Olivia Newman Shares Her Connection To Story For "Where the Crawdads Sing"
Olivia Newman
Director reflects on her first studio film, casting Daisy Edgar-Jones, collaborating with DP Polly Morgan, production designer Sue Chan

The latest entry in the feature filmography of director Olivia Newman is part coming-of-age tale, part murder mystery, part love story, part homage to nature’s beauty, part tribute to the human spirit, resiliency and the will to survive. This mix of genres is rooted in Delia Owens’ best-selling novel “Where the Crawdads Sing,” adapted for the big screen by Lucy Alibar, the Oscar-nominated writer of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Where the Crawdads Sing (Sony Pictures) stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya, a girl abandoned by her family, having to raise herself in the marshes of North Carolina. We follow Kya from her childhood in the 1950s’ through to adulthood. She forms a deep connection to the land and its beauty while disconnected from townspeople who ostracize her. She bonds, though, with a young suitor named Tate (portrayed by Taylor John Smith) from whom she learns about romance and how to read--only to be abandoned by him as well. Another suitor, Chase (Harris Dickinson) emerges but he is found dead in the wilderness. She’s charged with his murder, is jailed and put on trial--further intensifying the alienation and isolation she feels from a community that has always misjudged and dismissed her--a rare exception being Tom Milton (David Strathairn), Kya’s defense attorney. Throughout her ongoing ordeal, Kya perseveres and manages to find her own path and a life with purpose.

Paradoxically, Newman, who was drawn on many levels to what she heard about the story, resisted reading the book, assuming that a director had already been lined up for the film adaptation. Newman felt “heartbroken” that she had seemingly missed the boat as Reese Witherspoon’s company, Hello Sunshine, was set to produce the feature. But when a TV project Newman was set to direct fell by the wayside in the spring of 2020 when the COVID pandemic hit, resulting in an overall production shutdown, she meet with her agent to assess future prospects. Newman had been heavily involved in dark material and wanted a change of pace, perhaps a love story. Her agent mentioned Where the Crawdads Sing as a project still up for grabs. Newman immediately got the book and “couldn’t put it down,” she recalled. “It left me with such a haunting feeling but I was nervous to read the script,” wondering if the true spirit of the story would be properly adapted. 

Newman happily found out that Alibar was up to the challenge. “Lucy is such a beautifully lyrical writer and managed to capture Delia’s voice in the script,” said Newman, who put her hat in the ring to direct and ultimately got the gig.

Newman is no stranger to telling the story of a youngster who feels isolation. Newman made her feature directorial debut in 2018 with First Match, which she also wrote. The indie film centered on a teenage girl from Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood who was raised in foster care. She was seeking a family connection and found it when she joined a boys’ wrestling team in high school. Newman first wrote the film as a short and then developed it at the Sundance Lab in 2015. The feature-length film won the Gamechanger Award at SXSW before being released by Netflix.

Newman got her start making shorts, which screened on the festival circuit, including the New York Film Festival, Aspen Shortsfest and the Vancouver International Film Festival. Newman was the recipient of the 2015 Durga Entertainment Filmmaker Grant and the Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship, and is an alum of IFP’s No Borders International Co-Production Forum, IFP/Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Emerging Visions program, Film Independent’s Fast Track market and the Cine Qua Non Screenwriters Lab. Newman received her MFA in Film from Columbia University.

As for what’s next, Newman is currently in production on another Hello Sunshine project as a producing director for the Apple TV+ series, The Last Thing he Told Me, starring Jennifer Garner and based on Laura Dave’s best-selling novel.

SHOOT caught up with Newman to discuss Where the Crawdads Sing. Her remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.

SHOOT: What attracted you to the story of Where the Crawdads Sing? 

Newman: I am drawn to stories about women growing up in hostile, challenging environments. Like in  First Match, we have someone abandoned by a family and seeking a family connection, someone who’s strong and vulnerable at the same time, who has to discover her strength and fortitude to carry on. There is a connective tissue thematically to Where the Crawdads Sing.

I grew up in Hoboken (NJ). My dad built a cabin in the woods, We went to the woods on the weekends. There was no electricity yet it was magical for us--to explore, to find. There’s this mystical element to being out in nature. It was so important to my father that we understand this, that we have a place to get in touch with our roots as human beings. I connected so deeply to Kya’s connection to nature. Kya is the ultimate heroine, surviving alone in the wild. It intrigued and terrified me at the same time. I connected deeply to the material. I think we all got to experience isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. It showed us that we can get through the hardest times. The story resonated for me. It felt like a melding of the minds between me, the producers and the studio.

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest challenge(s) that Where the Crawdads Sing posed to you as a director?

Newman: To do justice to the heart and soul of the story in the beloved book. To give viewers the same feeling they had when reading the book. There are so many different genres in the book. We had to weave them all together, to give the different relationships their proper weight and tension.

It was also important that we shoot this on location, capture those gorgeous landscapes. Kya’s house had to be built on location to capture the natural beauty of her world, to pay homage to it the way Delia does. We had to battle the elements, torrential rain, lightning strikes, the endless mud. The flooding of sets. The house would turn into a mud pit after a day of rain. Our commitment to shooting it on location was the greatest challenge. We shot in and around Louisiana primarily--for the different landscapes, the marshlands, the remote small rugged beach. We did extensive scouting to find all those different textures. Louisiana provided us with the most access.

SHOOT: You made a conscious, concerted effort to have as many women department heads as possible--and that started up top with Reese Witherspoon as executive producer/producer, yourself as director, Lucy Alibar as writer, and spanned many other areas.

Newman: When hiring, our lists were very diverse. It was important to us. We were looking for the best, most passionate partners to take on roles. Cinematographer Polly Morgan and production designer Sue Chan are two of the most incredible artists I have ever worked with. Costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier wrote an incredible love letter as to why she needed to do this film. It was my first time working with them all and they all connected deeply to this story. 

Polly has an exquisite eye. This was a film meant to be shown in wide format on the big screen. We needed viewers to feel immersed in these landscapes. Polly and I had the same references--directors like [Jane] Campion, [Terrence] Malick when it came to incorporating landscapes as a character in their films.

Sue did the most incredible amount of research to get all the details of the time period. She had a backstory for peeling wallpaper--for all of Kya’s house. A backstory for what the shack looked like when they moved in as a family and she was a little girl, rooms added on when they had more kids, 10 years later when things had not gone well.

Mirren too put massive amounts of research and thought into things like what Mabel [portrayed by Michael Hyatt] had as an African-American going to church in terms of hand-me-down clothes for Kya, as well as what clothes from Kya’s mom would look like and how Kya would repurpose them when she grew older. 

SHOOT: What led to the casting of Daisy Edgar-Jones?

Newman: I discovered her through Normal People. I was blown away by her portrayal of Marianne who also is a complicated character. Marian did things quite unlikeable but still allowed audiences to empathize with her. We saw her character evolve and grow. She proved herself as an actress capable of portraying contradictions. Kya is really strong and resilient, a bit wild, vulnerable, tender and sensitive. Daisy is an actor who could capture all of those qualities in Kya. Daisy was one of the first actors we discussed. Her audition blew us away.

SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Where the Crawdads sing?

Newman: This was my first studio film. There are so many people, hundreds of names in the end credits. Every single one brought such expertise, passion and energy to the project. Every time I watch the credits, I get very moved. Choosing your collaborators is so important.
The story is also important. I read this book at the beginning of the pandemic when we were all experiencing isolation in a new way. Many people were separated from loved ones, paralleling that same longing that Kya has for family. It also was at a time of social reckoning in our country, having us asking how ingrained prejudice was in our own justice system. I think that’s part of why so many readers connected with Kya’s story--a woman who is living at a time when the law is not on her side. There’s no recourse for her [when she was abused by Chase]. Her mother has no recourse for the domestic violence that caused her to leave. Kya refuses to sit in silence and refuses to be a victim. What do you do when the justice system is not on your side? How do we stand up for ourselves? 

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