Note: The following contains spoilers for “From Scratch.”
Showrunner and co-creator Attica Locke repeatedly persuaded her sister Tembi to write down her one-of-a-kind love story in memoir form, which eventually became the New York Times bestselling book “From Scratch,” and now that memoir is a tremendously popular Netflix series.
Both sisters sat down with TheWrap for an interview about adapting Tembi’s memoir into the new Netflix limited series, revealing how they took Tembi’s story from page to screen.
“When I was writing a proposal for my book, and I put all of the themes that were in there, and I’m a first time writer, had never written a book, and literally it’s food, death, love, travel, racism, adoption,” Tembi said. “When the book went out on proposal, some of the early feedback I got was ’Well, she can’t do this. As a new writer you can’t put all of those things in one book.’ And I remember thinking to myself, ‘But I lived them, but they are my truth. What are you talking about?’ And that actually made me clearer about my objective and mission to write it because I thought, ‘Well, wait a minute, I’m not some unicorn out here being the only one, we have to put this down.’”
Attica, who has writing credits on “When They See Us” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” was working with Hello Sunshine on another project when she decided to share an early version of her sister’s manuscript with the executives there, leading to the rapid-fire pace of the show’s development after she received a call saying “this needs to be turned into a TV show immediately.”
“But if you are a unicorn, I thought you were gonna say,” Attica added in the paired conversation. “All the more reason this book needs to exist. You’re unique.”
Attica herself has written five books, including her 2019 book “Heaven, My Home” which is the sequel to Edgar Award-winning “Bluebird, Bluebird.” Her third novel “Pleasantville” won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and was also long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. “The Cutting Season” won the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. A former fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmaker’s Lab, Locke works as a screenwriter as well, and “From Scratch” marks her first foray as showrunner — across two continents, five cities and three languages.
“Pretty early on we made a decision that, because the book is so mosaic in structure, we made a decision to tell the story chronologically in a straight line, but to come up with a device that let the audience know it was a woman reflecting back,” Attica said. “We felt like it would be hard to hold all of the twists and turns and all of the emotional ups and downs while also chopping up time, that it would it would disrupt your ability to sit with the life of these two people, just as it was lived, And that’s what we wanted more than anything, so once we made that decision, that greatly informed how we were going to approach everything.”
Tembi’s book recounts three summers — which Attica calls a “three act play of healing” — spent in Sicily, but for budgeting purposes and given the limited number of episodes, these seasons were condensed down into one summer, which provided one of the more challenging parts of the conception of the series. The story follows a character based on Tembi — Amy Wheeler (Zoe Saldaña) — as she meets the love of her life while studying abroad in Italy and embarks on a love story for the ages that is not without its hardships.
“We knew also, when we go from page to screen, that we’re asking the viewer to go on lots of different journeys, and one of the great gifts of writing the book in the messages that have come back to me is, someone said to me once, ‘What I love about your book is that it meets the reader where they are,’” Tembi said. “So if the reader is going through grief that’s there for them. But if they’re just a travel person, or they are interested in family dynamics, or just food, it meets the reader and there’s enough to sort of plug in, so we knew in this in the adaptation we were going to have to honor all of these story threads and that people, if they want to dive deeper and focus on that they can, but then there’s the next thing because, as with life, there’s always the next thing that’s happening.”
To build up psychic distance from her own life story, Tembi and Attica decided early on to change the names of all the characters in addition to elements of their roles and identities in the story. Zoe Saldaña’s Amahle “Amy” Wheeler” represents Tembi, Danielle Deadwyler’s Zora fills the role of Attica and Eugenio Mastrandrea’s Lino Ortolano portrays Tembi’s late husband Saro. The show begins with Amy and Lino falling in love, and it takes viewers on an emotional journey through the highs and lows of a life well-lived, ending with Lino’s death from cancer, but also a hopeful final episode that hints at new beginnings and just as much love.
“We’re braiding multiple storylines, multiple themes together, because it’s how I feel life is always happening,” Tembi said. “I go to the grocery store to buy the apples, but I’m also still a Black woman who might bump into somebody in the parking lot who says a weird thing. And then I get in my car and my Sicilian mother in law calls me and I talk to her in Sicilian. It all happens in five minutes, so that’s our show.”
A mix of music sets the foundation for the telling of this story, including Italian songs, blues and more.
“There are some songs that were scripted, and it is true in real life that my brother in law Saro loved blues. He loved the music period, but part of their walk along the Arno, they talk about blues. It was scripted that blues would open Episode 2,” Attica said. “Otis Redding was scripted to close out that episode. We kind of gave people guidelines. We kind of gave our director our music supervisor things that we thought would fit, and then we got in there and helped out too. We picked a lot of the songs that are in the series.”
Tembi served as the final filter on the Italian song selections since she was the only one in the writer’s room and development stages who spoke Italian. One song was deemed incompatible for the lyrics and what they suggested — ‘Filomena is not in a romantic relationship with Amy, she doesn’t want to take Amy to bed, she does not’ — even though it sounded great.
“Having lived in Italy, traveling there, I have a kind of sound with regard to Italian music that I’m drawn to, and that I go for and it’s sort of more contemporary Italian artists, but I also know sort of older Italian artists. And so specifically for the restaurant scene in the pilot when Leno first cooks for Amy Volare was a song I found,” Tembi said. “I was like, ‘I feel like this is the moment’ and when it was paired with that scene, magic happened, and that became the template, the energetic template that we continued to seek. When a kind of sonic experience would meet the picture in such a way that a new kind of alchemy happened, we knew we were onto something, and often we liked the juxtaposition of a kind of R&B sound against an Italian setting. And we were constantly playing with that juxtaposition of image to sound.”
“From Scratch” was Netflix’s first U.S. production after lockdown, and people were leaving set to get vaccinated. Attica still felt they found a rhythm in making a show about human intimacy and connection even though they were physically separated by layers of PPE. One scene provides a prime example, in which Amy’s family works together to sneak her and Lino’s adopted daughter Idalia (Isla Colbert) into the cancer ward of the hospital to see her father despite the mandate that children were not allowed on that floor.
“That is inspired by real life. I had to sneak my daughter into the hospital to see her dad, my husband. It’s a pivotal part of the book, and it’s written to illustrate the ways in which we need to pay attention and center a child’s experience when there’s illness in a family and particularly, if there is the possibility of death, basically, like you cannot exclude the child from the experience,” Tembi said.
“So it happened in real life. And my parents were very much involved in our lives around the time that my husband was going in and out of the hospital. For screen, we chose to have Herschel (Keith David) be the one who brings her in, and we made it like a kind of a ‘Mission Impossible,’ ‘Ocean’s 11’ sort of thing. And it was a delight to see the family work together in that way. It becomes kind of a visual metaphor for the way, I know in my own life, my family was really coming together to support my daughter at a critical time, and and how joyous it was when I don’t screen when Italia and Leno get together. You see that relief, you feel that relief. She has been waiting to see her dad, and that’s what it’s like for so many kids when they aren’t allowed to see a parent who’s critically ill. It’s traumatizing.”
The final episode outlines the future of Amy and Idalia and Filomena after Lino’s death, taking place in Sicily to concentrate on the roots of the family that stayed strong there.
“We knew that having only one full episode in Sicily, it had to carry a lot of weight and the fact that it was going to be the final episode, we knew sort of as storytellers that we were asking the audience after a big emotional turn and loss to now invest in a whole new place with [these] whole new characters in a whole new language,” Tembi said. “To make them meet Sicily, fall in love with it, and feel good all in one episode that was done. That was a task that the book does over the course of a book, but we had one episode to do that.”
The finale still honors Saro’s memory in showcasing the hopeful new beginning between Amy and her mother-in-law Filomena (Lucia Sardo).
“I think by honoring the beauty and simplicity of his hometown, and all of the people who were a part of making [Saro] who he was and that place was a way to honor him on screen and honor a Sicily that is changing, a generation of the old ways of women dressed in black, that is changing and dying off, and so to honor that on screen, is a way to honor him,” Tembi said. “And also to see the impact of what can happen when two people choose each other. Just like in the pilot, Amy and Lino choose each other. In that finale, Amy and Filomena choose each other and that is really what our series is about is about how we choose and create family. I felt it was not only what happened in real life, but very honoring to show that to the world and the possibility of hope even in loss. You can still feel that sense of hope when we choose each other and we choose family and we choose love and all of that.”
Attica felt that the show also pays homage to Saro through its depiction of him as a father.
“One of the really special parts of the show, because it was one of the things I most respected and admired and loved about my brother in law, he was such a good father,” Attica said. “All the scenes between Lino and Idalia just melt my heart and on set, Eugenio and Isla, the actors, they had such a great rapport and so just being able to capture that part of Saro, that was a big part of his joy in life was being dad, and so I’m proud of those scenes, they made me happy. And that is one of the ways I think we do honor his spirit.”
As for what viewers will take away from the show, Tembi outlined the following message, with Attica’s enthusiastic approval.
“I hope people will understand that any conversation about loss or death is really a disguised conversation about how we want to live our lives, how we want to love and also that we are all greater than our differences,” Tembi said. “We are more similar than our differences, we’re greater than any border, any language differences, and that if we choose to step outside of our direct lived experience and what we know, that we can have a greater love, greater expansion than we know is possible.”
“From Scratch” is now streaming on Netflix.