by Püd Cusack
In my early career as a Boom Operator, many of my mixers shared that working around the camera is like a ballet, a dance involving camera, sound, dolly, actors, and sometimes an additional grip or electric. These words definitely rang true at the highest level while working on NYAD, a ballet performance set on a Caribbean stage.
NYAD (2023) is a film about a 64-year-old marathon swimmer, Diana Nyad, who succeeded in swimming from Cuba to Florida after multiple attempts. It was shot in the Dominican Republic, where one of a limited number of water tanks around the world is located. This tank offers unique water filming due to its proximity to the ocean’s edge, creating an “infinity pool” effect. It provided a perfect setting for open water filming, which was essential for telling the story of NYAD.
This was not my first time working on this Caribbean island. Only seven months prior to filming NYAD, I was in the Dominican Republic working on Lost City. I was fortunate enough to work with an amazing crew, but also learned that working in this beautiful landscape can be extremely challenging. Lost City is an action-adventure film, starring Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, and Daniel Radcliffe, filmed in multiple locations in the Dominican Republic. These locations included jungles, boat work, cliffs, waterfalls, mudslides, and more. After wrapping Lost City, I knew it would take a very special project to bring me back.
That is when I received the call for NYAD. I have been athletic my entire life with a special affinity toward swimming. Because of my sense of adventure and passion for a challenge, I felt a strong connection with Diana Nyad and have followed her story for many years. This was the project for me. I was particularly excited when I learned that Annette Bening would play Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster would play Bonnie Stoll, Diana’s coach and longtime friend. I had the privilege of working with Annette Bening briefly on Captain Marvel, but I had never worked with Jodie Foster—another dream of mine. I also had the chance to work with directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who garnered critical acclaim for their incredibly accomplished documentaries, Free Solo (Oscar, Best Documentary Feature, 2022) and The Rescue (BAFTA nomination, 2021). NYAD would be their first time performing as scripted directors.
I watched as many films as possible that involved intensive scenes that were shot both in and on the water. I came to the conclusion that the majority of films I viewed were about people trying to get out of the water. This film project is about someone who wants to be in the water, and be in the water for extremely long periods of time. For my part as a Sound Mixer, this was just one of the many challenges I faced. Considerable amounts of dialog needed to be captured while the actors were on the boat or swimming.
During the two weeks of preparation, challenges with both the underwater and above-ground PA system occurred for both the Assistant Director and the Directors. You can imagine how much we had on our plate at all times: prepping, cleaning, and wrapping on a daily basis. This was beyond what a four-person sound crew normally handled but, unfortunately, there was no room in the budget for an additional sound person. Luckily, Marco “Tato” Vargas, our Music Playback Operator from Lost City, was available to help us set up and resolve any issues with the PA systems.
Our Cinematographer, Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi), used two cameras on Technocranes that moved along two hundred-meter tracks and covered the majority of the tank. One of the biggest challenges for sound was working with the two main cameras; one was used for mostly extremely wide shots and the other camera captured extremely tight shots of the actors.
Additionally, there was an underwater camera crew, and an underwater submarine camera named The Miranda. As a result, we had to rely on wires unless our actors, such as Diana and Bonnie, were in the water. This is where the boom comes in.
In this situation, Alex Burstein, our Boom Operator, is most essential. During our two weeks of prep, we fitted him in rash guards and wetsuits to prepare for his time in the water every day and almost all day. Once it became clear that the tropical afternoon rains occurred almost daily, we knew it would be very difficult to wire all the actors in addition to assisting Alex in and out of the water all day. When the directors yelled, “Cut!” the boom pole could not simply be put down as usual. Always in chest-high water, Alex had to hand his pole to a sound team member on deck, who had to be ready to grab the eighteen-foot- to twenty-foot-long pole out of his hands. Sometimes it would be our utility sound person, Dia Donnelly, who would be on the picture boat hiding in cramped spaces to tend to the actors, the wireless communication system and much more. Tato and occasionally myself, would also assist Alex.
This project had many challenges. Most equipment cannot be replaced in the Dominican Republic, and it can take up to six weeks to be shipped in. This is important because saltwater is very damaging to equipment, particularly electronic equipment. Working in and around saltwater for the majority of filming NYAD was quite stressful. For the storm sequence, which took about a week to film, we decided to pull out all my older wireless systems and microphones. Usually when working with rain towers for storms sequences, they use freshwater. However, because the tank and the ocean were so close, the water used for the storm was brackish. It is damaging to the equipment, often rendering it useless.
Dia and Tato worked like an assembly line, servicing the gear as if it was on a conveyer belt. They dried, cleaned, repaired, and put the equipment in rice to dry out. Soldering and repairing equipment in salty air is not as easy as it seems, especially when opening up electronics. They both became so good at it. I almost felt like I was in the back of an audio shop, watching technicians doing their everyday job.
Dia and Tato constantly cleaned the boom poles. The rhythm of pulling the boom pole in and out of the tank was similar to assisting a doctor in an operating room. No time for even a second of delay.
Not only were we working on boom poles, wireless body mics, and microphones, but we were also in charge of the communication system for both Directors and the First Assistant Director. Dia and Tato were dry on the docks and boat, however, they were always working directly over the water greatly increasing the risk of accidents, such as when the PA microphone took a dive into the blue ocean.
The communication speakers and cables also took a beating 24/7, but constant cleaning and maintenance, as well as pulling in all the sound equipment every night kept it safe and functioning. The film trucks used in the Dominican Republic do not have air conditioning. Fortunately, our department was able to obtain one equipped with a cooling system. This was crucial for us to monitor and control the moisture in the equipment. In the hot, humid conditions, always working under duress, this was truly a blessing.
We were able to have a Fisher boom sent from Santo Domingo. We positioned it next to the two Technocrane dolly tracks. Unfortunately, it did not have enough extension to reach the actors in the water or on the boat, who were generally 100-200 feet away from the edge of the water tank. We had no choice but to go back to using Alex and his boom in the water. As it turned out, he was able to maneuver the boom in the best positions necessary, much better than the Fisher boom.
While filming the wide and tight angles, we were able to find a solution when the boom was seen in the sky or the water, to have the VFX Department paint out the boom in post! Despite the constant battles and complaints from camera, producers, etc., this was the only way that it could have been done and, in the end, much more cost-effective than replacing all the dialog.
While attempting to use our underwater ambient microphone, unfortunately, it picked up everything. Literally everything from motors, engines, generators, underwater crews, The Miranda, and more. However, our final attempt to use the waterproof microphone was the underwater photography of young Diana screaming in distress. The results were amazing and used in the film.
At lunchtime, our hardworking crew would get cleaned up, enjoy a relaxing meal, and then a rest. I, too, usually would have a rest. Some days, I would swim laps in the tank with the stunt women. The effect of the infinity pool gave the illusion that our bodies were gliding through the ocean. Truly a beautiful sight.
One amazing perk working in the Dominican Republic is that I could swim most days in the ocean or the beautiful seaside swimming pools. This gave me time to think and plan the next day’s challenges of recording clean dialog on NYAD. Watching Annette swimming laps in pre-production, it was shocking how much she resembled the real Diana Nyad. She trained for a year and her resemblance and stamina were amazing. Jodie was also in the gym most days and trained for months. Both actors’ displays of athleticism inspired me.
The passion and the energy surrounding the production was absolutely infectious. The more I look back on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I’m truly grateful and proud.
“Dream big and dare to fail.” -Diana Nyad