After finishing her short film Bao, for which she’d eventually win an Oscar, Domee Shi started pitching a feature-length film to Pixar and, she says, it was her weirdest pitch that caught their attention, which she was pitching as, “It’s a girl going through magical puberty and turns into a giant red panda.” And, honestly, that’s a pretty great pitch for what would eventually become Turning Red. And she’s right, it’s a pretty weird movie.
Mei has her friends in school, but is mostly treated as a dork by her “cool” classmates, and having a very overprotective mother isn’t helping her social life much. Set in 2003, Mei’s dream is to see the hot new boy band, but her mother won’t let her go. Then, yes, one day she turns into a giant red panda. Which, yes, is a metaphor, but the movie does something pretty interesting by also directly addressing menstruation, which stands out because movies aimed at younger people frankly don’t really do that and it’s a great thing this movie does discuss this – which as Shi confirms ahead, was by design because we don’t really see this discussed much in movies aimed at younger people.
Two of my questions were going to be why this is set in the early 2000s and why it’s set in Toronto. And then I read your Wikipedia page and I figured it out.
I’m guessing some Mei’s friends in this movie are based on real people?
Oh, definitely. The spark or the inspiration behind the movie, it definitely came from a personal place and then kind of grew into its own thing. But yeah, I was very much Meilin in the early 2000s, in Toronto. My mom is in Ming, but also a lot of the strong women who raised me – like my grandmas, my aunties. Then, also, in Mei’s friends too, each of them I think, represents a specific friend that I’ve had that I think a lot of girls and kids have growing up. Like Miriam being the rebellious friend, you’ve got the gothy deadpan friend, the cute and angry friend in Abby. I mean, all of this is trying to ground this movie in a way that audiences could relate to while we were showing crazy, red panda magic.
Are you still in touch with these people? Are you expecting some phone calls after this comes out?
Well, my mom hasn’t seen it yet.
There’s one call.
I know. I’m inviting her to the Toronto premiere. And my dad. And I think I’m going to be watching her more than the movie itself. Just to be like, “Oh, you see? This is how I felt back then.” And she’ll be like, “Oh, you’re exaggerating!” No, I’m excited for her to see it.
This sounds like this is going to be like therapy. Is that what’s going to happen?
Oh, I mean, making the movie was kind of like therapy. I did it instead of going to therapy. And I think, in making it, I think my perspective changed a lot. Like when I first started the movie, I think I was more on Mei’s side. I was on the side of the kid.
Who felt like their parent was a prison warden. I think I grew to understand my mom and what she was going through and why she was being so kooky and overprotective and obsessive.
So, how does this work? You directed the short film, Bao. When you made that did you know it would play before Incredibles 2? Which basically everyone saw.
No, no. I thought it was going to be in front of Coco. which I thought would have been really cool. But, yeah, I had no idea that it was going to be attached to Incredibles 2. And it was going to be seen by so many more people than I thought.
So then it becomes, “Hey, I want to make a full movie now.” Is that how the conversation goes?
I mean, it was back in 2017. I just finished Bao. I don’t think Incredibles 2 came out yet, but I think the studio was excited about my voice and the stories I wanted to tell. So, they offered me the chance to pitch three ideas for a feature film. And I’ve always loved coming of age stories and I’ve always wanted to make a coming of age story. So all three of my ideas were that, but Turning Red was the most personal. And the weirdest, probably. I was pitching like, “It’s a girl going through magical puberty and turns into a giant red panda.” And they identified with that, somehow.
That is a fantastic pitch. How could anyone ignore that?
But they haven’t seen that before. Magical puberty brought to life in a Pixar film.
Speaking of the puberty part, at first I see the red panda and I’m thinking, “Well, that’s a metaphor.” But then the mom starts asking Mei directly about having her period. I’d never really seen that before in a movie aimed at kids and I thought that was great.
I mean, it’s true. You don’t see that very often in movies and TV shows. And I think that’s precisely why we wanted to put it in the movie. I mean, this movie is actually is for 13-year-old Domee that was in a bathroom, horrified, thinking that she had crapped her pants. And too afraid to tell her mom or ask anybody about what was going on. It’s so weird because it happens to every woman, every girl, but you just don’t hear about it or talk about it and it’s awkward and crazy, but we all go through it. But in that moment you feel so alone. So, it’s just my attempt to just help these girls and women feel seen in that way. And guys go through like even bigger changes during puberty. I feel like boys just shoot up and then deal with other liquids as well.
So bringing that up directly in the film, is that to ensure that people know the movie is a metaphor? As opposed to having people just wondering the whole time is this what it’s about?
It’s funny. I think it just came from wanting to tell an authentic story of a girl going through puberty and that being the type of story that came up over and over again. When we were talking to a lot of women on the crew, a lot of the female leadership, we were all sharing battle stories from the grounds of puberty. And there was always this kind of story where it happened and there was confusion and embarrassment. And it just felt like if we wanted to talk about, or if we wanted to tell a story about a girl going through puberty, we had to talk about her getting her period. We had to talk about her having weird fantasies about mermen. Like all of that, it’s just so essential in telling this story about a tween girl.
And you mentioned Toronto, which I love. Did you have to fight to set it there?
I feel like it’s always in movies but disguised as New York.
And I think it added to the specificity and the charm of the original pitch, that it was about a Chinese-Canadian girl. It just added a uniqueness to it. And I think Americans are very delighted by and amused by Canadians and things. And I think it was very exciting for Pixar to be like, Oh, we can put more Canadian Easter eggs and explore Canadian culture on the big screen. Yeah, and I just love how diverse Toronto is. And that was really an exciting thing to kind of tackle and explore in this movie. Just seeing how much diversity we can put in the movie. Just to make it feel like the neighborhoods and the school that I grew up in and the friends that I had growing up. So, it was just a really cool opportunity.
Obviously, a boy band plays a big part in this story. Were you NSYNC or Backstreet Boys? Or someone else?
I was NSYNC, but that’s where the story stops being autobiographical because I wasn’t super, super into boy bands.
I never got to go to the concerts. So, I’d always have this image in my head of what concerts could be. And I had classmates coming back from concerts with their Backstreet Boys or their NSYNC swag that they bought at the merch store. And I was like, wow, last time I saw them, they were just girls, but now they’re like women. And something must have happened at the concert.
Like they have this glow about them. This movie is kind of just me fulfilling that tween fantasy.
‘Turning Red’ will premiere via Disney+ on March 11th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.