Jenny Slate explains why “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” makes people cry

Later, Fleischer-Camp gave this voice a body made with supplies from an art store. He attached a shell to a large googly eye and two shoes.

Marcel, an optimistic shell with a unique personality, was born. “We share a bridge between our two psyches for sure,” Slate said of Marcel in a recent interview. “I think a bit like him. I feel very connected to him. »

There followed two documentary-style animated shorts directed by Fleischer-Camp and voiced by Slate, released in 2010 and 2011in which “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” describes his life as a small creature in a big world.

“Guess what I use as a beanbag chair?” Marcel asks Fleischer-Camp, playing the role of a documentary filmmaker, in Marcel’s first short. “A raisin.”

Marcel explains that he is too small to have a dog, but he has a stuffed animal which he drags by a hair. “You know what they say,” he said, “plush is a shell’s best friend.”

The two videos, both under five minutes long, have over 40 million views on YouTube.

Slate, who is from Milton, and Fleischer-Camp have long been asked about the possibility of a Marcel film. This weekend marks the release of the feature film “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”. This was lit green with no script; lines and stories were developed over time with improvisation. They enlisted friend Nick Paley to help create the story and worked with artists to design a whole world for Marcel, who sleeps on pieces of bread and uses a hollow tennis ball as a car.

Slate said the basic plot of a Marcel film was clear, as these short documentaries never explained where he was or how he got there.

“We always wondered, ‘Why is he alone? ‘” she said.

Slate, Fleischer-Camp, and Paley offered a story answering the question. Turns out she’s a shell who lives with her grandmother Connie in an Airbnb. They once lived in a large shell family, but one day all the other members of their community disappeared. Not just Marcel and Connie’s family, but also a human couple who lived in the house.

Marcel the seashell in the garden with his grandmother, Connie. The characters in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” are voiced by Jenny Slate and Isabella Rossellini.Courtesy of A24

Fleischer-Camp, who plays filmmaker “Dean” in the film, recounts Marcel’s daily routine with Connie, voiced by Isabella Rossellini, as they survive together in a large space, sometimes terrorized by a ward’s vacuum cleaner of cleaning. The story becomes meta when Dean becomes more involved in Marcel’s journey and helps him search for his lost tribe. As Dean introduces Marcel to an even bigger world that exists outside of renting, Marcel learns that Dean is staying in the Airbnb because of a breakup.

In real life, while working on their Marcel projects, Slate and Fleischer-Camp tied the knot in 2012 and divorced about four years later. They remained friends and collaborators. More than once in the feature, Marcel asks Dean to open up to the connection. Marcel assures Dean that he will find another love.

Also meta: Connie is inspired by Slate and Fleischer-Camp’s own grandparents, though Fleischer-Camp said Connie’s character also became more Rossellini-like as she went along.

“The benefit of doing this weird writing process is that we have to cast our actors and then write to them,” he said. “So much about Isabella, that’s what’s great about Nana Connie.”

The actors had small microphones strapped to their heads, secured with sweatbands. At one point, to make the outdoor sounds more authentic, they recorded at Rossellini’s New York farmhouse.

Marcel and Connie’s relationship is also a story of caregiving and what it means to help an older loved one while learning from them. Slate, who recently had her first child with her husband, author and artist Ben Shattuck, says the film works for both kids and adults who might relate to some of Marcel’s more mature responsibilities.

“I have a very large library of children’s books. They have stories that are clean and simple but still elicit really important emotions,” she said. “We tried to make this movie so that if you’re a kid you can engage in just about anything and feel like you belong. But if you’re an adult, you also feel that it’s probably all up to you and like a good melting pot for your own personal experience.

Even though this story was crafted before COVID-19, it serves as a metaphor for the isolation many experienced after March 2020. Marcel and Connie develop self-soothing routines – gardening, skating on a vinyl record, watching “60 Minutes and adoring Lesley Stahl (the presenter plays herself in the film) — who make their days more enjoyable, even when they’re alone. They learn to live with less and do more on their own.

The feature version of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” was written by (left to right) Nick Paley, Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp.Allison Zaucha for the Washington Post

“When you really write from the heart and you write something that’s so specific to you, it will eventually come back and become universal,” Fleischer-Camp said. “It’s sort of evergreen because people see regardless of when they’re looking at it. Marcel’s little routines – he’s so optimistic about them, but in a way they’re a bit sad because they are a protection against change and disruption. COVID has shrunk our world, and we have done the exact same thing.

Slate recently brought the film to local audiences at the Coolidge Corner Theater for a screening with the Boston Independent Film Festival. There was a lot of crying in the audience – of the cleansing kind. This often happens as she introduces the film to more people, she said.

“It makes me feel good when people tell me they had an emotional encounter with this movie,” Slate said. “I think there’s nothing wrong with gentle but, you know, deep catharsis.”

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at [email protected].

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