How This Director Lovingly Made His Grandmas Into Movie Stars

Sean Wang’s Oscar-nominated documentary short “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” is now streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.
Director Sean Wang's Wài Pó (left) and Nǎi Nai (right) — his grandmothers — who star in his Oscar-nominated documentary short "Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó."
Director Sean Wang's Wài Pó (left) and Nǎi Nai (right) — his grandmothers — who star in his Oscar-nominated documentary short "Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó."

Filmmaker Sean Wang is having a whirlwind start to 2024. In January, his semi-autobiographical debut feature “Dìdi (弟弟)” premiered to significant acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival and landed a theatrical release from Focus Features. Just days later, he got an Academy Award nomination for his documentary short film, “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó.” He has been so busy that he did a Zoom interview while waiting to go on “The Kelly Clarkson Show.”

But, as Wang, 29, told me from the talk show’s green room last week, he’s happy to cede the spotlight to the stars of the short: his grandmothers, who he jokes, with their newfound fame, are now “too big for us. They won’t return my phone calls.”

Now streaming on Disney+ and Hulu, “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” is a loving slice-of-life tribute to their unique bond. The two live together near Wang’s parents in the Bay Area, and as seen in the film, Wài Pó, the younger of the two women, refers to Nǎi Nai as her “big sister.”

There are uproarious scenes of Wài Pó ribbing Nǎi Nai for farting in her sleep and cleaning up after her because she tends to leave her shoes around. We see the two enjoy their various hobbies, like reading the newspaper, singing and playing the piano, dancing, gardening, and an utterly delightful scene of them watching “Superbad.” At the same time, the film is deeply poignant, featuring Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó’s reflections about being at the end of their lives and having experienced the deaths of many of their loved ones.

Wang traces his grandmothers’ treasured partnership to a series of rom-com-esque “meet-cutes.” At first, they met through the marriage of Wang’s parents and became in-laws. From the start, it was clear they “enjoyed each other’s company, which I think is kind of a rarity in and of itself,” Wang said. He grew up with Nǎi Nai, his paternal grandmother, who moved to the Bay Area to be closer to his family and helped raise him when he was a kid. Meanwhile, he would visit Wài Pó, his maternal grandmother, during summer vacations in Taiwan.

His grandmothers really became close when Wài Pó’s husband died about a dozen years ago. “She ended up coming to live with my family in the States, and that’s when her and Nǎi Nai started living together,” he said. “And Nǎi Nai is 10 years older than her. So I think that started this friendship that became a sisterhood, and then became a very special late-stage soulmate relationship. They also both lost their husbands a few years apart. So I would imagine that helped ease the loneliness of losing your life partner.”

The idea to start filming their daily life came in early 2021, when Wang, who had been living in New York, decided to move to Los Angeles. Along the way, he stopped at home in Fremont, California, living there during that transitional period in his life.

“It was a long transitional period. I was home for months and months, close to a year,” he said. “And it was kind of during that time that I was really getting to see my grandmothers and experience life with them in a way that I never really had before. Getting to really settle into these sort of daily rhythms with them — as you see in the movie: them watching the dishes, reading the newspaper, folding the laundry, but also me being in the room with them and singing and dancing and pranking each other, and Nǎi Nai slapping my butt. All these very almost like slapstick, humorous moments.”

Wang began to see their daily lives as an antidote to the headlines of rising anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic, especially against Asian elders. At one point in the film, Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó discuss how they’ve avoided going to their local market, rattled by the drumbeat of news reports about anti-Asian racism.

As a filmmaker, Wang told me, any time he senses “a visceral amount of emotion, I’m like, ‘There’s something here.’”

“I think that was kind of what spurred this: ‘OK, I feel so much anger. Let’s make an antidote to that anger with people in my life that are kind of being portrayed as these sort of, like, helpless beings, but they’re full of so much life and humanity and joy,’” he said. “Let’s just make a film that captures all of that, that is a container for all of the wide range of emotions that is part of the human experience, and humanize them in a way that I think the news wasn’t doing.”

Sean Wang at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of his debut feature "Dìdi (弟弟)" in January. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Sean Wang at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of his debut feature "Dìdi (弟弟)" in January. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Michael Loccisano via Getty Images

The film mixes scenes of Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó’s quotidian routines with more narrative sequences, like the two of them arm-wrestling, or raiding their closet and trying on a series of goofy outfits and disguises. Wang approached these scenes as skits, allowing the film to be a more collaborative process between him and his grandmothers.

“The skits were a way to kind of really capture their youthfulness and their childlike creativity. And I almost see the movie as, like, two languages. It’s a movie that they’re in, and the movie of their lives. For the movie that they’re in, they’re the movie stars of their own movie. So we are using narrative tools and filmmaking tools, like sound and music and jump cuts and all these sort of tricks of the trade and these bells and whistles to make it feel a lot more visceral and alive,” he said. “As much as the movie is about them and for them, it’s also a movie that we’re making with them.”

At its core, the film is about celebrating the ordinariness of Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó’s lives and preserving it while they’re still around. “I think I was experiencing something where I was like, ‘I want to memorialize this time that I have with them as a young adult, getting to spend this much time with them,’” Wang said. “I knew that once I moved away, I’ll probably never have that experience again.”

That sense of memory influenced the film’s style. Wang described wanting to make the film “nostalgic and warm and feel like a time capsule,” he said. “It should feel like you’re uncovering a family memento if you watch it 10 years from now.”

To achieve that look, he thought about the film “almost like a photo album, like portraiture: a lot of locked-off shots, a lot of patient, observant stylings,” influenced by the third season of “Master of None,” which he had been watching at the time. That approach gave Wang the “confidence to linger on a shot of [Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó] washing dishes for 15 seconds, and be like, ‘This isn’t boring, actually. It can be gripping.’”

Wang tends to craft the individual style of his films as he’s making them. But he has been acquiring stylistic influences all of his life. Many of them are infused throughout his feature directorial debut “Dìdi (弟弟),” a coming-of-age dramedy based on his childhood in the 2000s. It’s set during the summer before protagonist Chris (Izaac Wang) enters high school. Like the director did during his real-life adolescence, Chris films local skateboarders and posts his short films to YouTube. Throughout “Dìdi (弟弟),” there’s the kind of scrappiness that comes with adolescence, clearly influenced by the films and filmmakers Wang admired growing up.

Chris (Izaac Wang) in “Dìdi (弟弟).”
Chris (Izaac Wang) in “Dìdi (弟弟).”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I think Spike Jonze is the reason I became a filmmaker. I kind of started out skating and making skate videos. And he was the first one — just seeing him and his career and his playfulness that he has in all of his work, his playfulness that is still exploring very deep themes,” Wang said. “And I think over time, influences kind of came from everywhere. I was a big anime kid when I was young. Then in my late teens, I became, like, a huge Vimeo kid, and I discovered filmmakers like [‘Atlanta’ director] Hiro Murai and [‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ directors] Daniels on Vimeo. And I was really inspired by what they were doing: this sort of second golden age of music videos.”

He was also drawn to coming-of-age movies like Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” Rob Reiner’s “Stand by Me,” François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher” and Céline Sciamma’s “Water Lilies.” As he got older, he also discovered the work of Taiwanese cinema legends like Edward Yang.

“I think a lot of that just kind of grows as I grow as a human,” he said of his influences. “It changes and morphs into one another.”

As Wang considers his career thus far, “I think I’ve gravitated towards things that are very personal: things about family and belonging and identity. And it’s not like I was setting out to make films where I explored that. I think it was just kind of where my heart was,” he said. “I hope that going forward, even if it’s not so obviously one-to-one with aspects of my life, that it can really still be just as personal.”

Even in some of his future ambitions, that focus on the personal could easily work. Wang said he has always wanted to make a musical — “not like a big song-and-dance musical, but something like ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ or ‘Once.’ I really love movies with that DNA,” he said. “So me saying it out loud means maybe I have to do it one day.” Another aspiration of his: adapting “Calvin and Hobbes,” if the IP ever became available.

In some ways, he has already made his dream project in “Dìdi (弟弟),” which took more than six years to develop. And what a dream to get the legendary Joan Chen to star as a fictional version of his mother in the film, delivering a beautiful performance as a woman at her wit’s end, raising two kids while dealing with an absentee husband and demanding mother-in-law, all while yearning for a career as an artist.

“I feel so lucky as a first-time director to have gotten to work with her. She brought such a professionalism and level of craft to the film and that set, in a way that never felt like, ‘Oh, I’m the experienced one,’” he said of Chen and her decadeslong international career. “So much of my dream with that movie was to create a set that felt like summer camp, that felt familial and that felt homegrown, communal. And that really can only happen when everybody is on the same page.”

“And Joan, with her level of experience and who she is, she could have easily come up and been a little bit of a diva. But she wasn’t,” Wang continued. “She was so funny. She was hanging out with all the kids, and hanging out with my grandma, and doing origami with my sister. And her daughter ended up coming to set every day and ended up joining our production too just because she wanted to help out. And so, she brought so much as an actress, but just as a human being and collaborator, it was just so fun to hang out with her. She’s the best.”

Sharing the screen with Chen is a breakout star: none other than Wài Pó, who plays the aforementioned demanding mother-in-law. That wasn’t the plan, as Wang explained, describing his approach to casting “Dìdi (弟弟)” with actors of contrasting levels of experience.

“Originally, the thought was if the 13-year-old adolescent world is going to be raw and unfiltered and in your face, and we’re going to have that world completely be occupied by first-time non-actors who just bring this sort of vibrant energy that’s bursting off of the screens, the family should be rooted and a little stifled in terms of the way we shoot it,” he said.

Therefore, he thought the main characters in the family unit — Chris, his mom, sister and grandmother — should be played by experienced actors. “And so, we did go down the rabbit hole of looking at more seasoned Chinese and Taiwanese actresses. And nothing was quite clicking,” Wang said. “At a certain point, we were like, ‘What if we just cast one of my grandmas?’ We had already shot the short film, and we knew that they both had such amazing presence on camera. They have such deep eyes, and you can just see the emotion.”

Nǎi Nai seemed like the obvious choice, since the character is based on her. However, she “was probably too old because the infrastructure of narrative filmmaking doesn’t allow you to take naps in between 12-hour days,” Wang said. “And so, Wài Pó is the age of the character that we wrote in the film, and so, we were like, ‘Would Wài Pó be good?’”

“I kept saying to her, ‘I’m gonna cast you in the movie, Wài Pó.’ And she was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ But eventually the joke became, like, ‘Well, if you’re that confident in me, then I’ll take a swing,’” he continued. “In a way, the short film was like their audition tape.”

Wài Pó even got a crucial vote of confidence from Chen. During a meeting to offer Chen the part as Chris’ mom, when Wang explained who would be her scene partner, she logically assumed she’d be starring opposite another film veteran.

“She was like, ’Who’s playing the grandmother? And I was like, ‘Oh, we’re chatting with this legendary Taiwanese actress. She has, like, four Golden Horse Awards.’ And Joan was like, ‘I love her. I’ve worked with her before. It’s been years. That would be amazing.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. I’m really excited about her. Or … it might be my grandma.’ And Joan was like, ‘Oh, OK.’” Wang recalled. “And then she saw the short film, and she was like, ‘Your grandma’s amazing. She has such soulful eyes. Cast her.’”

Wang with Wài Pó, Nǎi Nai and his producing partner Sam Davis at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California, on Feb. 12.
Wang with Wài Pó, Nǎi Nai and his producing partner Sam Davis at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California, on Feb. 12.
VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Wang and his producing partner Sam Davis are bringing Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó to the Oscars on March 10. Though when I mention this, Wang corrects me: “They’re bringing us, at this point. They’re really the stars. We’re their plus ones,” he said.

Shining the spotlight on his grandmothers has helped keep Wang grounded as he experiences this major turning point in his career. “I really do feel like Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó are having the best time of their lives, and we’re really giving them this once-in-a-lifetime experience: that, at 96 and 86 years old, they’re going to the Oscars,” he said. “So, as fish out of water as I feel, I feel like my biggest responsibility is just that they’re having great fun.”

As it turns out, their film debut has made the two in demand for more roles, Wang said. “I have gotten casting directors emailing me, and they’re like, ‘We have this role. Will both of your grandmas audition?’ And I’m like, ‘You’re going to make them audition against each other?’”

Like in the case of “Dìdi (弟弟),” Nǎi Nai has chosen to pass on these gigs due to her age, according to Wang. Meanwhile, not only has Wài Pó been game for more acting roles, she’s already handling it like a pro.

“We’re like, ‘Wài Pó, what do you think? You want to shoot this film in New York City, four to five weeks, paid?’ She was like, ‘Well, I’ll read the script. If the story’s not good, I’m not going to do it,’” he said. “I keep saying: ‘They don’t audition. They’re offer only.’”

“Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” is streaming on Disney+ and Hulu. “Dìdi (弟弟)” will be released in theaters this summer by Focus Features.

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