“Have you ever eaten a raspberry?… And what was that like?”
In “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” even the smallest questions are the stuff of immersive world-building. The film, a hybrid of stop-motion and live action, tells the story of Marcel, a one-inch-tall creature voiced by Jenny Slate who allows human documentarian Dean (played by Dean Fleischer Camp, who also directs the film) to observe his life. Marcel and Dean ponder parallel lonelinesses: Marcel’s entire family has disappeared except for his grandmother, Nana Connie (voiced by the legendary Isabella Rossellini), and Dean is processing a breakup. As Marcel reveals his strange and inventive day-to-day 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 resolve to help Marcel find his community.
Marcel first appeared in the 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 — uncannily, not until after Dean’s breakup plotline had been written — though they remained friends and creative partners.) That led to children’s books as well as a second and third short based on the same character.
Slate and Camp then brought on Nick Paley as a co-writer and pitched a treatment to nonprofit organization Cinereach, who ultimately funded the film — but they never wrote a script. All dialogue was improvised, making room for such gems as, “[A documentary] is like a movie, but nobody has any lines and nobody even knows what it is while they’re making it! No?”
With “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” in theaters now via A24, Slate spoke with Variety about taking the tiny hero to the big screen, death by balloon and her favorite outtakes from the film.
It’s been 12 years since “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” debuted as a short film. What made 2022 the right time for the full-length feature?
It took seven years to make the feature, so it was a pretty natural course of events. We made the short, we wrote a couple of books, we made two more shorts, and at that point, it was like, “We know that the character can do it.” We really felt that he had a depth — and part of that is just feeling the desire within yourself to deepen something. I don’t think it was ever a question for us that it would work. It was a process to find the people who would let us do our job in the way that we wanted to do it.
Tell me about recording with Isabella Rossellini, who plays Marcel’s grandmother, Nana Connie. How did you manage to get her involved? Was she a fan of Marcel already?
She was not, but her kids told her that Marcel was, like, a cool thing to do. She signed on because they were like, “Oh, we love this thing!” And she said that personally, she was really fascinated by a kind of invented filmmaking process. The process of making this film was definitely invented by Dean; this is not the way that people normally do animated features. He invented a process that preserved the life of the character and the way I like to perform it.
And [Rossellini] was very curious about improv. She hadn’t really done much improvising before, [but] you really couldn’t tell. She was very, very confident. So we were lucky that she had this sort of wonder about the whole thing.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by an “invented” process?
Like, a stop-motion documentary. There’s no room for error; every little bit of the stop-motion is completely thought out and takes painstaking patience. The fact that we improvised for so long, and the script was slowly shaped through so many rounds, and the order in which we filmed it, that was like completely designed by Dean, and just different than how normal stop-motion is usually completed.
What was important to bring with you from the original shorts into the feature?
The scale of the original shorts was really important. We were like, “We don’t need to make this world more exciting. It’s already very exciting. We don’t need to make Marcel be in Paris.’ His world is enough, and it’s also all he has. That combination is really intriguing to us. We also didn’t want to make him more sassy, or amp up the cuteness — we wanted to keep encountering him the way that we had before. But also we wanted to allow ourselves to take him seriously, without taking ourselves too seriously. We were aware that Marcel is a vehicle, or crucible, for some really, really deep and personal feelings. We just wanted to put that all on him and see what that combination did. And I’m glad we followed that instincts, because it makes for this specific realness that you feel.
There’s a fundamental loneliness or sadness in the feature film that is lightly present in the original shorts. Did you always see him as a character in grief?
I don’t think, when we first made the shorts, that we thought of him as someone who was going through loss. But that said, in one of the shorts, he says that he used to have a sister, but he lost her because somebody asked her to hold the balloon. I remember both of us just laughing so hard, and also being so shocked at how dark that is. And now that we’d said that about him, we could never take it away. It actually was not included in the film, but a different type of grief was. A slower grief. A slower loss that Marcel has to watch happen in front of him, paired with living in the aftermath of a stunning and immediate and shocking loss of his entire family. Sometimes loss is paired with characters that are somehow shaped by the loss already, like the characters you see on “True Detective.” These sort of gritty, over-it, jaded people who have been brined and pickled in their own loss. Marcel is still himself. And that’s why having to go through the loss is such a specific experience. He, himself, is not grief. He’s just encountering it.
Can you talk about the dynamic that grief creates between Marcel and Nana Connie? Because he’s so small and has a higher-pitched voice, sometimes he seems like he could be a child, but he also has such a wisdom and maturity to him, as evidenced by the way he protects his grandmother. The parental relationship is a bit flipped.
Marcel doesn’t have an age, but he’s definitely not a child. Although he can sometimes remind us of children, and feel as vulnerable or innocent as we perceive a child to be. But I think it’s nice to see Marcel as a capable individual. The way that he takes care of Nana Connie is, without question, good care. It’s not too much for him; he’s completely in control. But one thing that he does, that a lot of adults can do, is he [allows] his responsibility to take a little bit more space than it should take. He uses it as an excuse for why his life shouldn’t change any more than it already has. As we say in the movie, it’s really not up to you. Your life is always going to be changing. That’s what makes it a life. And Nana Connie says, “Don’t use me as an excuse not to live.”
There’s a really fine line there. Because it’s beautiful to care well for our elders. I think it’s an essential thing to do for your older relatives, to give them good, thoughtful, specific care. It’s an honor for Marcel to be able to do that. I don’t think he would take anyone up on their offer to do it for him. But oftentimes, we can allow our fears to hide within behaviors that are actually positive. It can be really confusing.
Dean’s character isn’t nearly as prominent in the short films as he is in the feature. Why was it important to highlight the human presence more here?
People will say, “You can only have, like, one type of this thing happen in a movie.” Everybody in this movie is going through some sort of a disconnection. Marcel and his grandmother live in a house where a couple broke up. Dean, the documentarian, is in flux in his own life; he’s living there because he doesn’t have a place to go. Nana Connie is detaching from her own memory. Marcel is detached from his family and slowly, slowly getting detached from Nana Connie. It’s all happening all the time, but so is everything else!
We really wanted to show that simultaneous type of living. As much as we’d like to hope that only one person is going through one bad thing at a time and the rest of us are safe, that’s not how it works at all. We’re all dealing with stuff, all at once. That’s why it’s so great to be in a community, because we take the pressure off each other, and we hold a little bit for each other.
Lastly, what are some of your favorite Marcel-isms that didn’t make it into the final cut?
Marcel goes to a school called the Academy of Tunes — or he had, before his community got taken away. There was a lot about him in his class that I really enjoyed, like him as a singer. There was a big storyline of how Marcel doesn’t get along with his brother, Justin, played by Nathan Fielder. Then this one part that I really wish we had been able to fit in: Marcel said, “Storms are the best kind of theater.” It was just a riff that I went on that didn’t make it in, but maybe we’ll use it for something else one day.