Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is on its way to becoming one of the best feel-good movies of the year. This impossibly cute film—that utilizes a unique blend of live-action and stop-motion animation—follows the miniscule adventures of a one-inch anthropomorphic shell named Marcel (Jenny Slate) and his elder Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) as they try to locate their missing family. From a 10 year old viral YouTube sensation to a series of children’s books and now to a critically acclaimed feature it’s clear that Marcel can go the distance. It’s a film that has equal parts whimsy and deep emotional truths about the harsh realities of life.
In this interview Script Magazine talks to co-writer, co-editor, producer and director Dean Fleischer-Camp and co-writer, co-editor Nick Paley about foresight, imagination and bringing Marcel the Shell to life.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On started as a Youtube short just over a decade ago, along with a children's book. What encouraged you to take Marcel from those spaces and turn his journey into a feature film?
Dean Fleischer-Camp: It was always the goal to make a feature film out of Marcel. I had been making shorts, but at the time in 2010, I was trying to figure out how to segue from being an editor, which is actually where Nick [Paley] and I met and worked together [while] editing on TV shows. And Marcel was kind of the first thing that took off. So we always wanted to make a feature out of it. But when you're a young director and you have a viral video on the internet, [you feel compelled] to do 'the water bottle tour' of Los Angeles. And all the studios give you some pretty horrible ways to graft your character. [laughs] [It was pitched] like a tent pole franchise. And it was clear pretty immediately that was not gonna be the path for Marcel that we were interested in taking.
One of the [executives] suggested that Marcel get partnered with Ryan Reynolds and they fight crime. So we just said no to those offers and figured well, it'll be a longer path to financing it independently and to figuring out how do we expand this character to feature-length in a way that earns its 90 minutes. Part of what's wrong with those [larger] studio ideas is that there's no reason to blow [Marcel] up like that, he's already so tiny, a window sill is already like insane[ly] large to him. A big turning point in how we thought about the scope of that larger story for Marcel is when Nick came on board as our co-writer and we started figuring out how to keep it holistic to the way we had made the shorts and what the character meant to us and how to hit those big emotional beats.
Nick, when Dean pitched this idea to you about a talking shell with googly eyes, I mean, what did you think about this initially? I can only imagine it had to be a hard sell.
Nick Paley: I was so excited, because Dean had to make Marcel for a last minute comedy short his friend was doing at the time. And before he posted it, he sent it to me, and I was like ... This is weird. [laughs] But I also thought it was so charming and funny, and then when we got to turn it into a movie [years later], the short was such a helpful tuning fork. [Because] they have such a specific mood and there's a loneliness to it. And it's so funny. And I feel like it provided the key in which we could compose the whole symphony for the movie.
Fleischer-Camp: I like the way Nick put that. I'm going to sing [Nick's] praises here a little bit. In terms of keeping [the film] small and keeping it true to the original short, I think Nick was crucial in that collaboration because Nick is sort of like a magical wood nymph from Vermont. And he's like very connected to nature and very good at distilling a feeling or an essence down to its most irreducible thing. And with adapting a short that is ostensibly a documentary, we were very careful to maintain that aesthetic. [Meaning] that there's no room for a character to give a long monologue - it all has to be kind of told as subtly as possible and with as few words as possible. And a really great example of Nick's ability to do that is one of my favorite moments in the movie when Marcel says to Nana Connie, 'What if everything changes again?' And she just says with like a big smile on her face, 'It will.' And that "it will" was like Nick and I were banging our heads against the wall for two days, trying to think what's the thing Connie could say that really pivots Marcel [during the emotional turning point] of this moment. And, you know, I think I'd written like 3,000 words that were all total garbage. And then Nick was like, 'What if she just says, 'it will,' but with a smile.'
Something that I was thinking about while watching was that none of the few humans that Marcel interacts with seemed surprised that he can talk. Was it always in the script to have humans simply accept these sentient beings? Or was there another version that existed where it wasn't a normal scenario?
Paley: This [situation] is actually a moment that I credit to Dean for his brevity of wit and imagination. Because [while writing the script] we created all these justifications for why people haven't seen Marcel before, why he's making his first real friend, who's staying at the house and answering a lot of questions that we realized maybe audiences weren't gonna ask. And Dean came up with this way to just dispense away all of those with one line in the opening of the movie when Marcel says, 'Most people don't notice us.' [laughs] And that just took care of so much story work that we were struggling to explain and build around. And it's just enough that the audience can be like, 'OK, yeah fine, let's just go with that.'
Fleischer-Camp: I had forgotten that there was like [feedback] from our producers or from friends we showed early cuts to. There was a lot of, 'But you have to show how [Marcel and the humans] meet.' Or 'You have to show like why is this world a place where talking shells exist.' And the precedent for us was always like, 'Why can't we just make it like the Muppets or Sesame Street?' You know, where no one cares even when they do find out, they're like, 'Cool, OK, talking shell.' But we struggled with [that idea]. There's some things I'm the most proud of in the screenplay where you recognize the necessity so that it doesn't take [the audience] out of it and for us our goal was to find the quickest most invisible way to tell people that information.
I can't end this interview without talking about the wild last half of this film. Your script and the plot hinges on 60 Minutes host Leslie Stahl helping Marcel connect with his family. How did this idea come about?
Fleischer-Camp: It's so funny. It came from us like riffing and joking about how [Marcel and Nana Connie] don't have a TV in their house and so they would then have to watch whatever the neighbors wanna watch because they're just watching it off the window sill. Then we started joking about maybe the neighbors were older and all they would watch is 60 Minutes or something. You would think that we had a backup, but we didn't. [laughs] Is that also your memory of how that happened, Nick?
Paley: Yeah. It was a very early joke that they liked 60 Minutes. And then, that was what was so special about this process is creating a vineyard of ideas and then picking a few of those little ideas and just synthesizing them into something that becomes the movie. So that feels like such a lightness, that idea, it's sort of a joke that then it's like such a powerful force for the plot at the end of it. And I think that's the magic of this [filmmaking] process of a lot of world-building early in our process and then a lot of storytelling structure and writing at the end of it.
Fleischer-Camp: That's totally true. It was just a joke at first they loved 60 Minutes, and then we thought we had written ourselves into a corner of like, 'How is Marcel going to find his family?' But it then came from the fact that we had established that joke in the screenplay like, 'Oh, what if Leslie Stahl actually helps them.' So, you would think we came up with a list of backups because that would be the smart thing to do, considering who knows if you're going to be able to get Leslie Stahl [to do your movie], but we were like it has to be her. And luckily, Liz had an in at 60 Minutes, and we were able to get a very early version of the movie to Leslie, and she liked it and she played it perfectly, so straight. The 60 Minutes crew was so generous with telling us what cameras they use and we hired their actual 60 Minutes crew to shoot that segment. Eventually, we nagged them long enough about shooting that intro section that they ended up doing it on their own stages. I think it was because we were so obsessive about the set up and finally they were like, 'This is too annoying, we'll just shoot it ourselves.'
Obviously, you both are not talking shells, but I did want to know how much of this film was autobiographical for the both of you? What resonated with you while making this film?
Fleischer-Camp: We wanted to tell a very personal film, and we all, Nick, Jenny [Slate], Liz [Holm], and our other producers as well, really put pieces of ourselves into the film, especially in the emotional moments. I think it's a beautiful collage of obstacles and heartbreaks in our lives. Nick and I [once] went to go see this Czech screenwriter Jiří Menzel and he said something that always stuck with me. It was like, 'Films tell the future. So be careful what you make films about.' And I was like, 'Whoa.' Because I think that we pitched this project so many years ago and during the making from short film to feature film, I had got divorced and lost both my grandparents, which is some of the main moments in the Marcel movie. But those ideas were in the pitch long before they actually happened, and that's not to say it's a bad thing that they happened, but like those things, are just like life. Life happens and you grow around it.
Paley: This project shepherded us through different phases of our life because it took so long and it was different. Which is nice because sometimes if you're making something about something that just happened, you don't have a lot to say about it yet. You're kind of in the stew still. And I feel like we had enough distance from those moments that by the time we were done writing, we could be like, 'Oh, we have an insight that we can share here.' It is cathartic to be specific about something that you love or care about to find that other people resonate with that as well when they see the film. It feels very connective.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is currently in Theaters.