The “Normal People” star and filmmaker Olivia Newman tell IndieWire how they tackled their joint studio debut: a complex adaptation of a beloved novel.
People love Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing.” A lot of people, as the 2018 novel has currently sold over 12 million copies (putting it in the upper echelon of all-time bestsellers) and spent more than 150 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Reese Witherspoon championed it as part of her Hello Sunshine book club one month after its release. Two months later, she jumped on board to produce a film version. Hell, Taylor Swift (Taylor Swift!) liked the book so much that she wrote a song about the North Carolina-set period piece (titled, of course, “Carolina”) just for fun.
Actress Daisy Edgar-Jones remembers her mother, a prodigious reader, singing the praise of the novel while the family was on holiday in 2020, just months after the book had been optioned for the big screen. “She didn’t tell me that there was a part that actually I was maybe suitable for, which was very funny,” Edgar-Jones said in a recent interview with IndieWire.
That part is Kya, known to some as “the marsh girl.” Set in an isolated marsh in North Carolina, Owens’ book toggles between two key periods in Kya’s life that slowly braid together – 1952, when her mother (and then the rest of her siblings) leave six-year-old Kya alone with her abusive father, and also 1965, as a now-teenage (and totally orphaned) Kya falls into the first (and then second) flush of love. Kya is shunned by most of the townspeople, but makes a life for herself in the marsh, eventually turning her love of animals into a career as a self-taught author and ethologist.
But it’s not all a dreamy fairy tale, because at the heart of the story (and the film) is one burning question: Who killed local playboy Chase Andrews, who once attempted to woo Kya? As Edgar-Jones sagely explained it, “It’s a murder mystery but it’s also a love story and a nature story and survival story. It’s a lot to pack into one hour and 40 minutes worth of film! ”
When Lucy Alibar’s script landed in Edgar-Jones ’inbox in late 2020, the actress made quick work of it. She said she tore through both the screenplay and Owens’ book in two days. She wasn’t the only member of the production who mainlined the book in mere hours: so did the film’s director, Olivia Newman, who also read Owens’ novel in two days. (“I couldn’t put it down!”)
Michele K. Short
For Newman, who – just like Edgar-Jones – makes her studio debut on the film (her first feature was the Netflix-backed “First Match” in 2018), making a film that captured the same infectious spirit of the novel was paramount. That meant casting a leading lady who could handle a story that offers twists, turns, and an unbound sense of genre. (Young actress Jojo Regina plays the character as a child.)
“I was looking for somebody who could embody all of those complexities of Kya,” Newman said of casting Edgar-Jones. “I was looking for someone who I could believe was not only capable of surviving alone in a marsh and fishing, of swimming in the water with alligators, of walking through the marsh barefoot, somebody who could really physically take that on, but also could tap into Kya’s vulnerability and her tenderness. That’s what I love about Daisy, is that she is all of those things as a person and she’s able to really find the truth in all of those different shades of Kya. ”
Newman was worried about filling such a tall order – swimming with alligators and heart-breaking tenderness? – but Edgar-Jones blew her away.
“Honestly, I wasn’t sure until we auditioned her if she could do all of that,” Newman said. “We had a directing workshop over Zoom, and we did this audition where we did a few takes of each scene, and her very first take out the gate, she had me in tears. I felt like I was hearing the voice of Kya come out of this young British woman over Zoom. She had that quality of a movie star from that very first meeting. ”
Playing beloved characters from popular novels is basically an old hat to Edgar-Jones, who has been acting since she was a teenager but first earned a wide acclaim for her starring role in the series adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller “Normal People.” Her turn in the Hulu series earned her nominations for both a British Academy Television Award and a Golden Globe Award.
Michele K. Short
“It’s a really funny thing, being in something when you know already that the character’s been realized in people’s minds,” Edgar-Jones said. “I’m the same way, I get very attached to my version of something, so I think it’s about really trying to capture the tone of the story. What I like about all the characters that I’ve been lucky enough to play is that they are complicated, and I think that’s something that is important to represent on screen, actual women, who are layered and complex and flawed in many ways and resilient and often underestimated. I want to be a character actor. I want to transform in a way and depart from myself as much as I can. ”
Edgar-Jones loved Alibar’s script, but she really thrived under Newman’s direction, which brought Kya even more vividly to life for her. “She really got Kya, you know? She really captured her essence, ”Edgar-Jones said of her director. “It was really helpful for me because she had a clear idea of who the character was. That’s something I love a lot as an actor, being directed. So allowing myself to lose myself in her vision was something I really, really enjoyed. … That’s such an amazing feeling, to be able to step inside a world that is undeniably that filmmaker’s. You can see their handwriting in filmmaking. ”
Fans of the novel will likely be thrilled by the opening that Alibar’s script landed on and that Newman carried through production. It’s the same as Owens’ book, which kicks off in 1969 (the story’s “present-day”) and follows the discovery of the body of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) in the marsh. Who he is, what happened to him, and how he connects to the “marsh girl” at the story’s heart all unfold as the film weaves together various timelines to arrive at a shocking trial that sees Kya fighting for her freedom.
“We sort of don’t know who this mysterious person is, and we’re almost looking at her the way that people in town look at her, as this sort of enigmatic stranger,” Edgar-Jones said. “Then slowly we start to learn about who she is and her life, we start to get a connection to this person who is on trial for murder. It’s a really clever way of building that suspense. ”
Michele K. Short
Owens’ book is set in North Carolina, but Newman’s production took place mostly in Louisiana, all the better to get all the key locales in one workable space. (The final film includes a handful of sequences shot in North Carolina, in addition to scenes filmed at Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, to stand in for Kya’s secluded beach.) But doing it on a real location, not some soundstage somewhere, was never a question. .
“It was always imperative that we shoot the real landscape,” Newman said. “It was never a question that we needed to shoot in a location where we could photograph that landscape. We explored all kinds of options, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, we were trying to figure out the best place to shoot it. What Louisiana provided was both the marshlands exactly how I had imagined it when I read the book, but it also had these gorgeous swamps, which are a little bit romantic and ominous at the same time. It was important to have those contrasting landscapes. ”
She added, “I think that to understand Kya, you have to understand her connection to the marsh. As Delia writes in the book, ‘And the marsh became my mother.’ The marsh is her family. She spends years alone, but she is in the company of the marsh. ”
The first time Edgar-Jones visited the set, she was overwhelmed. “I remember the first time I went and visited Kya’s shack that they built, and it was on this beautiful lagoon and there were these oak trees with Spanish moss coming down and I couldn’t believe it, I’d never been in an environment. like that, ”the star said. “It was exactly how I pictured it.”
That evocative, you’re-really-there feeling should carry through even in the film’s final moments, including closing credits set to Swift’s “Carolina.” The singer and songwriter loved Owens’ book so much that she wrote and recorded the single without any sort of agreement in place with Sony. She did it because she was moved by it, and Edgar-Jones still can’t get over it.
“It’s actually bonkers, genuinely bonkers. I mean, bonkers, ”Edgar-Jones said of Swift’s song. “Honestly, I can’t really find a better word for it. I’ve loved Taylor Swift since I was little, so, you know, bonkers. ”
Newman agrees: It was crazy, but what’s really crazy is how well it works. “She sent us this song and she had written it just on her own because she loved the book so much and she knew we were making a movie,” Newman said. “She wrote this really impassioned letter. She used instruments that were only available before 1953. She recorded it in one take, the way they did at the time… It felt like the most perfect tone for the end of the movie. It’s a song you want to sit and listen to while you’re taking in what you just saw and absorbing it. ”
In talking about the film, Edgar-Jones ’voracious interest in filmmaking is clear (she’s the kind of actress just as eager to talk about crane shots as her own character choices). The care that went into the film – from Newman’s location choices to Alibar’s tender script and yes, Swift’s song – obviously spoke to her. Does that mean Edgar-Jones might want to direct someday?
“I would love to, definitely in the future, that’s something I’d be very interested in,” Edgar-Jones said. She pointed to Mimi Cave, who directed Edgar-Jones in the Sundance hit “Fresh” as another inspiration. “I’ve actually wanted to direct music videos for a while. Mimi, she began in music videos, ”she said. “I’m always interested [in] how much music influences the story. You can play three different songs and have three different readings of the same scene. So yeah, definitely! ”
Newman sees the burgeoning director in Edgar-Jones, too. “While we were working together, she kept saying,‘ I wonder if I could shadow you some time, ’I said,‘ You’re seeing it right now. You don’t need to shadow me. We’re working together and this is as close as you can get, ‘”Newman said. “I think Daisy is an artist, so she’s interested in all of it. What more can you ask for in a collaborator? ”
Sony will release “Where the Crawdads Sing” in theaters on Friday, July 15.