Boasting 157 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list for fiction—and counting, as of press time—Delia Owens’s novel Where the Crawdads Sing has become a bona fide phenomenon since its release in mid-2018. Selected by Reese Witherspoon as part of her Hello Sunshine book club, it was the top-selling fiction book on Amazon in 2019; more recently, Publishers Weekly ranked it as the 14th best-selling book of 2021, despite having come out more than two years earlier. Millions have connected with the story of Kya, a girl abandoned by her family and forced to survive on her own in the marshes of North Carolina. Viewed suspiciously by the townspeople, the “Marsh Girl” (as she is derisively known) faces additional trials when a man she’s formed a relationship with turns up dead, and she’s labeled the prime suspect.
The film adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing, out July 15 from Sony Pictures, offers fresh faces in the form of star Daisy Edgar-Jones, a British actress starring in her first theatrically released feature (she also starred in 2022’s horror film Fresh, released on Hulu); Lucy Alibar, penning only her third film (her first, Beasts of the Southern Wild, garnered her an Oscar nomination); and director Olivia Newman, making her first studio film. Behind the scenes is Witherspoon, producing the film through her Hello Sunshine banner. Newman talked to Boxoffice Pro about her big-screen debut.
When we arranged this interview, I wasn’t aware that you directed [2018’s] First Match, [a Netflix original movie about a teenage girl trying to join the boy’s wrestling team], which I really liked. What was your path from that film to Where the Crawdads Sing?
After First Match came out, I started writing lots of different things and directing television. I was getting into this crazy TV directing schedule, where you’re bouncing from show to show and then writing in between shows and getting different projects into different places. And then Covid hit. It was only two years after First Match came out. Everything shut down. It was a really scary time.
I was actually on a TV show that got cut. We got shut down the day before our first day of shooting. And then Crawdads was sent to me. My agents brought it to my attention. It was a book that I had been dying to read, but I knew that Reese had selected it for her book club, and I figured that it was going to end up getting made and I honestly was scared to read it and have my heart broken. My agents told me, “No, they’re looking for a director.” I read it in two days. I couldn’t put it down. Then I read Lucy [Alibar’s] script, which is a beautiful, lyrical adaptation. Amazingly, I got the job. That was July 2020. I had been shut down on this show in early March, thinking, “Oh my God, who knows when I’m going to work again?” and then got this job in July. So it was a huge relief, and it felt like this miracle that this beautiful book that I had been wanting to read and scared to read actually ended up being meant for me.
Surely there were a lot of people who wanted to direct this; what was your pitch? What did you sell the producers on?
Well, you’d have to ask the studio and the producers why they picked me! One of the things that I clicked into when I read the book and the script and was thinking about how you adapt it for screen: In the book, you have these two different story lines. You have Kya’s survival and growing up in the marsh, and then you have this investigation [and] courtroom trial at the very end. My pitch to them was, “Let’s put her on trial from the beginning, so that we’re always with Kya.” I don’t know if anybody else had thought that, so maybe it was a fresh idea.
I was trying to figure out, how do we create tension? And—from the beginning of the movie all the way through—get as much time as possible with Kya, because that’s really who we’re rooting for. Whether it’s in the marsh or in the courtroom, we always want to be hooked into her.
I had a very personal reaction to the story of growing up in the marsh and surviving in nature. My father built a cabin in the woods when I was a kid—literally bought a piece of land and built a cabin with running water but no electricity. That’s where we spent weekends, summers—we would spend just running around the woods. He’s a lover of animals and taught us so much about appreciation for the cycle of life and our natural instinct to survive. So I really connected on that level to the setting of the story.
The trailer has sort of a southern gothic feel, which I really appreciate.
Taylor Swift, who wrote that original song [for Where the Crawdads Sing], said to us that she imagined this southern gothic lullaby for the song, and I think that’s exactly right. The other thing is, just thinking about your question of, “Why did you get this movie?” It’s interesting, because when I first pitched, I was asked, “How can we envision you as a director [on Crawdads] when you’ve done First Match, which feels very different?” My response was, “I actually think these stories are very similar.” They’re both about young women who have been abandoned by family; who are growing up in very challenging and sometimes hostile environments; who discover that they have incredible skill, strength, and resilience; and [who go on a journey to] find their own voice and figure out their own self-worth in finding that thing that makes them really unique and strong.
In some ways, the reason [the story] really spoke to me is because it has this incredibly strong, resilient heroine at the center of it. Obviously, I’m drawn to those stories over and over again. It’s interesting to see the recurring themes in [my own] work. There’s this theme of found family and a craving for connection. Even when you’re incredibly strong on your own, you can still crave human connection.
How did making this film compare to making First Match for Netflix?
First Match was a Netflix original, and it was at a time when Netflix was just starting to fund low-budget movies. I don’t know what it’s like to work with Netflix now, because this was six years ago. At the time, the wonderful thing about working with Netflix was that they were very hands-off. They really had faith in our project and kind of let us do what we wanted. It was also a very low-budget film, so there’s different stakes there, obviously. But I felt completely supported by them. It was a wonderful experience in terms of creative liberty. It was fantastic. And it was such a rare treat for a first film to have the support of a studio like Netflix.
I imagine this time it’s more structured, if only because you’re working with preexisting material.
First Match I worked on for years. It came out of my research and my experience and relationships that I had with the wrestling community in New York. It was very much my baby, something that I completely invented and imagined and worked on for years and years and years, and spent years raising the money. It was this whole long, arduous process, as first films often are.
With Crawdads it was completely different, because there’s a phenomenon of a book as the source material. There’s already a screenwriter in place who had been on the project before me and poured her heart into the script. And there was a studio and Hello Sunshine producing it. So it was much more of a collaboration between all of these important creative voices and a lot of people who are really passionate about the material.
Reese Witherspoon has spoken about her support of female directors, and that really shows in Crawdads—that the studio didn’t just go with some guy who’d directed five studio movies already to direct this phenomenon of a book.
I’m completely indebted to Reese for being willing to take a chance on me. And to Erin Siminoff and Elizabeth Gabler at [Sony subsidiary] 3000 pictures. They have worked with giant directors, some of my heroes, and so the fact that they put their faith in me means the world. They have been so incredibly supportive of my vision and supportive of me as a first-time studio filmmaker.
It’s a group of powerhouse women in the film industry who are behind [adapting] this powerhouse of a first novel—Delia has written several memoirs, but this is her first piece of fiction. It’s my first studio movie. It’s all these women who have loads of experience coming in and saying, “We love this, and we have faith in this. We’re going to make it together.” It was quite an experience and very uplifting to know that opportunities like this can be made for women directors.
What was it like seeing Crawdads in front of a test audience for the first time?
Oh my God. It was terrifying. Our first test screening went very well, and that’s a huge relief. But it’s terrifying anytime somebody sees it for the first time, because it’s your baby and you love it. You’ve put so much care and thought into every frame of the movie and you just hope that it resonates with other people, but you really don’t have any control over how people experience it. I think there were 300 people in this giant theater. I’d never seen it projected on that big a screen. It was a mix of ages and races and ethnicities. It was a very diverse and large audience, so I had no idea how it would be experienced. And it was very positive, which was a huge relief!
I would’ve been shaking.
I was very sick to my stomach. But ultimately, it was a huge weight lifted. I think that’s a testament to Delia’s story, and I think it’s why the book has been such a phenomenon. I think because of Covid we’ve all existed in isolation; people really connect to Kya. She’s such an incredible heroine that audiences really root for her, because she has so much to overcome and yet she’s so strong, she’s so resilient, she’s so resourceful. It’s a character that anyone can relate to.
Obviously, we’re very interested in movie theaters here at Boxoffice Pro. Did you have a favorite hometown theater when you were growing up?
I grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey. We had a tiny little movie theater. I think it was called Hoboken [Cinemas]. It was tiny. I think there were two theaters—there might have just been one theater. It was a tiny screen, but I have such vivid memories of the films I saw there.
What are some of those early memories?
I remember seeing Schindler’s List there. I spent much of the movie with my head on my knees, because I couldn’t watch and I was so nauseous. But I remember thinking, “Oh my God.” That a movie can do that to you, can affect you to have that emotional and visceral response. It’s incredible. I’m sure I saw Ghost there, and I’m sure I saw Robin Hood. Those were my childhood.
The experience you get in the movie theater isn’t the same as the experience you get if you’re watching it at home.
The thing about testing it for audiences on such a big screen; one of the things that was so heartwarming to hear was that, hands down, people felt like this is a movie that should be seen on the big screen. That was our feeling from the beginning, because the landscapes are so incredible. You don’t want to look at the marsh on a tiny little screen. You really want to be surrounded by it. I think it’s one of the wonderful things about Delia’s book and hopefully about the movie, [the fact that] you just love being in that place. Seeing it on the big screen, you really get to experience Kya’s marsh more viscerally than if you’re watching it on your phone, which I hope nobody does.
I’m thinking back to Jeff Nichols’ Mud—if I’d seen that on a TV, or God forbid my phone, I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much.
Yes, that’s true. Actually, a lot of the images from Mud were part of my pitch. You really want to experience the mud and the muck of the marsh, right? We got stuck in the mud many, many times while shooting. We were constantly in mud. The mood of the swamps and the marsh is very specific. When you’re in the swamps, and there’s less light. We explore all those different landscapes in the movies. So it’s really fun.
Crafting the soundscape must have been fun, too.
That was one of the things I was most shocked by, was how loud it is in the marsh and the swamp. There is a certain kind of frog that sounds like sheep. The first time I heard it—“Where are there fields of sheep? Why do I keep hearing baa, baa?” Turns out it was a tiny little frog. There are thousands of them. It’s just so loud. The sound team was incredible, and it was really fun to do the sound mix and play with the different sounds of the marsh.