Where The Crawdads Sing director Olivia Newman on mysteries and myth-making

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(from left) Daisy Edgar-Jones and director Olivia Newman on the set of Where The Crawdads Sing.
(from left) Daisy Edgar-Jones and director Olivia Newman on the set of Where The Crawdads Sing.

Where The Crawdads Sing, an adaptation of Delia Owens’ bestseller, is the kind of must-see movie that seemed to arrive every few months during the mid-1990s, and now director Olivia Newman is hoping her film can help bring that type of project back into vogue.

Newman’s film, which beautifully merges the urgency of a soapy page turner and the unhurried familiarity of myth, stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya, a self-taught outsider growing up in 1960s North Carolina. Kya spends her life surrounded by suspicious townspeople, and she gets accused of murder when a young man dies under mysterious circumstances. Newman, best known for her 2018 debut First Match, delivers an affecting character study, a complicated love triangle, and a juicy murder mystery that simultaneously tugs at viewers’ heartstrings and keeps them on the edge of their seats.

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The director recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Where The Crawdads Sing, starting with the challenge of bringing this successful novel to life, the disparate threads of the book’s romance and mystery, the central character’s search for self-actualization, and the film’s sad parallels with topics in the zeitgeist today.


The A.V. Club: Did the fact that this was a bestseller make it a no-brainer to direct? Or was there simply something about the book that resonated with you?

Olivia Newman: First and foremost, it was the book that drew me to the project. I could not put the book down when I read it. I was really drawn to the character of Kya, who embodied this incredible strength and resilience, but is also a character I’d never seen before. Her ability to survive under incredibly harsh circumstances and the way that she finds her own life and discovers her own sense of self-worth despite suffering from the worst rejection imaginable, that story really resonated with me. And then the landscape of the marshlands of North Carolina, and the forest and the swamps and those kind of magical landscapes really drew me visually to the project.

Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in Olivia Newman’s Where The Crawdads Sing.
Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in Olivia Newman’s Where The Crawdads Sing.

AVC: What was the biggest challenge in trying to condense a rich character study that also has the imprint of a Gothic murder mystery?

ON: I like to say that blending all of these genres was the delicious challenge of this movie. It is a murder mystery. It is a love story. It is a survivalist tale. For me as a director, being able to sink my teeth into all of those genres was a huge challenge, but also one that I welcomed with great excitement. And it starts with figuring out how to adapt such an amazing book into a movie that’s also its own standalone medium that really pays homage and captures the spirit of the book but can weave the story together in a way that keeps audiences really engaged. So at the script stage, we decided to root us as much as possible with Kya, so leaving the courtroom throughout the film, anytime we were in the present in the murder mystery, we were with Kya. And any time we were in the past, we were also following Kya’s survival—and romances. And so that was a way to weave those three genres, but also stay really connected to our main character and see the story unfold as much as possible through her eyes. I think having access to an experience like Kya’s was, to me, the most exciting thing to offer the viewer.

AVC: Listening to you describe it reminds me of how excited I felt by the elasticity of the story, which is this murder mystery that draws people in to these many different ideas—her survival, her romance, her education. How much of that balance was fully figured out in the script?

ON: Well, as a reader of the book, the ending was everything, the ending is the story. That captures the essence of what [author Delia Owens] is trying to say. So there was no version of this movie without that ending, because then it’s not telling Delia’s story. And so that was never a questionwe were always going to be absolutely faithful and honor the book, and the message of the ending. There was a lot of conversation throughout the writing process about the best way to tie it all up, and weave all those different storylines. There’s romances that need to be tied up. There’s a murder mystery that needs to be tied up. There’s also the trauma of Kya’s childhood, of her mother leaving and her understanding why, and how that reflects back on her own sense of self and self-worth. To me, every time I think about that scene of her mother leaving makes me want to cry, because it’s the worst thing imaginable. And so that was also a really important thread for me to try to give Kya an understanding and some ability to reflect back and understand the cycle of domestic violence. So there was a lot of conversation throughout the writing process about the best way to weave all of these things. And I think we tried a lot of different things before we arrived something that was succinct enough to fit a two-hour movie, but still gave enough time to each of those different threads in order for them all to kind of have their own space and their own importance.

AVC: One of the other things the film does so well is draw these characterizations without overstating in the dialog, especially for her two “suitors.” How much did you rely upon Harris or Taylor or Daisy to draw out the tension of the attraction and the possible danger?

ON: I think the priority with all of the characters was that we really believe them as fully complicated human beings, for all of their strengths and all of their flaws. I don’t really believe in good guys versus bad guys. In real life, it’s always a question of “Who are you?” rather than “What happened to you? How did you become the way you are?” And so for all of the characters, we had lengthy conversations with each of the actors about their character’s histories, their family relationships, their sense of who they are, and what they were going through at each moment of the story. They all make mistakes. None of them are perfect. They all have their own soul searching to do. But what I loved about all of the actors is just how committed they were to really believing in their characters and finding some way to connect to and relate to them. And the actors are all so different from the characters they portray.

(from left) Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) and Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in Olivia Newman’s Where The Crawdads Sing.
(from left) Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) and Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in Olivia Newman’s Where The Crawdads Sing.

I mean, Harris is one of the loveliest, most charming, wonderful, sweet humans you’ll ever meet. And so his portrayal of a guy who is really kind of a bit lost and complicated, I think is a testament to his acting abilities. And so it goes with their performance, of course, and their embodiment of these characters. And then in writing the script, that was also something Lucy and I talked about a lot. We wanted to make sure that they felt really three dimensional through the writing and that you believed in both of the relationships. You could understand why Kya was so taken by Chase. Delia does an amazing job in the book in describing the real physical attraction that she feels towards him and that need for human connection after being alone for so many years, and why somebody with the charm of Chase would be such welcome company. He gives her attention and he gives her company. And he can be very caring. And then the connection with Tate really grows out of their shared love of the marsh and of science and nature. That connection really blooms from a friendship and an intellectual connection. So it was the writing, and it was the performance.

AVC: What did Daisy bring to the character that made her the right choice for the role?

ON: When we were casting, I had seen Daisy in Normal People and it was a show that I binged during the start of the pandemic when I was desperately in need of romance. I wanted a romantic escape, and Normal People was the medicine for Covid melancholy. That was my discovery of Daisy, and I just thought, “Who is this amazing actress who’s so layered and so deep?” And the role she plays in Normal People is quite different from Kya, so I had no idea what to expect when she auditioned, and I was just astonished at her very first read. She read the book in two days. She had the script for like 48 hours before she read for us, and I just was astonished by how quickly she was able to embody both Kya’s raw vulnerability, but also that real inner strength. And in working with Daisy, I now know she’s an actress who can do anything. The sky is the limit for her. And she’s so committed to the craft and so committed to the work. She came down to New Orleans six weeks before we started shooting. She learned how to drive a boat. She learned how to fish. She did movement work to really kind of get into Kya’s body and really get into what it’s like to walk around the marsh barefoot and be so at one with nature. She’s unbelievable with accents. So she learned the dialects with no problem. So now I know, of course, she’s an actress who has just an incredible range. But it was an amazing surprise when she auditioned, to discover that in her very first read.

AVC: This film feels very timeless, but it also taps into some contemporary ideas. How much did current themes factor in?

ON: I felt like it was a real conversation about what it is to be marginalized and outcast that sadly continues to be incredibly urgent and part of the current zeitgeist. I wish it wasn’t, to be honest. The film takes place during the height of segregation in the South. And it’s really sad to me that so many of these themes are still relevant today. And at the same time, I really felt like the story of “the Marsh Girl” had this very timeless quality. I read folklore from all over the world to my young children, and we read all of these different stories that have different variations depending on the culture that they’re from. And the story of the Marsh Girl sort of felt that way to me, that you could imagine there was a similar story about the Marsh Girl who was rejected and ostracized by society and had to overcome all these great challenges. And you can imagine that kind of story being told in many different cultures, many different time periods, many different societies. And so I did want to find a way to give it that sort of timeless feeling. And so that was part of the conversation in terms of the look of the film. It was a huge part of the conversation with my composer, Mychael Danna. I had loved the work he did on The Ice Storm. That is another example of a movie that is set during a very specific time period in American history, and yet the score sort of makes it feel like it is something much more universal, about the disintegration of the family. And so that was a big part of the conversation when we were talking about how we wanted the score to give it that feeling of folklore.


WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING - Official Trailer (HD)

AVC: There were a lot of bestseller adaptations in the ’90s, and it feels like we’ve gotten away from that. How emblematic is this of the work you want to do?

ON: I hope this is emblematic of a return to watching great dramas in movie theaters. I’m so grateful that this film was made always with the intention to be shown on the big screen, because it feels like a story and a palette and a landscape that needs to be experienced in that way. So I’m very grateful that Sony always intended to release it theatrically. It’s been a complicated time for moviegoing, for many reasons. But my hope is that people are craving this kind of story on the big screen again as much as I have been. I’m working on another book adaptation now, so maybe that says something about me. I don’t know. I’m working on a limited series for Apple that’s another adaptation of a bestselling novel, called The Last Thing He Told Me. I don’t know what that says about me [Laughs], but I’m drawn to, especially, stories that really highlight exceptional women and complicated roles. And I’ve just gotten really lucky that I’ve managed to get my hands on these incredible books that are being adapted.