Floridan screenwriter and Oscar nominee Lucy Alibar (2012's Beasts of the Southern Wild) found her own inner Marsh Girl while adapting Where the Crawdads Sing, author Delia Owen's 2018 bestselling novel, for the screen.
"It’s the determination to survive, which I think is something everyone feels," Alibar tells A.frame. "Not that I've ever been in those situations that Kya has been in necessarily, but that grit that she has is something I really responded to. And I think a lot of people reading this book responded to it. It's also about a woman becoming an artist and finding what she loves and diving into that, and I've never seen a movie [like that before]."
Like the book, the movie is both a coming-of-age story and poignant romantic drama about Catherine "Kya" Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) over intertwining timelines spanning from 1952 to 1970. Having been abandoned by her family as a child and forced to fend for herself in a dilapidated shack in the marshes of North Carolina, Kya became known as the Marsh Girl, an outcast to both high society and working-class folk in nearby Barkley Cove. As an adult, Kya finds herself at the center of a murder investigation when a local golden boy, Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), turns up dead on the edge of the bayou.
"Those moments of feeling like an outsider — which Kya feels her entire life — resonated with me." Alibar explains. "I grew up kind of lonely and feeling like I was strange, and then, many other children told me I was strange, which reinforced the narrative. In the movie, I tried to give every character a moment where they also feel like an outsider. That feeling of strangeness is much more common than we all think, so I really wanted and was excited to write a movie about that."
In conversation with A.frame, Alibar discusses the journey of adapting the novel (which spent a record-breaking 191 weeks on the bestseller list), writing strong female characters and what it takes to build the perfect love triangle.
A.frame: How exactly did this book adaptation come to you? And what was the first thing you thought about before starting your own writing treatment for the movie?
Reese Witherspoon's company, Hello Sunshine, had optioned the book just before it became a bestseller. I think that's what started the initial wave of so many people reading it and, subsequently, falling in love with it. [The producers] and I asked a lot of questions, like, "How can we weave these two timelines together? How do we make these falling in love montages really pop onscreen? What are some of those moments that we do voice-over for? How can we get that book of prose and Kya's scientific discoveries to be both cinematic and take you on the same journey that you get when reading the book?"
So, the process of brainstorming and writing was trying to decide what to put in and what to leave out. Because there’s so much in the book! There is a balance between the things adapted from the book in the movie. Some key moments of the book you slightly alter and introduce earlier to the benefit of Kya's own sense of agency. One of the biggest changes, however, is that the murder investigation is more straightforward in the film, whereas it was peppered throughout the book.
Can you talk more about making that change? Why start out the movie with Kya under investigation?
I was in the middle of writing the script before the book became a bestseller. Originally, I thought it might be interesting if [the audience] didn't know who the dead body was until maybe midway through the movie. And thank God they made me change that! I think the audience would have been so bored. In the book, you’re with Kya when she’s five years old, and you’re also with the sheriff at the investigation, so you're not necessarily wondering how the case is gonna work or how the story of Kya and Chase is going to lead to each other. For the movie, we have an inherent understanding that this will all make sense. The attention span is so much less that you really have to connect [the elements of the story] so much sooner.
As much as I wanted to really draw out the beginning, I think between everyone reading the book and Chase's death no longer being a mystery, the choice to start with the trial made sense. For much of Kya's flashbacks though, it was really important to show what Kya is looking at in the present-day and what Kya is experiencing [in the moment] that ripped her back to the past. You have to have some kind of visual or emotional anchor in a way that a book doesn't necessarily need you to do. So, a lot of it was finding those moments of her seeing a bird and remembering that she used to find feathers with Tate (Taylor John Smith), or something like that.
What went into delineating between the characters in the book and writing them for the screen now that you had to be a little more dynamic with them?
A lot of the notes from [the studio] involved making the situation with Chase more like a love triangle. It involved looking back at the book and seeing what Chase could be when Kya was not looking at him. In so much of the book, you're seeing what Kya is experiencing. The movie is much more of a bird's eye view, and you're not with Kya a lot of the time. So what is Chase like? What's one backstory that he can have that makes him a more sympathetic and more complicated character? A lot of the making of this script was making Kya's very quiet internal words, thoughts and feelings live out loud. She's so alive on the page and [I had the task to] really let her live vibrantly on-screen.
"A lot of the making of this script was making Kya's very quiet internal words, thoughts and feelings live out loud."
What was the most challenging scene to write?
It was both of the love stories. It was trying to figure out how to express that Kya was making mistakes with both of these men. How is Kya possibly making mistakes with both of these men? Which, so many of us have asked ourselves that question. You know, it's that thing when you tell your girlfriends [something], and they're like, "And you're surprised that he acted this way? Why are you surprised that he didn't come back? He's given you every indication he's not going to do that!' So, those falling in love moments with Chase and Tate and making them dynamic and making them real and making all of us understand why she loves both of them [was a challenge].
Between the boys, who was easier and who was more challenging to write?
For Chase, so much of it was building a world in which he is a sympathetic character. You look at him and say, there but for the grace of God, go I. He was raised with all these expectations, between his alcoholic, cruel father and a mom with a lot of issues. The discovery that I really felt excited about was, how is Chase jealous of Kya?He's jealous of her ambition and her ability to live on her own terms. Even though he's a wealthy white boy in the South, that is something he feels he can't do. He harbors this incredible resentment towards her for that. At the same time, part of his attraction [to Kya] is about that. I really wanted hearts to break for Chase a bit. And Harris Dickinson is such a wonderful actor. He could really just show up and deliver.
For Tate, I wanted a bit more of what he could stand to lose. It's bad that he leaves Kya, it's bad that he lies to her, but I wanted that to be as understandable as we could [make it], so that in a way, it's an impossible choice. He has to leave or he's going to have this life of a fisherman when he wants something more. So, it was giving them both these moments of sympathy when they do these pretty dastardly things. Taylor John Smith just has this wonderful gentleness to him. Originally, when we were talking about casting, Delia was like, "How about Robert Redford?" Obviously, we couldn’t do that, but Taylor does have this young Robert Redford quality that is very delightful.
Is there any particular way you tailored the script on set to fit any of the actors' performances?
Generally, I found that less is more, especially in Daisy Edgar Jones' case. There's a scene where Daisy is reading a letter, and she doesn't need to say anything. She's so incredibly expressive, so you don't need it. David Strathairn [who plays Kaya's lawyer, Tom Milton] is so precise with words and what he can do with them that you realize that maybe this speech is five sentences too long, and it's immediately obvious what those sentences are when he says them. Another part of this is that so many of the actors are Brits, so they brought this really interesting relationship with the language because Southern [American] English is a different language. The way they attacked it was so exciting to watch.
What do you hope people will get out of this story? Is there a particular theme you wanted to emphasize?
Something I've been thinking about for a couple of years now is that you can never really know people. I mean this also as a really positive thing. You can't write anybody off. It's like that Michelle Obama quote: "It's harder to hate up close." That's something I have to cling to right now. Like, even the people who do things that are the most despicable or that I find the most despicable are still human beings. As easy as it is for me to wish they weren't, they're still human beings. The people I love the most, the people I admire, are still human beings too, and have done things that are imperfect or stupid or clumsy or just plain bad. They're still a human being too. Nobody is a tweet. That is something I really have to keep my heart on these days.
And that theme of trying to obtain absolution certainly manifests in the dynamic between Kya, who stands trial for a crime she may or may not have committed, as well as Tate, who is battling both his head and his heart, and Chase, who is a bit rough around the edges.
Right. We see these significant moments in the film where all these characters are behaving in a way that maybe they'd look back and be embarrassed about, or maybe [justify] as what they needed to do to survive. But that's never the whole picture. I would love people to come away from this movie seeing how complex we all are.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
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By Destiny Jackson