Julia Cho

IFH 567: Inside Pixar’s Brain Trust Turning Red with Julia Cho


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. After a fairly uneventful childhood, she unexpectedly discovered theater as a teen and subsequently foiled her parents’ expectations of a life of respectability and normalcy.

Disney and Pixar’s “Turning Red” introduces Mei Lee (voice of Rosalie Chiang), a confident, dorky 13-year-old torn between staying her mother’s dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. Her protective, if not slightly overbearing mother, Ming (voice of Sandra Oh), is never far from her daughter—an unfortunate reality for the teenager. And as if changes to her interests, relationships and body weren’t enough, whenever she gets too excited (which is practically ALWAYS), she “poofs” into a giant red panda! Directed by Academy Award® winner Domee Shi (Pixar short “Bao”) and produced by Lindsey Collins.

Instead, armed with an MFA in writing from NYU and a prestigious fellowship at The Juilliard School, Julia launched herself into the New York theater scene. She soon landed residencies at the Sundance Lab and New Dramatists and productions at high-profile theaters in NYC and across the country. Memorable productions include “The Language Archive” (winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Award), “Aubergine” and “Office Hour.” For her body of work, she received the 2020 Windham-Campbell Literary Prize for Drama which wrote: “Alternately lyrical and sharp, rigorous and whimsical, Cho’s plays demand that we listen.”

Alongside her theatrics, Cho has also cultivated a career as a writer and producer of a broad range of television shows from cult sci-fi (“Fringe”) to character-driven drama (“Big Love,” “Halt and Catch Fire”). She also adapted the critically-acclaimed novel The Madonnas of Echo Park for HBO and Starz, which showcased her ability to transform eloquent fiction into dynamic and propulsive narrative.

Driven by keen curiosity and a passion for language, Julia strives to create work that expands our worlds and sparks our deepest empathies. She’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.

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Alex Ferrari 0:00
I'd like to welcome to the show Julia Cho. How're you doing Julia?

Julia Cho 0:14
I'm doing great. Thank you so much for having me.

Alex Ferrari 0:16
Thank you so much for coming on this show, I am excited to talk to an Pixar insider, what it's like to work inside of the magic machine that we all have grown up with and love so much. But that's not your only claim to fame. And we're gonna get into your whole journey, which is not, you just weren't born out of, you know, Pixar is womb, and you've been there all this time. You're you've done other things in life. So how did you and why did you want to get into this insanity that is the film industry?

Julia Cho 0:48
Oh, well, that's a how long is this podcast? I was not necessarily a decision, like an intention that I had. I mean, my first thought was theater, right? I had kind of grown up loving to read and wanting to be a writer. And for me, I got the theater bug as a teenager, and then just kind of found myself veering towards writing when I was in college and started writing plays. And at that point, I would say I was just a fan of the movies, I would just watch movies as a normal a person. And I do remember watching the Pixar movies even back then as a young adult and just being like, I love these. I know they're for kids, but I love them, you know. And there was one moment where I think I'm on a date with my who's my gangs, my husband now but we went on an early date to say Monsters Inc. And I remember, like, at the time, I was really just still a struggling playwright. And I just couldn't imagine anything more diametrically opposite to what I was doing. Because it was like what I did with these, like really heavy sad plays and tiny rooms the size of a closet that like 10 people saw. And then here I was watching Monsters Inc, which made me cry, but also just made you laugh. And, and it was so exuberant. And I just remember articulating to my husband, I don't know what to call somebody who becomes that, but we're walking out and I'm like, oh, it'd be so amazing to work at Pixar someday, you know. So I do, I start to become like a firm believer of putting it out there in the universe. Because I think the fact that I actually said that just started some atomic ripple maybe years later, came back to me, because then I continue to do plays. And then I was doing a play at Berkeley Rep. And just to make the long story short. Pixar is always looking for writers and Mary Coleman, who's the head of development there, among many jobs that she does. One of them is to always kind of be looking for writers to come to Pixar. And through a friend, who I have a friend who's a playwright screenwriter named Keith bunion who was working on onward, she, I think, came to me and actually came to see the play that I was doing in Berkeley. And so I think that's kind of how it started. So I would just say, in a kind of accident, the way through my theater, I actually ended up being tapped to come to Pixar, which I never would have ever predicted.

Alex Ferrari 3:05
It's so funny, because so many people who have the intention, like I'm going to work for Pixar, I'm going to do everything right to get on the radar of Pixar and do this or that and that and you did none of that. You just said hey, how cool would it be? And then if you would have gone back to talk to that person coming out of Monsters Inc. You're gonna go, Hey, you're gonna work on Pixar one day. And you're like, who are you? You're psychotic. Get away from me.

Julia Cho 3:25
Yeah, you're insane, Never gonna happen? No. And I do find that. Like, he keeps doing that, to me. Like I keep seeing ways in which you think that way to do life is to like, figure out exactly what you want and just head straight towards it. And some people maybe that works for them. But for me, it's always been kind of just steering towards writing as honestly as I can writing the things I want to write, you know, and just sort of pursuing that and then completely out of the blue come something that I couldn't have anticipated. And that's just been the way it's been for me. And Pixar was definitely like that, because I never never made that a goal. And I even think you could make it a goal like and to this day, I think, yeah, you can't it's Pixar has to find you. You can't you can't go knocking on the door and and hand them your scripts.

Alex Ferrari 4:15
It's yeah, it's kind of like, you know, I've had so many writers and directors on the show who've told me that Spielberg gave me a shot I'm like, how did you get this feeling? Like it's like I didn't like knock on his door and hand them a script. It just like that kind of that energy will eventually find you when, if that's the path that you need to walk and it's so interesting that no matter what you did along your path, nothing even there wasn't even an inkling because I looked at your your resume. There's nothing that says Pixar, like there's not even there's not even a short film. There is not like any even your story that shows you work that nothing says this would make a good Pixar screenwriter.

Julia Cho 4:55
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. You know, and then and then I yeah, I think it's also been illuminating. because, you know, once I got there, I felt like yeah total fish out of water. And it was really gratifying then to meet the other writers and realize a lot of them had Motley backgrounds to you know, other playwrights I ended up at Pixar, not just me. And um, so I do feel like the perception is that there's a certain thing you'd expect at a Pixar writer. And then I have found that the actual writers are much more idiosyncratic. Interesting budge,

Alex Ferrari 5:23
Right! Exactly. Because it makes it makes the writing more interesting when you have a motley crew and Motley background, as you say.

Julia Cho 5:30
Yeah, yeah. And I think that, you know, no one there, I don't think I've encountered yet did feature animation before coming to Pixar, you know, and when you think of what that world is just feature animation riders, it's really small. And I think that Pixar feels like we've got that covered. You know, like, it's just like your know how to do feature animation. So what that kind of frees up is that the writer can come with a different set of skills. And I think that's been really great. That's sort of like, you don't have to overlap on our Venn diagram, you can actually have your own thing and we can have a place where we all meet, but we actually want people who think differently or have different experiences.

Alex Ferrari 6:09
Now you, you also went to Julliard and in the Sundance lab as well, early in your career

Julia Cho 6:15
Is that right. Yeah, I got to develop a play at Sundance and go to Juilliard. Yeah, I do playwriting residency there.

Alex Ferrari 6:24
Again, both things don't suck at all. If you're a writer, so what are some of the biggest lessons you took away from you, since you were such a young writer at that point, from working in those two amazing, you know, programs.

Julia Cho 6:38
Well, gosh, Sundance was really illuminating. Because I was so young, I think that was one of the first kind of professional ish experiences I had. And I just remember feeling like that first play I was trying to write, I really struggled with. And I just had a moment where I got to the point where I was so lost, and I was working on a piece of writing, but just felt like I couldn't like really land it. And I just remember getting on my knees and praying, I like literally prayed to God, I was like, I don't know what to do. And this play, I need to present it before the entire Sunday. You were all doing readings for each other. And I just remembered doing a prayer that I don't remember word for word, but the gist of it was like, please help me get out of my own way. Please, just larger force. I don't know what you are God, the universe just just take over, you know, because like, I think it, it's like, I think I couldn't articulate it at that age. But I think it was a sense of like, rather than trying to generate something from my ego, like, please help me tap into something and be a conduit to something instead, you know, and I think that was maybe the first time I'd really thought about writing in that way. Because I kept seeing writing as like something I did that was out of my ego and my identity. And, and I think that that was maybe the beginning of feeling like writing was if it was working right, it was actually me tapping into something or me channeling something, you know. And so I don't think I succeeded, to be honest, completely. But at least that was where I felt that first intuition of like, oh, there's a different way to to write. And then I think the thing I learned from being at Juilliard, which was some years later, I was a little bit more experienced, not very, I just remember so many teachers that were Marsha Norman Chris Durang, who are both like lotted, amazing, you know, American playwrights with a capital A and a P, you know, they're, they're amazing. And we would come in with our, like, 10 pages, like, we were just kind of the 10 pages. And I just remember that at the time, I was writing a lot of really just sad, dark stuff. And we would talk about our voices and what we're trying to write and actually our Marcia being like, you know, we all want to be Neil Simon, we all want to just write funny and happy, you know, and she's like, You are who you are, there's nothing you can do about that. You can't wish you're a different type of writer than the writer you are. So don't even bother, don't even waste time doing that. And that helped because I think I was in that mode of like, why can I write funny or happier things and he was just like, too bad. You just You are who you are. And then the other thing she would do, which has stayed with me, she always kind of referred to writers as warriors. You know, like, like, you know, I think the image of us is we're drunken and saw often. Just like lay around in her bathrobe was like, excited. And she really reminded us of how much courage it takes to write and how tough you have to do to write and she always spoke of us as you know, warriors if we were really engaged in doing it, right. So and then that kinda stayed with me.

Alex Ferrari 9:56
So you know, that's so funny because I you know, I've had the again the pleasure You're talking to so many amazing screenwriters and filmmakers. And I always ask, especially with writers, I go, is there ever a moment where you just wrote something down? And you go back to read and you go, who wrote that? That's not the amazing, not the amazing, but But you just like how to, like something literally hits, you tapped into something that wasn't you. But it is. This is what I found as a writer myself, when you tap into that thing, it is that that energy and this goes for Oscar winners, Emmy winners, Tony winners I've spoken to, they tap into that thing, but it comes in filtered through you. So it is a filtering process that you are the filter. So it comes out through your voice, but it still comes through you. And if it comes if you're not in the place of ego when you're doing it, because I've written in a place of ego, horrible, horrible, horrible to write in that place. But when you write when you're like what you said, then you feel something coming through you. It's so much easier.

Julia Cho 10:58
Yeah, it is. And it's rare. I think that's the thing. It's like you can't plan it, you just kind of and I really do feel like it started to come like you know, the way surfers go out every day, you just they go out every day. And some days, the waves are awesome. And some days away slack. Increasing felt like writing was like that I would show up every day. And someday I catch a nice way but other days they'd be like, Oh, nothing happened today.

Alex Ferrari 11:22
Great analogy. That's a great analogy. I love that.

Julia Cho 11:26
And because the waves aren't generated by the surfers, right, the waves are coming from. I don't know, whatever it is that causes waves, the tide the moon, the gravitational pull of the universe. Yeah, it definitely feels like I'm not generating the wave. I'm trying to catch it. But I can't catch it unless I show up. Oh, my God is just to show up.

Alex Ferrari 11:46
I will steal that. Because that's an amazing analogy. I love love that analogies. You're absolutely right. Because as a writer, as a creative, you're trying to catch waves, but you have to show up every day because you never know when the really gnarly wave is gonna show up and you're gonna be there to catch it.

Julia Cho 12:02
Yeah, and how many times I mean, I'm sure you've also experienced it like showing up and feeling like crap, like, oh my god, I barely slept. I feel depressed. I feel awful. Nothing good can come up today and then ends up being a great day like something happened. And vice versa. I've had days where I go in. I'm like, I'm ready.

Alex Ferrari 12:17
I was like,crickets

Julia Cho 12:21
Yeah. You're just like, Oh, my God. I woke up for this.

Alex Ferrari 12:27
This is really is this what it is? I'm not from your work as a playwright. How did that prepare you for writing in Hollywood writing in a writers room?

Julia Cho 12:37
It didn't, at all. Completely different and weird and hard. I mean, I think as a playwright, like other than the actual production part of it, it's like really built for introverts, you know, like, so solitary. And I think to go from that to being in a room with seven people, it really felt like Sorry, there's like no exit like it kind of like oh my god. I'm in like, a room with like, seven people that may or may not like me, and I may or may not like them. And there's a lot of vying because like, television was more so before like, really hierarchical, right? Like, everyone would show up and be like, Who's, who's the staff writer who's the code. Monkeys are trying to figure out where we are in the pecking order. And so I think that took a while to adjust to and I was really lucky, though. I mean, I ended up on great shows with a great show runners who were so amazing and nurturing about helping this poor little new the staff writer get her feet wet. But yeah, I remember being completely bewildered. One of my early shows is a show called fringe. And we would sit there Right, yeah, so again, somewhat similar to Pixar. Nothing in my experience.

Alex Ferrari 13:44
I was gonna say, prepared you for friends. I was gonna ask you, I was gonna ask you for because you're in the first season of fringe. You were a bunch of episodes in the first season of a fringe according to your IMDB. And I'm looking at it and I'm going, how the hell does she get fridge? Like that's a hell of a good plum first job.

Julia Cho 14:00
Yeah, no, seriously. Uh, yeah. So again, very similarly, I had written like, sad clauses for dumb people. But you know, the thing is, like, the place I wrote were just very relational and very, like, they were real, like, they weren't, like, you know, crazy high concept plays and abstract or experimental. So they were readable, which helps, I think, but you know, what, I think what I loved about television, though, is because they're like seven writers. It really is more like a team. And you don't need every single person to have every single skill, right? Like you literally have people playing different positions, like the way you would on a football team or something, you know, so like, at French, it was a really big room. Actually, it was like, I don't know, like 11 or 12 or something. I don't know. It just it was a large room as the fitting a large network kind of tentpole show, right, which doesn't really exist anymore, but back then, you still had those right? And I just remember being like, oh, like There's certain niches that we all play are all in, right? So there's the action guy, the Sci Fi person. And I realized quickly early on that I was like, Oh, I'm like the I'm the relational person.

Alex Ferrari 15:13
I deal with the relationships.

Julia Cho 15:15
Yes, yeah and I'm like, oh, like, I'm the one who like, does the emotional like, talk. And what was really great is by the end of the season, like I'm pitching crazy sci fi things to, like, I'm learning all the other way to be to, you know, like, there was a moment where I pitch some insane teaser that didn't go which was like the main character like, like, being attacked by like, like a troop of paramilitary and like laying them all to waste or something insane and unfilmable. But I just didn't on my show about her being like, look, we'll be dead. As is quiet play, right. And now she's, like, doing his big movie. You know, he was so proud.

Alex Ferrari 15:55
It was like, Look what we have done.

Julia Cho 15:59
Look how far she's come? But um, yeah, so So in that sense, I think that was my, my foot in the door is like the the feeling that like, oh, they still need, you know, like, one of the main characters was a woman, you know, fringe was the main character was, you know, this female. So I think just this recognition that like on a big series like this, we need lots of points of view and a lot people with different tools. So yeah, so even though my tool wasn't like a sci fi tool, I felt like I had other things that helped me. But yeah, how I got on and I look back, and I do think that that was really

Alex Ferrari 16:35
How did you like how did you get on there? Like who was?

Julia Cho 16:39
So I was on. That was actually not my first year, my first year was legal procedural, which what made more sense, frankly, that I was kind of approached for that because it's by a production company that was in New York. And the first showrunner, who didn't stay and become the boss of that, initially was supposed to be a man who was also playwright like so there were some, you know, reasonable things with fringe. I think it was just like that my agent at the time, was not the agent of the showrunner. But he was somehow like, just really involved with it. I forget exactly how, and so he could at least get my work read. So I think just being able to get me read was part of it. And then my. And then I think there was one play I had, where it was like a play called Durango that was about a dad and his two sons. And it was all just happened going a long road trip together. Yes,

Alex Ferrari 17:34
Now it makes all the sense in the world now.

Julia Cho 17:35
Yeah, I mean, I think like the showrunner and the other people, the production me read that and could really connect to it. And

Alex Ferrari 17:42
It's so funny how Hollywood works, because they're like, when it walked through the door, like, We need someone who's literally written the story about a father and a son who have to kind of go on a road trip, and then you walk in you're like, perfect hired. Like, that's so weird.

Julia Cho 18:00
And I think you're but you're kind of right because like French there was a female main character, but it was a father son story. It was like, you know, and so yeah, I think there's that but then I started jumped through the hoops of like getting read and and then also doing my interview and but we just, I just really got along with the showrunner and we click in the interview, so somehow, miraculously, I ended up on that show.

Alex Ferrari 18:25
Now how you also worked on another one of my favorite shows Big Love. Oh, really interesting. I love Big Love. Because I was I was a Paxton fan like such I mean, oh, I like rest rest in peace.

Julia Cho 18:40
He was wonderful to work with.

Alex Ferrari 18:43
I've heard nothing from people who I know who've worked with him. They said he was just a doll like a sane. Wonderful to work with. Uh, what was it like working on a show like that? Cuz that's a pretty big was ah, it was HBO if I'm not mistaken. Right. Yeah. So that's a big tentpole. HBO shows in the in the in the heat of sopranos like HBO had now. HBO was HBO at this point. It wasn't like at the beginning of like, we're just starting to figure out narrative like they you they've already broken through so much stuff. What was it like working on that show?

Julia Cho 19:16
Well, then that was a real experience, too, because I felt like I had gone from fringe, which was this JJ Abrams. You know, Alex Kurtzman and Bob RC, you know, huge thing. And then to go on to Big Love is kind of wonderful because it was more specific. It was more personal. It was more idiosyncratic reflecting the tastes of you know, the creators. And it just felt like going from something that was more mass, like mass market to something that was more like boutique, right? Yeah. Like and both really good quality in their different ways. But their tastes are so mellow. It was such a melodrama, right, like so to learn that genre. Like it was like I remember like the touchstones of this shows couldn't be more different because then

Alex Ferrari 20:06
Versus artful arthouse almost.

Julia Cho 20:08
Yes, exactly. So like fringe it was like you had to know, you know, X Files and things like that on Big Love It was like, you know, you had to know like Joan Crawford movie. It was like, you know, what do you mean, you haven't seen, you know, what was a Mildred Pierce, I was like, you have to watch Mildred Pierce and I'm like, okay, you know, and then and I loved it. And I was like, wow, like, how different to be in that world. And it was really amazing, just because like, everything was just, I mean, just the quality of everything was so high. Like, there was a bit more time and even even the quality of the food was like, wow, like,

Alex Ferrari 20:48
Listen, when you're on a suit when you're on a studio set, and that it's that crap, that crafty boy that crafting that lunch is a whole other world. I remember working out I walk on some shows. And it was like some Fox shows I was working on I walked on, I'm like, Wow, is that lobster? Or is literally are the grips eating lobster right now like is this? Because I come from an indie world where like, everyone's like pizza is like, whoopee. It's a it's a whole other it's a whole other experience. I mean, so you've been in a few. So you've been in a few writers room? Do you have any advice for young writers? Who if they have the opportunity to either be in a writers room as a writer, or as an assistant, or as a runner, what to do when you're in that environment? Because for my understanding, I've never been in a writers room. But for my understanding, it really all depends from the showrunner, it all starts at the show, like the showrunner could be a tyrant, or they could be the most wonderful, you know, kind of like inclusive, and I want to hear everybody's idea. And then that could be the tyrant who's like, it's my way of the highway. And everyone's fearful to even say a thing. And I've heard both, both of those stories. So I sounds like you had to lay the ladder, the good, very encouraging, fun environment. How do you navigate the politics of that room? Because they're in politics in those rooms?

Julia Cho 22:05
That's a great, yeah, that's a good question. I mean, you know, the funny thing is, like, I have had really nice show runners, but even so it's been a really complicated and very often kind of tense environment, just because everyone is under such an enormous amount of pressure. I mean, I would say that for anyone starting out, being in the room, in any capacity is actually a huge education. You know, it's like, if you want to be a writer, I do think the best way if you can find it is a position of being a writer's assistant. And I would say that, you know, I could be wrong. But even if the showrunners difficult, the writers assistant, the job is pretty clear cut, you know, you're just basically taking all the notes of everything that people are saying, and pitching, and then having to sort of disseminate them. So in some ways, it's like, I don't know how much better or worse your job can get. In some ways, like, unless there's, you know, interpersonal stuff. But I do feel like the job is pretty, pretty direct. And what it allows you to do is to understand how to pitch and understand how to listen and give feedback to and you're, basically you're learning all those things, you're seeing people in real time, do those things with each other. And I do think that perspective, makes it so that whenever I need an assistant, number one, if you're an assistant, I am always impressed, because that is not an easy job to get it. So you are some kind of rock star, just to get there. Yeah, I'm like, you're a rock star. I don't know what your background is. But you're super smart, and you're on it. And then the second thing I feel like when I am with these writers assistants is that I have been in rooms, I'm in a room now where the assistants regularly pitch like not often because I think that they are actually you know, busy taking the notes or doing other things. But their perspectives are always valuable and are always like, really smart. And so I think that as a writer's assistant, or someone starting out, initially, your job is to listen and to understand what the flow of everything is in the content. And then gradually, I think you can start contributing. And what I find nine times out of 10 is that if the contribution is very personal, like, Oh, we're talking about, you know, there's a story point of car accidents, and you know, and if you're an assistant who's been in a car accident, then by all means you should speak up and be like, I owe this one. This happened. I felt this way, I felt that way. Because that kind of stuff is always invaluable. You know, I think where assistants can get more into trouble is if they start like judging what's happening. Like, I don't think that's a good idea. Because, like, that's going to be hard for anyone to say or do. But I think as long as you're just contributing to the personal like, that's almost always like a really great way to begin getting, like winning the trust of the room and then eventually, you know, building on that and yeah, I think it's a really hard job but a really I mean, the ones who have been writing assistance writing assistance before, I think just have a complete leg up on the other writer.

Alex Ferrari 25:05
So if you if so if you have been attacked by a paramilitary group, and you have to lay waste to them with your superpowers, speak up, speak up.

Julia Cho 25:14
For you were developed your super mutant powers. sure how that works?

Alex Ferrari 25:19
How does that make you feel? Is that Is it like X Men? Does X Men get it? Right? Like, how does that work? But no, but so, on a writer's assistant side, that's great. But as a writer, you know, there is that it's that, like you said, tense, weird political environment. And I don't mean political in a bad way. It's just the nature of any time you get seven or eight people in a room together, there's a hierarchy. How do you not step on other people's toes? How do you like because there are do's and don'ts that are not written down anywhere? So like, you don't, I forgot, I've heard somebody in a writers room telling me like, you know, don't go behind somebody's back, say it in the in the room, things like that. But these are things they don't teach you. And you have to learn the hard way.

Julia Cho 26:07
Yeah, no, I think that's all really hard and difficult. I guess the main thing I would say is that if you're stepping into that room, whether as a writer or an assistant, like, I think the main thing is openness, you know, just to like, always assume people coming from a good place, as opposed to they're out to destroy me, which they might be, but at least initially,

Alex Ferrari 26:32
Let's walk in let's walk in with a positive attitude, as opposed to guns blaring, guns blaring.

Julia Cho 26:38
Yeah and you know, and then what I've also learned is that actually, I think everyone's nervous in the beginning, every now Yeah, everyone's nervous, even the higher ups, I think, because they're also trying to establish that I know what I'm doing. And I, who am I in this room and group. So I think there's that and then there's also, gosh, staying out of the line of fire as much as possible. Just like, you know, your head down. And if you're the new one, then it's sort of like, you know, perhaps the parents might argue at times, and you know, what is your role is to you're Switzerland, you're neutral, unless something really bad and unfair is happening. You know, I think he tried to just do your best fighting. But then you want so you're sort of like, you're the apprentice. That's how I felt when I was a staff writer, I really felt like I was the apprentice. And my goal was to exude an air of being everyone's little sister. Like,

Alex Ferrari 27:36
That was your way. That was, that was what you were doing? Yeah. So yeah, it's always horrible when mom and dad are fighting in the room, and you're just like, I'm not going to get on either person side. I'm just gonna stay here. Very quiet. And yeah. And they go Julia, what do you think? And you're like? No, it's so it's so it's Yeah. And it happens on a set, too. And you're on the set? You know, you see my, the producer, the DP and the director fighting or the producer director, why did you just like, Yeah, I'm over a craft.

Julia Cho 28:05
Yeah. Yeah, I'll just be over there eating frozen, you know, mocha bars or something? Yeah. You know, and I will say, like, I have, you know, been through difficult rooms, too, you know, and what, at least the silver lining on all that is that some of my fondest connections are came out of the hardest experiences, right? Because you actually do them really bond with the people that you're going with. There is something you know, it doesn't redeem the entire experience, but then at least you can be like, well, but I came out of it with these really tight, tight connections.

Alex Ferrari 28:39
That's awesome. That's awesome. Now, if you happen if you were able to go back to your younger self, the one that was going into the Sundance lab, and you could tell her listen, you're gonna have a crazy situation in the next few, these next year is going up. What piece of advice would you want to give her? And like, this is the one thing I wish I would have known.

Julia Cho 29:04
I guess I haven't been kind of thinking about this, you know, like, what would I have extended to my younger self, you know, because I am somewhere that I never anticipated. And this sounds a little hokey, or kind of like, I don't know, maybe to self compassion, a but I think I would have tried to unburden my younger self, from so much of the fear that she carried, you know, like this fear that I'm never gonna make it I'm never going to succeed. I remember like, when I was playing that earlier story about being on my knees praying. Yeah, no, exactly. It truly was because I felt like a failure. I felt like I am not able to do this. And I can't you know, and I guess what I would want to tell that younger self is this feeling. Go this. This is just a feeling. It's not True, you know, and that everything I have now was always in me, you know, it may not have been I had all the tools or all the skills, but I am the same person and I was always capable of the things that I could do. I just didn't know it. And so I think, where I don't want to necessarily give my, my younger self like an ego complex.

Alex Ferrari 30:26
Okay, dude, like, Dude, you're gonna Pixar in like, X amount of years, you're gonna kill it, you're gonna be with JJ Abrams, you're gonna be on an HBO show, you're gonna be no, you're not doing that. But I think what you're saying is so profound, because we all carry as creators, we all carry imposter syndrome with us at every level, every level of, of your career, there's a sense of imposter syndrome. But that fear of like, we're not good enough. I don't have I don't have the goods, this or that. And a lot of times, I know this, just from talking to you from your, your path. You might have been fearful of what you were doing. I don't I'm not good enough there. But you didn't even have the understanding of like, I'm not good enough to be a Pixar writer, because that wasn't even on your radar. Let alone low scale. Yeah, yeah. So it's, uh, you add so much more stress to your life for things that really are out of your control in so many ways?

Julia Cho 31:25
You know, and I guess it is, it's, it's complicated, because I'm not, I'm still sort of sorting through it. Because, you know, at the same time, my dreams were much more humble when I was smaller, which was like, yeah, just get to the Sundance data lab, I also realized that, like, my goals, were always kind of crazy high, because it was like, I felt like a failure, because I was trying to write something sublime. You know, like, I wanted to write something great. And you know, that that's not ambition, I think it's kind of just a sense of, like, I want to make something really beautiful, you know, and, and so feeling like I was failing at that was also just like, a profound kind of sense of it was like, an existential crisis or something. And, and I do think there's something to like, going back into your earlier self and being like, have the right goals, you know, what I mean, because like, don't make the goal, the success or the job, or the money or the glory, because all those things, you actually have not that much control over. But you can make it your goal to write something beautiful and honest and moving, or something that that helps you heal, or, you know, those are things that are in your control of what you can aspire to do. And the crazy thing is, if you do those things, then all the rest of this stuff will come by itself.

Alex Ferrari 32:45
That's so again, I'll use the word profound, because you're absolutely right, only from being on the path for a while, you can go back and say something that profound because you're absolutely right. When you're younger, you're like, I want to win an Oscar, or I want to, I want to I want to make, you know, seven figures in a year, like these kinds of goals that are really empty goals. But if your goal is I want to, with my work, help somebody I want to help myself heal. I want to help other people here. I want to really take somebody out of their busy day and have them last for an hour and a half. Like those are the goals that because everything if you do that, well, yeah, everything else comes because there's so many people looking for that writer.

Julia Cho 33:31
Yeah, and you know, there's a there's an Andre Agassi story that I really like he was raised by so cuz, you know, he was the child of an immigrant who, like drove him crazy hard. And I guess the story goes that he when he was growing up, he was a tennis prodigy, right? But what his, what he would do is he would just wail on the ball as hard as he could, he could just hit the ball as hard as he could. And his dad encouraged that, like, instead of telling young little Andre Agassi hit within the lines, he would say, hit the ball as hard as you can. And then eventually, it will be in the lines, but don't worry about that, like don't pull back your swing and hit the ball less hard. So that will go into the lines. Like what what you want is to actually have the hardest forehead anyone's ever seen. Right? And and it goes into line. But but don't hold back on that, you know, and I think there's something in that about like art and writing. It's like, if we're aiming towards the job or the salary, then that requires hitting in the line. You know what I mean? 90% of the time, but what you want as a young artist starting out is just hit the ball as hard as you can like, right out of your mind. Like right, the craziest freakiest like, and then

Alex Ferrari 34:40
You could pull it, you could pull that back.

Julia Cho 34:42
Yes, but once you're in the line, you can't, you can't hit it out, you know, start just

Alex Ferrari 34:48
Go big. Go Go big first because as you develop the big swing all the time, you can then learn how to pivot that swing a little bit over to the left just to get in the line. but you have the biggest swing on the court. And that's where

Julia Cho 35:03
All the crap is. But like do not, do not, you know, hold back on the power.

Alex Ferrari 35:09
Yeah, exactly what's great, good stuff. I love this conversation. Good stuff. Now I'm now now let's get to your new film turning red, which is a wonderful film. I saw it the other day. And I was really, it was blown away by the heart of it, the humor of it. It is such a movie of its day, meaning that the young people in it are not the young people that were in Monsters Inc, or in other older Pixar movies. This is a very relevant, updated, you know, experience of what it's like to be a young person. And I have two little young people in my life that I see through their eyes what they're going through now. And it's so different than what you and I went through. Thank God, there was no internet. That's all I'm saying. Yeah. Back there. So how did you so we were discussed how you got it you got into Pixar. As far as you know, getting courted to come in. I have to ask you, so you walk into the Pixar building, first day of work to start working? What is that like? Like just the pressure of like walking through those halls? You've seen the behind the scenes, I'm sure in some, some videos, and you're walking, you're like, Oh, God, what am I doing here? And that thing is so big. You must feel like this big.

Julia Cho 36:31
Yeah, it's a lot. It's a lot. I mean, I think I felt that way even just coming because you have to have an interview, of course, you get hired, right? So just like coming to be interviewed was really intimidating. And it's a beautiful campus. Like, it's just gorgeous. You know, and again, like coming from theater, which is like cramped, sticky floors, rats running through the dress. Shirt, like, oh my gosh, yeah, the aura is kind of hard to, to, like, yeah, you come in and everything glows. But I do remember, my first day of work. I couldn't remember the particulars. And I should also say my first day of work was not this project. I my first Pixar job was actually another project that then I didn't stay on and and then I ended up on Jomi. But when I showed up for that first official Pixar day of work, the aura lasted only about 10 minutes. And then I started working and it was so intense. I quickly, because because like I feel like a lot of their projects are like under wraps. Right? They have to be very careful. And so I felt like once I actually showed up, it's like, you're here, finally the writer sit down. And then they turned a firehose of story on it is like, here's all the things I've been thinking about, here's what we need to actually put into a script now, you know, and and you're just like, fire hose, fire hose, fire hose, you know. And so that that is sort of what it feels like that like 10 minutes of aura, and then eight hours of Firehose

Alex Ferrari 38:04
And then and then the aura is gone, though now this is just yeah, I gotta work. I gotta

Julia Cho 38:08
I hear a magical Mount Olympus where the gods live. And then you realize the gods are all really busy making their own.

Alex Ferrari 38:17
And here's a fire hose of story that you got to deal with.

Julia Cho 38:21
Here. You're not even a demigod you're just plaib

Alex Ferrari 38:24
A peasant. You're a peasant that has been allowed in. And now we're, yeah, now get to work.

Julia Cho 38:32
Get to work.

Alex Ferrari 38:33
Now get to work. It's so funny, because I think that I think we were talking about a little bit off air how pics are builds their story. Can you talk a little bit about your analogy of how Pixar so different than other animation studios or other studios in general and how they develop story?

Julia Cho 38:51
Yeah, I think that I was used to a more linear development process where you would have like a first draft. And then you have iterations of that first draft that just refined the first draft. And I think Pixar encourages you to throw away that and restart from scratch almost with your second and third and fourth. So it was kind of surprising to me how, how bold and even encouraging of boldness, they are at Pixar, every other place I had been had been about retaining as much as you could. And they were really about finding the best thing, even if it meant completely letting go of what you had. And I think that they had done it enough with enough movies that they have a certain confidence that that actually can work. Because it felt insane and hard to do that. Like what do you mean, we can't, you know, build off of the first iterations you know, and you know, we didn't throw out 100% of it, but it just felt like with every so take care reels process, you know where once you're greenlit into production, you have like six to eight screenings. And those first screenings, you're presenting the entire movie, and getting thoughts and notes on it. And so depending on how each goes that, so the first screening was a certain version, the movie, but then the second screening because of the notes and thoughts we got on the first was a totally different movie. And so I was saying to you how I feel like it's almost a prototype way of looking at story development, where I would imagine that if you could look back and see the I don't know, let's say, eight prototypes that the Apple iPod had, you know, you might have seen, like, the first prototype was maybe really different, you know, but what they're saying is like, oh, but the, the wheel works in this prototype. So let's keep the wheel and change everything else. And that's really kind of what it felt like, with each screening that we did, it'd be like, this part of the movie works. So let's keep that and then not go forward until every other part of the movie works as well as this part, you know. So with every iteration, you're trying to create the best movie as opposed to refining the first movie that you had.

Alex Ferrari 41:11
Right! And it's, it's like, I think, like you were saying, off air is kind of like because they are in Silicon Valley, up in up in Northern California. They are, they're their founders are tech, you know, Steve Jobs. And I've got it forgot his other name, not last year, but the other one there tech guy, so they come at it from a tech.

Julia Cho 41:35
And that's just my own pet theory, why the process is like this. But when I think about Pixar, you know, so often it's lauded as this creative, incredible company, which it is, but to me, when I really think about it, it's also squarely a tech company, because everything they do is based upon technology. And I think what doesn't get the credit is how unbelievably advanced their technology is, because they the technology is why the movies look so good. Like the animators might be doing the incredible animating that they're doing. But there are programmers who are creating, to rigging the movie, like, like, all the tools are made by Pixar, nobody, nobody's making the tools and Pixar is like, you know, buying them at Home Depot, like they are literally making everything they do. So it's it's a pretty incredible approach. And I think that, you know, way of creating technology, maybe even what the way programs are created might have influenced the creative process as well.

Alex Ferrari 42:35
No, did you work with the famous Pixar brain trust?

Julia Cho 42:40
Oh, of course.

Alex Ferrari 42:41
So what is that? What is that? So what is that process? Like?

Julia Cho 42:44
A really terrifying, I would say, I think the first time it was like, who's coming? Are you kidding me?

Alex Ferrari 42:52
So for everybody, so tell everybody what the brain trust is, if they don't know,

Julia Cho 42:55
So the brain trust, I don't even know where the term came about. But it's just that at Pixar. All the directors and creators weigh in on each other's projects. And so there is a brain trust of producers and directors. So for us, you know, the people who around who are weighing in when I initially came, it was Leon Krige Andrew Stanton And Pete Docter, of course. So you have like these people who are enormously intimidating because like, like I said, as I've said, like I came in not ever have you done any feature animation before. And here are the gods of feature animation, you know, like, you walk into the male building, main building, and there's like a whole case of the Oscars that these people have won just

Alex Ferrari 43:37
The director of monster Monsters Inc. is literally there.

Julia Cho 43:42
Yeah, so that was that was really like, Thank God Pete Docter is such a kind and grounded person, because it was really like I had to not fan girl when I saw him, you know? up all those movies. Oh, no, no, incredible, right? So so the brain trust is amazing. Because they come in and they they read the script, like so one of the first things we had to get greenlit into production was they had to, as a group approve the script. But then just with every reels like there's a long session, there's like, a whole thing where it's like a ritual now, right? It's like you present the movie, everyone watches the screening. And then there's like a two to three hour notice session, you know, of just going around the room and everybody chiming in. And the brain trust at one time can be as small as you know, 10 people or as big as 20 or more. So it's really intimidating, but it's also really, really helpful. And a big part of our brain trust was also I mean, Pete Docter was one of these producers, but Dan Scanlon who just you know, was doing onward and they came off it, and Adrian Molina was, I think the AP on it. So they all would kind of help not so there was a branch office, but then the three of them also felt like they really got kind of helped shape the conversation and pull out what they thought were the most pertinent things. And they gave us deep notes, they were not easy notes, they weren't just like my you just change the scene, or maybe this line we were, they were like, deeply structural nodes. And I think what makes it effective though, is I get, I mean, I get notes all the time. And being in TV, you get notes and executive notes from all sorts of people, you know, but what makes it nice at Pixar is you're getting the notes from other people who have wrestled with these same problems who have suffered through these same things. That sense of like, mutual understanding that they were coming at you from a place of people who had been there before, I think was enormously reassuring and made it a much more nurturing process than a destructive process.

Alex Ferrari 45:53
That Yeah, cuz I've always wondered what it was like to be in that room and go through that again. And again, it's not one time to it's you do it multiple times, over and over again. And it's that's that's that kind of deconstruction of the stories I was telling you, one of my one of my dear friends used to work at Disney animation, and they would just, like, completely throw away their entire movie. And they go, Okay, we got nine months to do the entire thing from scratch. And I asked you Is it is it like that a picture? And you're like, absolutely. It's insanity. Like, I have no idea how they do this. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. No, because also because they'll throw away like months of work. Like, it's not just like the writing has been thrown away. sets that digital sets have been built characters have been, I mean, there's been worth millions of dollars of development and a&r and everything and it's gone. If it doesn't work gone, the brutal

Julia Cho 46:45
Yeah, and you know, and I think the ideal is to do as little of that as possible.

Alex Ferrari 46:49

Julia Cho 46:50
Not the goal to throw things away, but but I do feel like there is a kind of commitment that is really nice, which is, they will they will fight for a movie that works and is up to what they believe in, you know, they will not let it go. Just you know what, forget it. It's good enough. I never heard that. I never heard it.

Alex Ferrari 47:13
I doubt that you ever will. Now when is when is it coming out? And where can people see it?

Julia Cho 47:21
So the movie is coming out tomorrow on Disney+, which is exciting. And I think actually today it's rolling out globally I want to say so I think other countries are seeing it in their theaters and there are some theaters that are showing it for a limited release. So I would say if anyone out there thinks this movie is up their alley, whether it's because you're Canadian or love boy bands or whatever. Yeah, like the widest net possible but I would say like if you can safely watch it in a theater it's really an amazing fun experience to watch it with a large group of people so whether it's streaming or in person, the movie will be out tomorrow so

Alex Ferrari 48:05
And there was and there was that's one of my favorite parts of the movie is the boy band scenario is just such a Brit like as I'm listening to him like oh my god these are all my girlfriends like that's how they you could tell that that came from that had to have come from personal experience of like you know who the between the director and you like it was so perfectly on point of the love that a young girl has for ridiculous boyband just lose their mind over it's perfectly done.

Julia Cho 48:39
Yeah, no, I think that was really a fun discovery to make like that her only goal in life

Alex Ferrari 48:46
Is to go to a concert for it was it? Was it called Otown?

Julia Cho 48:51
Well, there is an actual band called Otown, but the band for the movies purposes is called 4town

Alex Ferrari 48:57
4town. That's right now, but there was five of them.Brilliant. That's right. That's just absolutely brilliant. Now I'm gonna ask you a couple questions ask all of my guests. What What advice would you give a screenwriter trying to break into the business today?

Julia Cho 49:12
Just love it. Love what you're doing love writing love writing so much that nothing can make you stop writing and and pray.

Alex Ferrari 49:25
Lord, please help me get through the scene. Now what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?

Julia Cho 49:36
There's so many things I'm still trying to learn. And I think the thing I've only started to learn now is how to integrate all the different parts of my writing selves. Because I did have a playwright self and a TV self and then it picks ourselves and I would keep them compartmentalize because I thought it would be I don't know what I thought. I guess I thought I couldn't be all those things at once. And I think now is me trying to be one coherent writer who does all of that. And does it all, you know, uses all of herself with each project she writes, no matter what the genre.

Alex Ferrari 50:16
So the dark movies, the dark plays are in a room with 10 people could be over at Pixar.

Julia Cho 50:23
Yeah. Actually, I used to think they were all so separate, but those boundaries were imaginary. They were illusions, you know, that I put there.

Alex Ferrari 50:34
And is there are there three pilots or three screenplays that all screenwriters should read?

Julia Cho 50:43
Three pilots of screenplays that all scriptwriter should read? Oh, my goodness. Three pilots, this is such a great question. Oh my god, I'm okay. I don't know how to answer this question.

Alex Ferrari 51:06
Whatever comes to the top of your head.

Julia Cho 51:09
Ah, can I also throw in some plays? Sure has actually like there are texts for sure. Sure. So I know it's like really esoteric, and I brought it up in something I was writing the other day. But there's this like really great play. This is so esoteric. It's it's a, it's Antigone. It's a modern adaptation event ticketing, which is like this really old play. Right. But it's one of my touchstones of like a young woman's independence and voice. And it's translated from the French. Again, this sounds so pretentious, and I don't mean it to you. But it's just such a good play. And it's called Antigone by John onwy. It's just filled a n fo UI LH or something. But Google Antigone. But then I would say that in terms of scripts, I think, I think there really is something to learn from, from reading Aaron Sorkin scripts, I'll just say this, because I think because he's such a master of dialogue. And I think he shows a way to kind of break the rules in a way that everybody it's like, he almost reinvents the rules, you know. And I think there's a lot to be inspired by with that. So I think reading his dialogue is like a masterclass in how to have a two hander. But then in terms of a pilot, gosh, I will confess, I don't actually read pilots too much, because I myself. I don't know what it is. But I think like, I don't want other voices to get in my own way. Sure. But if you are going to read something, I guess I just because I recently looked at it, and it's not TV Exactly. But I still find the the voice of something like Juno really inspiring because, like, so specific. So I would say that, and, and you know, I'm just gonna keep thinking about this question, because it's such a great question. Thank you so much. I had to really think about that. Like, what should you read? Oh, I would say this, I would read moonlight by Barry Jenkins. Oh, such a great beauty of something. You know, that's beautiful. Yeah. So yeah, a lot of light. And what's amazing is all those scripts are actually available. So yeah,

Alex Ferrari 53:21
Yeah, absolutely. They're available online. A lot of them are available on our site, so you could definitely check them out. Julia it's been an absolute pleasure talking to you. It's been so much fun going down down the path with you on your journey and getting an inside look at you know, one of the greatest story telling machines in modern history and and seeing your perspective of the whole thing. So, continued success, and I hope everybody goes out and sees turning red, which is and maybe watches a boy band here there. Who knows. But I appreciate you so much. Thank you for for doing what you do.

Julia Cho 53:54
Oh, thank you for doing what you do. Are you kidding? Yeah, totally. Thank you.


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