“Have you ever eaten a raspberry?…And how was it?
In “Marcel the shod shell“, even the smallest questions are the stuff of building an immersive world. The film, a hybrid of stop-motion and live-action, tells the story of Marcel, a creature one inch tall. high voiced by Jenny Slate which allows human documentarian Dean (played by Dean Fleischer Camp, who also directs the film) to observe his life. Marcel and Dean ponder parallel solitudes: Marcel’s entire family is gone except for his grandmother, Nana Connie (voiced by the legendary Isabella Rossellini), and Dean plots a breakup. As Marcel reveals his weird and inventive daily activities, which include using a tennis ball for transportation and sleeping on a slice of white bread, Dean shares them with the internet, and the masses decide to help Marcel find his community.
Marcel first appeared in viral short film of the same name that Slate and Camp wrote and produced in 2010, when they were a couple. (The pair divorced in 2016 — strangely, not before Dean’s breakup plot was written — though they remained friends and creative partners.) This led to children’s books as well as a second and third short based on the same character.
Slate and Camp then tapped Nick Paley as co-screenwriter and offered treatment to the nonprofit Cinereach, which ultimately funded the film – but they never wrote a screenplay. All dialogue has been improvised, leaving room for gems such as “[A documentary] is like a movie, but no one has lines and no one even knows what it is while they’re making it! Nope?”
With “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” in theaters now via A24Slate spoke with Variety about taking the little hero to the big screen, balloon death and his favorite bits from the movie.
It’s been 12 years since “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” debuted as a short film. What made 2022 the right time for feature film?
It took seven years to make the feature, so it was a pretty natural course of events. We did the short, we wrote a few books, we did two other shorts, and in that moment it was like, ‘We know the character can do it.’ We really felt he had a depth – and part of that is just feeling the desire within you to go deeper into something. I don’t think it was ever a question for us that it would work. It was a process of finding the people who would let us do our job the way we wanted to do it.
Tell me about the recording with Isabella Rossellini, who plays Marcel’s grandmother, Nana Connie. How did you manage to involve him? Was she already a fan of Marcel?
She wasn’t, but her kids told her that Marcel was, like, a cool thing to do. She signed off because they were like, “Oh, we love this thing!” And she said that personally she was really fascinated by some sort of invented cinematographic process. The process of making this movie was definitely invented by Dean; it’s not how people normally do animated features. He invented a process that kept the character alive and the way I like to play him.
And [Rossellini] was very curious about improvisation. She hadn’t really done much improv before, [but] you really couldn’t tell. She was very, very confident. So we were lucky that she had that kind of wonder about it all.
Can you clarify what you mean by an “invented” process?
Like, a stop-motion documentary. There is no room for error; every little bit of the stop-motion is completely thought out and requires painstaking patience. The fact that we improvised for so long and the script was slowly shaped through so many turns, and the order in which we filmed it, it was like completely designed by Dean, and just different in the way whose normal stop-motion is usually over.
What was important to bring with you from the original short film to the feature film?
The scale of the original shorts was really important. We were like, “We don’t need to make this world any more exciting. It’s already very exciting. We don’t need to force Marcel in Paris. His world is enough, and that’s also all he has. This combination really intrigues us. We also didn’t want to make him more sassy, or increase his cuteness – we wanted to keep meeting him like we did before. But also we wanted to allow ourselves to take it seriously, without taking ourselves too seriously. We were aware that Marcel is a vehicle, or a crucible, for really, really deep and personal feelings. We just wanted to put all of that on him and see what that combination did. And I’m glad we followed that instinct, because it creates that specific reality that you feel.
There is an underlying loneliness or sadness in the feature that is slightly present in the original shorts. Have you always seen him as a character in mourning?
I don’t think when we first did the shorts that we thought of him as someone going through a loss. But having said that, in one of the shorts he says he had a sister, but he lost her because someone asked him to hold the ball. I remember we both laughed so hard, and also were so shocked at how dark it was. And now that we said that about him, we could never take it away. It wasn’t actually included in the movie, but a different kind of heartbreak was. A slower mourning. A slower loss that Marcel must see happening in front of him, coupled with living in the aftermath of an astonishing, immediate and shocking loss of his entire family. Sometimes the loss is associated with characters that are already shaped by the loss, like the characters you see in “True Detective.” These kind of serious, jaded, jaded people who have been pickled and marinated in their own loss. Marcel is always himself. And that’s why having to go through loss is such a specific experience. He himself is not grief. He just met him.
Can you talk about the dynamic that mourning creates between Marcel and Nana Connie? Because he is so small and has a higher-pitched voice, it sometimes seems like he could be a child, but he also has such wisdom and maturity, as evidenced by the way he protects his grandmother. The parental relationship is a bit reversed.
Marcel has no age, but he is definitely not a child. Although it can sometimes remind us of children and feel as vulnerable or innocent as we perceive a child. But I think it’s good to see Marcel as a capable person. The way he takes care of Nana Connie is, without a doubt, good care. It’s not too much for him; he is completely in control. But one thing he does, that a lot of adults can do, is he [allows] its responsibility to take up a little more space than it should. He uses it as an excuse for why his life shouldn’t change any more than it already has. Like we say in the movie, it’s really not up to you. Your life will always change. That’s what makes it a life. And Nana Connie says, “Don’t use me as an excuse not to live.
There is a very fine line there. Because it’s nice to take good care of our elders. I think that’s an essential thing for your older parents to do, to give them good, caring, specific care. It’s an honor for Marcel to be able to do this. I don’t think he would accept anyone’s offer to do it for him. But often we can allow our fears to hide in actually positive behaviors. It can be very confusing.
Dean’s character isn’t as prominent in the shorts as it is in the feature. Why was it important to highlight the human presence here more?
People will say, “You can only have, like, one type of this thing happening in a movie.” Everyone in this movie is going through some sort of disconnect. Marcel and his grandmother live in a house where a couple separated. Dean, the documentarian, is in a state of flux in his own life; he lives there because he has no place to go. Nana Connie detaches herself from her own memory. Marcel is detached from his family and slowly, slowly detaches himself from Nana Connie. Everything happens all the time, but so does everything else!
We really wanted to show this type of simultaneous living. While we’d like to hope that only one person goes through a bad thing at a time and the rest of us are safe, that’s not how it works at all. We all deal with things, all at once. That’s why it’s so good to be in a community, because we take the pressure off each other, and we kind of care for each other.
Finally, what are some of your favorite marcel-isms that didn’t make it into the final cut?
Marcel goes to a school called Academy of Tunes – where he had, before his community was taken away. There were a lot of things about him in his class that I really liked, like him as a singer. There was a big story about how Marcel doesn’t get along with his brother, Justin, played by Nathan Fielder. Then this part that I really wish I could have incorporated: Marcel said, “Storms are the best kind of theatre.” It was just a riff I played that didn’t make the cut, but maybe we’ll use it for something else someday.
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