‘Turning Red’ Writer-Director Domee Shi On Dipping Into The Well Of Her Own Childhood For Her Oscar-Nominated Animated Feature

After bringing home an Oscar in 2019 for her animated short Bao, Domee Shi returned to her well of childhood experiences for Turning Red. Due to a family blessing/curse, 13-year-old Chinese Canadian Meilin (Rosalie Chang) transforms into a red panda whenever she experiences strong emotions, which is less than ideal for a teenager. Using Mei as a surrogate character, Shi replicates her childhood experience of struggling to please her mother as she entered adolescence. The film’s portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship sparked dialogues between teens and parents going through the same experience and gave Shi a chance to become closer with her own mother.

DEADLINE: When we spoke on nomination day, you mentioned what this nomination meant to the Asian community. Can you expand on that?

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DOMEE SHI: This film is one of the first, if not the first film, at least from Pixar, that really shines a light on and highlights the Chinese Canadian community. The protagonist is this Chinese girl struggling with this very specific yet universal issue of her mom being super protective. It’s so important and amazing to see that this film, that is so specific and has such a specific protagonist in such a specific setting, has been embraced globally. Just seeing the commercial and critical success of this movie, hopefully, shows other studios that universal stories can be told by people of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.

I also feel like it’s just amazing seeing the reaction to our film from the Asian community as well. I have a lot of fans write me letters, like an Asian teen girl who’s dealing with the exact same thing with their mom and trying to be perfect, and this movie really helped them accept that they get Bs and Cs, and how the relationship with their mom will be the same. It’s heartbreaking, but amazing to hear that our film is a source of healing and joy for the community.

Turning Red
The characters of Turning Red, from left, Abby, Miriam, Priya and Meilin.

DEADLINE: Some people think if a film is about a specific community, it’s only relevant to that community, but this film has many universal themes.

SHI: Yeah, and there’s been so many culturally specific movies in the past that have resonated with a wider audience. It’s just that the cast members happen to be of Caucasian ethnicity. I grew up watching films and TV shows with characters that didn’t look like me, but I could still identify with them and care about them because of the storytelling. I saw myself in what they wanted and what their struggles were and how they overcame obstacles, and I think that’s why we go to movies.

DEADLINE: Has this film had the same impact on your own family?

SHI: I like to think that instead of going to therapy, I made this movie. I definitely think it brought me closer with my parents, especially my mom. I remember when she first watched the movie at the Toronto premiere of Turning Red, and I invited both my parents. My dad wears his heart more on his sleeve, so, he’s a very reactive, emotional guy, and he cried, and he was like, “Oh my gosh, I loved it. It was so beautiful. I’m so proud of you.” And my mom was a little bit more held back, a little bit more reserved, and she was like, “Yeah, yeah, it was amazing. It was great.” But she kind of kept it at that.

I wondered what she really thought, and then a day later, she sent me this huge block of text detailing every single thing she loved about the movie, and I was so surprised that she paid so much attention to certain details. It just showed that she really did absorb it all, and it just took her a minute to process her feelings, and then that whole block of text gushing about the movie ended with, “I hope I was a good mother,” and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m crying,” and she’s like, “Me too.” So, it was a delayed kind of reaction, and it was funny because it was all through text, but it just felt like 33 years led up to this moment.

DEADLINE: Speaking of relatable themes, this film really showcases that teenage craziness where every situation is life and death, even just going to a 4*Town concert.

SHI: The idea for the concert came pretty early on, though it wasn’t in the very first version of the story. It was an even nerdier and weirder goal, which was that Mei wanted to go to this artsy boarding school in California, and the only way to do that, in her mind, was to direct, write and produce a musical about the origin of her favorite boy band, 4*Town. She was working towards putting on this musical, and then we thought about it, and we felt it was a little complicated because it’s too many steps. It would be simpler and more teenager-y if her goal was just to get to a boy band concert.

That came in the second draft of the movie, and we just leaned into who our main character was. We loved the specificity of that drive, that goal to get to a boy band concert, and I think all of us on the crew leaned into our 13-year-old selves, and we remembered that everything was life and death. How do we dramatize this goal to make the audience feel that way too? It was a really fun challenge, and it just felt so unique to our movie. And then it was really exciting for me personally, too, because I never got to go to that boy band concert as a kid because my parents didn’t let me go, so it was a little bit of wish fulfillment on my part as well.

DEADLINE: Did you try to make a musical about their origins to show your parents that you should go?

SHI: No, I should have. I should have made a PowerPoint. I should have done all of that.

Turning Red
Meilin, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, tries to avoid her mother in Turning Red.

DEADLINE: We’ve talked about you being the inspiration for Mei. What were the inspirations for her friend group?

SHI: They were all inspired by friends that I’ve had growing up. Miriam is that goofy, rebellious friend who pushes you out of your comfort zone. I definitely had a friend like that. My mom didn’t 100 percent approve of it because she’d be like, “What did your friend get on her report card?” She’d be all suspicious and ask if you should be hanging out with someone who’s maybe bringing down your grades to a B. Abby was directly inspired by my friend, who is the voice actress for Abby, Hyein Park. She and I went to animation school together, and we were roommates at one point, and it’s just who she is. She’s just this very passionate, loud, fiery being in a tiny package, and I just loved that about her, that she is your ride-or-die, and she will get angry for you in scenarios and be your biggest defender.

I also thought it was important to show Mei had other Asian friends, too, so it wasn’t just her, and that’s why we also added Priya as well because there’s a large South Asian population in Toronto, and I grew up around a lot of South Asian kids. Also, she represented kids with a vampire phase or a gothy, witchy phase in high school or middle school. I was really into Buffy for a while and Interview With the Vampire, so I definitely had that phase. I thought it’d be really fun to give Priya those characteristics, and it lifted the burden off of Mei, too, so we could push her personality to make her a perfectionist, a mama’s girl, without the danger of saying that this is how all Asian girls are. That was the intention behind the friend group, because we wanted them to feel like these different representations of being a girl, but we also wanted to show them being super supportive of Mei. I feel like I don’t see that specific girl friendship in movies or TV shows a lot. So it was a really cool opportunity to be able to share that, to get a window into what it’s like to be a teen girl in those groups and how they act and behave.

DEADLINE: Then you also had Tyler, the bully, who changes throughout the film.

SHI: We redeem him or at least show another side of him. Tyler’s character evolved a lot through the production of the movie. In the first draft, the one where Mei wants to put on a 4*Town musical, he was another character completely. He was her cousin, and his name was Leo. He also turned into a red panda as well, and we were exploring this idea that he would represent male puberty, and the ups and downs and struggles of that. But then we felt like that was competing with and overshadowing Mei’s story. It was moving away from the initial idea of this story, which was this girl going through magical puberty, and her relationship with her mom was the most integral part of the movie. So, we stripped down his character and simplified him a lot more. We turned him into the class bully, and then I think in talking with a lot of my male colleagues and friends, a lot of them confessed that they were also huge Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC fans growing up, but they never admitted it because they were just afraid of being judged. And I was like, no, that’s awesome. Boys should be proud, and they should be proud of the music and the musicians that they like. So, we gave that story to Tyler just as a shout-out to all the boys out there who secretly love boy bands too. It’s OK, it shouldn’t be a secret. Be out and proud about it.

It also shows that many of our fears of being rejected and unaccepted are just in our heads, and you will never regret being your authentic self because it brings people closer to you. Mei became closer with her friends, and Tyler found a new friend group. So hopefully, it encourages that in audiences when they watch the movie too.

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DEADLINE: Did you have the idea of transforming into the red panda from the beginning?

SHI: Yeah, because I was really inspired by a lot of things. I really wanted to do a coming-of-age story, and I felt like there were a lot of coming-of-age stories in the past about boys transforming, like Teen Wolf for example, or there was this Disney TV movie called The Thirteenth Year where this boy transforms into a mermaid. There’s a whole bunch of these fun, cheesy coming-of-age TV movies that came out when I was that age about these different teens. There was one called Luck of the Irish, where this boy finds out he’s a leprechaun, and I thought it would be fun to do my own take on that. And the idea of a red panda just popped into my head because they’re just so cute and unusual looking, and they’re red and hairy, and I hadn’t seen a movie really explore or showcase the cuteness of a red panda. So, I thought that would be the perfect metaphor for this girl going through puberty. That was my initial intention with the idea.

I also watched a lot of anime growing up as well, where there was a lot of magical transformation in it. Ranma ½ was a big inspiration for me, which is this high school romcom anime about this boy who fell into a cursed pond, and every time water is poured on him, he turns into a girl, and then he turns back into a boy when he gets the water off of him, but then he also has a dad who if water is poured on him, he turns into a panda, and there’s just a lot of fun, magical transformation in that anime as well. There was another anime called Fruits Basket that I really loved that was also about cute boys and girls transforming back and forth from animal to human. So, I was definitely inspired by that.

DEADLINE: What’s your biggest highlight of working on the film?

SHI: Man, so much. Overall, I’m just so proud that we were able to make such an awesome movie with a badass female-led crew, and I have to pinch myself every day because that was unusual. That was an anomaly that our writer, producer, production designer, associate producer, and VFX supervisor were all women, and we all made this awesome movie that celebrates being a woman and being a girl. That’s what I’m really the most proud of. And we had fun doing it, too. When you watch the movie, it feels fun because it was a lot of fun to make, and we all made sure that when we were making it, that we never lost that sense of fun.

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