The vulnerabilities that often drive people’s actions and emotions in life, from such important topics as immigration to aging and even unexpected friendship, can ultimately help them realize how much they truly appreciate their existences. That powerful awakening is highlighted in the new dark comedy, ‘Lucky Grandma,’ which introduces audiences to a versatile new protagonist that the world needs. The movie’s director, Sasie Sealy, who also co-wrote the script with Angela Cheng, showcase that no matter how strong a person may appear, like the title protagonist, under their tough demeanor is someone who’s actually also sensitive and in need of support.
Set in the heart of Chinatown, New York, ‘Lucky Grandma’ follows the life of an ornery, chain-smoking, newly widowed 80-year-old Grandma (Tsai Chin), who’s eager to live life as an independent woman, despite the worry of her family. When a local fortune teller (Wai Ching Ho) predicts an auspicious day in her future, Grandma decides to head to the casino and go all in. However, once she arrives, she lands herself on the wrong side of luck, and suddenly attracts the attention of some local gangsters. Desperate to protect herself, Grandma employs the services of a bodyguard from a rival gang (Corey Ha), and soon finds herself right in the middle of a Chinatown gang war.
As the second recipient of AT&T’s Untold Stories grant, ‘Lucky Grandma’ is part of a new vanguard of diverse filmmaking supported by AT&T and the Tribeca Film Institute. The one million dollar initiative, which is awarded to emerging voices with untold stories, allowed Sealy and Cheng to not only bring their vision for the comedy to life, but also shoot on location in New York’s Chinatown, and feature an almost all Asian and Asian-American cast. The movie went on to have its World Premiere in the Viewpoints section of this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Sealy, Cheng and Ha generously took the time during the Tribeca Film Festival to sit down for a roundtable interview at New York City’s Roxy Hotel to talk about writing, directing and starring in ‘Lucky Grandma.’ Among other things, the filmmakers and actor discussed that they made the title protagonist stern and independent, which are traits that some of the women in their lives possess, as they fight to achieve the lives they want.
The conversation began with Sealy and Cheng explaining what inspired them to co-pen the screenplay together. Sealy shared that she had “taken the buses that go from Chinatown to the various casinos. The buses are very cheap, especially when you go to the casinos, because they give you a coupon to gamble with, which is an extra incentive! Whenever I rode on the buses, I noticed that they were full of older Chinese people, because we like to gamble!”
So one day the scribe had an image of the bus scene that’s featured in the comedy. The image featured “an older woman with a bag of money falling down in her lap, and I was super excited about it, but I didn’t want to write it by myself. So I immediately called Angela, and told her the premise for the idea.”
After Sealy pitched Cheng the concept, “she told me she was thinking about making the main character an elderly Chinese woman, who happened to be a grandma. Immediately, the wheels started turning, because I was very close to my own grandmother,” Cheng divulged. “She was very stern and independent, and really spoke her mind. I could see her in this part. So we started building the character, and it felt very familiar to us. The story then sprang from there.”
The title grandma in the movie is also a combination of women that the filmmakers have known throughout their lives, including their mothers and aunts, Sealy also chimed in. Her co-writer then mentioned that the women they know are stubborn and outspoken. She added that Cheng infused her title character with a likability that reflects what the scribes like most about their relatives, who do what they want.
Further discussing the process of Cheng becoming attached to star in ‘Lucky Grandma,’ Sealy admitted that they searched for the right performer “for quite a long time, and we went to multiple countries. But the list of actresses who could carry the role, and is Chinese, in her 80s and speak both English and Chinese, is very small,” she admitted with a laugh. “We were originally looking for someone who was a little younger, because of the demands of filming. Grandma is in every scene of the movie, and there’s some action going on. But I wasn’t finding what I wanted.”
The director added that “A friend of mine went to the 25th anniversary screening of ‘The Joy Luck Club’ last year, and the whole cast came out. He saw Tsai, who was also in that film, during the Q&A, and he could tell that she’s pretty feisty. So he immediately called me, and said ‘Sasie, I think you need to consider Tsai again, even though she’s a little bit older. She’s still got it.'”
So Sealy immediately flew out to Los Angeles to meet Chin, and they ended up having “a four-hour dinner. During that meeting, she spent the first 30 minutes why I should not hire her,” the filmmaker revelaed with a laugh. “She definitely was challenging, to say the least! But she does know how to seduce a director.”
The process of directing ‘Lucky Grandma,’ after working on writing the script with Cheng, was something that Sealy enjoyed. “As a director, I always think it’s easier when you’ve written the script, because you get to skip the process of directing where you have to learn the script, inside and out. You already know the script, because you’ve spent years with it,” she explained.
“I’ve been directing for awhile, so it’s second nature to me now. It’s all about preparation, and trying to find the right team,” the helmer also shared. “Luckily, I had Angela with me, as part of the team. She was on set with me every day, as were my amazing producers, Krista Parris and Cara Marcous. I was really about creating an environment where the actors felt safe, and I had the freedom to tell the story, and have people help me do that.”
The experience of being able to shoot a movie in America was an intriguing one for Ha, who’s known for being a former professional basketball player, as well as a soap opera star, in Taiwan. “I think it’s a little weird,” he admitted, which garnered a laugh from Sealy and Cheng. “I never thought I would have the chance to come to the U.S. But I got a message from one of my Facebook friends, who said that a crew wanted to hire me to shoot a movie in New York City.”
So the actor decided to FaceTime with Sealy, and eventually realized the offer was real. After his chat with the filmmaker, his sister Googled the helmer and the movie’s casting director, Jessica Daniels. He discovered how committed they were to making the comedy, and decided to to sign on to play Grandma’s bodyguard.
The experience of filming ‘Lucky Grandma’ in America was a completely new process for Ha, but he appreciated how fun and different it was for him than starring on soap operas in his native country. “There were days here that we shot for 15 or 16 hours in Taiwan. But here, we had more time to get rest and think,” he explained.
Once Chin, Ha and the rest of the cast signed on to star in ‘Lucky Grandma,’ they didn’t have much time to rehearse together, since it’s an independent film. Not only did the comedy have a shorter shooting schedule because of its size and budget, the ability to work with the performers was also impacted by the fact that the crew “had trouble getting Corey’s visa. So he arrived late to the filming,” Sealy admitted. “So we rearranged our schedule to accommodate him. I didn’t even meet him in person until he showed up on set! We had already been filming for about a week or so. But he was a real professional.”