I’m used to having the camera as a shield—and that includes using it as an emotional shield. Sometimes, I don’t feel the emotion at the given moment, but it was a whole other challenge because this was a loved one. Seeing Diana in emotional and physical hardship was very difficult.
KA: With documentaries you finish them, and then you just sort of abandon them. This is sort of that situation where we thought, “ Oh great, she’ll do it the first time,” and then first time didn’t happen. And we had to wait proper weather pattern before she could do it again and finally it did happen, but Diana had this freak incident where she literally had an asthma attack for the first time ever in the history of her swimming, which was a reaction to some medicine given to her. And then the second time of course the jellyfish situation really debilitated her and kept her from being able to finish it, and then the third time after that was this huge squall, one of the worst in that area in a very long time.
MM: I couldn’t believe how she pushed through getting stung by those jellyfish; the medic who checked her out in the water, who also got stung, was saying how he didn’t know how she was continuing on.
KA: That guy is 6’1”or 6’2” and he had to give himself an EpiPen, just to come through. That’s just a testament to who Diana is and her will and ability to focus and accomplish her goals. MM