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 wgaeast.org. 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.