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Tembi Locke’s bestselling memoir, From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home, chronicles her winding journey through love and loss, upon the death of her husband Rosario “Saro” Gullo after a decade-long cancer battle with leiomyosarcoma in 2012. Locke, a Black actress from Houston, Texas, and Gullo, a chef from Sicily, Italy, met by chance in Florence, and together they found a shared language through food and cultural exchange.
Netflix’s From Scratch, a limited series led by Zoe Saldaña and inspired by Locke’s book, claimed the top spot on the streamer in its first week with 72 million viewing hours. The contours of the show, which was co-created with Locke’s sister and showrunner Attica Locke, first emerged in 2018 when Tembi’s book was in copyedits. Attica was working on Little Fires Everywhere for Hulu as part of Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company, which focuses on female-led literary adaptations (and produced From Scratch). In the spring of 2019, they pitched the show to Netflix, who bought the unique love story in the room.
The sisters and executive producers spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the cultural importance of food, portraying grief on screen and what it was like to navigate familial stories and relationships during the process of developing and filming the show.
How did this memoir become fit for the screen format? I’m interested in the adaptation process, and what it took to make the text sing as a show, the same way it does in the pages of a book.
Tembi Locke: We really settled on some core, thematic pillars and [defined] story points that were non-negotiables — like, without these elements, you don’t actually have From Scratch. Once we knew what those elements were, then it became about filling out the world. So, thematically, it was certainly love — many forms of it. [There are] multiple love stories. It was also travel, food, the making of a family, forgiveness and of course grief, loss, and illness. Lots of things. Then, in terms of story points, there were scenes from the book that we knew had to be in the series. In the pilot, it’s the first time Lino cooks for [Amy].… You don’t have [the rest of the story] unless he shows her that kind of love.
Attica Locke: And as a storyteller, in terms of approach, we definitely wanted every character to have a little bit of an arc. [There are ways] to take the essence of a truth, and then bend story. You have to give yourself permission to bend story; it’s telling the essence of the truth, if not the literal truth.
Why did this project feel more like a show than a film?
AL: I will credit Hello Sunshine for this, always. They had the vision of this being a series and not a movie. I think we had a kind of knee-jerk love of film, but they were like, “There’s too much here. It’s too good to try to do in two hours.”
TL: In some ways, our series is about what happens after the rom-com. It’s not what happens after the “meet cute.” In a film you don’t get to follow your characters the fifth year into their marriage, or once they’ve had the baby. A part of our series is about love growing up. Evolving beyond just romantic love.
What are some specific, non-negotiable moments from Tembi’s memoir — and lived experience — you felt had to be included?
AL: We wanted to tell the story in episode two of how challenging it was for [Lino] to be an immigrant in America. And that where [Amy] was a fish out of water in Florence in a lighter kind of way, because she could always go home, what was it like if you uplifted your whole life to move? One of our writers knew an immigrant experience through her parents very intimately; they emigrated to Australia and had lots of challenges. So that was really important to us. On its face — and I don’t mean that Netflix or our producers were not supportive — but telling the immigrant story after they just fell in love might not be on the top of everybody’s list. But we wanted that challenge for them as a couple.
TL: For me, I think [Lino’s illness] as a story point and certainly when we get to the episode in which he passes, I knew we needed to … You wouldn’t have From Scratch if you didn’t take the reader through that experience in a very grounded, real, expansive, loving way. And to include the child in that process, because that’s not something we see on screen a lot. And personally, as the parent of a daughter who lost her dad when she was 7, I’m very interested in exploring and demonstrating for viewers what childhood grief looks like. And also what end-of-life care can look like.
I’m sure writing your memoir offered a certain type of catharsis, but was it difficult reopening those wounds, so to speak, when you revisited the storytelling process for Netflix? Or did it feel easier to confront your reality this time around? I’m wondering about your emotional interior, and what it took to make this show for audiences.
TL: Thank you for asking that question. My answer is multi-layered, but I will say that it was hard at times to revisit the images in particular. When I wrote it, I could relive it intimately; I could do it in my own time and space, and when it would get too intense, I could close it and come back to it two days later. Like, I could pace myself. In the medium of film and television, the pace is set by the production schedule, right? And so watching certain scenes relived in the 3-D, fully embodied and on their feet, I was able to see my life again, and in a way there was a different kind of grieving process in the filming. But there was also a cathartic process, because I realized I had traveled enough road that I was strong enough to be on a set, watching it play out again. And also, I was doing it in community: I was doing it with my sister, my ride-or-die, the person who had my back no matter what — and we were telling a story that was not only deeply personal and honoring of my late husband and our family, but also kind of had everybody’s story. Everybody has been touched by loss or illness and the fact that we were doing it just coming out of the [COVID] lockdown, I felt I was not alone in this. I felt very honored and very grateful that if I had to cry my way through this, I’m doing it with other people.
I was thinking about how brave it is for you to use the material of your life to sort of allow other people to map their own experience with grief onto, alongside you. You’ve become a vessel and a messenger in a way that seems difficult, but hopefully also empowering.
TL: Thank you. We definitely felt like we had a message to bring to the world. And we wanted the series to entertain, to make people travel, and be happy, and fall in love. But we also knew that there was a deeper message. And as Attica always says, that is our North Star. So even when I would personally be stirred up, I always returned back to that North Star; like, we are doing this because there’s something here that has the potentiality to heal a lot of hearts.
As sisters working on this together, how did you two balance being family and co-workers? What was it like toggling between those roles?
AL: She never really felt like my co-worker because she always felt like my sister. We were just doing what we were doing! But there were times when we had to pivot, and have, as Tembi calls them: “sister check-ins.” In the same way people talk about the way you have to tend to a marriage, we take our sisterhood and our friendship pretty seriously. So over the years, with lots of therapy and help, we’ve learned how to be frank with each other, and to check-in with each other.
TL: Also, I was very clear about our professional roles, meaning Attica is the showrunner, so everything passes through her. Yes, it’s my story; I’m the author of the book. So she was very clear about checking in with me on story points, like she would if it were any other author in the room.
And I felt like my role as the co-creator and source material was really to be the guardian of the essence of the story. I knew I couldn’t solve a production problem, because that’s her job as the showrunner, so I defer to her. That’s sort of how we handled the professional piece while attending to our sisterhood.
What was the casting process like? How do you select the actors tasked with playing not only your family members, but yourself too?
TL: As for Zoe Saldaña, when we first heard her name [for this project], Reese had had dinner with her and her husband, who’s Italian, and they were speaking Italian, and Reese was like, “Whoa!” And so I immediately went, “Wait a minute. This is kind of a synergy that you’re not going to find in that she speaks Italian, she’s married to an Italian, she works with her sisters — her producing partners are her sisters — and she has a childhood experience of the loss of a parent.” That combination made her uniquely positioned to take on the role of Amy in a way that I couldn’t have even dreamed.
And when it came to Lino, we always knew we were going to be looking for a unicorn. He’s got to be able to speak English really well, and he’s obviously got to be Italian and do Sicilian, he’s got to be sexy, but also earnest and endearing, a little stubborn and can be righteous.
AL: We cast everything over Zoom — it was the height of COVID. And [Eugenio Mastrandrea] was in the first batch of tapes that we got from our Italian casting director. When I saw his tape, I came up out of my chair. I knew it was him. I had to step away, I cried. There was something in Eugenio that … You will look at him at a certain moment, and there’s something coming through the screen that reminds me of my brother-in-law.
In From Scratch, there are different types of love that you explore, but also food is used as a tool to express love and culture. How were you thinking about its role?
TL: Food is definitely a character in our series. And the food changes depending on where you are in our series, who is serving you the food and what their goal with serving you the food is. Sometimes it’s used as a sexual invitation. Or as a power dynamic to say, “My culture is better than your culture.” It is definitely a storytelling tool for us. And then when we get inside of Italy, Amy and Lino find their shared food, this blending of cultures. And there’s that one scene in episode two, when she makes him the plate of grits, and he’s like, “This is just polenta.” (Laughs.)
I’m very interested — because my late husband was a chef — in the way that people are taking the same core ingredients worldwide, but the ways they interpret them, how they serve them, what spices they put with them, suddenly make [the food] theirs. And that is something we try to show in the series. Food conjoins us. It reminds us of who we are. It can also be an invitation to say, “I love you. Will you love me back?”
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