Look, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp) is not going to, let’s say, make everything okay again or make you feel better about the way things are going in this world. Nothing, really, can do that right now. But, having said that, Marcel is a joyous time out and a look at a being, so precious and kind, that it’s kind of heartbreaking to have to re-enter the real world after.
Marcel the shell with shoes on is, well, exactly that. He is a shell (voiced by Jenny Slate, who also co-wrote the film) who lives in a house with his grandmother (Isabella Rossellini) after the previous owners left and took his parents and all his friends with them. When a documentary filmmaker rents the house, he discovers Marcel and makes a film about him, which captures a lot of online attention.
BTW, when this interview took place last week, the Supreme Court had just issued one of its controversial decisions minutes before and Slate, who hadn’t heard the news yet, was the first human I’d spoken to after learning about it. She was really wonderful about the whole thing and asked if we should do this another time, but talking about Marcel seemed therapeutic at the time.
Marcel has good opinions on things. He’s very positive.
Yeah. Marcel has a way of existing that is at once really encouraging, and feels, in this strange way that’s hard to describe, it feels like spiritually correct.
Even though he is a little shell and everything about him is so funny and reminds you of the imagination itself. But I think, for me, I see his point of view and his existence as a kind of arrow pointing in the direction that I, as a person, would like to be moving.
What came first? Was it the voice that is extremely appealing for a very cute character? Or the design? Or did it all kind of happen at once?
The voice came first. Dean Fleischer-Camp, the director, he and I were at a wedding. We were sharing a hotel room with a lot of friends. We were all just trying to save money. And so we all stayed in a hotel, not a hotel, a motel together. And I was just so squished in and I started talking in this little voice. And it was perfect timing that Dean had promised a friend that he would make a short film for their comedy show and he hadn’t done anything yet. He was pressed for time on it. And so anyway, he was like, “I have to make this thing. Can I interview you in that voice? And maybe I’ll create an animation over it.” He didn’t even know, I think, what that would be. But he started interviewing and little bits and pieces of Marcel’s identity started to emerge. And then Dean had a bunch of found objects in the house, some shells from the craft store and googly eyes and went to the local toy store on Court Street in Brooklyn where we lived and bought a knockoff of a Polly Pocket for the shoes and put Marcel together.
I may have been to that toy store. I think I might know the one you’re talking about.
It’s near the movie theater? It’s called Pizzazzz Toys, I want to say.
I think it’s one of those stores you can’t not go in when you walk by.
For sure. I used to go there. They would give you a free balloon. And I would go there to get a balloon just to walk around because it made me feel special.
See, that’s nice. A free balloon. More places should do that.
Yeah. That’s true. I believe in that policy.
To turn something from a short film into a full-length film seems very difficult.
Well, there’s always a challenge. I think that the first thing that we had to do was to make sure that we were happy with what we were doing. Meaning that we weren’t making creative compromises or changing our goals just so that we could get a movie made.
There are some situations where it’s like, “I just want to get this movie made. I don’t care if we have to replace the main actor. If we have to shoot it in Atlanta instead of Massachusetts, or whatever.” All of this stuff that just comes into trying to get something done. And those compromises, in the end, can work. For Marcel, we really felt – just like some plants will die if you take them out of the greenhouse – everything has its environment. We knew what Marcel’s environment was. That it’s enough of a story to see him in a house. He doesn’t need to be on a cruise or whatever. He doesn’t need to be at the top of the Empire State Building. Actually, the best way to see him, and the only way that he would really be worthy of examination in a feature film, would be to see how he lives in his environment.
Now I’m thinking of the bad sequel. Marcel on his cruise. That would be the direction that I could see a studio wanting it to go or something like that.
Yeah. I mean, and it’s not like – it doesn’t need to be a knock on studio film in general. For example, I think Paddington 2 is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
And there are a lot of beautiful studio movies for kids, like WALL-E is so, so perfect to me. Generally, I’m a giant Pixar fan and a giant Illumination fan and also working for them… I don’t have an issue.
I, too, like studio movies. I loved Top Gun, great movie. That’s a studio movie. But I could see the bad studio pitch is what I meant.
Yeah. And, or you could just see the shortsighted way to monetize. How do we monetize this thing? Not that we don’t want to make a living. But first and foremost, we were like, if we’re going to make this movie, we have to remember why we wanted to do it in the first place. Last night I was a screening at Rooftop Films, which also was a big supporter of Obvious Child and all of my work with Gillian Robespierre and Liz Holmes. There were hundreds of people there and I felt this feeling that I’ve really never felt before because I don’t think I’ve ever put anything out there on this large of a scale that is, truly, I am one of the original collaborators in. I’ve been in large animated films, but I just walked in there and did the fun thing that they asked me to do.
To stand in front of those people who are so eager to see the film and you can feel the kindness in the audience. And know that there is a real living lifeline between your original hope for how you could self-actualize as a creative person and what you see on the screen. That is a priceless feeling. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel it again, as a creative person. It’s incredible.
Oh, that’s interesting. I bet you will because you just said this was one of the first times where you’ve done this. If you do it again, I’m sure you’ll you’ll feel that, right?
Well, maybe, but Marcel is so unique.
Marcel is unique. There’s no getting around that. That is true.
There will never be, for me, something exactly like this again. Which also doesn’t mean that there won’t be a million moments that are pleasing. And, generally, the ethos of the film, or the belief system of the film, that everything will change. Of course, it will. And that will lead to a wide variety of experiences, all of which have their worth. Even the ones that are hard on the heart, they have their worth. I believe that for myself.
I think a lesser movie would have something like “oh and now Marcel’s been kidnapped and we got to get him back” or something like that. And the worst thing that happens to Marcel, as far as people showing up at his house, is he has TikTok dancers out there. Which is such a great scene. “Are they going to help me?” “No.”
Right. Yeah. I mean, and all of the people that do end up finding Marcel’s house and leaving fan mail for him… What I’m so interested in is that blend of they truly are only trying to connect. The people who love Marcel. And the force of their desire to connect ends up being something that is a disruption in his life and even creates a little bit of danger. But it wasn’t their intention. And what I like about that is you can still have the disruption, you can still have the feeling that it’s too much, it doesn’t fit. It’s not the right way to connect. And the fact that there was no ill intent behind it, at all. And it’s a lovely moment to think about how real connection really is. And that even if you have an end point, I’m a little kid outside and my end point is I want Marcel to see the drawing that he gave me.
The reception is actually… Has many different things coinciding at once. And I don’t know. I know, as a person, I am often stumped about how I come across. And often I’m looking back into interviews and being like, “Why was I swearing so much?” Or what was that about? Not like I was angry. But whoa. Is that what I sound like?
Well, you’re talking to someone who went on a rant about the Supreme Court when we first got on this call. You were the first human I had spoken to since that happened.
Something I’ve learned as a parent — one of the most important things — is if somebody is trying to tell you how they feel, to try your best to be there and be able to be a good listener without making them feel that you’ve burdened them with what you have to say.
Because some people just get turned off on expression, in general. And I think that we’re in the most danger when we stop trying to show what we’re really like, or what’s really important to us. Obviously, I’ve learned for myself, there’s a time and a place. There are ways in which things can be more usefully said. For example, I took a bunch of years off of social media because I don’t really feel like amplifying messages on Instagram was the way that was going to be my best way for getting out there and changing the world. I actually started to be like, I think I just get out there and do stuff in the world.
But anyway. Anyway. This is all to say that I like how our movie says connection is worth it. But if you want to connect, it’s really important to stand at the intersection of all of the possibilities of how that connection might be received. How your expression, how what you’re trying to do for someone else, might be received. And to have a little bit of responsibility about that. We are all in this field of relations, responsible for how we meet each other.
‘Marcel The Shell With Shoes On’ is in theaters now. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.