How ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Director Olivia Newman Brought the Marsh to Life in Louisiana

The filmmaker takes TheWrap inside her process of adapting Delia Owens’ novel

Sony Pictures

A CGI blue heron takes flight at the beginning of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” giving viewers a glimpse of the vast wetlands in which the film adaptation of Delia Owens’ novel, through Lucy Alibar’s screenplay, is set.

“We worked with a fantastic company,” director Olivia Newman told TheWrap in a recent interview about the film. “They just gave so much attention to detail to get the blue heron right, and we had a very specific idea in mind for how we wanted to lead the viewer into the swamp and first introduce them to the world of the marsh.”

The bird eventually weaves past the coastline and then down into the swamps to land near where two young boys discover the dead body of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) in the marsh.

“We worked with a drone company to get those shots exactly the way we wanted and then added the bird into the path. We knew that we were going to be following a bird, and we had this specific movement that we wanted from the bird,” she added. “And so then we had the drone shots to kind of leave the bird and follow the bird, and we had to do it many, many times so that we got those shots, the movement of those shots and the time of day just right. That was a labor of love.” 

Newman connected with Delia Owens’ novel — which mingles a coming of age story and a murder mystery — through her childhood memories, specifically those of vivid descriptions of nature like the ones Owens crafts. 

Though Newman grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, her father took yearly hunting trips to Mississippi, bringing back venison for his family, who would then share a first meal together while her father told the story of the hunt.

“The most important part besides eating the venison was hearing the story of the hunt. And really, it was mostly about the hours and hours he spent in the woods, and he would describe the animals he saw and where his tree stand was and describe the landscape,” Newman said. “It’s very similar to the landscape that Delia describes in her book, and there was always this sort of magical quality about his stories because we were city kids, the woods just had this sort of mystical feeling.”

Eventually, Newman’s father bought land in upstate New York where he built a cabin with no electricity. Newman’s family spent weekends and summers there, and she also got married there.

“The woods became a place for me — being from the city — where I would go and escape and feel just the wonder of being in nature, and it’s still a place of great calm and reconnection,” she continued. 

Both the emphasis on nature and the central character Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) raising herself in such a wild setting drew Newman further into the story. Kya not only survives but finds a way to thrive as a naturalist who becomes an expert on the flora and fauna of where she lives.

“When I read ‘Crawdads’, I just thought ‘My God, if I had read this when I was a kid, it would have been the ultimate story,” she said. “Because a young girl who could survive alone in the wild was, for me, that was the ultimate heroism that was just such an incredible feat. And so it really brought me back to my childhood in that way.”

Upon hearing from her agents that the book was being adapted into a film, Newman got a copy of Lucy Alibar’s script to read. Then she put together a pitch for Hello Sunshine productions and Sony’s 3000 Pictures, landing the role of director. The story is set in the marshes and along the coast of North Carolina, but filming took place mostly in Louisiana.

“For me, it was an absolute dream come true for my job to be to get on a boat and look for the absolute perfect backdrop and landscape,” she said. “What a privilege, and Louisiana has the most beautiful, beautiful landscapes and beautiful variety of both marshlands and cypress swamp and beaches.”

Most scenes were filmed regionally in Louisiana, with the city Houma posing for fictional Barkley Cove, the town at the edge of which Kya lives. The team constructed Kya’s shack in Fairview-Riverside State Park in Madisonville, a 99-acre park in the Louisiana State Park system. The lagoon where she keeps her boat rests on a bend in the Tchefuncte River. 

“We wanted to make sure we built [Kya’s house] in a place where you could move from the inside of the house to the outside,” Newman said. “We weren’t going to build it on a soundstage. We wanted her house to be surrounded by that beautiful environment.”

Young Kya (Jojo Regina) in front of her shack in the marsh. (Sony Pictures)

Other important locations included Jumpin’s shop and docks — run by Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) who give Kya gas for her boat as well as all of her household supplies in exchange for mussels she digs — as well as Kya’s beach, where she gets her heart broken, feeds the wild gulls and hides out. Newman and her team found a smaller, wilder stretch of sand on Lake Pontchartrain that felt just right for Kya’s beach. 

“We spent a lot of time on boats, boating on these different bayous to find the landscape that matched what we so vividly could imagine from reading Delia’s book, and her book was the blueprint for us.” 

Newman worked with a team to execute the game plan of bringing the marsh setting to life. B camera operator Grayson Austin was responsible for gathering footage of creatures in their natural habitats to mix into the film.

“We were very careful about scheduling so that anytime we were in a location where we knew you could go and film egrets and we knew there was an osprey nest on this one bayou and we had gone out with naturalists and sort of figured out where you could see the most variety of birds and wildlife,” she said. “So that we knew ‘Okay, when we get to this point in the day, we can send Grayson off and he could go and shoot anything he can see.’”

Kya becomes fascinated with birds and their feathers, identifying molted ones by their species and location on the specific bird.

“[Austin] went out a couple of times with the naturalist who would tell him ‘Okay, let’s go down this area, you’ll probably see these kinds of birds.’ We had a very specific list of things that we wanted him to get,” Newman continued. “He shot so much B roll footage, we could cut together a documentary about the marsh.”