For far too long, coming of age stories have been the domain of men and boys, but Pixar’s Turning Red demonstrates how successful a film that centers girlhood, de-stigmatized and unabashedly joyful, can be. We spoke with playwright and screenwriter Julia Cho, who co-wrote the film with director Domee Shi (who Joey recently interviewed here). A long-time investigator of identity through an acclaimed portfolio of stage and screen work, Cho quickly took to Shi’s story of Mei Lee’s chaotic (and fuzzy) adolescence and the conflict it brings with her mother, Ming.
“I started writing plays when I was pretty young, so a lot of those issues I had when I was younger about my identity and growing up, those got sucked into the plays I was writing,” says Cho.
On first impressions of Shi, Cho recalls, “I remember being in meetings with [Domee] and she was just so smart and funny and had such a fresh perspective. That was before I knew anything about her…I started off as a fan of her energy and her mind, but then also of her work.”
On the more technical side of writing at a place like Pixar, Cho explains what she was prepared for, and what she wasn’t.
“In some ways, [writing for stage and TV] was a good combination to prepare me for working on a movie at Pixar because I had this period of time I spent in theater working on longform…But then I also had the collaborative experience of working in television where you’re maybe one of seven writers and you’re all hammering out character arcs and figuring out a story in a group setting as well as having more of a sense of camera and production.”
But beyond that, says Cho, “It was a total education…Part of it is that you’re working alongside artists like the story artist, character artist. That’s kind of amazing because in almost every other medium, there’s a part of it that’s just the writing, where the characters exist only on the page or in your mind. And at Pixar, you come in and someone’s already drawn the character…It’s also just a very exhausting process because it’s four to six years and all of it is done working as hard as you can.”
Throughout the unique and whirlwind process of filmmaking at Pixar, Cho appreciates that Mei and Ming, the protagonists of the film, remained a strong, foundational constant from pitch to premiere.
“Even when I came aboard, there was already this kind of duo with Mei and Ming and it was clear who they were. It was really fun to take those two essences and know that whatever hoops we put them through, whatever situations we put them in, we would already have a sense of how they would behave, how they would react, how they would fight back or evolve. That was one of the gifts of the premise.”
Cho elaborates, “We wanted to make sure [Mei] always stayed edgy. We wanted to make sure we kept that real fierce, strong, extremely loving core to her…With Ming, I feel like there were a lot of mothers also on the crew and the leadership. There was a real attempt to make her a mother that you could identify with. Even if she did things more extreme than perhaps you might, that you could always understand where she’s coming from.”
When it came to Turning Red’s depiction of parent-child relationships and adolescence, the film drew some criticism at its release for being unrelatable or “limiting in its scope.”
“It’s something that crossed my mind more when I was younger, because I did feel more aware that my perspective was not the universal perspective,” remarks Cho. “By the time I started working on Turning Red, my concern was more about it feeling true and honest. I think it was really great that Domee and I both came from the same perspective as the main characters. They were our norm. There was an intention to tell the story from our point of view as if it is just the norm, and not do any translating or at least not making that the focus.”
“I hope that it invites people in a different way,” she explains. “The way you might go to a country and enjoy it as someone embedded in a home as opposed to a tourist because you’re going to experience things the natural way as opposed to the way it’s being shaped for your consumption.”
When it came to her experience of the Internet firestorm Turning Red set off with its premiere, Cho reflects on the joy of the film rather than on a culture war-obsessed society.
“I was aware that there were people who came out against it. But I didn’t have to absorb it personally, more I just had to absorb it on behalf of the whole project. It was such a labor of love. It makes you stop and think when something that you’ve worked on is received so opposite of the spirit in which it was intended. Overall, I just feel lucky that we still got to do it.”
Cho recalls a conversation she had with producer Lindsey Collins about the legacy of Pixar movies: “The thing about Pixar is it makes these movies that are not necessarily just for the present moment. If you do your job right, these movies last for quite a while because they’re generational or they’re meant for kids and there are new kids and families being birthed all the time. She was saying how the burden is to make a movie that doesn’t get dated, that actually is on the right side of history. And when I think about Turning Red, I know in my bones we’re on the right side of history, so it makes me feel better knowing that even if there is a contingent of people who misunderstand it in the present, this movie is actually for future audiences.”
THE FOLLOWING SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR TURNING RED
The joy Cho recalls in the moviemaking process is reflected in one of her favorite scenes of Turning Red, what she calls “The Moment.”
“It’s still one of my favorite moments in the movie where it all comes together at the concert where everyone’s singing and it’s a combination of Mei’s friends beatboxing, the aunts and her grandma and family singing, and Four Town singing. The reason why I love that moment so much is because it wasn’t like a lot of effort was made into figuring it out and crafting it. It was one of those things where it just organically emerged,”
Cho clarifies: “I don’t mean to make it sound like we just stumbled onto it, but it was more that when we finally got to that moment, we realized that we had inadvertently planted all of these seeds.” She continues, “This wasn’t even when we actually saw it CG’d. But just seeing it in storyboards and knowing, ‘That works.’ You just knew it, you just knew it in your bones…that has continued to be one of my favorite moments.”
Julia Cho continues her work at Pixar and is currently developing a new series so stay tuned for her work in the near future. Turning Red is available to stream on Disney+.