Pixar’s first female director breaks ground on many fronts

Bay Area native Domee Shi opens up about ‘Turning Red,’ which premieres this weekend

Pixar’s newest feature, “Turning Red,” which debuts Friday on Disney+ and in local theaters, is a groundbreaker in more ways that one.

“Turning Red” director Domee Shi had been working as a storyboard artist at Pixar when she made her directing debut with the 2018 “Bao,” a strange and wonderful short film about a mother raising a steamed dumpling like a son.

When it came to working on her first feature, Shi discovered that there were major differences between shorts and features. Shi and her producer, Lindsey Collins, both Bay Area residents, recently spoke with The Examiner during a screening of the film at the Castro Theater.

“At first, I thought, it’ll be like ‘Bao,’ but just a little longer,” Shi says. “Wrong! Yes, longer, but the stakes are higher, the crew is bigger, the story is more complicated. It’s more unpredictable. Things are happening on top of each other.”

Not only did “Bao” win an Academy Award for Shi, but it was also the first short Pixar film directed by a woman. Now “Turning Red” becomes the first Pixar feature to be directed solely by a woman; 2012’s “Brave” was co-directed by Brenda Chapman.

It’s also the second Pixar feature with an Asian character in a major role. (The first was “Up” in 2009.)

The movie depicts the Chinese-Canadian culture in which Shi grew up. Shi explains that, before moving to the Bay Area, she was born in China, and lived briefly in Newfoundland (“it was so cold!”) before moving to Toronto, where her mother attended college.

“It was so normal for me,” she says. “I always loved how multicultural it was. I never felt like a token, or an other. I felt ‘othered’ in other ways, like being nerdy and fat, but not being Chinese. I was thankful for that experience, and I wanted to share that.”

Another fresh aspect of “Turning Red” is the depiction of what Shi calls “girl puberty.” In the movie, we meet 8th grader Mei, who is great at school, has three “besties” and loves the pop group 4-Town. She also loves, but is often frustrated by, her mother, who pushes her to perfection.

Then, one day she wakes up, and she’s an eight-foot red panda!

“I don’t think I’ve seen many movies that really explore girl puberty, with all of its messiness and taboo-ness. I just remember this time of my life, being such a rollercoaster of emotion,” she says.

“I wanted to impress my mom and I wanted her love, but I was also fighting with her every single day,” she continues. “And suddenly I woke up one day, and I had completely changed overnight. There was hair everywhere, I was huge and I was hungry all the time.”

Meilin, right, in big red panda form. (Courtesy Disney/Pixar)

Meilin, right, in big red panda form. (Courtesy Disney/Pixar)

The casting of Mei is yet another unusual aspect of “Turning Red.” Since Pixar films are in production for many years, the studio starts with temporary actors, usually people on staff or close by, who can record at a moment’s notice. Then, when things really get moving, the professional actors with the busy schedules can be brought in.

Collins and Shi decided they needed to cast an actual kid in the role, to give it an authenticity. After listening to auditions by many local actors, they found Rosalie Chiang.

“She was so charming,” says producer Collins. “She was 12 at the time, and she had a little bit of a lisp in her voice. She was weirdly confident … she just wasn’t polished. We worked with her for a year, and she started to inform the character. She WAS this girl, growing up, right in front of us.”

When the time came to cast the role for real, Collins and Shi were already on the same page.

“We just kind of looked at each other, ‘Do we even want to look at anyone else?’ One of our best days, ever, was being able to offer her the job. We captured it on camera. We did a fake script read and did it on camera. She started to cry,” says Collins.

“It was the beginning of COVID, so I couldn’t hug her,” Shi remembers sadly.

Another casting coup for the film was 93-year-old James Hong, as wise old Mr. Gao, who tries to help remove Mei’s panda curse. Hong is one of the most prolific English-speaking actors of all time, with well over 600 film and TV credits, including local productions like “Big Trouble in Little China” and episodes of “The Streets of San Francisco” and “Nash Bridges.”

Even though they only met Hong over Zoom, Collins and Shi were “starstruck.” They speak excitedly together: “He was so cool. He’s a total pro. He had two thermoses, for tea and water. As soon as we started rolling … I don’t know where this energy came from. He’s inexhaustible. He was ad-libbing, so funny. He wanted to take a selfie. He was telling us stories about his first gigs. And he sent a thank you afterward. He types all in caps!”

“Killing Eve” star Sandra Oh was also an essential voice, performing the character of Mei’s mother, Ming.

“Ming is a tricky character,” says Collins. “You could see her coming off more arch or stereotypical or not likable. And Sandra came in and was able to ground her in a warmth and humor. She had this ability to switch on a dime from being at ‘11’ to being very loving.”

In addition to Shi, Collins, and Chiang, another Bay Area resident proved essential on “Turning Red.” Playwright Julia Cho came to Northern California to work with Collins on a Pixar project that never saw the light of day.

“Pixar is not an easy place for a writer,” says Collins. “We’re weird. It takes forever. There’s always endless notes. It’s such a collaborative environment. You have to work with the story department. A lot of writers are like, ‘who’s idea was this?’”

“But Julia’s great,” Collins continues. “She’s a playwright, so she’s used to workshopping. She’s not precious.”

Cho magically fit right in to the Pixar environment, and when Collins introduced her to Shi, they clicked.

“Both of us are very close with our moms and we both have Asian backgrounds,” says Shi. “She’s down to work fast and make mistakes, which is my style too. We bonded over writing Mei because we both felt so close to her.”

Cho also helped Shi create Mei’s trio of “besties”… all except Abby.

“Abby is literally just inspired by my real-life friend,” says Shi. “She’s short, cute on the outside, but she’s a demon powerhouse with an incredible scream-o karaoke voice who will defend you in a bar fight.”

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