Skip to main content

Embracing a Southern Narrative: A Conversation with Playwright and Screenwriter Lucy Alibar

The bayous, swamps, and marshes are wetlands where life thrives as much above ground as it does below the surface. 'Where the Crawdads Sing' screenwriter Lucy Alibar was born in the South and understands the intricacies of its magnificent, melancholy scenery.
Where the Crawdads Sing. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

Where the Crawdads Sing. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

One of the greatest American art forms is Southern literature, which includes plantation fictions, slave narratives, the anti-Tom novel, civil rights epics, the neo-slave novel, pastorals, counter pastorals (including of race and class), the Civil War novel, local color, Southern agrarianism, Southern modernism, and Southern Gothic/Grotesque. When one thinks of the South, slavery and Jim Crow come to mind. However, it's an involved region containing a byzantine history. With a fertile and robust topographical anatomy, it's a unique section of the U.S. that has contributed much to the economic and cultural backbone of the country. Eudora Welty, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and Flannery O’Connor are just a few who’ve penned a kaleidoscope of Southern narratives.

The bayous, swamps, and marshes are wetlands where life thrives as much above ground as it does below the surface. Playwright and screenwriter Lucy Alibar was born in the South and understands the intricacies of its magnificent, melancholy scenery.

"I'm from more swamps than marsh. But the marsh was like a 45-minute drive away. There's something about growing up near a body of water that connects you to that particular body of water. In my opinion, people who grow up near the ocean have this unique relationship to nature and the sea. But it's different than someone who grew up in swamps and marshes. Or mountains. The nature of where you grew up is more a part of us than we talk about. In the South, the relationship with land is so crucial. It's fishing and agriculture....it literally gives you life. I think there's a very close relationship to the land that I miss while living in a city."

[Constructing the Period Piece: A Talk with Writer Suzanne Allain]

On July 15, 2022, the highly anticipated Where the Crawdads Sing will hit cinemas. The Sony Pictures Entertainment release was directed by Olivia Newman, whose past credits include television and features. Lucy adapted the script from the best-selling book by Delia Owens. The protagonist of the story, Kya, is relatable to everyone because she just wants to be loved. Lucy’s previous work includes the critically acclaimed, award-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), which was adapted by Lucy and Benh Zeitlin from her one-act play Juicy and Delicious. It also takes place in the South but has a young Black female protagonist, Hush Puppy. For Lucy the setting is also a character and there is a connection between these two girls.

"They both have this incredible determination to go towards beauty, to create beauty. Hush Puppy is writing a story for the children of the future. Kya is also writing books not just to show what her life is but what this land is that people have written off as murky swamp or trash. They're both insisting that this land that they're from is important and deserves to have a place in the whole book of things.

Lucy Alibar

Lucy Alibar

The narrative question driving the film is whose story is important? Whose story deserves to be told? The question is also who do we write off and what can we learn from people that we look down on or dismiss? So much great Southern literature is about outcasts, which is one of the things that drew me to Where the Crawdads Sing."

Like the region itself, the beauty in a character can be reflected in its flaws. Kya is a likable protagonist, but she’s constantly battling internal struggles.

"Kya's major flaw is also what helped her survive. It’s her inability to trust people. It comes from a lifetime of people treating her badly. It's also the thing that prevents her from letting people help her."

Where the Crawdads Sing is an inaugural book adaptation for Lucy. The former NYU Tisch School of the Arts experimental theater student has plenty of experience writing plays and even did an adaptation of The Secret Garden. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first produced adaptation, though, and it is a noteworthy entry into the annals of Southern narratives. Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, and Harris Dickinson, the film is part mystery, part coming-of-age saga, and is an ode to the piquant culture of the South.

"I got involved with it because I was talking with Hello Sunshine about another project, and they gave me this book that they'd just acquired. I saw the whole movie when I read it. Delia is from very close to where I'm from. The book didn't just speak to me, it showed itself to me. I hope that doesn't sound too pretentious, but it just jumped off the page. So, I knew I had to do it. I pitched it to Elizabeth Gabler, then Sony, before I got the job.

Delia's novel was so popular. Reese picked it up before it was published, but it's been on the best-seller list for years now. I think having something that is so beloved in book form and knowing there are changes you have to make to make that a movie and what you can do to make it still feel like the book are some of the biggest challenges of adaptation. My method was to connect with Delia's work, then make that live outside of the book.

The first draft took me three or four months. Then I turned it into a studio, then it came back. It was a process of about three years."

ws-booktohollywood-500_360x

Many screenwriters lean towards a particular genre. Martin Scorsese has a penchant for mob tales. Candyman (2021) isn’t Nia DaCosta's first script, but it put her on the map as a horror writer to look out for. How a film makes Lucy feel defines its genre for her.

[Being a Story Custodian: A Conversation with 'Rise' Screenwriter Arash Amel]

"I love anything that makes your heart leap out of your chest...! The swell of emotions you get with films like Billy Elliott. Inspirational, uplifting movies. I was thinking about The Pursuit of Happyness today. That movie really ages well. I see it differently now that I'm a little older.

I have a real love for writing, a love for the source material, a love for the characters.

If I’m working under pressure, I try to not think about what could go wrong. The closer you get to shooting, the more the pressure mounts. You have to keep your eye on the prize. We're all just trying to make the best movie. For me, anxiety is about ego. 'What about me? What if I fail?' Just remembering that it's not about me, it's about the work, helps me get through difficult patches."

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya in Where the Crawdads Sing. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya in Where the Crawdads Sing. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

It's a given that representation is needed to make it as a screenwriter. There’s too much competition and the landscapes of film and television are constantly changing. You need someone to fight for you and to create a buzz about you. Lucy used a practical way to get an agent.

"I asked around for recommendations for a ‘good fit’ as opposed to just someone who will represent me. Seeking a good fit made me feel less insecure and desperate. I asked one of my friends from the Sundance Lab and she introduced me."

Before she was a playwright, Lucy was a waitress and a nanny. Dealing with kids in Manhattan was a far cry from dealing with children in the South and the experiences helped shape the way she views people and characters.

"Those experiences taught me not to judge anyone. The more you get to know someone, the more complicated they are. If you just listen to someone and just receive them, you might be surprised."

Where the Crawdads Sing will be in Theaters on July 15, 2022.


Learn more about the craft and business of screenwriting from our Script University courses!

SU script university pro promo 600