Cover Director Domee Shi shares the creative vision behind her coming-of-age debut feature, Turning Red (Photo: Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.)

In an exclusive interview with Tatler, award-winning director Domee Shi gets candid about her own love for boy bands and the positive friendships that made it to her directorial feature debut

Turning Red, Pixar’s newest animated movie is one of the highly-anticipated movies of the year and for good reason. It’s breaking a lot of ground, as being the animation studio’s first film to have a predominantly Asian cast, the first to be solely directed by a woman, Domee Shi, and the first to have an all-woman leadership team.

The coming-of-age story follows Meilin “Mei” Lee, a Chinese Canadian on the verge of adolescence. Mei struggles with her duties as a daughter, her growing love for a boy band, her changing emotions and all the other chaos (and fun) that comes with becoming a teenager. On top of that, she suddenly starts transforming into a giant red panda whenever she gets too emotional. 

Ahead of the movie’s release on March 11, Tatler caught up with the film's award-winning director to talk about her vision for the movie, the challenges of doing her first full-length movie and what messages she’d give to her younger self.

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Boy bands are a huge part of Turning Red and Mei’s character. What did you take into account when you decided to put a boy band in the movie and what do they represent to Mei and her story?

This movie is about an adolescent girl going through puberty so it felt like we had to include boy bands because they're a staple in almost every woman’s teenage life. For me, I feel like, [the boy band] 4Town represents this new world for Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chang). It’s something that’s pulling her away from her mum (voiced by Sandra Oh) and her home. But it’s also opening her up to the rest of the world, to new friendships, ideas and emotions. And I think that’s the case for a lot of people when they get their first musical obsessions.

For me, that musical obsession is how she met her friends and I’d imagine that they all became friends in the first place because of 4Town. It was just important for us to depict this—boy bands and this musical phenomenon with respect. We’re honouring it and committing to it because it can be the most important thing in a girl’s life, so we really wanted the audience to feel that way when they see the movie.

As you keep watching it, you’ll see that Mei’s goal is to get tickets for 4Town’s concert. We treated that goal very seriously, like it’s life or death for her. I think that boy bands and loving something so deeply is such a real feeling for girls and kids that age. The smallest thing can feel like the entire world to someone and for Mei, it’s for 4Town.

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You’re also portraying a positive female friendship here. How important was that for you to include?

For me, it was really important to create a positive female squad. This was directly drawn from my own experience growing up in Toronto and the diversity I saw in my friend group. Growing up, I felt lucky that I was an only child because in every school or every new place I went to, I was able to gather a small, nerdy, mighty group of girl friends and we became each other’s support systems. We bonded over anime, manga and boys, so the team and I really wanted that to be included in the movie.

Can you tell us more about the process of creating and designing Mei’s girl squad?

When it came down to the designs of each of the girls and writing them, we felt like it was important for each girl to feel distinctive, even though they were all friends. They were all into 4Town but like all girls, they’re also different. Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse) is probably Mei’s closest friend. She’s kind of boyish and she represents that friend that I’m sure we’ve all had, pushing us a little bit out of our comfort zones which our parents probably didn’t 100 per cent approve of. She’s also really goofy and funny.

Then there’s Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Mei’s very deadpan friend who is kind of gothy and really into vampires. I feel like a lot of us when had that phase [of liking vampires]. I was really into Buffy and Interview with the Vampire in high school.

We also have Abby (voiced by Hyein Park), Mei’s friend who’s short and cute on the outside but she’s really fiery and tough and will defend Mei’s honour in any situation. She was directly inspired by voice actress, Hyein Park who’s also a really a long time friend of mine from college. I just loved how Hyein and Abby are so alike. Both of them are the kind of friends that will get angry with you in various situations. They also have these big, powerful voices coming from such small figures which I thought was really fun, and I wanted to depict it on screen.

In terms of the animation style, it was important for us to make sure that each girl had very distinctive characteristics when they are acting and behaving. For example, Miriam has braces and it was always important for us to show them when she’s talking. She also has this goofy face all the time.

With Priya, her eyes were always half lifted and she always had a deadpan expression and a flat way of talking. Even if she was excited, we had to make sure that her expressions were still flat. And then for Abby, even when she’s happy we had to make sure her eyebrows are always furrowed. She always has angry-looking eyebrows––regardless of her emotions.

Read also: Why We Need to Appreciate the Beauty of Friendship

This is your first full-length feature, what’s the most challenging part of making a movie?

Can I say everything? (laughs) Yes, making a feature movie is just very challenging in and of itself. I assumed because I had made a short film before that I had some taste of what was going to be like to make a feature, but no. It’s a marathon. I think the hardest part is just working on the same story for four years, which is a really long time. You get to a point where you feel like you’ve been hearing the same joke for three or four years and you start thinking to yourself “Is this still funny? Are people like this? Like, was this ever funny?”

Then, there’s the pandemic and how we had to basically make most of the movie from home. That was really challenging because filmmaking is so collaborative and involves communicating with people. Then, all of a sudden, we’re all on our laptops, in guest rooms or on kitchen table surfaces and we’re all trying to collaborate. I had to trust my team they know what I’m talking about. That was really challenging, especially the communication aspect.

“I just think that boy bands and loving something so deeply is such a real feeling for girls and kids that age.”
Domee Shi

My background is drawing and I started at Pixar as a story artist. I’ve always loved drawing, not talking, because I always wanted my drawings to speak for themselves. That was my way of communicating with people and then all of a sudden, I’ve been thrust into this position of a director, which means you’re just communicating. You’re talking to hundreds of people every single day and I can’t use my superpower—which is drawing—as much because I have to speak.

At first, that was a nightmare but I got used to it. It was an adjustment that I had to overcome since it’s part of making a feature film. Now, I have a better appreciation for any movie that I watch, even if it’s not good. I’m thinking “Oh my gosh. Hundreds and hundreds of little miracles had to happen for this to be done so I could watch it right now” so I just have so much respect for people in the industry.

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But I’m sure all the hard work was worth it when you saw the final product.

Oh yes, definitely. It was more than worth it. When we had our wrap party last year, we invited the whole studio with their plus one so there were about 2,000 people in the outdoor stadium. We projected the movie on a 70-foot screen and hearing everybody reacting at the same time, laughing and gasping made everything worth it. It was amazing.

You made this movie as an adult and during the process, had to look back on your memories of venturing into adolescence. What would you like to say to your younger self today?

I would tell my younger self not to worry so much about everything because it’s going to be okay. All of the emotions that she might be feeling right now—all of the embarrassment and awkwardness—all of that is going to eventually go away. She’ll be okay and she knows it. Everyone goes through adolescence. It’s messy. But we all survive and we become stronger as a result. So just don’t worry so much.

See also: Chloé Zhao, Director of ‘Nomadland’, Spills Her Secrets To Success

Turning Red premieres on March 11, exclusively on Disney+


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