The plot of Pixar’s new movie Turning Red revolves around 13-year-old Mei’s desperate quest to attend a boy-band concert with her friends. “We’re walking into that concert girls,” Mei says with starry eyes, “and coming out women.” Mei and her friends, fittingly for a movie that explores that sweaty anxiety of early teenhood, are a little 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 talked to Turning Red’s director and co-writer Domee Shi about treating the girls’ fandom with respect, working with Billie Eilish, and Behind the Music: 4*Town. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Slate: I just want to warn you that this interview is exclusively about 4*Town.
Domee Shi: That’s my favorite topic!
I have two teenage girls, so I’ve seen a lot of pop culture portraits of teenagers in my life. One of the biggest ways that Turning Red departed from typical teenage girl portrayals is that it really takes the girls’ love of 4*Town seriously.
Yeah. It was important for us to take boy bands seriously in this movie. Boy bands are often kind of ridiculed in media—as a lot of things that teen girls like are—but when you’re that age, boy bands are our gateway into the opposite sex. Into boys, into relationships, into the concepts of love and dating and heartbreak. And it’s all done in this safe, pretty, well-dressed package. It’s a coming of age for a lot of girls to obsess over their first boy band. It just felt right for a movie about a tween girl that the stakes of the movie, the goal of the movie, is not to save the world. It’s not to save the princess. It’s to get to their first boy band concert and collectively become women together as they watch it.
It’s safe, but I think it also doesn’t feel safe to teen girls, and that’s what’s a little bit thrilling about it. You have what you feel like is your personal relationship with the members of that band.
Yeah, yeah. It feels like when they’re singing, they’re singing directly to you. We try to capture that feeling in the movie, just having the boys look directly at the camera and earnestly sing to Mei and her friends. I remember when we were kicking off those shots to animators, I made sure in my notes to say that we’re not making fun of boy bands. We’re not going to do the Chippendales, Blue Steel, pursed-lips kind of expressions. Really treat this like an Oscar-nominated movie. Go deep, go dramatic with the eyes and the face. Really earnestly make me feel like he’s speaking to me. I think the animators did a really good job of that.
Was it fun to create 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 would assign different roles and personalities for each boy. Tae Young’s the cute one, and Aaron Z’s the sporty one. Robaire’s the one that’s going to have that solo career after the boy band dissolves. Jesse’s the one that’s way too old to be in the band and he has two kids, and he probably drives them around and buys beer for them.
These are the 4*Town backstories I was hoping for. What’s Tae Young’s, like, favorite animal?
A dove, right? In the movie Mei says Tae Young fosters injured doves. He’s very much all about animals. When he nuzzles the dove, you see that the dove has that little cast over one of its legs. I like to imagine that he wrapped it.
Personally dipped the tiny papier-mâché strips.
I know, he’s just like, [sensitive boy voice] “Is this OK?”
You talked about how you explained the vibe to the animators. What did you say to the songwriters, to Billie Eilish and Finneas? How did 4*Town’s music evolve over time?
They were so on board with the idea, because I think they were Mei and her friends at some point. Billie herself was a huge Justin Bieber fan. So we were like, “We just need lyrics that are going to speak to 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 everybody knows. It’s that hit song, and we needed it to play during the montage when Mei and her friends are making money as a panda. So we were like, “If you could include some lyrics about making money and hustling, that would be great.” Then also, “If you could include a call and response section as well, so that we can play it at the concert?” We were very specific with our ask and they were amazing in that they covered our entire wishlist of things that we needed the songs to do, but still made them their own.
I feel very slightly bad for unsung members Aaron T and Aaron Z, who are also really talented. Can you tell me what they bring to the group?
Well, Aaron Z is the sporty one 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 Blasian. So he really sees himself in Aaron Z. And then we have this whole backstory—I wish we could include all this in the movie, but a lot of it was cut!
I’m ready for Behind the Music: 4*Town.
Aaron Z, he sees himself as like a rival to Robaire.
Then Aaron T’s kind of the goofball. He’s the funny one, the one that plays a lot of pranks on the other boy band members. Ugh. I wish there was a whole show about it, that would be amazing.
I mean, brand extension is not unfamiliar to Disney as a concept.
I know, come on Disney.
Who was your 4*Town growing up?
I definitely loved NSYNC, but I wasn’t as into boy bands as Mei and her friends are in the movie. I loved their music, but I mainly drew from that obsessiveness and that excitement for a single thing that you have when you’re that age. For Mei, I put it into a boy band, but for me technically my 4*Town was Harry Potter. That was the thing that was the glue for me and my friends. We would line up for the book releases. We’d go to the movies, we’d read fan fiction, we’d draw fan art. That was my 4*Town.
Can I find Domee Shi Harry Potter fan fiction somewhere on the internet?
Oh, there’s fan art for sure. The very first fan art I published, it’s still on the internet if you can find it. It was dated 2004. I was 14, and I had just bought a tablet with all of the money that I saved up, and I convinced my parents to buy me a version of Photoshop. The first thing that I drew and published was Draco Malfoy. Yeah. It is somewhere on the internet. Try to find it.
All right. Last question. Why are they named 4*Town when there are five of them?
I think it all came from that joke and just wanting to put that joke in the movie! But then it became practical. Oh, one other reason for [Mei’s mother] Ming to disapprove of 4*Town, because four is a very unlucky number in Chinese culture. So wouldn’t it be funny if she just saw her daughter covered in fours? But I like to think that in 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. That’s the story that they tell. Or there was four of them, but then a fifth member joined, but they didn’t change all the logos because that would cost too much money.