Olivia Newman Interview

Based on the popular novel, Where the Crawdads Sing arrives in Australian cinemas this week and I recently had the chance to speak with director Olivia Newman about the project…

Matt:  Delia Owen’s book was first published in 2018 and so this is a very quick turnaround for a film adaptation.  How did the project get moving so quickly?

Olivia:  The producers will know more but from what I understand, Reece Witherspoon picked it for her book club and Elizabeth Gabler from 3000 Pictures reached out and asked if she wanted to turn it into a movie.  They then attached Lucy Alibar to write the script and worked with her on that.  I then became attached to direct in the summer of 2020.

Matt:  We see the name Reese Witherspoon in the credits as one of the producers.  How was she most of use to you in terms of the project?

Olivia:  Reece is wonderful.  She is incredibly smart and has years of experience making movies.  She’s got an amazing production company, Hello Sunshine, producing so much amazing content.  At the very first meeting, she said one of her missions was to help filmmakers take that leap from their first small film to something with a higher budget.  This was going to be my first studio movie and she said “how can we help support you in making the transition?” and I felt hat support from her and our other producer, Lauren Neustadter, all the way through the process.

Matt:  I’ve admired David Strathairn for a long-time and he so often elevates films through his supporting performances.  How did you get him involved with this?

Olivia:  I’m right there with you.  I’m a huge admirer and fan of David Strathairn.  He was our number one pick to play Tom Milton.  There was no one else we could imagine in the role.  He read and loved the book and when he got sent the script, he gave me a call, we had a chat, and he said “I think I’d really like to do this.”  It was such a thrill.  We all felt we were in the presence of a legend whenever we were shooting scenes with him.

Matt:  The two leads are Daisy Edgar-Jones and Taylor John Smith.  You want great actors but with a film like this, chemistry is really important too.  How much did that come into play with the casting?

Olivia:  That’s everything.  We were casting this during the pandemic and so all of our auditions took place over Zoom.  That made it really hard to read chemistry.  What I decided was if we can feel the chemistry through the screen, then we’ll know there’ll be chemistry when they’re together in person.  What struck me about their reads together was how much they were listening to each other and reacting.  It felt very genuine and easy.  That embodies Tate and Kya’s relationship perfectly in that there’s an immediate easy with one another because they share a love of the marsh.

Matt:  The story is spread across multiple years with the same lead actors – Daisy Edgar-Jones and Taylor John Smith.  How do you approach that as a director in terms of slightly altering their look and mannerisms across that timeframe?

Olivia:  There were lots of conversations about how to age them.  They’re young actors and so their skin doesn’t take to ageing makeup as well as older actors.  There was a lot of thought which went into ageing over time.  When we first meet Daisy, she’s a teenager and then we spend time with her in her 20s.  I loved what our head make-up artist did.  She looks very young and fresh as a teenager.  Daisy also did a lot of work on her physicality to span the ages.  The tenor of her voice changes and it’s slightly higher when she’s a teenager.  With the dialogue, she speaks slightly differently when she’s a teenager and so you’re able to track it in very different ways.

Matt:  So much of the film looks like it was shot in this tiny wooden cabin in the middle of nowhere.  Where did the production take place?

Olivia:  We shot in and around New Orleans.  We found a lagoon and we built Kya’s house right there.  It was important that we could shoot interiors and exteriors at the same time.  We didn’t want to be on a stage and we wanted to easily move the camera from inside to outside.  We took advantage of the landscape which had the breathtaking lagoon and these wild oak trees and then we brought in more greens and built out the surrounds to make it feel very remote.

Matt:  I’ve always admired the work of composer Mychael Danna going back to his work on The Ice Storm.  What were the two of you trying to elicit with your use of music in the film?

Olivia:  The Ice Storm is one of my favourite films and it’s the reason that I first thought about Mychael.  What I love about The Ice Storm is that it’s a film set in a very specific time and place – suburban Connecticut in the 1970s – and yet the score gives it this feeling of universality and timelessness.  There’s a fabel-istic quality to it and that’s what I wanted for Crawdads.

With the score, I wanted it to feel like a story that’s been told over hundreds of years and while this particular telling happens to be set in North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s, there’s a timelessness to it.  You can imagine the story about the Marsh Girl happening in other time periods and other cultures because there’s so many universal themes.

Mychael and I talked a lot about instrumentation and drawing from the sounds of the marsh and Kya’s landscape to inform some of his choices.  I was blown away by his score.

Matt:  We cross back and forth between the court room scenes and the flashbacks to help us understand the history to the characters.  How did you balance that up in a way that felt right in the editing room?

Olivia:  Our intention going in, as it was scripted, was to have the court room and the trial playing throughout to keep us engaged in the murder-mystery at the centre of the story.  It also keeps us connected with Kya.  There were little tweaks and changes in the edit in terms of when those flashbacks occur but we were pretty faithful to what was scripted.

I worked with an amazing editor, Alan Bell, and the hardest thing was we had a 3-hour movie which we had to cut down to 2 hours.  There’s a lot of stuff which was killed in the edit but Alan did an amazing job.  We managed to figure out where we could make trims without sacrificing anything which was the heart and soul of the story.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  Any other exciting projects coming up?

Olivia:  Funny you should ask.  I’m in the middle of production right now.  I am producing and directing a limited series for Apple TV which is another book adaptation – Laura Dave’s beautiful novel The Last Thing He Told Me.  It stars Jennifer Garner, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and a wonder Aussie actress Angourie Rice.  We have a beautiful cast and it’s been a joy to work on another fantastic book adaptation.