Pixar's Turning Red director on Sandra Oh, Easter eggs, and the rise of the nerdy girl
Pixar is turning the tide with Turning Red (March 11, Disney+), their first feature solo-helmed by a woman, the first to spotlight an Asian family, and the first to earnestly tackle puberty in all its hormonal glory. The 25th entry in the Pixar feature canon centers on 13-year-old overachiever Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang). She's a helicopter parent's dream until, like many teens, she becomes a nightmare, thanks to a five-member boy band called 4*Town — and the unfortunate side effect of poofing into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited. EW spoke with Turning Red's Oscar-winning writer-director, Domee Shi (Bao), about secret sketchbooks, Sandra Oh, and normalizing periods.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Last year saw the release of Mitchells vs. the Machines, Vivo, and Encanto — all animated features with female protagonists who are inspiringly confident in their nerdiness. Mei follows suit. Why do you think this is a popular theme right now?
DOMEE SHI: The era of the nerdy girls is here, and I'm all here for it. This has always been a topic I wanted to tackle in a film. I was Mei. I was that dorky 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl in Toronto who was struggling with trying to be her mom's perfect little daughter, and her raging, hairy, beast-like hormones. Making this film is me trying to unpack what was going on during that time.
I've read that in middle school, you made money drawing your friends with their school crushes. One of the greatest scenes in Turning Red finds Mei furtively sketching her crush. Had you always known that was a specific experience that you wanted to put on screen?
Yes. Just chatting with any female artist, that is such an experience that we've all had, [one] I haven't seen that much or at all portrayed in a movie or TV. And I just remember chit-chatting with a male colleague once, and him not even realizing that girls had this horny, nerdy side of them that they went through when they were at that age. I was like, "Are you kidding me?"
What was the most rewarding scene for you to write or direct?
It has to be that scene with her drawing under the bed. It was there from the very first version of the script. I knew that she had to go into a passionate, lusty drawing spiral that gets interrupted by her mom. It was such a visceral memory for me that it was something that I just had to share. I definitely had my own secret sketchbook that to this day my mom has never found.
Tell me about casting Sandra Oh, who voices Mei's mother, Ming.
I love Sandra Oh. I've loved her for such a long time. I love how every role that she took on broke barriers and stereotypes. She was at the top of our list. We needed an actress who had the range to be all of the things that Ming is in the movie: sharp and intimidating, but also loving at the same time. Ming is such a complex, rounded character, and Sandra was the only actress we could think of who could bring that. It could so easily go into the one-dimensional tiger-mom territory, but the way Sandra portrays her, there's so much warmth and love underneath the craziness, that it just had to be her. Also, she's Canadian, which is awesome.
I can't imagine the pressure of being the first woman to solo-direct a Pixar feature, but there's also the familial pressure Asian children often feel from their parents. Which would you say is greater?
Probably the pressure from being raised by Asian parents — that trumps all. I think I have always had that feeling of wanting to make sure that my parents' sacrifices weren't in vain: "Okay, they invested in me going to animation school. They took a leap of faith; I better not disappoint them." I think that was something that I also had to almost get over as we were making this movie because the process of making an animated film almost forces you to get rid of your perfectionism because you are living with a broken, incomplete, rough film for a really long time.
One of my favorite lines is when Ming asks if Mei's "red peony bloomed." Please tell me that is not what your own mother said to you.
She didn't even say anything to me, which is the issue! And which is why I was like, "I wish I had a film like this back when I was Mei's age." For the first couple days I thought I had diarrhea in my pants, and I had no idea what was going on. My mom never even told me anything or gave me the talk. So, for a while I would be in my bathroom, washing my underwear, every day being like, "Ah! What's happening?" And, finally, I asked her. I was like, "I think I have diarrhea," and then she's like, "Oh no, no, you just got your period." [Laughs] It's so frustrating cause for a lot of women and girls, this is still not talked about that much. And I think that was part of my motivation for having that scene in the movie; so that these conversations can happen. We can start normalizing it. Or girls don't have to think that they crapped themselves. [Laughs]
There's a Chinese takeout box that has been seen in a number of Pixar films, including three of the films you've worked on: Incredibles 2, Inside Out, and Toy Story 4. Was there ever discussion of including this specific Easter egg in Turning Red?
Oh my gosh, this is so fun. I didn't even realize it was there, but I was trying to fill the movie with many personal Easter eggs. I'm really happy we were able to put in that pink bakery box from Bao. There's a shout-out to a bunch of SparkShorts, shout-outs to Toronto and Canada.
Are there any Easter eggs that are Lightyear-related?
Yes, there is one or two shout-outs to Lightyear because we have the tradition of having an Easter egg for the next film in our movies. So Luca had a 4*Town Easter egg and then you can see Lightyear somewhere in the movie.
Well, it's in the first third of the movie.
Back in January when it was announced that Turning Red would bypass theaters, you had said that while you had mixed feelings about it with Omicron surging at the time, you just wanted as many people to watch it as safely as possible. Omicron has thankfully abated, so do you feel differently now about it skipping theaters, especially when Encanto had a theatrical release at a time when COVID wasn't surging?
I think my stance is still that I want the movie to be seen by as many people as possible. When I think about how I developed my relationship with animation, how I fell in love with it was at home, was watching it on VHS, over and over again, pausing the movie, trying to trace over Aladdin's weird, beautiful face and trying to understand: Why do I feel this way? The idea that audiences, that families and kids can have access to the movie immediately, and they can start developing that relationship already with the film and the characters? I think that's everything.
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