A quirky, colorful murder mystery set in the South African outback will be served up in “Recipes for Love and Murder,” which premieres its first two episodes Feb. 15 as part of the Berlinale Series Market Selects lineup at the European Film Market.
Based on the best-selling novels by Sally Andrew, the series follows recipe advice columnist Tannie Maria and her colleague, rookie journalist Jessie September, who spring into action when a woman who was seeking advice about an abusive husband is found dead.
Between cooking rich mutton curry and decadent chocolate cake, answering letters, and getting in the way of the local policemen, Maria and Jessie are determined to solve this murder mystery and catch the killer. But the killer might be following their traces just as quickly as they are hunting him.
Filmed in South Africa and Scotland, “Recipes for Love and Murder” is a co-production between M-Net, AMC Networks’ Acorn TV and Both Worlds Pictures, in co-operation with Global Screen. Thierry Cassuto (“Puppet Nation,” “Rainbow Warrior”), who founded the International Emmy-nominated Cape Town-based Both Worlds Pictures, is producing the series in collaboration with Scotland’s Pirate Productions, with development support provided by Creative Scotland, and Paris-based Paradoxal.
The show was adapted for TV by Karen Jeynes (“Puppet Nation,” “Point of Order”), who is also executive producer, along with Scotland-based writer-director Annie Griffin (“Avenue 5”). The series is directed by Christiaan Olwagen (“Kanarie,” “Poppie Nongena”) and Karen Jeynes and stars Maria Doyle Kennedy, whose credits include “Outlander” and “The Tudors,” alongside Tony Kgoroge (“Invictus,” “Blood Diamond”) and newcomer Kylie Fisher.
“Recipes for Love and Murder” is slated to premiere in South Africa on M-Net this March. Acorn has the rights for U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Global Screen is handling world sales.
Variety caught up with Cassuto ahead of the show’s Berlinale Series Market screening.
What made you and writer-producer Karen Jeynes want to turn Sally Andrew’s best-selling book into a series?
I read the novel and I just couldn’t put it down, because there was something so endearing to it. There was something sweet, nice, gentle, and a voice – Tannie Maria’s voice – which I really liked in the novel. I told [Andrew’s agent, Julian Friedmann, of Blake Friedmann Literary Agency in London], “Listen, I think we can do something with this. Can we get an option on it?” And he told me, “Yes, but I’m only going to give you an option if you can do this on an international scale with international quality. I don’t want this to become a purely local South African series.” And I told him that was my intention. I wanted to engineer a production that can stand out not only on the international marketplace, but at international festivals [and in terms of] creativity, too.
We really liked the tone, the location, the characters, the quirkiness of it, the fact that it’s local. That part of the Karoo [Desert] is quintessential South Africa – yet a different type of South Africa. Obviously, South Africa has got many sides, but this is something special. There’s a special place in South Africa for the Karoo: the people of the Karoo, the food of the Karoo, the smell, the light of the Karoo.
This is a female-led series set in a small town. Tell us about the two lead characters and what brings them together.
Tannie Maria is someone who’s reserved and who has lived a life on her own. She spent years in her house in the Karoo since she came back to South Africa, and she lived a peaceful life, writing a recipes column until she gets fired; her column is not part of the business model of this little Gazette that is part of a bigger organization. So she volunteers to write a column that mixes recipes and life advice, because that’s what she’s good at. She is good at empathy with people. And at the same time, everything comes to her through food, through taste, through finding ways to resolve problems through food. That’s her medium for communicating with others.
Jesse September comes from a family of modest means. A single mom, a sister and a brother. Her mom works as a nurse at the local hospital. Jessie finished her degree and she calls herself an “investigative reporter” in this small town. And when there’s a murder that happens in this town, suddenly she wants – with the help of Tannie Maria – to find the culprit and to understand why this woman was murdered. Jesse September is going to be the sleuth reporter, whereas Tannie Maria is going to be the person who tries to understand the emotions of the people involved in this little town.
You’re working with a diverse cast of actors. How important is that to the show’s spirit?
It is very important to us. We have a mix of newcomers and veterans. Kylie Fisher is a relative newcomer. Super talented, very enthusiastic, very fresh, wonderful energy. We have a very diverse cast of people from different regions of South Africa, and different colors of skin, different accents. And so we have this mix of characters with Maria Doyle Kennedy, who’s an accomplished actress, who’s been in many TV series and films.
I would say it’s one of the first South African series that feels that it comes together – I wouldn’t say as a nation. But the Karoo itself brings people of various origins together and shows a part of South Africa that few foreigners know. And I hope they feel that it has a world made of characters that are interesting and full of connections. Especially after two and a half years now of restrictions and lockdown, people are not able to be together as much as they want, and I think this TV series is about connecting. In this small town that can sometimes feel a bit claustrophobic, at least you’re part of a community. And that’s what people, I think, long for the most.
Director Christiaan Olwagen, known for his breakout musical-drama “Kanarie,” has referred to this series as “sunshine noir.” Can you talk a little bit about that idea, or what look and mood you’re striving for here?
I have to give Christiaan a lot of praise for coming up with the colors, with the palette. We definitely wanted to make it colorful, we wanted to make it a contrast to Scotland [where parts of the series are set], which is more gray, less light. Christiaan fell in love with the material. He’s never directed TV before but comes from the world of cinema. He is a young, incredibly talented director. He immediately saw the colors and said there’s something between “Chocolat” and “The Killing” in our series. It also was quite influenced by Almodovar and Wes Anderson: Almodovar because of not being afraid of color and of passion, and Wes Anderson because he loves symmetry, he loves establishing shots with beautiful composition.
That’s part of what we wanted to do with the show is to have a lot of color. We wanted to have a lot of sunshine. And noir – well, yes, because it’s small-town murders, and sometimes some dark stories happen behind those thick walls. And this is what I think he meant by “sunshine noir,” which I think we should patent.
How did that aesthetic establish the mood you were going for?
As we started shooting, as people read the scripts, there was an appetite for lighter stories. They’ve been locked up for too long, there’s been a lot of dark stories, a lot of gritty dramas. And there’s an appetite for stories that are not necessarily – it’s not about dumbing down, saying everything is hunky dory and happy in this world. It’s about connecting with other fellow humans and being able to enjoy something that’s not going to be constantly making you feel scared or concerned or incredibly sad. There’s so many things that are bringing people down right now that they’re looking for something that lifts them up. And this is a bit of a pick-me-up type of series.