The Sound of NYAD
Jodie Foster and Annette Bening hug on set of NYAD, behind the scenes of when Diana (Bening) finishes her swim.

The Sound of a Dream Come True

Alexandre Desplat, Linda Perry, and Jade Bird embody NYAD’s spirit of empowerment on- and offscreen.

6 December 20237 min read

Score

Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat considers an unexpected victory.

It’s only fitting for composer Alexandre Desplat to compare the process of scoring NYAD to summiting a peak: “You continue circling until you find an entry, and then you can climb,” he says of approaching his latest project. “It’s like climbing a little mountain.” The sports drama, which follows Diana Nyad’s triumphant swim from Cuba to Florida at age 64, marks the narrative debut from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the directing duo behind climbing documentaries such as the Oscar-short-listed Meru and Oscar-winning Free Solo.

Vasarhelyi had tried to work with Desplat prior to NYAD and had even used his scores as temp music for both Meru and Free Solo. The composer has often been referred to as the busiest man in Hollywood, having scored more than a hundred movies for which he has earned an astounding 11 Oscar nominations and won two statuettes, for his contributions to The Shape of Water and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

When the open-water drama came his way, Desplat was familiar with the behind-the-camera and real-life partners’ work and was excited to collaborate with them on such an emotionally complex project. Although he knew a little about the real-life swimmer before crafting NYAD’s score, what inspired him most was Vasarhelyi and Chin’s storytelling approach. “I did my homework on [Nyad’s] life and her great ascendance, but I didn’t want to know too much because the movie is not a documentary; it’s fiction. You need to . . . live with just the film.”

Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) spots Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) as she lifts weights (and giggles).

Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) and Diana Nyad (Annette Bening)

Desplat also looked outside Nyad, to the natural world and her surroundings, for inspiration. With guitar, bass guitar, percussion instruments, timpani, toms, cymbals, and a little orchestra, Desplat built a score that captured the magnitude of the ocean: “We didn’t want the score to sound symphonic. We wanted it to emphasize this huge scope of the ocean in front of you, this width and horizon.”  Nyad is swimming for much of the film, and Desplat found a cinematic language to convey the range of emotion during these nonspeaking sequences: “In some moments of a [swim] you choose to expand [to] convey the exaltation, the joy of feeling that the deadline is getting closer, the disappointment of failing, the fear and tiredness from the waves, the salted water, the sharks, but you have to dispatch these moments.” Nyad made four attempts before she finally succeeded, and Desplat’s score helped convey the magnitude of her goal: “As for any marathon runner or marathon swimmer, there are phases, what you call walls. It’s too hard, and you think you’ll never be able to go over that wall. That was the first thing I tried to understand. There’s this obsessive pace that drives her, and the music had to give us this sensation of such a difficult struggle with the elements.”

However, Desplat’s score is just as compelling in the quieter, quotidian moments. From trips to Petco running errands with her best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) to heated games of Scrabble and a surprise birthday party, Desplat sought to represent Nyad as the layered, whole person she is with the film’s aural world. “I tried to leave these [out-of-the-water] moments in reality with no music at all, or, if any music, very restrained so that you would focus on the characters. Maybe that’s what I love the most in cinema — following the character’s journey and keeping my cartridges for the big moments.”

Linda Perry and Jade Bird sing and discuss “Find a Way” in a youtube video.

Linda Perry and Jade Bird sing and discuss “Find a Way”

Song

Linda Perry and Jade Bird's original song embodies the film's spirit of empowerment on- and off-screen.

NYAD is just as much about the power of female friendship as it is about athletic achievement, which makes it even more impactful to have an original song written by Grammy-nominated producer Linda Perry, former lead singer and songwriter of 4 Non Blondes. “I was working with Susan Jacobs, the music supervisor. She told me about the movie and I just instantly was like, ‘Holy shit, this is awesome. Yes.’ And she’s like, ‘Do you think you can write a song, like, today?’” 

For Perry, who wrote chart-topping hits for P!nk and Christina Aguilera, capturing the energy just after Diana Nyad has accomplished her lifelong goal was intuitive. “At the end of [NYAD], you’re feeling like, Things are possible, age is just a number,” says Perry. “When you have drive and passion, you can do pretty much anything. That’s what I love about the movie: She never broke from believing that she could do anything.”

Performed by pop-folk singer Jade Bird, “Find A Way” takes its name from Nyad’s memoir and embodies the film’s spirit of empowerment, on- and offscreen. “That’s the way I’ve always lived my life,” says Bird. “I was brought up by a single mom and my grandma. That strength and feeling of empowerment is the reason I’m in this studio.” For Bird, the strong female collaboration behind NYAD is consistent with a growing trend: “We’re seeing a huge shift in both the film and music industry — this is a female lead with a female co-director. It just feels like being part of a change that I’m just so excited about — gives us a bit of hope and faith for the future.”