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How ‘Marcel the Shell’ went from viral sensation to 2022’s most adorable movie star

Dean Fleischer Camp, director for "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On," holds Marcel in his hands.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
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Minuscule in mass but colossal in charm, Marcel, a one-eyed mollusk with a pair of pink sneakers attached to his exoskeleton, became an online sensation in late 2010. That’s when filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp and comedian and actor Jenny Slate, then a couple, unleashed his irresistible persona in a stop-motion short film on YouTube.

Over a decade later, following two more viral videos, their adorable brainchild now stars in the full-length mockumentary “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” which A24 is releasing exclusively in theaters this weekend. But the journey from the no-budget original shorts to the feature adventure, which premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, involved plenty of tiny but assertive steps.

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The origins

Marcel’s childlike voice, where his heart-melting power resides, is Slate’s creation. She first summoned the soft-spoken tone during a trip for a friend’s wedding 12 years ago. To save money, she and Camp were sharing a hotel room with several people.

“I was feeling really cramped and I just started talking in this little voice, and we all thought it was funny,” Slate told The Times ahead of the film’s release. That playful impulse would soon take the shape of the now-beloved character known for sharing unexpectedly profound existential observations from a refreshingly clear-sighted perspective.

Jenny Slate conceived the voice of Marcel over a decade ago.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

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When the weekend was over, a panicked Camp remembered a promise to make a video for a friend’s stand-up comedy show. He immediately thought of interviewing Slate in that new voice and began building an idea around it. After recording the lines, he proceeded to handcraft a figure to personify them.

“Dean did such beautiful character design. When I saw Marcel standing on the kitchen table, I just felt so sure that that was him, like how people feel when they are in love at first sight,” noted Slate. “That’s how I felt about Marcel.”

Without previous knowledge of the stop-motion animation process, the director created the character, animated it, edited the scenes and screened Marcel’s first-ever appearance — all within 48 hours. At the time a self-proclaimed perfectionist, Camp had no intention to upload the short piece online until someone at the show inquired about the possibility of showing the wondrous sea creature to their grandmother.

The 1-inch-tall shell with the googly eye, the bright-colored tennis shoes and the voice of Jenny Slate now has his own A24 full-length feature.

“Now I derive a lot of meaning from the fact that he’s a shell, but back then, I was just trying to make a small, cute character out of found objects,” he said. “There’s an emotionality to that voice that I think I was trying to embody by using objects that you might find under your couch or in the back of a drawer. That was the impetus for it creatively.”

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Slate can trace that interest in the inner lives of inanimate objects to a series of comedic videos, made long before Marcel came to be, where a variety of items narrate their lives or sing about their feelings. “One that I still love is of a container of powdered milk singing a tragic song about how nobody wants to use it because it’s not real milk. And that it’s very lonely,” she said with a laugh.

Since Marcel lives in the human world, Slate said that one of the major joys of creating his microcosms lies in repurposing household items from their intended use for his everyday activities. “I love figuring out how Marcel does things or what he wears for what. Suddenly all the objects around me are imbued with such possibility,” she said.

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How ‘Marcel’ became a movie

“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”
In “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” Marcel watches as he becomes an internet sensation.
(A24)

As Marcel’s short films went viral online, Hollywood studios and networks approached Camp and Slate. The duo took the meetings, but were wary of attempts to attach Marcel to a more familiar tentpole template.

“I remember somebody suggested that we partner Marcel with Ryan Reynolds so they could fight crime. I’m not saying I wouldn’t watch that movie, but I just knew that was not the right avenue to pursue for him,” he recalled. “I wanted to make a movie that was personal and did justice to the internet love for this character. We knew after that round of meetings, ‘If we’re going to expand Marcel, it needs to be made independently.’”

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Even before a movie was on the horizon, the co-creators published two books illustrated by artist Amy Lind: “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me” in 2011 and “Marcel the Shell: The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been” in 2014. For Slate, the second tome represented a breakthrough in the development of the character’s emotional complexity.

“That one not only goes deeper into exploring Marcel’s perspective as a very small creature, but also begins to show his philosophy on life and what his preferences are,” said Slate. “We really get to know him and there are sweet little musings in there.”

Through it all, Camp and Slate continued collecting ideas and jokes for a possible feature film, without any specific story angle.

With time, the two realized that what they found compelling about Marcel directly related to their own preoccupations, such as the internet fame that their creation had amassed. That’s when Marcel’s journey to the big screen began to crystallize.

Dean Fleischer Camp, director and writer of "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On."
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

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Joining creative forces with co-writer Nick Paley, the team wrote a long treatment and started hosting recording sessions where Slate would give form to Marcel’s dialogue with spur of the moment ingenuity. Based on what those improvisation meetings yielded, Camp and Paley slowly polished and rerouted the plot.

“They would put together a patchwork of transcription of recorded audio and then write new scenes. Then we would record off of those written new scenes and improvise off of them too,” said Slate. “Most of the film is highly improvised, while some parts were word-for-word written out, depending on what Dean and Nick decided to do.”

“We were writing and recording for two and a half years, but probably 10 to 12 days of that we were recording audio periodically,” added Camp. “We’d record with Jenny again, she’d give us all this new, great material, and then we would incorporate it into the script.”

During this process, renowned actress and filmmaker Isabella Rossellini came aboard to voice Marcel’s wise and cheeky grandmother, Nana Connie. Fleischer-Camp had been fascinated with the series of peculiar short films Rossellini created for the Sundance Channel in the late 2000s titled “Green Porno,” focused on animal behavior and mating rituals.

“She’s more like Nana Connie than I think any other role she’s played. She has an inner strength and a real mettle to her,” he said. “She also knows a ton about farming. She lives on a farm that she works with several other people.” (Some of the audio of Nana Connie talking about her strawberries in the finished film comes from the director’s interview with Rossellini about her real-life crops.)

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Dean plays himself

Dean and Marcel the Shell.
(Courtesy of A24)

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As with the short films, which were framed as nonfiction shorts about Marcel made by a filmmaker named Dean, Camp knew his voice would also feature in the larger project. But he wasn’t keen on appearing in front of the camera as a somewhat fictionalized version of himself.

“It wasn’t part of the original pitch. Although going in, we did have the idea that Dean would evolve in this way and that Marcel would sort of push him out of his comfort zone,” he said. “Dean would have to confront artistic, but also personal questions on role of the director. ‘How much do you help a documentary subject when they’re in need?’ ‘What does that relationship consist of?’ Those got explored as a result of making the film.”

As Slate notes, Marcel also ponders the cause and effect of what it means to be filmed. The short films that made him famous in our reality also exist in the feature as documentaries, and Marcel is aware of them and affected by their success and fandom.

“He had thought he was just in conversation. But then, the short films that the filmmaker Dean puts online end up affecting him. They affect his point of view,” said Slate. “They affect what he thinks is possible. They cause him to hope when hope is often painful. We see all of that because Marcel continues to engage.”

Eventually the director gave in to playing Dean on camera — and the character has a fuller arc examining the ethics of his relationship with the endearing shell. Camp even factors into an interview with Lesley Stahl and the “60 Minutes” crew — Marcel and Nana Connie are devoted fans of the investigative show.

The movie’s Dean is also processing a recent romantic breakup. That this separation was written as part of the tale even before Camp and Slate divorced in 2016, seemed curiously prophetic to the filmmaker.

“I love how much I find in the film and in the story and in the character that feels somewhat unintentional or at least feels subconscious,” he said. “I’m an idiot because I always think that whatever I’m making is just total fiction. Then years later I’m always surprised at how personal my movies end up, and this one is no exception.”

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What comes next

Marcel and his Nana Connie in "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On."
(Courtesy of A24)

With Marcel now warming souls in movie theaters, Slate feels confident that this ever-deepening character has a promising, if still undecided, future.

“As long as I’m a living person there will be more to explore about Marcel because there’s a big part of him that really lives in my psyche,” she said. “He’s exactly the same as when we first met him. He’s just revealed himself more. The best thing about Marcel is that he very rarely says he doesn’t want to answer a question. That’s why we keep getting to know him.”

Slate and Camp agree that the years alongside their lovably witty artistic offspring has elucidated significant truths about themselves, all while teaching them invaluable lessons in tackling adversity.

“I find Marcel truly inspiring, especially the way that he never feels small, even if he is. He never feels overlooked. He never feels like the world is unfair. Most people can relate to feeling like they are in a world that wasn’t made for them,” said Camp. “But he doesn’t see his differences. When he runs into an obstacle, he doesn’t see impossibility. He’ll find a way around it just like yesterday and just like tomorrow.”

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