AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR SASIE SEALY
This is an edited transcript of an interview with director Sasie Sealy, who we hosted on our podcast, Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.
Sasie Sealy is an award-winning filmmaker based in New York City. She first made her mark in the commercial world of fashion and beauty with clients such as Maybelline, Tory Burch, Suave, and Sally Hansen, and her work has been featured in Glamour, Refinery29, Teen Vogue, Variety, and Style.com. She recently directed her debut film, Lucky Grandma, which revolves around a Chinese grandma (Tsai Chin) who goes all in at the casino, but lands herself on the wrong side of luck.
Sam: How did it feel to release the film digitally? Do you feel like you're missing out or has the digital release been good for you?
Sasie: Well, it's been pretty freaking weird, I would say, but I think most things this year have been pretty freaking weird. So it's not really an exception right? The whole thing has been borderline surreal. But I think it's a mixed bag. On one hand, I mean, as a filmmaker, you love the big screen. I grew up watching movies. I love cinema. I like going to movies. I would die to go to a movie theater right now. I always think the viewing experience for the audience is better, like on the big screen and you kinda miss that sort of communal thing, especially because it's a comedy where people laugh together.
I liked doing the Q&A's in person, they're always interesting, but it's also been kind of hilarious and funny because we did this red carpet Zoom. We did media interviews from my bedroom and apartment. It's like the most unglamorous ever.
My red carpet outfit was basically only red carpet from the waist up. We had fake virtual backgrounds and I'm like, this is, this is not exactly what I pictured when I pictured the premiere for my first film, but it's okay.
On the other hand, we're getting released in more cities than we would have normally. We had like a 30 city indie release planned for August, which is pretty good for indie. Anything outside of New York and LA is pretty good. We've been able to play in way more cities than that. Also, the box office pressure is not as much because normally a little indie art house cinema can usually maybe play two films at a time. So, if you don't perform the first weekend, they'll change the film out because there's a limit on the number of physical screens. But because it's virtual screens, they can program many more movies and there can be a longer tail for the film. So, that's kind of nice and overall we felt it was important to do this because no one has any idea what's happening in August.
This was also a way for us to support indie art-house theaters, you know. With everything that the Keynote Marquee program or the Alamo Draft House is doing, 50% goes to the actual theater. So we thought that that was really important. I was really bummed the local theater that I grew up with in Charlotte, North Carolina (it's called The Manor and has been around for a while, like 45 years or something crazy), they closed because of COVID and went out of business. It was the theater that I first saw Pulp Fiction in.
Teresa: Stop wait, I just have to turn my camera. Sorry. Pulp Fiction is my favorite movie ever. And I'm sorry, just had to give a shout out. Thank you for shouting out that movie.
Sasie: Right? Well, you feel my pain. When the Manor closed, I was like, what? This sucks. Especially cause that whole indie film ecosystem, I feel like is so fragile, from the film festivals, the theaters, and the audience.
We're not talking Hollywood blockbusters. We’re talking about like the people who keep film culture alive. So I was happy that we were able to support the theaters in whatever way that we could. It's weird. I just do Q and A's from my bedroom.
Teresa: Going back to indie releases. I think one thing that struck me about your film is as an Asian American woman I rarely see Asian American films or just Asian films that feel fresh, but also culturally in tune. And I think a large part of that, it's, it's difficult to get backing or funding for those sorts of films.
I was just wondering how did you -- cause this was your debut film too -- how did you pitch it and get actual funding behind what most people would consider a more niche film topic.
Sasie: Yeah. I think been a very long road and we were very lucky.
So when we first wrote the script and we were trying to get funding, I mean, it was not an easy sell. I mean, first of all, it stars an old lady. Nobody wants to make movies about old women. They're like what? She's not hot anymore. I don't understand. Then she's like, Asian and an immigrant.
And they were like you wanna make the movie mostly in Chinese? And this is pre Crazy Rich Asians. So it was definitely a hard sell. And we, we really just got lucky. It's really kind of a real Cinderella story. Basically the Tribeca Film Institute had this grant that was financed by money from AT&T to make one movie a year, like a small budget movie. They were looking for "untold stories," which basically is anything that's not mainstream. So it could be about women, it could be about minorities, it can be about an immigrant community -- mentally ill people. I don't know, whatever kind of topic you want to do.
And, you know, we were able to win the grant. It was sort of like a many-hoop process. It was kind of like Shark Tank but with filmmakers. It was very bizarre. You had to do our pitch and stuff in front of a celebrity jury. There were like many rounds of stuff, but they gave us a million dollars to make the movie.
So it was really a Cinderella story. We're very, very lucky, especially because I've always liked all kinds of movies and I'm pretty political personally, but in terms of my movies, I am not so much. I mean, and it's like, I wanted to make a movie about an old immigrant woman living in Chinatown that wasn't feeling sorry for her. I feel like you hear that subject and you're like, “Oh, that movie is going to be fucking depressing,” you know? And I wanted to make something that was more of a celebration, fun, and kind of badass and make her a hero and not an object of pity.
I feel like it's only really recently in terms of American cinema, (not world cinema) but the U.S, indie scene, where there's enough of a critical mass sort of bubbling up. I guess you would say minority or diverse voices where there's kind of room for all kinds of stories.
I mean, I feel like 15 years ago, every black film was about slavery, and that's not the only story that you can tell about Black America, you know? The only story that you can tell about like Asian-Americans is not some sad immigrant tale. There's a lot in between. So, I feel excited that that's happening now. Have you guys been watching May I Destroy You?
Teresa: Stop. Oh my God. You're hitting the nail on the head. I literally just binged the whole series, like yesterday. It's amazing, because it hits on the nuances, I think that that's something that your film also does very well. It's relatable without saying things -- like when you think that you're the only one who's experienced things, but you're not.
Sasie: Yeah. It's not didactic in any way. It's very nuanced and there's so much gray and it's really fresh. I think that show is kind of badass. That's my new obsession. That's why I had to talk about it.
Teresa: The soundtrack too.
Sasie: The music is awesome.
Teresa: I love it.
Sasie: I've been wondering has anybody put it on Spotify yet? You know how people make those playlists on Spotify?
Teresa: As a young person, I feel like we often look for that in movies, like what's a good soundtrack. That's how you know if it's fresh or not.
Sam: We both noticed a theme of forgiveness that seemed to carry all the way through the film. We were wondering, how do you think about forgiveness and why did you make the characters in the story so willing to forgive each other's mistakes?
Sasie: I am not even sure if I've thought about it in that way, or if I've done that on purpose. I do think that in life, in general, everything will be a little bit better if we gave each other the benefit of the doubt most of the time. I think, especially with family and things like that, I think most people are not ill-intentioned.
I think people are willing to forgive. You mean the end of the movie with the family?
Sam: Yeah and even when they came back together, I thought it was interesting that you saw that grandma and David's relationship had been pretty severely altered. So, forgiveness kind of fits into that.
Sasie: We debated that a lot because she definitely put his life in danger, and we kind of debated. I was like taking a little bit of license to be like, “Oh, his parents will forgive her.” Or like, you know, they'll kind of brush that under the rug. Mainly because maybe I would, I guess, I would forgive my mom if she did that.
With David and their relationship changing, I think they're going to get over that. I think that there's definitely some bruising still from that experience that's minor scarring. I mean, she didn't mean to put him in that situation. It's not like an abusive situation where she is the perpetrator.
She was willing to sacrifice herself for him to save him. And I think that he'll eventually be able to see that. I think he's just like a little tender right now.
Teresa: Yeah. Something else that I thought your film did really well was that I thought the shots were very beautiful and also it was funny, which is rare because I really think films are funny.
They're either trying too hard or not funny and dark. I know that your background comes from doing photography and you were in like a sketch comedy troupe. I think that in our generation, it's a thing to be able to explore different mediums. Me and Sam are both photographers, writers, and now we're doing this podcast.
I was just wondering, is that something that was a thing when you were in college and if not, how do you think that has helped you or develop as an artist?
Sasie: I don't know if it was like a thing to do to explore different things in a multihyphenate way. I don't know if it was. I think when I was in college, I don't know if there were as many successful public personas who kind of were doing that.
I was just reading about the photographer who just shot the Vanity Fair cover. He has like a million things going on. I don't think that that was as common in the past. This medium. where it's very much Jack-of-all-trades in a way, you know, so many people come from different backgrounds. There was one person in my film school class who was an opera director who directed operas in Italy. Some people came from theater, some people had never done theater, had never written and were actors. I knew someone at school who had gone to Juilliard for acting and then decided to direct. Some people come at it very much from the written page.
So, film is definitely a medium where it helps like to have experience or at least some familiarity with so many different areas because it really is a medium that pulls from all of these things. It pulls from design, music, editing, writing, drama, acting like all of these things.
You're going to bring whatever your actual personal experience is to it. I mean, directors are very different. Some directors are very technical. Some directors are not technical at all. Some have never -- like don't know anything about cameras -- but they're super great with actors.
So, it really just depends. And the better you can acquaint yourself with all of the different aspects of the craft, hopefully, the better filmmaker you'll be. So yeah, I mean, it totally affected me, especially, I mean, the photography and the sketch comedy, but the photography was probably the bigger one.
Teresa: You worked in fashion and beauty for a bit before. Was filmmaking always sort of in your mind or did that career come from a photography oriented pivot to filmmaking?
Sasie: I would say filmmaking had been in my mind for a long time. So, I'm from North Carolina and in North Carolina, nobody works in film or like, not really. And so saying you want to grow up and become a filmmaker, it's sort of like saying you want to grow up and become like a poet or something. Sort of like who does that? It's not like, “Oh, you go to school and you get a job and then you're a film director.” That's not a thing.
So, even though I always loved movies, it was a very roundabout path to get to movies because I didn't know how to do it. There's no like how-to manual for like how to become a director. Sometimes you just say you are, and then people are like, “Okay.”
But most of the time now, all of those kinds of things like doing the sketch comedy, doing the photography and I had done a little bit of theater, doing the internships, all of that stuff is kind of like led up to it. And I went to film school and then after film school, how I ended up doing fashion and beauty was really to pay rent.
Just like straight up, right? Like, I graduated from film school. I wanted to make a movie, but it's not like somebody’s like, “Oh, here, let me give you like a million dollars,” and then you make your art. That doesn't happen. It doesn't happen that easily, never say never, but most of the time it does not happen that easily.
So basically, I had been doing films. I had shorts and the shorts were my portfolio and kind of got me a toehold into doing some commercial work. It started small, like with some light stuff for fashion week, or for a few small little internet brands or whatever, you know, very low budget.
I was able to sort of build my reel and kind of like continue working on stuff. And while I worked on scripts to pay my bills, doing that kind of stuff. That's the long and short of it, but you know, it takes a really long time sometimes. It took me a long time to get a movie made.
Sasie: It takes a very long time. I mean, making commercials is not a bad living at all. It's pretty fun, but yeah.
Sam: One of my favorite scenes in the film is the first scene where they're all in the kitchen and David's there and grandma's cooking and it seems like new neighbors just keep coming in and being pushed out.
I was wondering, how did you direct all the actors to interact with each other like that? And was it hard to introduce these new characters with all of this drama and everything going on?
Sasie: Yeah! So my editor and I call that sequence, “Knock-knock." I don't know if it was hard to direct. I mean, there were definitely some things that I was looking for, like in terms of creating a certain visual continuity. Like with the door, they keep repeating to kind of tie them together.
And I didn't really think that much about the different characters because, in a way, I feel like the structure of Lucky Grandma in some ways is a little bit like The Big Lebowski or something. Because, you know, there's like basically your main hero, and then she goes to meet all of these interesting people on her journey and I wanted to make each one of the people very memorable, like each character that she interacted with.
Whether it's the fortuneteller or Benny, or the neighbor, etc. So that is kind of how I conceived of it. I don't know if that makes sense.
Sam: Yeah. When they were tearing up her apartment, all I could think was like, when is the neighbor going to come back up?
Sasie: Well, he was going to have a repeat performance. We had to cut it because of budget and schedule. Originally, when they were getting rid of the body, in the script, there was an elevator and a moped and the neighbor made a reappearance.
We could not find a location with an elevator, and my producer said we couldn't afford the mopeds. So, I had to write it with those characters.
Teresa: In general, what is a big inspiration for you? Like how do you get these ideas for any form of your art or mold these characters and choose 3D figures?
Sasie: I mean, it depends on which character. So grandma is probably the most complex character, and she is really inspired by, I would say women in our life. So me and my co-writer Angela Cheng, you know, definitely got a little inspiration from my mom. and many of the women that we know and that's very much drawing from real life in a way.
Although, of course, I had the image of grandma with her cigarettes and her whole thing from the very beginning, that was a long evolution trying to think about. So we always knew how she would react in a situation. I don't know if that makes sense.
The character was always very clear to us in terms of how she would respond to a situation but in terms of getting the new ones, like with the backstory of what might have happened to make her that way -- stuff that kind of was a longer evolution in the writing process -- and figuring out scenes that would actually show that. But, not be like explaining monologue scenes. I hate those scenes in movies where they're like, “Oh, there's this monologue about how my husband died and that's the way I am the way I am.”
So, how to show that depth and how to show the ways that people are not always predictable, they're sometimes active and contradictory. So we kind of were looking also for scenes that kind of showed that. I don't know if that makes sense with the smaller secondary characters, the side characters.
I mean, we did a lot of research on gangs, sort of in Chinatown.. We read quite a few books and articles about kind of how the triads work and there was some real-life violence that was pretty serious in the nineties for awhile, including one woman who was sort of the inspiration for Sister Fong, who was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Back in the day in the nineties, she made most of her money from smuggling immigrants on boats. We just read a lot of things, and I think that helped us kind of make these colorful characters.
Then like, even though they're only in one scene, we kind of have this whole backstory for everybody. I don't know if that makes sense, I wanted it to seem like they existed outside of the confines of that one genre. Does that make sense? They would have a story that would be outside of the frame. So hopefully we did that!
Teresa: Yeah. It wasn't that sappy. There was that one scene where she was clutching on and realizing he didn't leave her anything, but there was never that like petty monologue, you know what I mean?
And I think it was very clear from the start with the first scene, she's literally smoking that cigarette, not giving any fucks. And I think that was very clear, the image you wanted to portray of her and reminded me of my own grandma.
Sasie: I think it might be universal. Maybe it's just like when you hit 80, you just don't have any fucks left to give.
Sam: One other thing that I noticed in the film is that there's kind of this interchange between luck and fate. Especially grandma sees both of them. I was wondering if you could tell us, I don't want to give away too much of the film, but how that luck and fate dynamic you saw existing within the character of grandma.
Sasie: Yeah. I mean, that definitely comes from very much my own life, I guess, and Chinese culture. So my mom is Buddhist and she's very superstitious. She doesn't claim to be superstitious, but I mean, it's like we have never bought a house without considering the Fengshui of the house in all of those years.
Even though I am like, you know, totally American and grew up very Western and think of myself as a rational person who believes in science, I still hear her voice in the back of my head whenever I make some little decisions and I'm like, “Well, there's no reason to tempt fate, you know, maybe, maybe she's right. I should move this desk the other way. I should try to pick a room with like a whatever facing window, et cetera." I think like that just sort of seeped into my life and the waters that I grew up in. And it's something I've always felt very -- that there were a lot of contradictions in Chinese culture about it. I don't know, it's this weird duality between work hard, make your own luck, and Karma exists.
It's kind of like they both exist in this world that doesn't always make coherent sense. I wanted to portray that grandma's very superstitious, she believes in luck, but her definition kind of bends to what is convenient for her at the moment, even though she very much believes in fate and luck, she's still going to basically do whatever she can to make her own fate.
Sam: Yeah. Yeah. I definitely related to that. Like, I feel like I have some of that same, no matter how much I think it's about hard work, there's something that always tells me that any achievements I make are cause of something else. So yeah, that totally makes sense.
Sasie: Yeah, well, maybe it's like a little blend of both, right? You have to work hard to put yourself in that lucky spot.
Teresa: Yeah, no, totally agree. But before we wrap things up, just wanted to ask one more question, do you have a piece of advice for our listeners out there who are in college, or a little bit older than college, on pursuing their passions and art.
And do you have a film recommendation for quarantine?
Sasie: Ah, that's hard for the recommendation. There's so many. I'll start with the first part about advice. If you want to make films or make anything really, I think you just have to just start making stuff. I think you learn by doing.
You can’t make films unless you start making films, even if it's on a small scale or whatever, and whatever way you can. The thing is you have to want to do it. So you should basically want to do it before anybody will pay you to do it. And then once people start paying you to do it, then that's just kind of like icing on the cake, you know?
And I would say watch as much as you can. Just like, learn your film history, like learn what's out there and what other people have done. Because it’s basically all been done in some way or another. Not just like American movies. Watch stuff from all over the world. There's really great stuff out there.
In terms of a pandemic recommendation, I will give a shout out. Have you guys seen this movie called Baccarau?
Teresa: I just wrote the review for baccarat for our last newsletter! Literally last week I just watched it.
Sasie: Okay. Well, I fucking love it. It's kind of like a Quentin Tarantino movie. I thought that movie was pretty badass and interesting and also as part of the whole virtual streaming thing, so you would support movie theaters. That would be my pandemic recommendation for the moment.
I also really want to see, I haven't seen it yet, but The House And the Hummingbird. It's like this Korean movie that's supposed to be really good. That's kind of on my list that I want to see. But Bacarau was pretty, pretty great.
Teresa: It did have a very journalistic feel. Yeah. It was very sociopolitical.
Sasie: It was really cool. I had no idea that that movie was going to be like that. It was amazing. Spoilers, but I really liked all the naked people in that memory. They were hilarious. Did you watch it Sam?
Sam: I haven’t seen it.
Teresa: Get on our level. Come on. You got to check it out.
Sasie: I mean, didn't I entice you with naked people? They're hilarious. Quentin Tarantino. Brazil. Sociopolitical UFOs. Naked people!
Teresa: Well, thank you so much for coming on to this podcast and for enforcing my recommendation for Bacarau.
Sasie: It was really great to chat with you guys. I'm really glad that you liked the movie and I hope other people see it. Thanks guys. Take care of yourself during the pandemic!