Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for LUCKY GRANDMA

OnWriting presents the second in a series of four live recordings of OnWriting in honor of Women’s History Month, presented by the WGAE Women’s Salon. In each episode, we’re speaking with women screenwriters whose latest projects center on women’s stories.

For the second installment in the series, Geri speaks with Banban Cheng & Sasie Sealy — co-writers of LUCKY GRANDMA.

Banban Cheng is a writer and filmmaker who spent her childhood performing Chinese stand-up comedy in Houston, Texas. Since then, she’s traded the stage for writing and directing movies. Her screenplay TROUBLE TO THE HERD was the winner of the 2019 AsianCinevision SAG-AFTRA Screenplay Award and was a finalist at the 2019 Nashville Film Festival.

She won the 2019 AsianCinevision SAG-AFTRA Screenplay Award for her screenplay TROUBLE TO THE HERD, was awarded NYU’s Wasserman Prize for Filmmaking for her short film TEN & TWO, and received the Sloan Foundation feature screenplay award for her gothic drama SUGAR WATER.

She is also the Creative Director of Format Development at TED, experimenting with and launching new forms of storytelling.

Sasie Sealy is a writer and director with a love of striking visuals and cheeky scripts. She first made her mark in the commercial world of fashion and beauty, and her work in that industry has been featured in Glamour, Refinery29, Teen Vogue, Variety, and

Her short films have screened at the Smithsonian Institute and festivals around the world, and she has twice received the short film prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, first for DANCE MANIA FANTASTIC and then for THE ELEPHANT GARDEN.

She was included on the 2020 Alice Initiative list of Emerging Female Directors and the New York Times’ 2019 “9 Filmmakers Who Should Be on Your Radar” list.

LUCKY GRANDMA—co-written by Cheng and Sealy and directed by Sealy—a funny and thrilling heist movies starring an ornery, chain-smoking, badass Chinese grandma (Tsai Chin) in New York City who goes all in at the casino, only to put herself and her family in the middle of a gang war. The film—which was the recipient of AT&T and Tribeca Film Festival’s 2018 Untold Stories $1 million filmmaking grant—premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently available to stream on Hulu and Showtime.

Seasons 7 and 8 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys. She also performs sketch and improv at theaters and festivals around the country.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. I’m your host, Geri Cole. Each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television and news break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes, and so much more. Hello, I’m Geri Cole. Welcome to our live taping of OnWriting for Women’s History Month. In these special episodes, we will be talking with women writers telling women’s stories. Today’s episode is being presented by the WGAE Women’s Salon.

Our guests are Banban Cheng and Sasie Sealy, co-writers of the feature film Lucky Grandma, which is now available to rent and/or on Showtime. Directed by Sealy, Lucky Grandma is a funny and thrilling heist movies starring an ornery, chain-smoking, badass Chinese grandma in New York City who goes all in at the casino, only to put herself and her family in the middle of a gang war. Grandma Wong wonderfully played by actress Tsai Chin is a unique woman to see on screen and a character that truly breaks stereotypes. I so enjoyed this film and decided to dig into it with these two first-time filmmakers. Please welcome Banban Cheng and Sasie Sealy. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.

Banban Cheng: Thank you.

Sasie Sealy: Thank you.

Geri Cole: So, I guess my first question is how you holding up? How’s it going, guys? Have you been able to work? Have you felt inspired during this time, or is it just turning off?

Sasie Sealy: Well, today was 70 degrees in New York City. So, that helped. I don’t know. Banban, do you want to answer that question?

Banban Cheng: Yeah, I mean, I think that I’m trying to pretend that things are normal, but actually, things are not normal. So, I’m trying to give myself a little bit of a break. I’ve started to think less about being productive and more about being creative, whatever that might mean. It could mean watering a plant, for instance, suddenly feels like care and creativity. So, yeah. I used to be like, “I’m not productive. I’m not productive.” But now I’m just like, “Have I been creative today?”, whatever that might mean.

Geri Cole: Oh, man, I love that. I feel like that is a subtle difference, but it changes… Productive, I immediately am wracked with guilt, because I’m never productive enough. That’s the joke. But creative is yeah, you can take those little moments. That’s amazing. Sasie, you’re doing okay? You guys are both doing well?

Sasie Sealy: I feel like I’m laughing at this because I have a new four-month-old daughter.

Geri Cole: Congratulations.

Sasie Sealy: Thank you, but I’m trying to write with a four-month-old. Even though I have a little help, it’s not easy. So, I don’t think my brain is wrapped around creativity. My brain is wrapped around survival. I’m definitely not being productive enough. I can tell you that much. I mean, writing is hard no matter what. I don’t know. It hasn’t gotten any easier.

Geri Cole: Much less just distracted. What was it like having your first feature released during this time? I mean, I know you got to premiere it at Tribeca 2019, but hitting the streets, essentially, during this time. I mean, I can imagine it’s like, “I wish I could have gotten the traditional festival or theater run,” rather.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah. Well, our red carpet was on Zoom. So, that was a little less glamorous than we had imagined. I don’t know. It’s been a little strange, I guess. So, there’s definitely all those dreams deferred, but on the other hand, everybody’s been at home. Maybe the audience has found the film, because everyone’s stuck at home. I’m not really sure. It’s been a little surreal like everything else about the past year.

Banban Cheng: Yeah, I don’t have much to add to that except for I think surreal is exactly the right word, the red carpet. I feel like I’m getting messages from people saying, “I watched Grandma on the couch. I really enjoyed spending 90 minutes with Grandma from the comfort of my own home.” So, that was gratifying for sure.

Sasie Sealy: The only sad part, I guess, was Tsai, our leading lady, our Grandma, she’s 86-years-old now. So, she really has not been able to do any publicity for the film, because she’s not exactly a Zoom expert, let’s say, at 86-years-old. She lives by herself. So, sending someone into her apartment to give tech help or just anything like that hasn’t really been possible. So, that’s been the real sad part of it is that she hasn’t been able to be as much of a part of the release as we would have liked. She’s a pretty good interview subject, I would say.

Banban Cheng: She really is, yeah.

Geri Cole: I can only imagine. Hopefully, maybe towards the end of the summer, I don’t know. When things start to feel more normal and safer, you guys can do another round. So, to get started talking about the story, how did you guys meet and decide to collaborate on this story?

Sasie Sealy: Well, we met in film school. So, we’ve known each other for a long time. The story for this film started on the Chinatown bus, which, as a New Yorker, I’m sure you’re familiar with. Any broke 20-year-old is taking that a few times. So, I had the original inspiration for the scene on the bus, which starts it. There’s these buses that go to all of your local casinos. I would basically be on this bus. So, the buses leave at 5:00, and then they come back at 4:00 AM. So, it’s basically like a party bus.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Sasie Sealy: I would look around and be surrounded by old people. I was literally the only person under 50 on this bus. I took it because I was broke. They took it because they were too cheap to basically pay for a hotel. So, that’s why they come back at 5:00 in the morning. So, I had the original inspiration for that seat on the bus. I immediately thought Banban and wanted her to write it with me. She has the best sense of humor. I don’t know. It’s definitely more fun to write with another person. So, I recruited her. I dragged her into this.

Banban Cheng: Yeah. I remember the day too. She called me and she was like, “I just want to pitch you an idea.” We’d never really worked together in film school, even though we’re good friends. She pitched this idea. It was really simple. None of it was totally fleshed out, but it was about this bus ride. She pictured an ornery grandma. She had to be very grumpy. A bag of money falls in her lap.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Banban Cheng: For whatever reason, I was really fixated on the grandma. I mean, I know the reason why is because my grandma is not grumpy, but she’s got a spiky shell. She’s very principled and has a super strong personality and can also be emotionally opaque. So, I was like, “Oh, I totally know who this character is. She’s all of our Asian grandmas. She’s this person.” I think Sasie also resonated with this character. We just started fleshing her out from there.

Sasie Sealy: In my case, grandma’s a little more like my mom. Yeah.

Geri Cole: Does your mom know that? Is she learning now?

Sasie Sealy: Oh, no, she knows that.

Banban Cheng: Is she flattered? I don’t remember.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, I think she thinks of it as a compliment.

Geri Cole: Absolutely. So, what was the writing process like? Did your writing styles align?

Banban Cheng: So, what I will say is that Sasie has a super strong sense of tone. Right off the bat, she already knows what the story should feel like, what the world should feel like. What are the edges of this world? That’s everything that she already knows. Sometimes, the way that I write is I’ve tried all sorts of stuff until it fits. So, in many ways, we don’t have similar styles, but we work super well together. We’re very complimentary, because I’ll just throw a bunch of things out there. And then she’ll be like, “This isn’t it. This isn’t it. This isn’t it, but this is it. Let’s really refine this thing.” In many ways, I think that’s really helpful for writing partners to complement each other instead of being always with the same brain.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah. I think it’s really helpful for me, because I can tend to get in my own way. I’m the naysayer, not just to Banban’s ideas, but also, to my own ideas. Sometimes I’ll edit myself to death before I even put words to the page. I talk to try to force myself just to get through a first draft without obsessing, whereas Banban doesn’t have any of these issues. She’ll just iterate and comp out 10 pages and then just send them to me. I’m like, “Amazing, great.” She’s not precious at all. Whereas I definitely can get a little precious. So, I think it’s worked really well together. It’s fun. Plus, Banban is much better at writing one-liners than I am. I’m a little funny, but my sense of humor is maybe a little bit more visual. I can’t write a line joke to save my life, but she can.

Geri Cole: Oh, man, that’s amazing. It sounds like you guys really complement each other. Actually, I think it is important to not have the same brain that you really do need to get a fuller, richer product. Getting all those different perspectives really does that. So, let’s talk about pre-production, because also, this is an original story, which is amazing. I feel like this is the thing that never happens anymore. You don’t get to see original features. How did you get this original feature made?

Sasie Sealy: A very long, painful process like most independent films. Yeah. I mean, we were trying to raise money for this for several years. It was pre-Crazy Rich Asians. Nobody wanted to make a movie that was in Chinese. Nobody wanted to make a movie about an old Asian lady. Nobody wanted to make a movie about an old lady, period, pretty much. So, even though people really like the script, we just had a very uphill battle, especially because it’s not immediately obvious who Grandma should be. There’s not quite an Asian Judi Dench, a star that you can put into Grandma’s role, which I think is a challenge for all, I guess, more diverse stories. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg problem sometimes.

But we got lucky, because basically, we got financing for the movie through this grant at the Tribeca Film Institute and AT&T were doing. They called me up out of the blue, were like, “We have this new program, this grant. It’s only a year old. Do you have any scripts that fit this profile?” So, we dug it out of the drawer. We dusted it off, put a little spin polish on it.

We sent it in. It was a normal long process like the Sundance Labs or something. You send in the budget. You send in statements. You feel like you’re writing your college essay all over again. But then in the end, we ended up doing this pitch. It’s basically like Shark Tank but filmmakers, where it was a whole song and dance and celebrity jury. There was a door that we came out of and pitched. They played music when we came out on stage.

Banban Cheng: We had a mic thing too.

Geri Cole: No.

Banban Cheng: The room was super tiny, but we had one of those dance mics.

Geri Cole: Wow, one of the Britney Spears mics.

Banban Cheng: Yes, 100%. Yeah.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah.

Geri Cole: That’s amazing.

Sasie Sealy: They gave us a giant check, like a Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes check for a million dollar.

Geri Cole: Was this captured on camera anywhere? Because I feel like I want to watch this.

Banban Cheng: Yeah, I think there’s video of it. I think we also took a million pictures of that giant check, because it was so hilarious. I remember, we carried it to Brooklyn and took pictures of it in front of the bar and all this stuff.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Banban Cheng: Because it was just too good to pass up.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah.

Geri Cole: What do you do with a giant check? Do you take that to the bank?

Banban Cheng: Yup, you take it to a big bank.

Geri Cole: Nice.

Sasie Sealy: I think it was in our production office for a while. I think it’s in storage right now with a bunch of random grandma costumes just in case.

Geri Cole: Pull it back out and be like, “Can we still have this?” So, your collaboration went from co-writers to director and DP?

Sasie Sealy: No.

Banban Cheng: No, I was the writer on set. Also, I did basically some leftover swing shift producing.

Geri Cole: Awesome. So, I guess my question is you guys have been collaborating through this entire process. What do you think makes your collaboration so successful?

Sasie Sealy: Oh, that’s really hard, but I really like working with Banban. We’ve known each other a long time. So, I think we can be really honest with each other, including about if we think something is good or not good. I think we work well together. I mean, Banban’s really diplomatic and poised. For example, when we won the grant, I was an emotional wreck and speechless and couldn’t put together two words. So, she gave the speech. I feel like you’re just like that. I don’t know.

Banban Cheng: I mean, I think so much of it is that we’ve gotten to a point where it’s okay to have tension or creative tension and creative differences. If there’s something where one of us really doesn’t want to back down, the other one will honor it. But I do think that part of the art is just picking your battles when you’re working together, because it’s inevitable that we’re going to come up with creative differences. So, it’s like knowing when to back off and saying, “This is not a hill that I want to die on,” and knowing when you have to fight for something. So, we did that pretty elegantly, I think, with Grandma.

Geri Cole: So, yes, let’s talk some more specifically about Lucky Grandma. It was so great to see an older woman of color as protagonist, but really, I felt like it was a universal story. I feel like people want to label it different things but feels like a universal story to me about someone just wanting to improve their lot in life. I do want to spend a little bit time talking about old ladies doing shit. It is fantastic. It’s like, “Yeah, of course. Can’t we get more films about old ladies doing shit?” Of all the people, it’s going to be old ladies. It felt so obvious after seeing protagonists like this. I do want to know what it was like working with Tsai Chin.

Sasie Sealy: Should we give the PC answer?

Geri Cole: No.

Sasie Sealy: So, Tsai is an amazing, complicated woman.

Geri Cole: Fair.

Banban Cheng: Yeah.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah. She’s sometimes challenging to work with, but I’m not telling her anything. She would say way worse about me. I think she gets a kick out of complaining about it. No, but I mean, I think that the most interesting thing about working with Tsai is one, you barely have to direct someone who just has that much experience. She’s just great, on take one. And then everything else after that is just micro adjustments. It’s never like she’s in left field or anything. She makes everyone around her better.

The other thing about it, which I didn’t even realize, I don’t think, until after we finished the movie, is I feel like she totally got the sense of humor in the movie without any discussion about it or explanation about it. She just got it, because she’s really funny. If you look at her filmography and stuff, she doesn’t really have comedy on her resume or anything, but she has an amazing sense of humor. It’s I think hilarious. She also really likes wine. That’s fun.

Banban Cheng: That’s true.

Geri Cole: Always good.

Sasie Sealy: The first time I met her, we drank one, maybe more bottles of wine.

Geri Cole: Wow. So, this film definitely made me want to A, smoke and B, hang out in Chinatown. One of the things I was super fascinated and in love with was the world of Brooklyn that she would go to visit her son and then the world of Chinatown. Can we talk a little bit about how creating those two different worlds that are only miles apart?

Banban Cheng: Well, I think we’ve always discussed this film as being a love letter to Chinatown particularly. I think we’ve maybe talked at some point early on, maybe it was Chinatown, Brooklyn, but at the end of the day, the OG Chinatown is Chinatown, Manhattan. It’s one that we pass by on our commute into the city every day, all that type of stuff. So, we really wanted that old world feel of the original Chinatown. We also wanted Grandma to be of that place. We also wanted to explore her emotional estrangement from her son, who has since moved away. So, it made a lot of sense to make those worlds very obviously different from each other and for her to feel slightly uncomfortable in that space.

Sasie Sealy: I think we talked a lot about it just in terms of distinguishing the different generations and how little David was somehow more comfortable with Grandma, he’s her favorite, versus her relationship with her son and trying to make those distinctions through the design of the different places and also the language in the script like who speaks what.

I always thought it was significant that you never see her son Howard or the rest of her family in her apartment. It’s only little David who goes and feels comfortable in her space. So, I think that that was some of the stuff that we were thinking about. Also, I think it’s somewhat true. I think there’s a lot of second generation kids living in Cobble Hill. Once you’ve made it, they don’t really go back and live in Chinatown anymore. Very rarely.

Geri Cole: Can we also talk a little bit about the unlikely friendship between Grandma Wong and Big Pong, who I immediately fell in love with? As soon as he enters, I was like, “Oh, don’t anything hurt him.” Even though I don’t know this giant. So, I don’t know why that was my immediate reaction, but he just seems so sweet and endearing. It seemed almost like the central relationship in the film. Can you talk a little bit about how you guys developed that relationship?

Sasie Sealy: Yeah. Well, first, he was inspired by André the Giant and The Princess Bride. That was our [crosstalk 00:19:07] for him. Yeah. For original first drafts of the script, he was not as big a part at all, but I think that people felt the same way as you did. Our producers did at least when they read the earlier drafts. They were like, “We want more Big Pong.” So, that was actually a part of the revision process was developing that relationship more.

Banban Cheng: Yeah. I think as we develop the relationship more, we tried to establish that his roots were probably also from the same village as Grandma, that there was a connection that they had, that she potentially didn’t even have with her own grandson. Ultimately, he needs to be the moral center for her to soften towards letting in that she was aging, letting in that she’s vulnerable.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, I mean, just writing wise one, one of the films that we talked about a lot when we were working on the script was that film The Maid, Sebastián Silva’s film. Have you ever seen that movie?

Geri Cole: I’ve not.

Sasie Sealy: Oh, it is fantastic, starring another grumpy lady. She’s not quite as old as Grandma, but it’s pretty fantastic. But functionally, how that script works, it’s very much her process of letting down her guard a little bit and letting someone in. So, we referenced that a lot when we were looking at just the emotional through line for Grandma, not that she changes that much.

Banban Cheng: An inch, yeah.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, like this much, but in terms of any change that we had, that’s one of the things we were looking at, is that Big Pong is really the vehicle for any minor change that Grandma might have.

Geri Cole: Oh, man. Also, as a superstitious person myself, I appreciated all themes of luck and fate in this film. Was there any personal significance to the number eight, that played a large role in her initial love?

Banban Cheng: Well, eight is a very lucky number in Chinese culture. I mean, every number has a luck index, but eight is really high on the index. Some of it is because in Cantonese, the word eight sounds a lot like fortune. So, in Chinese culture, if you have 8 or 88 in your address in, if you’re born on August 8th, 1988, that’s the most amazing day ever. Yeah. So, in Chinese culture, people abide by numbers so much. It’s such a huge part of the culture that even my own parents, they don’t consider themselves superstitious, there’s a little bit of them that’s still like, “Oh, eight. Okay, I feel safe.”

Sasie Sealy: When you get your red envelopes, don’t you get multiples of 8 or 88 or something when you get your money?

Banban Cheng: I don’t, but I should insist on that, but you do.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, I do. I mean, but my mom’s pretty superstitious. When we’ve gone looking for houses, I remember when I was a kid, there were certain houses that were vetoed, because their numbers were not good enough or she didn’t like the street name. So, she would veto the house. She didn’t think they were lucky.

Geri Cole: Fair. I’d like to talk a little bit now about production, but shooting in Chinatown. Also, you had an almost all Asian cast and a diverse crew, which should be an obvious and normal thing, but of course, it’s not. Did you encounter any friction in trying to set up this dynamic? If so, how did you successfully navigate it?

Sasie Sealy: The dynamic between the crew and the cast?

Geri Cole: Just getting this all Asian cast, it’s going to be in Chinese. We’re going to have this diverse crew. It feels like the dream. Did you have any friction trying to set that up or no?

Sasie Sealy: I don’t think so at all. No, I mean, we set out from the beginning to try and make sure that the community was on board with filming the movie there. So, one of our co-producers, Gine, she’s like the OG film person in Chinatown. It doesn’t matter if it’s The Joker or Lucky Grandma, if it films in Chinatown, Gine’s on the movie. Everybody knows her. She’s an old school union lady, but she’s funny. So, she was on board as a co-producer and also one of our other co-producers, Joanna was as well.

So, we really got the community on board, I would say fairly early. We filmed pretty much in actual spaces in Chinatown. There were a few that were out there. So, that was pretty seamless in terms of any integration. So, there wasn’t really any friction with the community. I don’t think there was anything with casting or anything like that.

Banban Cheng: Yeah, I mean, I think the challenge of it didn’t have to do with personal differences. The challenge of casting was having to do with language, because the film itself actually has several Chinese dialects. It was actually pretty tricky to figure out who could speak what dialect and what triad would they be in. Grandma herself speaks Mandarin. Her own family then had to be able to speak Mandarin as well. The cultural considerations, they were pretty challenging, but I think we figured it out in the end. I felt like crew wise, it felt very loving to me and really cohesive.

Sasie Sealy: Of course, we wanted a diverse crew, but it’s not like we set out with any quotas or anything. I think it’s just natural that you have a story like this. I think that the people who are attracted to this story maybe are a little bit more diverse or everybody was like pretty open minded. One of our crew members is White and was from the Midwest but had lived in Korea as a military kid or something. There were plenty of Asian Americans but plenty of non-Asian Americans. I mean, one of our grips was a Black lesbian lady who was pretty badass. Mo, shout out if you’re listening to this podcast. Yeah, I think it just came about really organically.

Geri Cole: Speaking of where folks are from, you guys are both from the South. Yes?

Sasie Sealy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Banban Cheng: I don’t know why I’m laughing.

Sasie Sealy: Yes.

Banban Cheng: Yes.

Geri Cole: Do you feel like that influences the way that you write, being Southern women in New York City?

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, does it? I’m trying to think, “Does it affect our writing?”

Banban Cheng: I think if it does, I’m not even sure that we’d be aware of it. I’ll just speak for myself, because Sasie, you probably have your own perspective. I mean, I grew up in Texas. I was part of a really tight knit Chinese community in Texas that did its best to stand out just enough. I was raised to fit in basically. So, I think my writing probably does deal with the subtle weirdness of trying to fit in in a place where everybody around you doesn’t look like you. I can’t tell if it really changes the way that I think about the world.

Sasie Sealy: Well, the only thing I can think of… So, the one thing that most Asian cultures and Southern culture have in common is there’s a lot of subtext.

Banban Cheng: Yes, maybe that’s what I’m trying to say.

Sasie Sealy: Yes. People don’t necessarily say what’s on their mind exactly. So, that might help with our writing maybe.

Banban Cheng: Yes, that’s true. That’s very smart, Sasie.

Geri Cole: Well, was there a scene from Lucky Grandma that you feel like translated especially well from page to screen?

Sasie Sealy: You know what I was happy with, Banban, was actually the bus scene, which was the original kernel of the idea. When we wrote it on the page, there’s no dialogue in this in the scene. It’s all visual. But I remember when we were filming it, when I was directing it, when I was watching it, editing it, it cut basically, exactly as we wrote it. She looks here. This happens. I mean, it was crazy. So, that was one that almost felt like silent filmmaking and in terms of the writing too. I don’t know. I was pleased with that.

Banban Cheng: Yeah, I want to say that’s probably one of my favorite scenes. That whole sequence actually, from the moment Grandma gets on the bus through the casino and then the bus ride home, I think, is very close to the way that we had imagined it. The first bus scene, there’s a fair amount of ad libbing actually from the actress who’s incredible. Her ad libbing is so good.

Sasie Sealy: Hilarious.

Banban Cheng: We couldn’t have scripted that, but the essence of that, she totally picked up the essence of having all these rules and being a little brash. There was something about it that just felt very real to me and very funny and right.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, she’s hilarious.

Geri Cole: So Lucky Grandma premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2019. What is your take on film festivals and the role that they can play in boosting, especially women filmmakers?

Sasie Sealy: I think they’re awesome. Well, they’re basically, my Fantasyland as a filmmaker, because you just go and watch people’s movies for a week or two weeks or whatever, however long you’re there. I wish that I had been able to go to more or traveled to more of them. I went to as many as I could. But since I was pregnant for a lot of the festival run, I didn’t get a chance to go to as many. But I think that they do a real service to lifting up voices. Not just women and also women filmmakers, but just new voices in general. I mean, it’s so hard as a filmmaker to really break through and get your stuff seen.

I think if you’re a writer, it’s a little easier, because you can always lock yourself in your room and write a script theoretically. You don’t need anything for that. But as a filmmaker, you need resources. You need people and you need money to pull it off, even if it’s a super micro budget. Even once you do pull that off, unless you have a star or something or you’re a special case, you don’t have a distributor usually attached. So, in terms of lifting up new voices, getting publicity and attention to them, the role that critics also play in bringing attention to smaller films, I think, is really valuable.

I try to do that even when I go to film festivals myself, I always go to New York Film Festival every year. There’s pretty major filmmakers at The New York Film Festival. You don’t have any first time directors there. But what I try to do is almost always see films that don’t have distribution in the US yet, because the big Scorsese movie, I’m going to see anyway. But it’s like those tiny films from Iran or Japan that I’m not going to be able to see anywhere else. I listen to the critics. The curation of the festivals guide me into what I should be seeing and processing and be inspired by. You want to see what other people are making, what’s different or what perspective might be from halfway around the world.

Geri Cole: Awesome. Speaking of festivals, this feels like a success story for it to have started out as this idea on a bus and then traveled its way through the years to find the funding and make it to Tribeca. I love talking about success or the idea of success, because I find it fascinating. It’s such a loose term. I’m always like, “Am I in it? Am I in the success?” I feel like it’s never what you think it’s going to look or feel like. So, first, I’d like to talk a little bit about Grandma Wong’s perspective on success, especially the stories about her reaching this point in her life and feeling like she has been cheated. So, she takes drastic action to change that. But what do you think her vision of success is and how does it differ from yours?

Sasie Sealy: Banban, I’m going to give this one to you.

Geri Cole: Sorry, it’s a really long question.

Banban Cheng: I mean, there was a version where Grandma Wong ended up with the money and took it to Las Vegas and lived out the rest of her life in Las Vegas. But I think that the reason why that version didn’t end up landing for us was because those kind of riches were not what we wanted for her.

So, success for her, I think, is forgiveness for the stuff that was going on with her husband and acceptance, acceptance of aging, acceptance of vulnerability, and acceptance of help and being surrounded by family, which now looking back, I’ve been in this pandemic. I haven’t seen my parents or my family in so long now. That is the one thing that I miss. I feel like when I see them, I’m just going to burst into tears, because that’s actually the thing that I crave the most right now. So, I think that for her is success.

Geri Cole: Your perspective on success? Do you feel like you’re in it?

Banban Cheng: Me?

Geri Cole: Has it changed?

Banban Cheng: I just want to make stuff. I want to make stuff. I want to be given the opportunity to make things. That to me is success.

Geri Cole: Sasie?

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, I think the same. I mean, I dream of the day when you have an idea for a project and you know that it’ll get made. I don’t know if that ever happens, right? Does the hustle ever end? I’m not really sure, even if you are Scorsese, but we’ll see. That would be the dream to just keep making stuff.

Geri Cole: Yeah. Is there any advice that you would give the beginning of the process version of yourselves about this whole experience?

Sasie Sealy: I don’t know. Skip the Las Vegas ending. That’s not going to work.

Geri Cole: Okay, so it sounds like there was some time put into this Las Vegas ending.

Sasie Sealy: There was at least a draft.

Banban Cheng: Lucky Grandma 2 maybe.

Sasie Sealy: I don’t know, maybe the timing wasn’t right. Even if we had been able to make it earlier, maybe the audience wouldn’t have been ready. I don’t know.

Geri Cole: Yeah, to just trust in the timing of things.

Sasie Sealy: Maybe. Although I feel like don’t you always want things to hurry up and get done already?

Geri Cole: Absolutely, all the time. I wish it was done yesterday. Okay. So, now I want to open it up to some questions from the audience. Let’s see. How did you build into and depicting an older character? Did you talk to your family members? Did Grandma change at all once you cast Tsai?

Sasie Sealy: We didn’t really talk to any older family members. I think we just channeled them.

Banban Cheng: Yeah, I mean, I was extremely close to my grandma. So, there was a lot of channeling. And then I think there were little cultural nuances that I definitely needed to check in with my mom about, certain things like, “Do Cantonese folks sometimes speak to Mandarin speaking folks in the United States?” They wouldn’t do that in China, but in the United States perhaps. My mom’s like, “Oh, all the time. I speak to my Cantonese friends in Taiwanese and then they return it in Cantonese,” stuff like that that I was like, “Oh, that’s really complicated, but okay.” So, there were things like that. So, yeah. And then Sasie, do you want to talk about Tsai’s characters? Did we have to adapt her-

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, I mean, I think that the main change… Although there was nothing fundamental in terms of the essence of Grandma. Basically, I met Tsai. Within five seconds, I was like, “Oh, she’s Grandma.” Yes. It was clear from the beginning. But the only thing that we had to change was more of a language thing. So, we wrote the script in English, because I would say, that’s my first language. Banban, do you think it’s really your first language or Mandarin’s first?

Banban Cheng: It’s not but it might as well be. I mean, I’m clearly more fluent in English than in Mandarin, but yeah.

Sasie Sealy: So, we wrote the script in English. In my head when we were thinking about casting, I guess, just because my mom is from Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese and there’s a certain sense of humor in Cantonese movies, I think, the sense of humor is slightly different. It’s like British versus American sense of humor. There’s a little bit of difference. So, I always imagined Grandma as a Cantonese character. Plus, the OG Chinatown in Manhattan is generally Cantonese speakers. The old generation is. Now, it’s all mixed. There’s plenty of Mandarin and Vietnamese speakers in Chinatown.

But someone of Grandma’s age would probably be a Cantonese speaker. But when I met Tsai, it was clear she had to be Grandma and Tsai doesn’t speak Cantonese. Tsai speaks Mandarin. So, we obviously switched that, even though I do not speak any Mandarin. So, I directed her in Mandarin, but Banban was there basically for translation and consultation the whole time. We just changed a few backstory things to make it make sense in our heads of why she would be a Mandarin speaker. Not that any of that I think is evident on screen necessarily.

Banban Cheng: Yeah.

Sasie Sealy: It was just for Tsai and just talking through the backstory as part of her process.

Geri Cole: How many languages were spoken on set?

Banban Cheng: I want to say four.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah.

Geri Cole: Wow. That’s incredible, four.

Banban Cheng: It’s mainly Mandarin, but definitely, there were moments in Cantonese.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, it depended on the actor, some of the actors who are from Hong Kong. A lot of the slightly older generation of Asian American actors in the United States are originally Cantonese speakers. It’s just the waves of immigration, who came first, basically. So, some of those actors like Lei Lei the Fortune Teller, who’s played by Wai, she speaks in Cantonese. Actually, Benny, he is actually a Cantonese speaker, but he spoken Mandarin in the scene with a Cantonese accent. It was a little bit of a discussion. Yeah, there’s all kinds of accents in the movie.

Geri Cole: Can you elaborate a little on striking a balance between this being a story that speaks to Chinese and broader Asian communities while also being a universal comedy? We’re at an interesting time when people are being applauded for but also maybe siloed into specific creative niches. How do you navigate that duality? Good question.

Sasie Sealy: That is a good question.

Banban Cheng: The movies that we watched while we were writing the script were from all over the place. So, it was inspired by Mother from Bong Joon-ho, not from Darren Aronofsky, The Maid, which Sasie already mentioned, Kung Fu Hustle by Stephen Chow, and a fair amount of Coen Brothers movies. So, I feel like there’s a sensibility to it that is indicative of just us having a pretty mixed film education. Yeah.

In other words, the structure of it still felt very based in Western filmmaking, I think, but the character just felt so specifically based on women in our lives. So, we stuffed their characters into this somewhat Western structure film. I think that it just resonates universally because of that. I mean, Grandma is so… I don’t know. She has a drive that feels very clear to me. So, I think that she probably translates universally. We had a lot of people tell us that she reminded them of their own Russian grandmother or Polish grandmother. So, I think perhaps that ordinariness translates very well.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, maybe something happens to you when you pass the age of 75.

Banban Cheng: You just don’t care anymore.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, you just don’t give a damn or something.

Banban Cheng: You just do what you want.

Geri Cole: Yeah, I just heard someone talking about that recently. I can’t remember. It was an older woman who was like, “Once you’re divorced from that femininity…” I can’t remember where I read this. I’m so bad about this. “… that it’s like you get to just be a person again.”

Sasie Sealy: Yeah. When you’re no longer a sex object, you just…

Geri Cole: That there is this strange whole new world later in life of getting to be a whole person in that way.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah.

Geri Cole: Okay. Fun question, what do each of you think the other will be like when you’re at Grandma’s age?

Banban Cheng: Oh, man.

Sasie Sealy: Well, I hope that I’m like Grandma at least a little bit.

Banban Cheng: Yes. I mean, you’re already on your way.

Sasie Sealy: I mean, she gets to do what she wants pretty much.

Banban Cheng: I mean, I was saying that once I hit 80 or something, perhaps I would take up acting.

Sasie Sealy: Really? I feel like you’re going to be so calm. I have this vision of you taking up Tai Chi or something.

Banban Cheng: Oh, no. I feel like I would want to do something very strange and late in life career shift, where suddenly I’m like, “I’m going to be that one older person who will completely be like, I’m okay with being nude on screen. And then you could just cast me in any movie that wants an old nude person.” I would be that person. I just want to do something strange like that.

Sasie Sealy: Oh, my God. Wait, Banban, have you seen Bacurau yet?

Banban Cheng: No, not yet. No. It’s on my list.

Sasie Sealy: I love that movie. There’s definitely old naked people in that movie.

Banban Cheng: Yeah, exactly. Old naked people seem like a hard thing to cast. So, I’m like, “I could be that person maybe.” Yeah, anyway, that kind of mindset basically.

Geri Cole: I’m 1,000% down for that. In fact, I’ve already decided that I’m going to have a midlife crisis. I’m excited about it. I’m trying to come up with, “Do I want to get into falconeering or perhaps-”

Banban Cheng: Oh, yeah. I like that.

Geri Cole: I don’t want to do-

Sasie Sealy: That’s cool.

Geri Cole: … stereotypical stuff. I want to do real weird stuff. Yeah, maybe I’ll suddenly get okay with being nude in films. Sasie, do you have any old Sasie versions?

Sasie Sealy: Old Sasie fantasies? I don’t know. I mean, I’ve always been like, “Oh, I want to make movies until I die.” But if that doesn’t work out, I want to write children’s books. If I can basically have a second career as JK Rowling, that would be awesome, but yeah, that might be farfetched. We’ll see.

Geri Cole: Or not, or not at all. So, I’d also love to hear about what each of you are doing next in an ideal world, what you’d like to do next and/or what you have lined up next.

Banban Cheng: Yeah, Sasie, I don’t think we can go too much into detail, but Sasie and I have sold a TV idea to Amazon. We are in the middle of developing it with Ilana Glazer as the executive producer. So, it’s super exciting. It’s early days, but it’s our next project together. We are very grateful to be able to still work with each other.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah.

Geri Cole: Nice. Here’s a question. What impact do you think a film like yours might have on the current state of violence against Asians? Do you think portraying fully fleshed out Asian characters could help change people’s perceptions?

Sasie Sealy: I hope so.

Banban Cheng: Yeah, I mean, I think we’re one film and hopefully what will be many that breaks out of the whole danger of the single story and tells lots of different stories. I think the more we tell complex stories and show Asians and Asian Americans as fully fledged human beings, the better, but I do think we’re just one.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m pretty shocked at all the violence that we’ve been reading about. I mean, it’s just crazy. Who pushes down old people of any kind?

Geri Cole: Actually, it’s not new. It’s not new, but we’re in scary times. Yeah, I would think that this film would help, as you were saying earlier, where it’s like, “Yeah, it reminds me of my grandma.” It just helps. People see themselves in maybe a place they didn’t necessarily think that they would.

Sasie Sealy: Yeah, we’d always talked about how when you ride in New York, you’d always see the 50 million people in the subway or you did in the before times. You would see 50 million people on the subway. You would always see old grandmas riding the subway or on the bus. You wonder, they’ve got a story. What’s their story? I always love that series like Humans of New York because I like reading about-

Geri Cole: That’s so good.

Sasie Sealy: I know, all of the random details of these people’s lives, so much drama. You would never think it if you just pass them on the street.

Geri Cole: Yeah, Humans of New York, amazing. So, I guess my final question, because it looks like we’re almost out of time, is, “Was she lucky in the end?” I thought about it after the movie. Was she lucky? I mean, I guess she was. She survived. She had this adventure, but it wasn’t the kind of luck that she thought.

Sasie Sealy: I think she was lucky.

Banban Cheng: Yeah, I don’t think her luck was the luck that she was looking for, but yeah, I think she was lucky, too.

Geri Cole: Awesome. Well, ladies, thank you so much for talking with us today. Congratulations on this amazing film.

Banban Cheng: Thank you.

Sasie Sealy: Thank you so much.

Geri Cole: I’m very excited to see this next project also. So, please keep us posted as that develops.

Sasie Sealy: Okay.

Geri Cole: Thank you again, guys. It was so nice to meet you.

Sasie Sealy: Bye.

Banban Cheng: Nice meeting you too.

Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music is by Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America, East online at You can follow the Guild on social media, @wgaeast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening and write on.


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