Adapting a book into a film is never a low-stakes situation. But when the novel in question is one of the best-selling books of all time, the pressure to do right by it gets taken up a notch—as the filmmaker Olivia Newman found when she signed on to direct the movie version of Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing in 2018. An indie filmmaker previously best known for the wrestling drama First Match, Newman came to the Crawdads table armed with a deep love for the book, a clear vision for the film, and a strong desire to bring the story of Kya, a teen girl growing up alone in the 1960s North Carolina marsh region, to onscreen life.
The movie largely stays true to Owens’s beloved text, following Kya (played by Normal People breakout Daisy Egar-Jones) as she struggles to survive on her own, content but lonely in her isolation. She’s buoyed by the unexpected friendship of a boy from town, Tate (Taylor John Smith), but when locals—untrusting of the strange, quiet “marsh girl”—accuse her of murdering one of their own, Kya’s peaceful world begins to implode.
Working with screenwriter Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Newman painstakingly worked to transfer the beauty and lyricism of Owens’s novel to film, relying on striking cinematography, inspiration from movies like the Dardenne brothers’s The Kid With a Bike, and a musical boost from none other than Taylor Swift. Here, she breaks down the choices she made for Crawdads, which hits theaters July 13.
When you signed on to direct Crawdads, how did your vision for the movie differ from the book?
We were set on being as faithful as possible. The biggest challenge was: how can we preserve everything that we love about this book? How can we preserve the lyricism of Delia’s writing? She’s so poetic in the way that she captures this very specific place, and the language that she uses to create character.
There’s definitely a four-hour version of Where the Crawdads Sing that I would sit through, but I don’t know if the general public would [laughs]. There are some characters we had to combine and turn into one, and lots of moments we loved from the book that we just couldn’t find a place to fit into the movie. But the main difference is the structural change.
Unlike in the novel, where the trial on whether Kya is guilty of murdering Chase Andrews happens at the end, the movie shows the events in the courtroom happening throughout.
I really wanted us to be with Kya as much as possible. It also felt like it set up this tension and the driving question of: Did she or didn’t she do it? The more you fall in love with Kya in the past, as you watch her grow up and understand all that she was up against, the more you’re rooting for her in the courtroom, present-day.
Daisy Edgar-Jones’s immersive performance is key to making us root for Kya. How did you know she was right for the role?
When we were starting to look at potential Kyas, she came to mind because I knew she could tap into Kya’s vulnerability, as that was very present in Normal People. But Kya also has a lot of strength; there’s a hardness to her. I wondered, can Daisy also do that feral side of Kya, and get into that wildness?
In her very first audition, she blew us away. She even got her head wrapped around the accent. She had something like two days to read the book, read the script, and prepare. We did a workshop over Zoom, and she read the scene where Kya is reading her family’s names from the family Bible and is suddenly overwhelmed by how much she misses her family. By the end of the first take, I was in tears. I think we all just knew immediately that she had the full range.
And Daisy’s so committed to the craft. She wants to do all the work necessary to embody a character. She did all kinds of physical training, worked with a dialect coach, learned how to boat, learned how to fish, and spent time walking around barefoot in the marsh so she could get used to it.
Crawdads is produced in part by Hello Sunshine, the company co-founded by Reese Witherspoon, who’s a Southerner herself and a big fan of the book. How much involvement did she have with the film?
It was awesome to be able to get her insights into Southern culture. She keeps her eye on all of those kinds of details. Hello Sunshine also really advocates for opening doors. From our first meeting, Reese said, “We know this is your first studio film, and how can we help you make that transition?”
You also got Taylor Swift to create a gorgeous end credits song for the movie called “Carolina.” How did she get involved?
That feels a bit like a fairytale. Taylor had read the book and was moved by it, and when she heard there was a movie being made, she really wanted to write a song for it. So out of her own inspiration, she wrote this song and offered it to us. She sent this beautiful letter with the song explaining how she had used instruments that were only available before 1953—which is when the story starts—and she had recorded it in one take, the way they recorded songs at the time. She wanted it to feel like this Gothic lullaby you could imagine mothers singing to their babies on their porches in North Carolina.
I played it, and by the end of the song, I was just sobbing, because it’s very evocative of the original trauma Kya experiences, losing her mother. For an end credits song, you want something that allows the audience to sit in their feelings and absorb what they just saw, and her song is so perfect in that way.
The Crawdads book was hugely successful, and there’s been a lot of hype around the film. Did you feel pressure to adapt it well?
I think you’d have to be inhuman to not feel pressure. The book’s sales continued to grow as we were making it, so every time somebody told me, “Did you know it’s now sold five million copies?,” I’d say, “Can you not? Too much!” [laughs]. There’s an enormous responsibility to the book fans, and also to all of the people involved in putting this together—it’s Hello Sunshine’s first feature film, it’s Daisy’s first theatrical release, it’s my first feature film, it’s Delia’s first film. So it goes a little bit beyond the pressure of it just being a big IP, or being a huge phenomenon.
I want to talk now about The Kid With a Bike, the 2011 drama by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which you picked for your Freeze Frame interview. What about this scene stands out to you?
What is always amazing about the Dardenne brothers’s movies is the way they set up the characters and the story. From the very opening scene, you know exactly what the movie is about, you know what the stakes are for the character, you know this emotional journey you’re about to go on. I always go back to the Dardenne brothers’s films to look at how they introduce characters and how they get across so much about a character through their blocking, through their costumes, through who’s onscreen and who isn’t, all in the first 30 seconds.
In the opening of Kid With a Bike, all you see is this tight shot of this 11-year-old boy on the phone. He keeps calling this phone number that’s been disconnected, and you hear an adult voice saying, "Cyril, you know that it’s disconnected." But he keeps insisting on calling back. The adult is off-camera, so you know this is a movie that’ll be told from a child’s point of view. And finally, the adult enters the frame, but [the camera] is on the man’s back and he’s trying to get the phone away from this little boy who refuses to let go of it. You learn over the course of the conversation that this boy is in an orphanage, his father has left him there, and he refuses to believe his father doesn’t want him anymore.
You get the sense that this is a boy who is so filled with the need to get to his father and connect with him that he will go through anything. He’s tackled by some other adults, he tries to climb a fence—the obstacles keep escalating and he will not be stopped until he gets what he needs, which is family. Also, the brothers’s choice to put him in red for the movie immediately tells you this is a kid who has so much anger, who is filled with emotion.
Is there a particular scene in Where the Crawdads Sing that you really want to stick with viewers?
When I read in Lucy’s script [and] the introduction to Kya in the boat chase, immediately I recalled the opening of Rosetta [another Dardenne brothers film] and the opening of The Kid With a Bike. You meet someone who’s on the run and willing to dive into alligator-filled waters because she so believes in her freedom and in her innocence. You’re able to understand that Kya can navigate this land, that she knows how to use a boat, that she knows exactly where to run and which waters to dive into. I thought, I’m in with this character immediately, when I see all that she’s capable of.