Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate’s A24 feature Marcel the Shell with Shoes On boasts one of the more captivating origin stories in recent memory.
The stop-motion/live-action hybrid stems from a 2010 YouTube short of the same name that became the first in the series after going viral, also spurring the creation of two New York Times bestselling children’s books. Made in just 48 hours for a friend’s comedy show, the original penned by Fleischer-Camp and Slate introduced the titular Marcel (Slate)—the adorable one-inch-tall shell wearing but one googly eye and miniature shoes, who would take over the internet.
The Fleischer-Camp-directed sequel, opening wide on Friday, finds Marcell eking out a colorful existence with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) and their pet lint, Alan. Once part of a sprawling community of shells, they now live alone as the sole survivors of a mysterious tragedy. But when the documentary filmmaker Dean (Fleischer-Camp) discovers them amongst the clutter of his Airbnb, the short film he posts online brings Marcel millions of passionate fans, as well as unprecedented dangers and a new hope at finding his long-lost family.
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After seeing the Marcel shorts take off, Fleischer-Camp and Slate met with studio execs who saw the potential in a feature, but were thinking more of commerce than artistry—pitching, for example, a buddy comedy pairing up Marcel with John Cena. Nonetheless, the pair stuck to their guns, as to the story of small scale (boasting huge ambition, and bringing forth plenty of emotion) that they had in mind, getting it made with the help of the non-profit Cinereach.
Below, the film’s writers and stars reflect on Marcel‘s critical and commercial success, the process of bringing the film’s joke-packed script and gorgeous animation to life, the potential for a sequel, their bucket list projects as they look ahead, and more.
DEADLINE: What has it been like to see Marcel the Shell come in as such a success, after investing so much time in the film? Marcel has certainly had a remarkable trajectory, from the original 2010 short made over the course of 48 hours to the A24 feature…
DEAN FLEISCHER-CAMP: Yes, that was not enough time, so we took seven years on the next one. [Laughs]
JENNY SLATE: We’ve got to work on our balance, Dean…At least now we know that, though. 48 hours, too short. Seven years, some might say too long. We think it’s perfect, but anyway…
FLEISCHER-CAMP: It’s been amazing. It has felt just like a total unlocking for me personally, artistically, emotionally. We premiered it at the Telluride Film Festival last year, and just getting to hear laughter in a group, and crying, and to experience it with a group was such an unbelievable release, really.
DEADLINE: The film really has had a blessed trajectory, with timing working out such that you could experience its premiere in person. Certainly, many creatives missed out on that, either at the start of the pandemic or during a Covid surge…
FLEISCHER-CAMP: Yeah. One of my favorite new Pixar movies is Onward, which I think was in theaters for like a week, and then they pulled it because of Covid. So, not that many people saw it, but it’s so good.
SLATE: There’s a thing to learning a lesson yourself that you know is, in fact, sort of a banner lesson—for example, that it is scary to hope, but totally worthwhile in the end. That’s something that is even in our film of course, but I’ve noticed that in myself—that many things are true at once, and it’s enough for me that we even got to make this movie. It’s enough for me that I got to do this performance. It’s enough for me that I got to work with Dean. I never thought really past that point, and then now that it’s out, I notice how I am not too seasoned or professional, or too experienced or whatever to be completely intimidated by being hopeful. I think maybe I am just experienced enough to know how high hope can take you, and of course, that its opposite exists, that there could be a fall in your emotions. But it’s totally, totally worth it.
When I say ‘hope’, I don’t mean necessarily hope for box office or something, but just that people would understand what we were trying to do. It’s so scary to think, Well, what if I say something and do something that I think is so representative of how I feel and what I like? And people are like, “We don’t get it.” [Laughs] That’s really, really scary, so it feels really good that people seem to connect.
FLEISCHER-CAMP: I totally agree. I think that probably something we knew, but would not have articulated maybe in this way until now, is with an indie film, and especially a personal project like this, you really have to be in it for the actual doing, and for expressing yourself in the way that you want to express yourself. You can’t really depend on [anything else]. Hollywood’s so fickle, and who knows if Covid’s going to totally crater [the] box office the minute your movie comes out? So, you really have to be in it for the doing, and we were this whole time.
SLATE: You really do. I feel like the biggest success is in that you did the thing. There are many distractions that can sort of tease you, or you feel like they’re alluring, but really it is about getting to do the thing. Because also, there are so many ideas that I wish that I could do that I haven’t gotten permission or money to do. [Laughs] So, this is like a huge deal. It’s a huge win that Cinereach was there for us and gave us freedom, and gave us a conversation with them—just a dignified, really good creative conversation, where they gave us actually useful notes that were all based around the project being a creative project and not a product.
FLEISCHER-CAMP: With this and with Everything Everywhere [All At Once], I see a lot of hopefulness in box office. [That] really creative, unique voices are actually being rewarded with big box office numbers, I think is just incredible. I hope it’s an indication that people maybe now are realizing, If I can get 10,000 shows on my television or movies—like, watch any movie—maybe I should actually go see in a theater the one that seems like it was made with real heart and not necessarily the most money.
SLATE: Or they can have both. They can have it all.
DEADLINE: I know you really stuck to your guns in protecting the project from those who wanted to make the ‘product’ from IP that felt like a hot commodity. Did you find that easy to do, though? Were you ever concerned that the version of the film you wanted to make wasn’t one you’ be able to get off the ground?
SLATE: Well, I don’t, first of all, feel like it was like a hot commodity. I think people really liked it. I think there was evidence for that, but I never felt like, Oh, this will be easy, to do what we want to do. But I did feel that I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that the decision to stay with what was pleasing was not hard at all. Generally, decisions like that are not that hard for me, at least. I think if it feels bad at this point, don’t do it. And I think it was very easy to know what we want and then understand that that means if you don’t get it in the right way, you might not get it, and to live with that. That was fine, in my mind. I would rather that feeling.
FLEISCHER-CAMP: We’ve built up a healthy confidence in our project over these years. Whether it was sort of a “hot commodity,” I think you mean it was a viral video…
DEADLINE: Right, with a following.
FLEISCHER-CAMP: It had a following, yeah, and [with] those decisions like, “No, we don’t want to do that studio thing” and “No, this obviously isn’t the right way to port this character, expand it,” I think like anything, you do a couple reps and then you get stronger. And then by the time we were making these decisions…
SLATE: [Laughs] Jock talk…
FLEISCHER-CAMP: Yeah, you know what I mean, Jenny. [Laughs] Like, when you’re doing a few reps. You hit that Muscle Milk…We built up kind of like, “Well, that’s our MO. This is the project that we care about it, and we want to make the version of it that we care about, and so we’re not going to maybe take the faster, easier way.” But I never really doubted [the film being made]. I certainly doubted whether it would be commercially successful. Who knows?
SLATE: Those are healthy doubts, but I don’t think either one of us was sitting around being like, “Ugh, this is the best.” Like, being overconfident. I think honestly, it’s kind of like knowing where you want to live or what you want to eat. You’re just like, “I really, really know what it is, and I have it. Even if it’s only in internet short form, I like it already as it is,” and that was a nice feeling to have. We knew, after a while, “Oh, the movie would be like this, and we would like to make it this way. And if it can’t be that, we’re actually not really open to it being a contorted version of what we find beautiful.”
FLEISCHER-CAMP: Yeah. We were like, “I’m craving a kale salad” and everybody was like, “Cheeseburger?” And we were like, “No, just the kale salad, thank you.” We live in Cheeseburger Town, and Mayor McCheese is outside being like, “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger.” And we just didn’t have an appetite for that.
SLATE: Coming from someone that I’ve literally never seen eat a kale salad…[Laughs]
FLEISCHER-CAMP: Yeah. [Laughs] Oh, not literally. If we’re talking literally, it’s Cheeseburger Town for me.
DEADLINE: I know you developed the story and script through a cyclical process, alternating between periods of writing and improv-heavy recording. But tell us about the process in tapping into Marcel’s perspective to deliver such strong visual ideas and jokes.
FLEISCHER-CAMP: I think that what is lovely is that it really was a two-hander of improvisation and writing. There’s certain stuff [sonically] that 1000%, you’d be like, “I swear to God that was real,” or “That actually happened,” Like the guy yelling at me in the tree or whatever, that really [aren’t real]. Then, there’s other stuff that’s like, “God, that’s such a brilliant one liner. There’s no way they didn’t write that.” And it was like, “No, Jenny actually just [ad-libbed] that.” Our process…is probably the thing I had the most doubt about, actually, if you’re wondering about times I was second-guessing myself. Our process of writing that script, I think felt very exploratory and unique and like it just didn’t really have a lot of guarantees. We pitched it based on a treatment and then found, luckily, Cinereach, who were so great about supporting us as we wrote the screenplay and recorded the audio simultaneously sort of. That process of finding the story more via performance exercises and improv and these types of things, that would be scary for any studio, to back a team of filmmakers who want to do that, because you literally can’t hold a script in your hand for most of the time. So, I think that that was the only part where I felt like, “Man, I really hope this works out,” because it feels scary to take a leap of faith in that way. But now, in retrospect, there’s no other way you could have made a movie that’s like this, that has that high, packed joke density, that has stuff that feels real and funny in the way that real life is funny, but also has clearly written jokes. There would be no other way to do that.
I will also say, you can only do that process if you have an actress like Jenny, who can stay in character no matter what the hell is going on around her, and in this voice. I’ve said this before, but I saw Jenny answer a call from her sister accidentally in character, and that not just dedication, but sort of…I know you’re not a jock, Jenny, but that endurance that you have for living as Marcel for those hours that we’re recording makes the process [work] of, “Okay, we wrote some stuff, but we’re going to keep it loose, and let’s explore this. That seems funnier. And hey, what if we get in the car and actually take the drive that he’s going to take in the movie?” Those things aren’t possible without someone like Jenny, who’s an incredible improviser and writer, who can contemporaneously write while staying in character.
SLATE: That’s such a nice thing to say, Dean, and I mean, in my way, a lot of people say I’m a secret jock. [Laughs]
DEADLINE: The show 60 Minutes figures into the film in a pretty fun way. Is there a story behind how you got the team, including journalist Lesley Stahl, involved? My understanding is that you had the actual crew from the show come in for an interview scene and worked with them without a script…
FLEISCHER-CAMP: That was more scripted than most stuff, because we had to have a script to hand Lesley Stahl when she shows up on your set.
SLATE: Right. “Some pages for Lesley, please.” Liz Holm, our producer, she worked really hard to lean on the connection that she had with [60 Minutes producer] Shari Finkelstein, who is in the film as well. Liz knew Shari personally and had to take that leap and be like, “Listen, we’re looking for Lesley, and only Lesley will do.” It was incredible what Liz was really able to make happen for us—to not just have Lesley, but her entire crew. It really felt like such an honor. It really was, and that Lesley was prepared to just do it. She wasn’t looking around being like, “This is really weird. Where am I?” or whatever. She was really just down to participate and do the interview.
FLEISCHER-CAMP: It was such a good vibe with them, so we hired their crew, as well, that she and Shari actually use when they’re in LA. The DP who worked with Lesley had shot tons of Lesley segments, knows “This is her light she likes. We shoot from this angle, and we never do this kind of shot.” There’s all this institutional knowledge that you don’t realize goes into making 60 Minutes. For a while, we thought we weren’t going to get their crew, so we were trying to figure out how they did everything, and once they agreed to do it and be a part of it in a broader way, it sort of felt like meeting a celebrity or something. Not just Lesley, but I was literally geeking out to the camera guys being like, “Oh, [you use] the XLR. Oh, I see.” I had done so much deep digging into how to shoot a 60 Minutes episode, but having them do it was incredible.
DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenge in bringing the film’s animation to life?
FLEISCHER-CAMP: I think the hardest thing is combining stop-motion, which is such a labor-intensive process, and so locked down because it has to be, with a spontaneous, off-the-cuff documentary aesthetic. [That] was I think a both difficult technical and creative challenge. My favorite compliment about the movie is, “Oh my gosh. It seemed like it was just Dean and his camera and Marcel. And then I saw the credits and there’s 500 people.” It’s like, that really means that we all did our jobs and managed to accomplish that. Because it takes a lot of effort to make it look effortless.
DEADLINE: What does this project mean to you, looking back on it now? How has spending so much time immersed in the world of Marcel enriched your lives?
SLATE: Oh, that’s such a big one. I think there are many components to it—things to be grateful for, I mean. And the first one is when we made this movie, I don’t think I was really aware of how rare of a gift we were given, [as far as] the gift of this process that Cinereach allowed us to be in. It was a process that I thoroughly enjoyed, but it also helped me understand how I work the best. It’s something that translated into how I made my comedy special and wrote my book, and allowed me to understand that my creative freedom really is priceless to me. That helped clarify some beliefs for myself, and then in terms of playing the character, I feel really good when I’m Marcel. And of course, because I’m a human person, sometimes I feel not as good when I’m myself. Because I exist on my own emotional wavelength, like most people. There are ups and downs, and I feel at least that I don’t have any judgment of Marcel. I feel like how he is, is totally okay with me, however he wants to be. So, when I am Marcel and Marcel is angry or stubborn or closed down, or he’s just a little bit snippy, those are things I’m not super comfortable being, and when I am them as Marcel, I feel that it’s actually okay for me to have that dynamic as well, in my personality, and that sometimes it’s appropriate and you just have to measure your amounts. I think that sometimes, you have the blessing of playing a character who shows you more about how you would like to be and shows you what heights you’re able to scale as a performer all at once, and that that has been really, really valuable to me.
FLEISCHER-CAMP: It’s hard to distill what this experience has meant down because we’ve been working on it for so long and we’ve been with the character for so long. But I’m eternally grateful. I agree with you, Jenny. I don’t think I understood what an incredible, rare but also amazing gift Cinereach was giving us by supporting such a weird project and such a weird process, and really being not just financial, but true creative supporters, as well. I’m also grateful for what I’ve learned from our own project and from Marcel, because I think that there’s definitely been times where I’ve felt supported emotionally, or something’s sucked the wind out of my sails, and the project filled them back up. A lot of times, over and over again, over these seven years.
My dad, he’s a recently retired psychoanalyst, and he said something to me this morning that was like, “My favorite version of my career is that my patient and I co-created healing narratives for their broken lives.” I feel that that is sort of how I think of this project, as well, creatively and emotionally, and I’m really, really grateful for that.
DEADLINE: Is there more story to be told with Marcel? Is a sequel something you’d be interested in exploring?
SLATE: If somebody lets us do it in a way that feels fun and good, I would always love to do that.
FLEISCHER-CAMP: I think that the cool thing about making a movie this way is that you make so much, you really grow an orchard just to get like a glass of apple juice, which is the film, and there’s so much on the cutting room floor. There’s so many great jokes. We—Jenny and I, and Liz, and Nick [Paley], and everyone who worked on it—ended up growing this whole orchard of great ideas and characters and jokes. A tiny, little fraction ends up in the film. So yeah, I’d love to. I hope someone will let us do that.
DEADLINE: You’ve expressed interest, Dean, in playing with cinematic forms that haven’t been very thoroughly explored. Do you have specific ideas in mind, in that sense? Any new projects you can speak to at the moment?
FLEISCHER-CAMP: I think that we’re just at the very beginning of documentary, or mockumentary—I don’t really like that term, but like fake documentary, whatever you want to call it…I think we’re at the very beginning of that maturing as an art form, and I think that there’s so much cool stuff to be done with it now. Marcel feels like it’s certainly in that vein, but there’s a lot of great stuff along those lines I’m interested in exploring.
DEADLINE: Jenny, you’ve spoken recently about your dream of hosting a children’s show. But what can you tell us about the kind you would like to work on? And being maybe ensconced in that space at the moment as a parent, what do you feel is needed in it, where a modern audience is concerned?
SLATE: I think what’s needed is what we tried to bring with Marcel, is a created piece that can function as a community space for people of all ages, where there’s a sense of option and hospitality for anyone who would want to enter. I think of Marcel as a movie that anybody of any age can enjoy, the way that you would enjoy a public garden or an arboretum or a seashore, an aquarium, and some people will want to be in one part, and another person won’t want to be in another. But they are all aware that they’re in this space that was created just for having an experience and recreating. In that way, I think things for children, things that are like “Kids, only!” or whatever are so weird. Like, what a weird fantasy. Because in fact, most children don’t want to be left alone and are not left alone. And if they are left alone, it’s usually a punishment or an issue. They’re not empowered to run a space by themselves, and I just think it’s so condescending.
But I don’t know. If I could make a show, I would want it to be like a hybrid between Pee-wee and Mister Rogers, but like a woman version of that, and have it be a show that is like The Muppet Show, with skits but also a narrative running through, with different components of dance and music, and a clear eye on the style of it. And for it to take place in real life, not green-screened or with gigantic costumes with the faces that don’t move or something. [Laughs] I would actually just want it to seem like Marcel is. You know that is a fantasy, but it insists that perhaps if you believed enough, you could locate it.
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