With moviegoing in flux, Disney made the move to bring Pixar film “Turning Red” directly to its streaming service this month, where subscribers can enjoy the story of Meilin Lee. Mei is a thirteen-year-old Chinese Canadian who explores her changing identity throughout this animated film — which in this case means transforming into a red panda whenever she gets excited or stressed! Set in 2002, the delightful bushy-tailed chaos that ensues was written by director Domee Shi and screenwriter Julia Cho.
As an acclaimed dramatist with credits on stage and television, Cho (“Fringe” and “Halt and Catch Fire”) worked with Shi in the earliest stages of story development for “Turning Red” before a largely female leadership team eventually came together. Cho drew upon her own childhood experiences as a Korean American to create this mother-daughter tale. Throughout the four years she spent working on the film, Cho had a hand in production, casting, and voice recording of Mei (Rosalie Chiang) and Ming (Sandra Oh).
Ahead of the Disney+ premiere on March 11, we spoke to screenwriter Julia Cho about how she brought the bright, pop music-filled world of pre-teens to life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IA: “Turning Red” is one of the first family films that I’ve seen that services the millennial parents in the audience. Set in the early 2000s, I recognized technology that we’re nostalgic for, such as a Tamagotchi and bulky camcorder. What was your favorite that you were keen to include?
JC: I think the 2002 of it all — it really came from [director] Domee [Shi] because she’s a millennial, and she grew up in that time. For me, I was an adult and I feel like I was a fully baked person in 2002.
I really looked forward to seeing the cell phones, [like] the flip tops, and I remember texting as this new technology and the letters being all pixelated. So I like that moment [in the film]. I remember [thinking], ‘Oh yes, I remember my [Motorola] Razr and my Nokia, my old 2002 phones.’
IA: What did delving into the 2000s culture and researching that look like?
JC: It was interesting because 2002 is not that long ago so it’s not an obvious thing to jump to. Of course, the internet was a huge repository. At Pixar, you would find things that boost your inspiration — like a Delia’s catalog and crop tops — and it really brought you back.
Pixar has its own library and there was one really amazing book that was like, “Teenage Bedrooms” and it just happened to be published in the early 2000s. You got to see many different iterations of random, average American teens’ bedrooms. That was just inspiring to see: the Discman, the different technologies they were using, posters of the music [at the time]. Of course, the boy band music but going back [to] the hip hop of the time.
IA: This may be obvious but why a red panda — as far as actual Chinese folklore or fantasy goes, there are a number of choices. Was there a conscious choice based on the visual development?
JC: The red panda element was part of Domee’s initial pitch. There was never a concept without that element. And when I asked Domee about it, what I gleaned [is that] partly it truly is one of her favorite animals. But underpinning it, it is an animal from Asia, [so] there is that cultural nod. But then also, what is special about the red panda … it is this playful, liminal animal. Is it a raccoon, is it a bear, what is it? The fact that it’s not that easy to define or well-known so you know that a lot of people didn’t have a lot of assumptions about it was important.
It’s also such a great metaphor for adolescence because it is kind of awkward. It’s not that agile. If you can find an animal that’s kind of dorky and goofy, that would be it.
On another level, it was also inspired by anime where you often have these stories of children or adults transforming into other things, like pandas or pigs. Definitely a lot of love for [Japanese director and animator Hayao] Miyazaki and anime.
IA: Before working on “Turning Red,” you were working on “Halt and Catch Fire” and the play “Aubergine” in 2017 that carry heavier and adult themes. How did the transition from writing for stage and television translate to a very visual medium like animation?
JC: Pixar expects people to come from different backgrounds and welcome it. What I found to be encouraging was that in theater, there’s a certain process by which you’re rewriting, developing, and workshopping. The process of the way a play gets put up was oddly helpful to writing “Turning Red.” TV’s still a much more visual medium and I would be on set of “Halt and Catch Fire,” responsible for producing my own episode. So I found that by working in other mediums before, I had more tools than I would have had otherwise.
IA: What lessons did you take away from the Pixar production process?
JC: I’ll probably be processing the lessons for quite a while. I got to really know Domee and producer Lindsay Collins so well, and got to see a real range of leadership styles. All these other incredible women came on the team: Rona [Liu as production designer] and Danielle [Feinberg as visual effects supervisor]. I got a masterclass in leadership and emotional intelligence. I found I could learn from quiet leaders and see how effective that could be as well.
IA: The generational mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of “Turning Red.” What real-life inspiration from your family relationships made it into “Turning Red”? And what do they think of “Turning Red”?
JC: My mom’s been a huge support and encouraging of my writing. In terms of drawing from my own relationship, there was so much conversation. Certainly, I had such a strong mom.
Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) is obviously an extreme [version] and goes far beyond our actual moms. But that fierce love — Domee and I both had experienced that and that’s what we wanted to portray. So there were times where the mom [character] had high expectations and that was true for us too.
And although he’s not a huge part of the movie, the dad character, Jin (voiced by Orion Lee), was also important for Domee and I to get right. My own dad passed away so I felt doubly much that this dad character had to be great and feel real and true.
IA: There’s a little surprise at the end of the ending credits for people who stick around and I was wondering if there is a story for how that came about or if inspiration just struck?
JC: I know there’s one specific person, an animator on the technical side in another department. And I’m so sorry I don’t remember his name. But when it appeared, I was like “He’s a genius!” I hope people stick around to see that and I feel like he should get credit. But that’s also the collaborative nature of Pixar when people hear the best idea.
IA: Lastly, the red panda of “Turning Red” works as a metaphor for many things, including puberty. Are there any particular interpretations that you most hope audiences will come away with?
JC: To fill an entire movie, the metaphor has to deepen and evolve. For me, as the movie goes on, the metaphor is less about literal puberty and more about that scary transition we make when we go from being a kid who is in a world that’s very safe and familiar, to when the roles change, when you change. So it’s about chaos and change for me. There’s a real ferocity to the red panda. To me, it’s about owning all the different parts of yourself, including the difficult parts as well.
Featuring Rosalie Chiang as the voice of Mei Lee, and Sandra Oh as the voice of Ming, “Turning Red” debuts exclusively on Disney+ on March 11, 2022. Award-winning playwright and co-writer of Pixar’s “Turning Red,” Julia Cho was born and raised in the arid suburbs of Southern California and Arizona. he’s currently under commission for South Coast Repertory to write a new play and is a Co-Executive Producer for the Amazon series, “Paper Girls.” In other words, she’s following a movie about four thirteen-year-old girls with a series about four twelve-year-old girls. A project about four eleven-year-old girls is forthcoming.
Last modified: March 25, 2022