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A Mosaic of Memory: A Conversation on Adapting 'From Scratch' with Co-Creators Attica and Tembi Locke

Attica and Tembi share how the series came to light, how they intentionally approached the subject matter on the page, adhering to their thematic anchor, putting together the writers' room, and their collaborative partnership both as sisters and creatives.

Inspired by the memoir, From Scratch is a cross-cultural love story that follows Amahle "Amy" Wheeler (played by Zoe Saldaña) an American student studying abroad in Italy, as she meets and falls in love with Lino, a Sicilian chef. Their whirlwind romance faces many unforeseen challenges, including their very different cultural backgrounds; true to real life, it is also infused with lightheartedness and moments of humor that exist alongside the more serious ones. But when Lino is faced with unimaginable health challenges and the couple’s future is threatened, the two families come together to create an extended family unlike any they could have imagined, proving that love crosses all borders.

The new Netflix mini-series From Scratch could be the next essential watching and reading on adapting a memoir. The Locke Sisters, Attica and Tembi, respectfully, joined forces with their collective insight and lived experiences both personally and professionally to create a series that lifts personal vulnerability off the page and onto the screen. 

Aside from being a best-selling author, Tembi Locke is also a TV producer, actor, screenwriter, and advocate who is a nationally recognized speaker for her keynotes on resilience, loss, and motherhood. Her online platform, The Kitchen Widow, harnesses her advocacy work and love of food to create a space for conversations about caregiving, grief, parenthood, illness, as well as sharing recipes—all inspired by love.

Attica Locke is also a NY Times best-selling author who has written five novels and been honored with a myriad of accolades, including an Edgar Award, the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, an NAACP Image Award, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among others. A former fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmaker’s Lab, Attica is also a screenwriter and producer, with credits that include Empire, When They See Us and the Emmy-nominated Little Fires Everywhere, for which she won an NAACP Image award for television writing.

The series is based on Tembi's memoir of the same name, about love in all of its forms - the good and the bad. Both Attica and Tembi share how the series came to light, how they intentionally approached the subject matter on the page, adhering to their thematic anchor, putting together the writers' room, and their collaborative partnership both as sisters and creatives. 

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

[L-R] Eugenio Mastrandrea as Lino Ortolano, Zoe Saldana as Amy Wheeler, Judith Scott as Maxine Wheeler, Keith David as Hershel Wheeler in episode 101 of From Scratch. Cr. Aaron Epstein/Netflix © 2022

[L-R] Eugenio Mastrandrea as Lino Ortolano, Zoe Saldana as Amy Wheeler, Judith Scott as Maxine Wheeler, Keith David as Hershel Wheeler in episode 101 of From Scratch. Cr. Aaron Epstein/Netflix © 2022

Sadie Dean: Other than the fact that you two are this incredible powerhouse sister team, you’re both basically storytelling wizards with your new show From Scratch. You know how to pull at the heartstrings, with layers of twists and turns in each episode. I feel like you need to put a disclaimer in the opening titles, "Must have a Kleenex box within arm's reach."

Locke Sisters: [laughing]

Tembi Locke: We call it the stuff of life.

Sadie: How did you two connect over this project, other than the obvious this being your memoir Tembi, but also that decision to become collaborative partners?

Tembi: The book exists really because of Attica. [laughs] And I'll say that meaning she was the first one to tell me, ‘You need to write a book.’ And in true Attica, it's a statement and an invitation, and also --

Attica Locke: I wanted to read that book!

Tembi: [laughs] It was a command! And so I was like, ‘What?’ For me, who had not written a book, who was not an acclaimed novelist, so for me to have my sister who I have the deepest, professional and creative respect for actually saying, 'No, you can do this,' it turned the key for me. And of course, it took me a couple more years to get up the bravery to actually do the damn thing. But when I wrote the book, and as it was in manuscript form, and as I was writing it, she read an early draft and was supportive, as she's having her other career in television and also with her many books, and she was getting ready to work on Little Fires Everywhere, and I'm gonna let her tell the story from here…

Attica: [laughs] Yes, I had read the book. And anyone who has read the book knows how beautiful it is. And I happened to be reading the pilot episode of Little Fires Everywhere in the Hello Sunshine offices, because I was starting that job, and they wanted to talk with me, Lauren Neustadter wanted to talk to me about maybe doing other things together. And she wanted to talk to me about some IP that they had and books that they were looking at, and I was compelled to say, 'Oh, really, because I kind of know a really good book.' And I just pitched my sister's book from top to bottom, right there on the spot. And they were intrigued. Also, a little like, 'Your sibling, what? This is her book? OK.' But they read it, and were blown away. And we were in their offices talking about making this within a week.

Tembi Locke and Attica Locke attends Netflix's From Scratch Special Screening at Netflix Tudum Theater on October 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Netflix.

Tembi Locke and Attica Locke attends Netflix's From Scratch Special Screening at Netflix Tudum Theater on October 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Netflix.

Sadie: Wow. That’s incredible.

Tembi: Yeah, and they were very clear, and they were right, but were the first to say, ‘This is not a film. It's a series, there's too much story. We want to go places, it needs time to breathe.’ And I was sort of like, ‘Whoa, OK.’ But as they called us into the office, it was pretty clear they wanted to do this together. And Attica was there thinking like, ‘OK, I've done my role. I have put my sister in front of these people. They say they want to make her story, I'm gonna go on about my life.’ [laughs] Which are now the infamous words, 'Sure, I'll help to the degree I can be helpful.' Well cut to she's the showrunner. [laughs] And so we then once we kind of all were in alignment, that would be our approach. It would be a limited series, Attica would showrun and we co-create it together, it became about how were we going to lift the story off the page onto the screen. What places would it have to expand? What were our core narrative pillars? What were the non-negotiables? We really wanted the series to be a complement to the book, but also be a place that if you've never had the book, you could jump in; but if you've read the book, you'll find things in the series that you didn't have in the book. And so, we set about kind of cracking it open to rebuild it.

Attica: We spent a lot of time even before we pitched the show, asking ourselves, 'What is the show?' just the two of us so that we were really clear before there were any outside voices - what did we want to do? And we discovered also pretty early on that this probably had to go in a straight line in the way that the book doesn't. Tembi calls it frequently a mosaic of memory and it also mirrors the mosaics of Sicily, and it has all these thematic points to it. But for a series, we felt like you were already going to ask audiences to sit through the highs and the lows of this couple. And also then trying to do the math of, ‘Wait, what year is this?’ we said that might be a bit much, let's just tell it in a straight line. And we did the book ending or the sense of framing from the first 30 seconds of the first minute of the show, it's a reflection back but after that it just kind of takes off till it meets up with itself again, in episode eight. That was a big thing to figure out how to go in a straight line.

Tembi: And the other big piece that we needed to figure out pretty early on and this was really a lot driven from me being the person who is the memoirist, and who the story is inspired by, I knew I needed distance in order to do the work that I did and as a storyteller. And so we chose to change all the names of the characters and their professions and deviate a little bit - we had the latitude to kind of grow and not adhere to the truth and the facts. Although many of the things that ended up happening are all based on true things that happened - they also happen to Lino and Amy.

Attica: I have some unproduced adaptations that I did, but having done Little Fires Everywhere, the best way to approach adaptations is exactly what Timbe is talking about, that it's like a compliment to the book. It's like someone doing a cover of a song. And she had such a great attitude - she came and visited our writers’ room, and she was pitching on stuff that had never been in a book, and it showed a confidence of, ‘I know what I wrote will always live between the covers of that and will always be on a shelf. Nothing could ever touch it.’ So, in this arena, we can just play. Like Tembi said it allowed us to turn up the family drama, it allowed us to just tell a good story, first and foremost.

[Cross Genre Storytelling and Emotional Translation onto the Screen with ‘Five Days at Memorial’ Showrunner, EP, and Director Carlton Cuse]

Sadie: It’s a fine balance of how can you capture the essence of their original. I like that comparison to covering a song.

Tembi: We talked first very intimately amongst ourselves, and obviously, that vision was shared with our larger producing team and then the next phase was hiring and bringing in those writers, and Attica really, as an experienced screenwriter and producer, knew kind of what we needed in those writers and what we were looking for to build out that room. Who could she really in an inspired way collaborate with? And I was there going like, what part of them do I see that has a vibe and an essence that I think will add something to this, that is like a je ne sais quoi? [laughs] So together we got this beautiful writers’ room.

Attica: I'm telling you I am as proud of my writers’ room as I am of the series. I think it's one of the greatest things I ever did was put that room together. Not only were they some of the most talented people, but I can tell you what the je ne sais quoi was - the tone that we wanted for our show was James L. Brooks at his best, Terms of Endearment level James L. Brooks - and we wanted people who were funny, but could be wry, who could cry with us, who could ask life's biggest questions and be willing to sit in things that everybody doesn't want to sit with. But they had existential curiosity. We wanted all that in the people that were going to sit and talk about this stuff for months on end. And we did it!

Sadie: When breaking the series, was there a North Star that you wanted everyone to adhere to?

Attica: When we pitched the show and Tembi and I said it to each other when we were just, we wanted the show to be about love and all of its forms. And we wanted the whole arc to be going from Eros to Agape, going from erotic love. And it's kind of, forgive me for calling it simple, it's not simple, but it's visceral. And then somehow as you go through the journey with this couple, you start looking at other forms of love. You start looking at familial love and love of art, love of the things that you have passion for, love of food, love of your culture, and as this couple goes through its trials and tribulations and Lino's families put back together and both of families come together, by the time you get to [episode] eight, you're witnessing this Agape love, that's not about culture and borders and language. And it came from what was the impetus for Tembi to write the book, a scene in your actual life.

Tembi: Our North Star was always about me coming back to an essential question I had which was about three years after my husband passed, I was in Sicily, as I write about in the book, and it was after siesta and we were sitting outside, I was sitting on a bench in front of my mother in law's house and my mother in law was hanging laundry and the Sicilian sun was setting and my daughter was playing, it was sort of like the tableau was there, right? I could see it. And I asked myself, ‘Oh my God, how did I get here?’ Because the person who connected us is no longer here. And yet across language, geography, race, and biology, we are making a family right now of three generations of women. And that felt like the reason to write a book and then it also felt like the reason to write the series. I kept coming back to we knew where that's where we were headed. We knew that they were going to have strength to get there because you got to build that and be true to life, that's what happened. You don't just get there. Maybe some people do, but we didn't. And so that was always kind of our North Star and the sense that everyone is always seeking to live their best, even through their frailties.

We all come here with personalities with our likes and dislikes all of our junk, right? And we fail people and we also lift people. And we wanted to explore that. So, within the arc of the Agape were these moments where people are bringing out the best and worst of each other, but always kind of circling back to say, ‘No, no, we're good.’

[Breaking & Entering: Truth or Consequences? Telling The True Story]

Sadie: I got goosebumps from that story, that's just so beautiful. There's a couple of lines from this show that really stood out to me, one of them being, "Art is a process. It's a journey." And it's so true, and you see that processed through these characters over and over again in this show. And I think a lot of creatives, and namely, writers need to really understand that because especially the newer writers are thinking, ‘I'm going to write the greatest screenplay, and I'm going to make it overnight.’ No, you got at least another 10 years, buddy. Good luck.

Attica: I've been in LA 25 plus years, I moved down here and I was certain I was gonna sell my first script within six months. I was certain and you're correct. What I thought I was going to have within six months, has now taken me nearly thirty years to get to. 

It's Laila Mahdi who says that and what she's saying is something that I also believe that it has to be about the love of creativity, because it can't be about the result of it. Because the result is often elusive. But what's your real lived experience is how much fun are you having? How much love are you experiencing by making the art? That's the part that's actually real.

Tembi: And that's one of the reasons why in the book, of course, and in life, I have a background as an actor, and that was one of the things we changed in the story of Amy she’s an artist. But we wanted to bring to her experience of being an artist, the thing that I remember, the truth, like to be a journeyman actor, which is that every day you're walking out into the world, and you're saying, 'OK, I'm going to swing for the fences, and I may get told no 10-30 times before I get a single yes, and yet I show up. And I keep showing up.' And I felt like that was a metaphor for our story, people showing up for each other, Amy's trying to show up for herself over and over again. And so, we wanted to really with great intentionality, use that throughout our series in every scene that we could in different ways suggest that a lot of life and caregiving is showing up with no guarantee of a particular outcome.

ws_truestory-500_360x

Sadie: Right. There’s so many layers upon layers of just the lived human experience. The other line that I really loved is when Lino's mother says, “Two forks eating off of the same plate.” Where are you tapping into for this dialogue, and what was that process like?

Attica: Well, the Laila Mahdi thing is totally made up - most of Episode Two is pretty invented except the corn dogs. And the fact that my brother-in-law was treated pretty shittily by some Northern Italian restaurant owners here, but the other, Tembi, “Two forks eating off the same plate”...

Tembi: Yeah, so that line I will say, one of the things that I was very passionate about is trying to bring and infuse as much of Sicily into our series as we could. And I knew that in some ways, it was going to be a kind of if you will, a challenge because none of our writers in our writers’ room had been to Sicily, and none of them speak or write in Sicilian. So, I was kind of like the carrier of the Sicilian culture. And I am not a native-born Sicilian, but I spent enough time there. I kept coming back to the poeticism that is the Sicilian language, and the kinds of ways in which people I've met, people I know, and people who were close to me in Sicily, speak in this lyrical, metaphorical gorgeous way. And I would beg my mother-in-law to tell me more of these proverbs and so a lot of these images and that line comes from that spirit of poeticism and the proverbs that are truly the way Sicilian people talk.

Attica: On the cover of all our scripts, every single script has a proverb that speaks to what the content of that episode story is.

Tembi: A Sicilian proverb.

Sadie: Now that is really cool. We need a collector's edition of those scripts stat.

Tembi: [laughs] Yes!

Sadie: Going back to you both being sisters, who are now creative collaborators on this project – how do you separate the “sister hat” from the collaboration process?

Tembi: I'll go first because I don't know what you're gonna say! [laughs]

Attica: [laughs]

Tembi: I sort of had an intuitive sense going into it because I knew this was my sister's space and her leadership as an experienced award-winning, acclaimed writer, executive producer, that in some way we're walking into her world, right? But I knew I was walking into her world with a whole depth and breadth of knowledge that was unique to me. And together we could do this. I remember having an early conversation in your kitchen like, ‘OK, I think we're gonna need this. We'll have to have a weekly sister check-in and that's a table where we don't talk story, we don't talk work, we just say whatever is happening for us, sister-wise.’ And if we need like a code word, in the process of our day, then we'll have the code word. And so those were some of the parameters early on that we kind of knew we were walking into unchartered territory in terms of being new collaborators, but that we had a baseline of such deep respect for each other, and we've been navigating and checking in about our relationship for pretty much all of our adult lives.

Attica: It's pretty much similar. I never worried about the collaboration part because our taste is in the same lane. I think honestly, if I'm being frank, I think 20 years of therapy means I can pivot and say, 'Oh, this doesn't feel good. I don't like this.' And then finish and do the work we need to do and be honest about 'Oh, my little sister feelings are getting really stirred up right now.' And just to talk through it, and there were things that we told each other; Tembi told me one day on set, 'Don't do that thing you're doing anymore. I don't like it.' And then I will say things like, 'No, you can't do that.' We just know that in the end, love for each other is just firm, it's inviolable. You can't violate it, you can't touch it. And trust me, maybe some people tried to get in there and so that was never a question. When you know nothing is going to break this up, then we can say our feelings and say something doesn't feel good and course correct.

Tembi: It was definitely like an Oprah Soul Sunday level. [laughs]

Attica: [laughs]

Tembi: Like, ‘OK, how do we do this in a way that serves the story and keeps our relationship intact?’ Once production starts, we had to quickly make decisions. And so, I really would say to Attica's point, definitely a lot of owning your side of the street and then having your team of people separately, therapist, guides, shamans, spirits, [laughs] whoever you need, bring it all because we have to do this big thing. That is all of the heart. And it's messy. And it's big, but it's bright, and it's potentially full of so much so help us do this.

Attica: We feel pretty blessed. You don't really choose your family. We're lucky that we get along and we think alike, we're loud, we make each other laugh, all these kinds of things, but it's really kind of what got captured in the series, that sister relationship. I'm not a school teacher like Zora, Tembi isn't a visual artist, but she's visually talented - you can see, look at our two rooms, hers looks really cute! [laughs] The love between Amy and Zora is a mirror for the love that Tembi and I have for each other and that was its ultimate guide to get through when those moments came up.

And I had to deal with my writers. It was like week one, somebody pitched something, and I was like, 'No!' And then I was like, 'Oh, wait a second. Excuse me. That's because I'm having a feeling about my mom. That has nothing to do with what you pitched.' And again, that's therapy, that's being 48 years old, and having spent a lot of money taking care of all this. [laughs]

[L-R] Zoe Saldana as Amy Wheeler, Danielle Deadwyler as Zora Wheeler in episode 106 of From Scratch. Cr. Aaron Epstein/Netflix

[L-R] Zoe Saldana as Amy Wheeler, Danielle Deadwyler as Zora Wheeler in episode 106 of From Scratch. Cr. Aaron Epstein/Netflix

Sadie: [laughs] I totally get it. Speaking of the sisters and casting, both Zoe Saldaña and Danielle Deadwyler are just masters of their craft. Were they shadowing you to a lot or was there a rule of don't even look at us --

Attica: [laughs]

Sadie: -- do your own thing, bond together, and be sisters.

Tembi: [laughs] So Reese Witherspoon had dinner with Zoe and her husband, and Zoe's husband is Italian. And so Reese is watching Zoe talk to her husband and she read the book, and she was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Reese brought Zoe to us and Zoe immediately shared the manuscript with her sisters. So, they were all in very early on and it felt very synchronistic and had a great deal of alignment. And we were very lucky about that. And from the beginning, I was like, ‘You are free to make Amy yours.’ She may or may not have observed me and at times we certainly once we started filming she would check in as needed. But Amy is her character. She got to make her own.

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When it came time to cast Zora, that was all done over Zoom because by then we were in the middle of the pandemic, we saw so many casting tapes but when Danielle came on, I was blown. away.

Attica: Yeah, same. I was just like, ‘That's her. That's her!’ And we wanted to capture a kind of humor that you don't always see. Sometimes the shorthand with portraying Black women humor, you go to sassy real quick, and especially as the sidekick sister, and I just felt like, ‘Oh, our humor is a lot more varied than that.’ And Danielle's performance is pitch-perfect. 

From Scratch releases on Netflix on October 21, 2022. 


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