The plot of the new Pixar film turn red revolves around 13-year-old Mei’s desperate quest to attend a boy band concert with her friends. “We go into this concert girls,” Mei said with starry eyes, “and come out women.” Mei and her friends, fittingly for a film that explores that sweaty anxiety of early adolescence, are a bit boy-crazy, but the boys they love the most are 4*Town, whose five (? ) Members—Robaire, Jesse, Tae, Aaron T and Aaron Z are the epitome of late ’90s boy-band style. I spoke to turn redthe director and co-writer of Domee Shi on treating girl fandom with respect, working with Billie Eilish, and Behind the music: City 4*. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Slate: I just want to warn you that this interview is exclusively about 4*Town.
Dome Shi: This is my favorite subject!
I have two teenage daughters, so I’ve seen a lot of pop culture portraits of teenagers in my life. One of the greatest ways that turn red departs from typical portrayals of teenage girls is that it really takes girls’ love for 4*Town seriously.
Yeah. It was important for us to take boy bands seriously in this film. Boy bands are often ridiculed in the media – like many things teenage girls love – but when you’re that age, boy bands are our gateway to the opposite sex. In boys, in relationships, in the concepts of love, dating and heartbreak. And it’s all done in this safe, pretty, well-dressed package. It’s adulthood for many girls to obsess over their first boy band. It was just for a film about a teenager that the stake of the film, the purpose of the film, is not to save the world. It’s not to save the princess. It’s to get to their first boy band gig and collectively become women together while they watch it.
Sure, but I don’t think that’s the case either. feel safe for teenage girls, and that’s what’s kinda exciting about it. You have what feels like a personal relationship with the members of this group.
Yeah yeah. It’s as if when they sing, they sing directly for you. We try to capture that feeling in the movie, just having the boys look directly at the camera and sincerely sing for Mei and her friends. I remember when we were throwing these cliches at the hosts, I made sure in my notes to say we weren’t making fun of boy bands. We’re not going to do Chippendales, Blue Steel, pursed-lip expressions. Really treat this like an Oscar nominated movie. Go deep, go dramatic with the eyes and the face. I really sincerely feel like he’s talking to me. I think the animators did a very good job.
The first thing I drew and published was Draco Malfoy. It’s somewhere on the internet. Try to find this.
— turn redby Domee Shi
Was it fun to start your own boy band from scratch? That’s a lot of power for a 90s kid.
It’s kind of a dream come true. We assigned different roles and personalities to each boy. Tae Young is cute and Aaron Z is athletic. Robaire is the one who will have this solo career after the dissolution of the boy band. Jesse is the one who’s way too old to be in the band and he has two kids, and he probably drives them around and buys them beer.
These are the 4* Town stories I was hoping for. What is Tae Young’s favorite animal?
A dove, right? In the film, Mei says that Tae Young encourages injured doves. He is very interested in animals. When he wrinkles his nose against the dove, you see that the dove has this little plaster on one of its legs. I like to imagine he wrapped it up.
Personally dipped the tiny paper mache strips.
I know he’s just like, [sensitive boy voice] “Is it correct?”
You talked about how you explained the mood to the hosts. What did you say to the songwriters, Billie Eilish and Finneas? How has 4*Town’s music evolved over time?
They were so on board with the idea, because I think they were Mei and her friends at one point. Billie herself was a huge fan of Justin Bieber. So we thought, “We just need some lyrics that will resonate with Mei and her friends.” We gave them three specific types of songs that we needed. Because those scenes were already written where we needed the songs. For example, the third song was the song that everyone knows. It’s that hit song, and we needed it to play during the edit when Mei and her friends earn money as a panda. So we thought, “If you could include lyrics about making money and getting by, that would be great.” Then also, “If you could also include a call and response section, so we could play it at the gig?” We were very specific in our request and they were amazing in that they covered our entire wish list of things we needed the songs to do, but still made them their own.
I feel very slightly bad for underrated members Aaron T and Aaron Z, who are also very talented. Can you tell me what they bring to the band?
Well, Aaron Z is the sportsman and he’s very stoic. He’s Tyler’s favorite 4*Town member, which I guess is kind of a spoiler. But Tyler really bonds with him because he’s also – both of them are Blasians. So he really sees himself in Aaron Z. And then we have this whole backstory – I wish I could put all of that in the movie, but a lot of it was cut!
I’m ready for Behind the music: City 4*.
Aaron Z, he sees himself as a rival in Robaire.
Then Aaron T is kind of a goofball. He’s the funny guy, the one who plays a lot of pranks on the other members of the boy band. Ugh. I wish there was a whole show about it, that would be amazing.
I mean, brand extension is no stranger to Disney as a concept.
I know, go Disney.
Who was your 4* city growing up?
I definitely loved NSYNC, but I wasn’t as drawn to boy bands as Mei and her friends are in the movie. I loved their music, but mostly I tapped into that obsession and excitement for just one thing that you have when you’re that age. For Mei, I put it in a boy band, but for me, technically, my 4* town was Harry Potter. It was the thing that was the glue for me and my friends. We would line up for book releases. We went to the movies, we read fanfiction, we drew fan art. It was my 4* city.
Can I find the Domee Shi Harry Potter fanfiction somewhere on the internet?
Oh, of course there is fan art. The very first fan art I published, it’s still on the internet if you can find it. It was from 2004. I was 14, and I had just bought a tablet with all the money I had saved up, and convinced my parents to buy me a version of Photoshop. The first thing I drew and published was Draco Malfoy. Yeah. It’s somewhere on the internet. Try to find it.
Agreed. Last question. Why are they named 4*Town when they are five?
I think it all came from that joke and I just wanted to put that joke in the movie! But then it became practical. Oh, another reason for [Mei’s mother] Ming disapproves of 4*Town, as four is a very unlucky number in Chinese culture. So wouldn’t it be funny if she just saw her daughter covered on all fours? But I like to think that in the 4*Town canon, they were all born on the fourth of a different month or something.
Or if they weren’t, that’s the story they tell.
Yeah yeah yeah. This is the story they tell. Or there has been four of them, but then a fifth member joined, but they didn’t change all the logos because it would cost too much.