A24’s newest outing, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is in theaters, based on the character and short films created by Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate. It’s an endearing film that follows young sentient shell Marcel as he goes on an adventure to find his family, with a documentarian (played by Dean Fleischer-Camp) in tow.
I spoke with Dean Flesicher-Camp about the film, the hours of material that didn’t make it into the final cut, Marcel being a stealth monster movie, and more.
[This interview was lightly edited for clarity]
This was really fun for me, because I really love the short from, you know, over a decade ago, and its sequels. I should tell you that I consider it a monster movie, for the record.
Dean Fleischer-Camp: You know, it’s funny when we were making the movie, because we shot our live-action stuff first and cut it all together so there’s a whole cut of the movie that didn’t have Marcel and all the things he manipulates. There’s just blinds opening themselves, doors opening, and I was like, ‘well, this is a haunted house movie without Marcel.’
Tell me about the origins of the initial idea for Marcel, because you can’t really start anywhere but there.
DFC: The genesis of Marcel, the origin was that it began with the voice. Jenny had been doing his voice because we split a hotel room with five friends at a wedding to try to save money. She started doing this tiny voice as a way to express how cramped she felt, and it made us laugh. We’re all cracking up about it all weekend, and then when I got home from that I realized that I had promised I’d make a video for my friend’s stand-up show and forgot until the day before, or two days before. Somebody was like, ‘Oh, God, that’s tomorrow’ and I was like, ‘Jenny, can I interview you? I’m gonna build a character around this voice that you’ve been doing.’
We wrote a few jokes, she improvised around those questions, and then I ran out to the craft store, bought googly eyes, found a box of shells, these snail shells. Then the shoes I found… you know [how] bodegas have crappy, rip-off toys behind the counter? There’s a fake Polly Pocket that has tons of accessories, but like one pair of shoes that I zeroed in on, and then animated, and edited, and screened for an audience within, like, 48 hours. It felt like, even in that room that first screening, it just felt like the temperature in the room changed a little bit.
And then 12 years later you ended up making a feature film. How did that come about?
DFC: The plan was always to make a feature, but when the first shorts came out I was a very green filmmaker. Jenny and I were sort of just starting our careers, and it had a lot of heat so we had meetings with studios, did the whole water bottle tour of L.A., but it was clear that they were interested in grafting Marcel onto a more familiar tentpole-type of franchise movie. Someone even suggested we could partner him with John Cena and they could fight crime, which, you know, I’d watch that on an airplane.
It was just really clear [that], oh, I see this is not going to be a short road to getting to make the film that I really wanted to make with the character, and that I think Jenny and I felt would be [able] to expand his world in a way that was holistic to what we had created, and [with] a character that was very dear to us. We did a couple of picture books, and we did a couple other shorts, but otherwise we were just like ‘Yeah, let’s just like keep this to ourselves and we’ll eventually find the right people to make it with, we’ll be able to make it,’ and took some time. We got lucky and found the right partners for it.
How did A24 get on board?
DFC: So we made the film with this company called Centereach, who almost entirely financed it but also were really key creative support to us. They’re a company that finances indie movies, and they have sort of in-house producers that we worked with who were crucial to this whole thing and to giving us the time, the support, the encouragement, and the chance to make what ultimately is, you know, a pretty unusual type of movie. And then A24 came on board after we screened it, it premiered in Telluride, and purchased it for distribution in North America. They’ve also been great this whole project even though it’s taken so long, it’s been such a long journey. We’ve been blessed with meeting the right people at the right time.
You and Jenny collaborated on so many aspects of the film, shaping the story and the narrative. Tell me how you came to write it and what that process was like and how you found this particular story.
DFC: So I think that that process of hearing the studios out, and all these ways to blow out the character, it was disappointing at the time [but it] was ultimately clarifying because it forced us to say, well, what is the version of this expanded universe that would make sense, and what’s the story we want to tell? I think it made me feel like the answer to that question, having explored the ‘you get lost in Paris,’ or whatever version, was to look near instead of far, and to search inward and keep it as small and self-contained as possible.
Marcel is already tiny in this outside world, you actually lose something by making the scope of the movie bigger, because he lives in a house but it’s a country to him. You don’t need to take him to Paris. So then it came down to, well, what does this character mean to me, and Jenny? And what did we learn about ourselves, and about the internet, and about our own community in the last 10 years… both releasing Marcel and it having this kind of surprising viral moment, but also, you know, the other kind of more personal and deeper themes about grief, and loss, and how to move through that.
I especially felt very connected to this idea that death is sort of inherent in all new growth in life, so that was where that was sort of where we started writing towards. The writing process was really unusual… There’s a danger with a bigger budget that you can totally sand off the thing that made it special, and so I was very committed ‘well, how do we preserve that sort of very loose, fun, authentic, doc-sounding audio and production model that we had in the shorts, while also telling this longer story.
We came up with a plan of Nick Paley, who wrote the film with me and Jenny, and I would write for two-or-three-months, and then we do two days of audio recording, and then we do another two-or-three-months. Nick and I both come from editing, so the first part of that second two-or-three-months was always going through all the audio, and we’re just always rolling on those two or three days, going through all of that and pulling out the gems. We recorded the scenes, but then we’d also say ‘this line is not working.’ Jenny would maybe come up with a joke that cracked us all up, and so we did that over-and-over again over the course of like two-and-a-half years. By the end we had this screenplay that resulted in what you heard, which is, I think, a really wonderful mixture of spontaneous things and dynamics while also being surprisingly structured.
On top of that all, you co-star as yourself. Does that add any extra elements or difficulties to you?
DFC: I don’t consider myself an actor, so I think it added nervousness to me personally, just because I was like… I’m not in control of the instrument the way that real actors are, and I don’t want to mess up the take, or force us to have to go again. It certainly put me in touch with how hard it is to be an actor. But yeah, I was always intended that I would be the voice behind the camera, and that my character would have his own little mini-arc, but me being in front of the camera I had never really anticipated. It just became clear that that’s what the story requires.
I also really loved the Rube Goldberg machines Marcel used. What was the process like of conceiving of and building those?
DFC: That was so fun. Most of the things came from the process, towards the end of recording audio and writing the screenplay. Towards the end of that process, Kiersten Laporte, the animation director, and I sat down and storyboarded the entire film, every shot. That process requires you to put yourself in Marcel’s shoes because you’re like ‘we have this great scene in the living room, and then we have this great scene outside, but how else are you gonna get there?’ You’re wrapped into a corner, you have to figure out, ‘oh, okay, maybe he steps in honey and then he can walk here,’ so it was a really fun process. I remember Nick Paley and I have a ongoing text thread that was just Marcel inventions. We would brainstorm for like a week about ‘okay, well, what’s the perfect tombstone for Nana’s? The burial?’ and all those little things.
What’s your favorite idea you didn’t get to use?
DFC: Oh, my God, that’s a great question. There is, Jeff, like… I’m gonna say five hours of incredible jokes and scenes that we recorded audio for that are amazing, and Jenny’s amazing, and that are not in the film. I think by virtue of that quasi-doc writing-recording process, you end up growing this huge orchard just to make like a little cup of apple juice. The orchard goes on for miles. That’s my favorite.
I mean, there was a poodle made out of a tampon that didn’t make the cut… there’s so much stuff. There’s just so much. There’s a part where Marcel gets addicted to Vitamin D supplements… there’s a moment where he’s like a little crazy, wired cokehead. There’s a scene where I’m trying to urge him to get out of the house more. There was a scene where I made a saddle for him to ride Arthur the dog around. There’s a lot out there, we could probably put together an entire other feature.
I really want to see that longer cut! How did you land Isabella Rossellini? She’s a legend!
DFC: I feel so lucky that we get to work with her and that she was so generous with her time and with her creativity. But I think we really got lucky, I mean… we went through a casting director and the appropriate channels, you know, and got in touch with her, sent her a little brief on the character and what we wanted to do with the story… and I think we got lucky. She is a true artist in the sense that she just wants to make types of work that she’s never done before work in new ways, and she gets offers all the time that she says no to because they’re a ‘normal movie,’ or whatever. It just so happens that she’s an artist herself. She’s a very intellectually curious person. I think she was just like, ‘what is this like, weird process where we’re going to be recording in a real house? What are these crazy kids up to?
She was so lovely in the role.
DFC: I’m pretty sure she told me that no one had ever asked her to improvise before, which is crazy. I think it is kind of a generational thing, where, if you’re an actor now going out for roles, it’s assumed you might have to improvise. But yeah, a lot of the roles that she’s cast in, A) they’re usually dramatic, and B) they’re sort of presentational, and I love that… this role, I feel like it’s probably the closest to who she is as a person and I love that we got to cast her in a comedy that embraces who she is, and gives that space to flourish.
I love her in it, such a warm vocal performance. I wanted to follow up briefly on something I said earlier… so I consider Marcel a monster movie…
DFC: Yeah, yeah! Wait, tell me more.
Well this is kind of your Nightbreed in a way, because it’s about a sentient object that has to find its family of other… things that shouldn’t be sentient and living, but are.
DFC: Oh my god, that’s so… I love that.
In a sense, it’s really about a family of creatures and one of them has to find his way home!
DFC: Damn, dude, this is a strong theory. This is good!
I’m declaring it for the internet.
DFC: Are we the first monster movie about grief? … Probably, not actually. *laughs*
One final question… the first short blew up and was so well regarded, and that kind of comes into this film, obviously, and it has some commentary on that. Let’s talk about that a little more.
DFC: Well, the Internet has changed so much since we’ve made that first short that it’s almost hard to imagine what Marcel would look like if we just made it now. We always wanted to come from a personal place and tell a personal story with this character, and folding the viral fame thing into it seemed like a nice way to comment on it but also, you know, advance his story and his backstory.
It got into things that, you know, I’m pretty interested in and that we all have to reckon with now, which is sort of like ‘how much do you want to treat your online audience as a community?’ because if you treat it as a actual replacement for a real community, I think you’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’. We all decide that to varying degrees throughout our lives now. […] I think it also gets to the heart of something that Jenny and I felt very clearly needed protecting when we started talking to studios and thinking about expanding this.
The things on the surface that you see, [or] when an Executive or someone new to the character looks at Marcel for the first time, are not really the things that I’m interested in, or that Jenny’s interested in really, or that make him special. He kind of looks like he could be a Pixar character or something, but really what makes him special isn’t that he’s tiny, or that he’s funny or cute. It’s that he has this indomitable spirit, and he has this very introspective, thoughtful way of looking at the world even when he’s discovering new things. That seemed like, if we just went the studio route, that was gonna be the first thing to go. And it’s also the last thing that people sort of comment on on the internet, because the internet is all about surfaces and immediate reactions. I think that’s a long, rambling answer, but it was something that we felt passionately about.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On premieres in theaters June 24th, 2022.