With “Turning Red,” Domee Shi Embraces Weirdness—Even Her Own

With "Turning Red," Domee Shi Embraces Weirdness—Even Her Own

When Domee Shi finished the 2018 short film Bao, she realized she still had more to say about overprotective mothers and their children.

So when the filmmaker, who won the short-film Oscar for Bao in 2019, was asked by Pixar to pitch a feature-length movie, she brought them three ideas that all focused on a teenage girl coming of age. The chosen story Turning Red, was the closest to her own upbringing, centered on a Chinese Canadian girl whose deep love for her friends and a boy band threatens her relationship with her mother.

Turning Red was the most autobiographical out of the three ideas and it was also a place where I was able to put all of the leftover ideas and thoughts and emotions I had while making Bao about my mom,” Shi tells Little Gold Men.

The film’s protagonist, Mei, finds her previously close relationship with her mother strained when she begins uncontrollably turning into a giant red panda, a metaphor for the hormonal changes of adolescence.

“Pixar somehow was like, ‘yes, that, that seems like a universal story,’ because I think in that specificity, they did see that universal experience of any kid waking up one day and just not recognizing themselves in the mirror and dealing with and processing all of their emotions at that age in life,” says Shi.

Listen to this week’s episode of Little Gold Men below, and read on for an edited version of our conversation, in which Shi explains how they designed those adorable red pandas, working with “Asian Canadian royalty” Sandra Oh and why Turning Red is all about celebrating “girl nerdiness.”

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Vanity Fair: What specific parts of your own story did you pull for Turning Red?

Domee Shee: I think it’s everything. For the story specifically, I really wanted to just explore that really unique and specific struggle of an immigrant kid and how they deal with honoring their parents and their family and all the sacrifices that other parents made for them versus embracing their new emerging self. In the beginning when we were working on the story, I didn’t want it to be this very black and white typical story of this oppressed kid with militant parents who just wants to break free and be herself. Because for me and in the movie, she genuinely loves her family. She loves her mom. They’re like besties in the beginning. So it’s very hard for her to be growing up and realizing that she’s growing into a different person than her mom. And that was the specific thing I wanted to explore because that’s what I struggled with when I was Mei’s age, and even now too.

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