Where the Crawdads Sing: Your First Look at the Lush Adaptation
The bestselling Delia Owens novel is “a love letter to growing up in the South,” says producer Reese Witherspoon—which is exactly why it sang to her.
When director Olivia Newman first heard about Where the Crawdads Sing, the novel everyone seemed to be talking about, she flat-out didn’t want to read it. At the time, Newman was looking for scripts to helm after her 2018 SXSW breakout film, First Match. She was intrigued by the tale of the mysterious “Marsh Girl” from debut novelist Delia Owens—but while driving around L.A., Newman heard an interview with the author on NPR and learned that Reese Witherspoon was interested in pursuing the novel. “I remember thinking, Oh, my God, this sounds like something I would love…but I’m not even going to read it because I’ll be so heartbroken that I won’t get to make it,” Newman tells Vanity Fair.
In a few short years, Crawdads went on to sell more than 12 million copies, and Newman wound up directing the film, which will premiere in theaters on July 22.
A lyrical blend of romance, crime thriller, and survival story, Where the Crawdads Sing follows Kya, a young girl in the marsh of North Carolina who yearns for connection after being abandoned by her family. After one of the men Kya becomes romantically entangled with shows up dead, she is even further ostracized from the community, and the town’s previously concealed secrets bubble up to the surface. “I read this novel probably in one day, maybe two days. I just couldn’t put it down,” says Witherspoon, a producer on the film who also selected Crawdads for her famed book club. “I fell in love with Kya as a main character, as a little girl who’s growing up in this very rural area, who’s shunned by society, and is trying to find a way to just save herself, just survive. And the way that Delia Owens wrote this book with such authenticity, you could just tell she really grew up in this place. She really appreciated the nature around her. The book is a love letter to growing up in the South, which for me really resonated because I grew up in New Orleans and Nashville.”
Alongside Elizabeth Gabler and Sony’s 3000 Pictures, a newly launched label in partnership with HarperCollins, Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine’s Lauren Neustadter found a screenwriter in Lucy Alibar, the Oscar-nominated scribe behind Beasts of the Southern Wild. Alibar, who is from the Florida Panhandle, had been in the Hello Sunshine offices to discuss optioning another book that didn’t come to fruition. On her way out the door, she was handed a copy of Where the Crawdads Sing.
“Offhand, an executive said, ‘Oh we have this book. It’s from the South. You’re from the South. Why don’t you take a look at it?’” Alibar says. “It was one of those [conversations] that didn’t feel like anything momentous at the time.” As soon as Alibar started reading, she immediately began to picture everything from the palmettos to the house where Kya lives in the marsh. The cinematography jumped right off the page, Alibar says. “As soon as I started reading I could see everything. That happens in my favorite novels. It’s rare that I experience that with a first-time novelist.”
After multiple pitch meetings, the coveted job was hers. Alibar got to work, first by setting up a call with Owens herself. “I knew I loved Delia immediately because she said, ‘Please don’t ruin the Southern accent—I hate that!’” Alibar says, laughing. She regularly spoke to Owens, who got her start as a nature writer, to make sure she was name-checking the right species of fish or birds in her script. “Delia trusted all of us to take her baby and put it out there in front of even more people.”
Alibar spent four months working on the first draft of the screenplay, trying to protect the color-coded note cards that covered her floor from her dog. One of her biggest challenges was grappling with the time jumps in Owens’s novel. “In Delia’s book there’ll be a quick chapter of the present, and then there’s a big blank space, and you turn the page, and that’s how you as a reader know that you’re now in the past again.” Alibar continued to revise up until production, ultimately shaping the script for two years. At this point, she says she could probably recite Owens’s novel by heart, word for word.
When March 2020 hit, Olivia Newman’s steady job directing episodes of Chicago Fire was put on an indefinite pause. “I was on a call with my reps and was like, ‘What are we going to do? The industry is shut down. How do I pay the bills?’” She and her team took advantage of the downtime by going through scripts, though no one was sure when they’d actually get to be on a set again.
“I was being sent all of these psychological thrillers, and it was too much to be reading this stuff during COVID,” Newman says. “I was like, ‘I need some good love stories!” A friend of hers suggested she watch Normal People, the Hulu romance that launched in the early days of the pandemic, based on Sally Rooney’s novel and starring a newcomer named Daisy Edgar-Jones. She binged the entire series.
It was around that time Newman learned that Hello Sunshine and Sony 3000 Pictures were hunting for a director for Where the Crawdads Sing, the novel she had heard so much about. After getting her hands on a copy and reading it in two days, she landed a meeting. Newman’s debut film, First Match, follows a young girl who grows up in the foster care system and becomes a boxer. It took home the Audience Award at SXSW. On paper, First Match and Crawdads have nothing in common, but Newman thinks otherwise. “Both of these movies are about girls who are facing incredible odds, who are growing up in very hostile environments…and discover an incredible skill that helps them survive,” she says.
Witherspoon saw Newman’s magic right away. “We were so lucky to find Olivia,” she says. “She’s such a dynamic filmmaker. She also just understands the scope of a story like this. And she has these beautiful vistas and sweeping shots that’ll just take your breath away…. She just really built a world that you want to move inside of and be a part of.”
Newman came on board in July 2020 and found her Kya in Daisy Edgar-Jones a few months later. Edgar-Jones had what she describes as a “mad dash” of an audition for the role, reading the entire book the day before her self-taped tryout. After a virtual meeting with Newman and workshopping scenes over Zoom, the director was blown away. “When we saw Daisy read, we all felt it…. It was like hearing Kya’s voice. It was just a stunning, stunning audition,” says Newman, who offered her the part the very next day. “Daisy is just a once-in-a-lifetime talent,” agrees Witherspoon. “She’s just a deep-feeling, sentient human who can really morph herself into so many different characters, but you feel her vulnerability and ferocity in this performance.”
Edgar-Jones was similarly taken by Kya right away. “She has such an inner strength that I would love to have myself,” says the actress. “She’s complicated, flawed, brilliant…and survives against all odds.” In another lifetime, Witherspoon would have jumped at the chance to play the Marsh Girl herself. “If you’d come to me when I was 23, I would’ve loved to play Kya,” she says. “That’s part of why I get excited to be a producer. I get to tell stories that I can’t physically be anymore…but I get to be part of building the teams that bring these stories to life and it’s enormously fulfilling.”
Edgar-Jones, who is British, worked with vocal coach Francie Brown to get her North Carolinan drawl just right. “I found the accent weirdly easier than the more general American accent, because it’s such a clear sound,” says Edgar-Jones. But it wasn’t just the accent that she had to nail down. Edgar-Jones had to understand the nuances of Kya’s voice and physicality as the character ages from her teens to her 40s. “I wanted to find a change in her voice when she grows up…and her eye contact was a big thing for me. She’s more fearful and suspicious of people [when she’s younger],” she says. “It was a fun challenge.”
Filming took place over roughly four months in New Orleans from April to July 2021, on both a soundstage and the far-out marshes of the North Shore. While COVID shutdowns on productions have become commonplace, Crawdads got shut down for a whole other reason: weather. The cast and crew faced lightning storms, torrential rain that flooded their sets, and the brutal New Orleans summer heat. “I never sweated so much in my life,” says Newman. “I learned how wonderful linen is.”
Some crew wore head-to-toe netting to fend off mosquitos and became experts at swatting away vicious horseflies. “It was grueling, but there was also something magical in it, because that’s also Kya’s story,” says Newman. “It made us more connected to the material…[because] this is a story about a young woman who learns how to deal with the elements of her environment. In some ways, it was wonderful to be Kya’s world.”
Off set, Edgar-Jones and her castmates spent their free time kayaking down the canals, partaking in crawfish boils, and being swept up in the music floating down Frenchmen Street. On set, “it felt amazing to be among such an incredibly talented group of women,” she says. “Only when you see that yourself can you go, ‘Maybe I could direct one day too.’”
Newman admits that her heart races a bit whenever someone tells her Crawdads is their favorite book—the pressure!—but is confident that the film captures the heart and soul of the novel. Perhaps Witherspoon puts it best: “I’m always interested in the story where a woman saves herself,” she says. “Because women save themselves every single day.”