“Have you ever eaten a raspberry? … And how was that?”
In “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” even the smallest questions are the stuff of immersive world building. A blend of stop motion and live action, the film tells the story of Marcel, a 1 inch tall creature voiced by Jenny Slate and human documentary filmmaker Dean (played by Dean Fleischer Camp, who also directs ) allowed to watch his life. Marcel and Dean ponder parallel loneliness: Marcel’s entire family has disappeared except for his grandmother, Nana Connie (voiced by the legendary Isabella Rossellini), and Dean is dealing with a breakup. When Marcel reveals his strange 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 fellowship.
Marcel first appeared in the viral short film of the same name, which Slate and Camp wrote and produced in 2010 when they were a couple. (The couple divorced in 2016 — eerily, only after Dean’s breakup storyline was written — though they remained friends and creative partners.) That led to children’s books, as well as a second and third short film based on the same character.
Slate and Camp then brought in Nick Paley as a co-writer and proposed a treatment to the nonprofit Cinereach, which ultimately funded the film — but they never wrote a screenplay. All dialogue was improvised to make room for gems like: “[A documentary] is like a movie but no one has any lines and no one knows what it is while they are making it! No?”
With “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” in theaters now on A24, Slate spoke out diversity via the little heroes to the big screen, Death by Balloon and her favorite outtakes from the film.
It has been twelve years since Marcel the Shell With Shoes On made its debut as a short film. What did 2022 do at the right time for the full-length feature film?
It took seven years to make the feature, so it was a pretty natural flow of things. We did the short, we wrote a couple of books, we did two more shorts, and at that point it was like, “We know the character can do that.” We really felt that he had a depth — and part of that is just feeling a desire within yourself to go deeper. I don’t think there was ever a question for us that it would work. It was a process finding the people who would let us do our job the way we wanted it.
Tell me about the recordings with Isabella Rossellini, who plays Marcel’s grandmother, Nana Connie. How did you manage to include them? Was she already a fan of Marcel?
She wasn’t, but her kids told her that Marcel was a cool thing. She signed up because they said, “Oh, we love this thing!” And she said that she was personally very intrigued by a kind of imaginary filmmaking. The process of making this film was definitely invented by Dean; That’s not the way people normally do animated features. He invented a process that preserved the life of the character and the way I like to perform her.
and [Rossellini] was very curious about improvisation. She hadn’t really improvised much before, [but] you really couldn’t tell. She was very, very confident. So we were lucky that she had that kind of miracle about the whole thing.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by a “made up” process?
Like a stop motion documentary. There is no room for error; Every little bit of stop motion is fully thought out and requires arduous patience. The fact that we improvised for so long and the script was slowly formed through so many rounds and the order that we filmed it in was like it was entirely designed by Dean and just different from how regular stop motion is usually completed.
What was important in bringing you from the original short films to feature film?
The scale of the original shorts was really important. We thought, ‘We don’t need to make this world more exciting. It’s very exciting. We don’t need Marcel in Paris.’ His world is enough and it is all he has. This combination fascinates us a lot. We also didn’t want to make him sassier or add to the cuteness – we wanted to continue to approach him the way we’ve done before. But we also wanted to allow ourselves to take him seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. We were aware that Marcel is a vehicle or a melting pot for some really, really deep and personal feelings. We wanted to do all of that to him and see what that combination does. And I’m glad we followed that instinct, because it creates that specific realness that you feel.
There is an underlying loneliness or sadness in the feature film that is readily present in the original shorts. Have you always seen him as a figure in mourning?
I don’t think when we made the shorts we saw him as someone who was going through a loss. But that is, in one of the shorts, he says that he used to have a sister, but he lost her because someone asked her to hold the balloon. I remember we both laughed so hard and were also so shocked at how dark this is. And now that we said that about him, we could never take it away from him. It wasn’t actually in the film, but it was a different kind of grief. A slower sadness. A slower loss that Marcel must face coupled with living after a stunning and immediate and shocking loss of his entire family. Sometimes loss is paired with characters who are already somehow shaped by loss, like the characters you see in True Detective. The kind of gritty, over-the-top, jaded people who’ve been pickled and pickled in their own loss. Marcel is still himself. And that’s why going through the loss is such a special experience. He himself is not a sorrow. He’s just meeting him.
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, he seems like a child at times, but he also has so much wisdom and maturity, as evidenced by the way he protects his grandmother. The parental relationship is a bit tipped.
Marcel has no age, but he is definitely not a child. Although at times he can remind us of children and feel as vulnerable or innocent as we perceive a child. But I think it’s nice to see Marcel as a capable person. The way he takes care of Nana Connie is good care without question. It’s not too much for him; he is in full control. But one thing he does that many adults can do is he [allows] its responsibility to take up a little more space than it should. He uses it as an excuse why his life shouldn’t change even more than it already is. As we say in the movie, it really isn’t up to you. Your life will always change. That makes it a life. And Nana Connie says, “Don’t use me as an excuse not to live.”
There’s a very fine line to walk. Because it’s nice to take good care of our elders. I think it is important to provide good, attentive and specific care to your elderly relatives. It’s an honor for Marcel to be able to do that. I don’t think he would accept her offer to do it for him. But often we can allow our fears to hide in behaviors that are actually positive. It can be really confusing.
Dean’s character isn’t nearly as prominent in the shorts as it is in the feature film. Why was it important to emphasize the human presence here?
People will say, “Only one type of this thing can happen in a movie.” Everyone in this movie goes through some kind of disconnect. Marcel and his grandmother live in a house where a couple has separated. Dean, the documentary filmmaker, is in flux in his own life; He lives there because he has no place to go. Nana Connie detaches herself from her own memory. Marcel breaks away from his family and slowly, slowly breaks away from Nana Connie. It happens all the time, but so does everything else!
We really wanted to show this simultaneous way of living. As much as we’d like to hope that just one person is going through a bad thing at a time and the rest of us are safe, it doesn’t work that way at all. We are all dealing with things at the same time. That’s why it’s so great to be in a community, because we relieve each other and are there for each other a bit.
Finally, what are some of your favorite Marcelisms that didn’t make it into the final version?
Marcel goes to a school called the Academy of Tunes – or he had before his fellowship was taken away. There was a lot about him in his class that I really liked, like him as a singer. There was a big story about Marcel not getting along with his brother Justin, played by Nathan Fielder. Then this one part that I really wish we could have put in: Marcel said, “Storms are the best kind of theatre.” It was just a riff I made that didn’t make it, but maybe one day we will use it for something else.
https://variety.com/2022/film/news/marcel-the-shell-jenny-slate-isabella-rossellini-1235302471/ Jenny Slate on Marcel the Shell, Mourning and Isabella Rossellini