TURNING RED Director Domee Shi Talks Easter Eggs, Fan Theories, Epic Action Scenes, And More (Exclusive)

Talking to us to celebrate Turning Red's Digital release, director Domee Shi talks about pushing the boundaries of technology to bring the movie's red panda to life, Easter Eggs, alternate endings, and more!

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Turning Red - which has a Fresh 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes - tells the story of Mei Lee, a confident, dorky thirteen-year-old torn between staying her mother's dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. And as if changes to her interests, relationships, and body weren't enough, whenever she gets too excited (which for a teenager is practically always), she "poofs" into a giant red panda! 

Last week, we had the chance to sit down with Turning Red director Domee Shi to talk about taking the helm of Pixar's latest animated blockbuster. In this interview, the filmmaker delves into the film's Easter Eggs, references to Toronto, and the importance of getting hands-on with real red pandas.

Domee also addresses the popular theory that Abby is, in fact, Monsters Inc.'s Boo, and reveals a number of alternate endings before they decided to transform Mei's mom into a red panda Kaiju. On that point, the director explains the importance of making Turning Red just as much Ming's story as it is Mei's, and goes into detail about how they brought the movie's main red panda to life here.

Oh, and for those of you who are Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fans, we also get some insights from Domee about how Edgar Wright's work influenced her approach to telling this story. The movie is a total riot, and a must-see, and you can watch our interview with the director in the player below.

Turning Red is available on Digital April 26 and Blu-ray May 3.

I'm quite fortunate that, where I live, we have red pandas quite close to us so I've been able to see them in a safari park relatively up close. I'm curious with COVID and everything else that was going on in the world the past few years, were you able to get up close and personal with them, and if so, how much did that help you in making the film?

Yeah, we were able to do a couple of field trips to the San Francisco Zoo to see some real red pandas. This was right before COVID hit. It was really informative and also really fun just to see and observe them up close. We fed them apple slices through the cage, and we tried to incorporate some of their mannerisms into Mei in the movie. You can see when Mei gets really shocked as a Panda, she raises her paws up, which is totally something that real red pandas do. We also tried to kind of subtly incorporate how red pandas are arboreal and they like to be in high places. In the movie, when she's running around Toronto, you see her progressively starting on the ground, but then she climbs up on the buildings and she's jumping along the rooftops which is a nod to that Panda fact.

When it came to the triggers that would make Mei transform, what was your approach to deciding how and when that should happen and how much red panda we would see? Did you have a set of rules in place or was it just a case of what worked best for the story?

It took a while to hone in on what the rules of the red panda were. We knew from the beginning that it was going to be triggered anytime she got really worked up and emotional, but also happy or sad. From the beginning, we thought it could be the Incredible Hulk but cuter. Instead of just anger, it's triggered by every strong emotion, because that just felt true to a tween going through puberty. It's not just anger; everything just feels like so much all the time when you're that age. Then we developed this idea that, ‘Oh, what if we treat it treat the transformation like a pressure cooker and a lid and when Mei is trying to hold her human form, that pressure is building, but then sometimes steam seeps out?’ That's when like an ear would pop out or a tail but then she'd immediately try to clamp that lid back on the pot and contain it. That was the fun of seeing her like trying to contain it, but seeing different body parts poofing in and out. It did end up just being what worked in the scene and we were playing a little fast and loose with the rules by the end as you saw!

I know you've talked in the past about Sailor Moon being an influence for a lot of the visuals in the film, but I got a real Scott Pilgrim vibe as well. I’m a big fan of those comics and the movie, so I'm wondering how much of that did influence you and whether it was more the comics, more the movie, or maybe a combination of both?

Definitely the movie. I'm a huge fan of Edgar Wright. We were really inspired by Scott Pilgrim, but also just his movies, in general. Their quick, fast-paced editing style, the way he cuts to music. There's a lot of energy and fun and visual comedy in his movies that we were really inspired by. That movie, Scott Pilgrim, was really cool because we watched it just to see how he was able to incorporate comic books, video games, and anime elements into a live-action setting. We tried to look at that just to see how we could do that with our movie as well, just to try to capture that same energy. If you watch that whole Act 3 battle in the stadium where Mei is fighting with her mom, a lot of that feels very Scott Pilgrim and anime.

I've only been lucky enough to go to Toronto once, but I loved it, and I really enjoyed the references here acting from Carlton the Bear to seeing Timbits on the kitchen table, but were there any other Easter Eggs that you wanted to include but maybe couldn't because of licensing issues?

I’m trying to think if there were any ones we couldn’t include. I mean, I think pretty much any and every reference that we wanted to include about Canada, we did because Canadians are always so excited [Laughs] anytime they're like referenced in American movies. They just jump at the opportunity or are just like, ‘Yes, please use us! Use our logo,” so we got everything. I was really excited to give a shout out to Daisy Mart which is actually a chain of convenience stores in Toronto and I’m really happy that they let us use their logo and everything. That's a super-specific and obscure Toronto reference. I was happily surprised, we were able to use the SkyDome because it’s not even called the SkyDome anymore. Every person's been really excited and willing to have us use their stuff.

I was born in 1990, so I also grew up in the early 2000s. Was there anything from your own childhood that was a real priority to include here? I personally loved seeing Tamagotchis in the film, but was there anything else that was specific to you?

It was really exciting to have Mei ride the streetcar down the street in Toronto, because that was a streetcar that I used a lot. It was exciting for me and I totally nerded out researching the specific model that they use from 2002, and just made sure it was that. Her friends and classmates. I just love how we were able to capture the diversity of Toronto. That is something that you notice when you visit and it was something that stuck out in my memories of growing up there. I never felt like I was the only Asian person or the only Chinese person. It was just really cool to be surrounded by different cultures and accents and languages at any given moment in the city. The Daisy Mart. I'm so glad we could get that in there as that's very Toronto specific. I think that's it. 


Talking of Mei’s friendship group, I'm not sure if you're aware, but there's a very popular theory going around on TikTok at the moment that Abby may, in fact, be Boo from Monsters Inc. So, have you got anything to say about that?

[Laughs] Oh yeah, I saw that. I saw that TikTok. I don't want to spoil people's conspiracy theory, rabbit hole investigations, because that's always super fun, but Abby is not an older Boo, unfortunately. You know, they could be related. I can see the similarity with the hair. I also like the idea that people are embracing that Boo is is Korean. That's cool. I support that! [Laughs]

The incredible amount of detail, like the Easter eggs, always blow my mind watching these films, but when Mei transforms into the red panda, you do literally see every single hair on her. What is it like when you've got a character that detailed, and throughout the course of production, did you see the technology almost having to improve in order to get the effect that you wanted or was it in place beforehand?

Oh, I definitely owe so much to our technical departments and our sim team for getting Mei as hairy and as furry and as appealing as she is. One thing that was really cool that we tried out and developed in this movie that we didn't really have as much before was hair emoting. You know, anytime when she is a red panda and you see her get really angry, you see her hair stand up almost like a cat-like when it's got its guard up. That was something kind of new that came from you inspired by anime, being inspired by more traditional cartoony movies and references. It’s just about trying to stylize all of the elements on screen to make the audience feel what Mei is feeling, so that was really cool and that required a lot of finessing and trial and error. I'd see a pass of a shot where Mei would get really angry as a panda but it, but the hair would be too crazy and I’d be like, ‘No, let's just tap it down a little bit with just a little bit of movement,’ and then we’d have to adjust the timing of it. That was fun and new. 

This is such a mother-daughter story, but what made you decide that exploring Ming’s own relationship with her mother as well and that her red panda would really be just as important as Mei’s story by the time we get to the end of the film?

It just came from this want and this curiosity that I had about what was going on in my relationship with my mom at the time when I was growing up. It was very similar to Mei and her mom; me and my mom were very, very close at one point, but then I got older, puberty hit…hormones, emotions, all that stuff hit and then we started to fight a lot. We're also from two different generations of immigrants. I grew up mostly in the West and my mom grew up mostly in China, and as a kid, you really see everything more in black and white, where your parents are these evil taskmaster prison wardens who are very unfair for no reason at all, and you just want to be free and you just want to do this; they're just in your way. That's not the case in real life.

In real life, there's always a reason for why people and parents are the way they are, but especially in this case, why Mei’s mom was the way that she is and we realized that in order to for Mei to truly come of age and to truly grow up is to really see her mom not as that black and white thing, not as a villain, not as a perfect Goddess who can do no wrong that she could never live up to, but as a human. A flawed human who was once like her, a scared confused teen girl who just wanted to make her mom happy. We realized that was that last missing piece in Mei coming of age and growing up. It's not just like emancipation from your parents or from your mother, it's understanding and clicking into that aspect. I think that when people truly mature is when they're not just like tunnel vision focused on one thing and understanding that things are not just good and bad, but that things are grey. 

Now we can talk a little bit more about the film's ending, how soon was it you decided to have Mei’s mom transform into that Kaiju-sized red panda? Was that something that evolved as the film went along or did you have the idea of a big final battle the whole time?

That has evolved. I think in the very, very first draft of the movie…it was always going to be a Kaiju battle, but Mei was fighting a completely different character. She was fighting her cousin, and it was a completely different type of movie. I think around screening two, we decided on the story about her and her mom, so the Act 3 battle had to be between her and her mom. That was when we introduced the mom Kaiju battle, but it's evolved a lot. There were versions where Mei got just as big as Ming, and they were these two giant mother, daughter monsters rampaging through Toronto. There was a version where they completely ran all around Toronto. We saw other landmarks that they destroyed, but then I think the scope got too big and the metaphor got a little bit last because at that point [Laughs] it just was just destruction and we're like, ‘Wait, isn’t this supposed to be about a mother and daughter and not a Kaiju movie?’ Eventually, we decided to hone it into just the concert and really just focus it on that. We reminded ourselves that this is a very enhanced, exaggerated version of a mom/teen daughter fight in the living room, but blown up to a massive scale.

Well, fingers crossed maybe you get to go down that route in the sequel. Domee, I loved this film and it's been such a pleasure to speak to you. Bao is my favorite Disney short, so it’s been great to see you go on and so a feature like this. I cannot wait to see what comes next for you. 

Thank you so much, Josh, It was great talking to you.

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