They’ll always have ‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’

Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp were at a career crossroads when they manifested Marcel, an inch-tall seashell with a small voice and a big heart.

Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp were at a career crossroads when they manifested Marcel, an inch-tall seashell with a small voice and a big heart.

Slate had recently been fired from “Saturday Night Live” after one season and wasn’t sure if she would get another chance to do comedy professionally again. Fleischer-Camp, on the other hand, dreamed of directing but nothing was blocked yet and he felt at a standstill. It was during this uncertain time that they found themselves at a wedding, sharing a hotel room with about five other people to save money. Slate started talking in a funny little voice.

Add a forgotten promise to make a short film for a friend’s comedy show, $6 worth of raw materials from a local bodega and DIY stop-motion cinema, and 48 hours later, “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” was born. When they put it on YouTube in 2010, it went viral. Shortly after the call from Hollywood. The feature, a documentary-style portrait of Marcel, his grandmother Connie, who is voiced by Isabella Rossellini, and his search for his lost family, opens in limited release Friday and expands July 15.

However, it was anything but an easy or straight path to the big screen. In the 12 years since that moment of inspiration, Slate and Fleischer-Camp have been married and divorced. And they quickly realized that what they wanted from a Marcel film and what the big Hollywood studios wanted were very different things.

“All of these ideas centered around transplanting Marcel onto a more familiar action-adventure franchise,” Fleischer-Camp said. “I remember one studio suggested we pair it with John Cena and they fight crime or whatever.”

Slate wasn’t interested in compromising either.

“I have a very low tolerance level for changing my own stuff just so it can be produced or released or whatever,” Slate said. “At the end of it all, the art is actually all we have. It’s so weird to give it away cheaply just to say someone is releasing the movie.

Yet Marcel’s dream of a movie survived and even blossomed in the clarity they got from poorly conceived studio ideas. Eventually, they found a partner who would support their vision of keeping Marcel small at A24.

“It was so obvious that the way to do this film was to paint a very dignified portrait of Marcel in a documentary style, to tell a really personal and honest story about grief,” Fleischer-Camp said. “What was wrong with all these other ideas was that they were trying to blow it up. And Marcel doesn’t need to be blown away. He’s already a tiny little one in a huge, oversized world.

But they needed to augment it somehow to make a feature film, so they hired Kirsten Lepore, a stop-motion specialist they’d met on the film festival circuit, to be the director of the animation supervising a team of about 50 people. . They tried to keep it as DIY as possible, but some compromises had to be made. First, Lepore hired a team of professional stop-motion animators. She was shocked to learn how Fleischer-Camp made the short film on his own (editing a continuous take instead of putting together stills shots).

“When it’s stop motion, no matter what you do, you’re always going to retain a lot of that charm because it’s a real moving object,” Lepore said.

And then there was the matter of the shell itself. Although they wanted to imitate the shorts and use a real snail shell, she said the chase was surprisingly impossible. Instead, they opted for 3D printing, which still needed to be customized to capture the intricacies and translucency of a shell’s skin.

They also had to shoot the entire film twice after the audio was fully recorded, once live and once in stop motion. Lepore herself was there for both, holding a model of Marcel in the live shots so the cinematographer could get the proper lighting and focus.

“People know the stop motion process is slow, but I think they don’t realize, like, how slow,” Lepore said. “It would take an animator working on a scene an entire day to do a shot of five, maybe 10 seconds.”

When Fleischer-Camp looks back on Marcel’s early days, he knew they already had something special.

“People always ask me if I knew it was like I was going to go viral. And it sounds so cocky, but I was like, ‘I did it,'” Fleischer-Camp said. “People really connect with this little character.”

For Slate, Marcel and his utter sincerity, innocence, and wisdom were an expression of things she felt but weren’t quite sure how to communicate at the time – at least as herself.

“Looking back, I think I was so under a bunch of feelings that sounded like shame, exhaustion, disillusionment, frustration, outrage and anger. I really didn’t want to not be separated from other feelings that are more beautiful and easier to feel or display feelings of sweetness, self-worth and being funny,” Slate said.

“I haven’t always had the easiest time showing feelings that aren’t fun to have or see. Starting to speak in that tiny little voice felt to me, even if it seemed abstract to others, a nice way to put it all together and use Marcel as a melting pot for all those feelings.

And now they’re hoping the film will reach out to audiences as well.

“It’s really funny and it’s a story that will really excite you, touch you and make you feel alive,” Slate said. “And we did it on purpose like that.”

—-

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press