“… People Bond with Marcel the Way You Bond with the Ladies in Grey Gardens“: Director Dean Fleischer-Camp on the Winning Animated Feature Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
When I interviewed Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate about their short film, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, for Filmmaker‘s 2010 25 New Faces series, both remember the project resulting from a period where they were a little down. Then a couple, Fleischer-Camp described being “unfilled” at work, while Slate said, ‘I was depressed… a little bit. We were at a time in our lives when whatever we made would have a layer of gravity. And the real magic of [the movie] to me is that it has this layer of gravity, but it’s still about an adorable little shell.”
Indeed, the character of Marcel in that short was adorable, with his squeaky voice, odd single eyeball and footwear, but it was the filmmakers’s lack of ironic posturing that made the character’s mix of melancholy and self-affirmation so winning. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On became a viral internet hit in the early ’10s, a trajectory that is briefly recapped near the start of Fleischer-Camp’s beautiful and, well, heartwarming feature version, now in release from A24. Slate’s poignantly hilarious line readings as Marcel are back, along with a larger cast that includes a grandmother shell, Connie, voiced by Isabella Rossellini. Marcel‘s documentary conceit returns too with, this time, filmmaker Fleischer-Camp’s voice taking a larger role than the barely audible off-screen comments sprinkled through the short version.
In a plot that’s firmly in the reliable tradition of The Borrowers, The Brave Little Toaster and Toy Story, Fleischer-Camp is making a feature documentary of viral sensation Marcel, who, along with Connie, are the abandoned members of a once thriving community that occupied a couple’s beautiful suburban home. Scurrying away when the couple was around, the community of shells rigged all manner of ingenious hacks to make it through their days, survival methods now being enacted by this remaining duo while they figure out how to reunite with their lost love ones. As for the location of those loved ones, they were packed when that bickering couple, in the midst of a breakup, moved out of the home. It’s now an AirBnB rental, with new renters moving in and out all the time. As the movie begins, Fleischer-Camp’s still off-screen director is revisiting Marcel in the wake of his own break-up, which, as he relates, he does not want to talk about. But with Fleischer-Camp and Slate having divorced in 2016, these scenes contain an emotional gravity legible to anyone who has followed this project from the inception.
Below, I speak with Fleischer-Camp about the project’s unique mix of location shooting and stop-motion animation, why the project wound up being emotionally rehabilitative, a sequence involving Marcel being interviewed by Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, and, to start, its use of documentary form and narrative structure.
Filmmaker: Let me start by asking you about documentary. The film has the conceit of being a documentary, or, rather that we’re watching footage being shot for a documentary as well as documentary behind-the-scenes footage. That’s to some degree what the original short was, but here that concept has been expanded upon and is more direct. Tell me about the decision to retain this conceit and also about the ways in which it both limited what you wanted to do and helped define what you wanted to do.
Fleischer-Camp: I think you’ve located the central challenge of directing this particular movie. I knew I wanted to make a personal film. I wanted to keep intact what was great about the short, which I felt was not just the character, but that it had this weird, magical tension. When you pair something that is as labor-intensive and pre-visualized as stop-motion animation with something that feels undoubtedly spontaneous and off the cuff, there’s a weird creative magic that happens. I felt confident that if we could achieve that [again], to partner those two things, I could make a movie that had really big emotional moments, that was dramatically ambitious, with very tiny—literally tiny!—means. If you can nail that tone, and that authenticity is totally convincing, then audiences will not look at this as a CG fabrication—they will get to know a real creature. You know, I’ve always admired mockumentaries, but I’ve never seen one that doesn’t use [that format] as a way to make make fun of the characters. I don’t even like the term mockumentary—
Filmmaker: I wasn’t going to use it.
Fleischer-Camp: I appreciate that. But, yeah, I have never seen a fake documentary or whatever you want to call it that takes its character seriously and treats them with the dignity that would normally be reserved for a normal documentary subject. And so I felt that [Marcel] was a perfect character to try to do that with. It was a sort of backwards ways of making a scripted film because you have to reverse engineer things that are usually mistakes that are part of documentary texture, like continuity errors. I was adding continuity errors to shots to try to make it look like time had passed. That approach, I think, was central to trying to make a real portrait of this little character that had dignity and that elevated him in the same way that a direct cinema approach elevates its subject just by the honor of that focused attention. And every step of production was made a little bit more difficult or more unique by those challenges. I had been saying, “I want to give us documentary constraints,” but of course I didn’t realize that that meant it would take as long to edit the film as it would take to edit a documentary.
Filmmaker: Could you tell me more about why that was, because it is a scripted movie as well.
Fleischer-Camp: It is scripted, but the whole thing with documentary, as opposed to a scripted narrative, is that you can tell the world continues outside the frame lines. You can tell that by continuity errors, by the set decoration, by the very loose movement of the cameras, as opposed to a scripted movie, where if you pan an inch to the left on Thor you’re going to see lights. So even the writing had to be growing an entire orchard to make this little glass of apple juice. For example, [screenwriter] Nick Paley and I probably wrote four times as much as you would write for a normal movie, and then that got added to and made more complex by these recordings we’d do. Nick and I would do two or three months of writing, we’d have this chunk of the movie written, and then we’d do two days of recording with Jenny and then later with like Isabella and the rest of the cast. We would record versions of what we wrote, but then we would get alt versions. On the fly we’d be like, “Hey, that line’s not working well, is there something funnier?” Or maybe Jenny would go on a riff that cracked us all up and we might not use in that scene but go back into the edit and try to find a way to use it in another scene. So the process was expansive, and it’s the reason that, I think, [the film] has an authentically documentary texture and that people bond with Marcel the way that you bond with the ladies from Grey Gardens.
Filmmaker: I was going to ask you about documentary inspirations. Were there any others that inspired by virtue of the relationship they had to their subjects?
Fleischer-Camp: One was Billy the Kid, from 2007.
Filmmaker: Jennifer Venditti’s film.
Fleischer-Camp: Yes. That was probably the one in terms of the relationship and how it grew, and how you felt her concern for him grow. That was a bit of a roadmap in the sense that we wanted my character to start off [with the intention of being] an objective observer and then it grows into a friendship and he is conflicted. There’s a little bit of that in Jennifer’s movie, which has such a nice, delicate touch. I think this is probably an experience that any documentarian has felt, like, “Am I attracted to [my subject] for the right reasons? Am I exploiting something about them that is maybe not funny to them, or maybe that they don’t even know that they’re putting out there? Maybe I should be helping this person get to therapy?” Another [film] that has a similar relationship is Peter and the Farm, which is similar in the sense that you and the documentarians are rooting for the subject, who appears to be charming and funny. But [then he becomes] compelling because of his difficulties with alcoholism and his ex-wife and some heartbreaks. All that dovetails into a more complex understanding of a character. I guess The Cruise feels that way too. Another documentary that was less of a roadmap for the relationship was called Planet of Snail. It’s essentially a documentary about a guy with disabilities, and about how he and his partner help one another through daily life. It works, I think, because it’s so universal—you can put yourself in that person’s shoes and think, “How would I change a lightbulb?” Or, “Would I change a lightbulb?!” I always think of Marcel as essentially a documentary about someone with a really massive disability, and part of the charm of Marcel is that he doesn’t see that disability as an impossibility. He just is constantly overcoming things.
Filmmaker: Where were you doing the bulk of the animation. The house is a practical house, right?
Fleischer-Camp: Yes, the house is a practical house. We did the animation at Bix Pix Studios in Los Angeles. None of the animation is actually done in the house.
Filmmaker: I assumed that you shot plates, but could you tell me more about your process?
Fleischer-Camp: Yes, we shot live action plates. We locked all the audio. That process of two months of writing and two days of recording—we did that for two and half years. By the end of it we had a finished screenplay and a mostly locked audio [track], like a radio play.
Filmmaker: Did you then create any kind of reference imagery? Sketches or animatics?
Fleischer-Camp: Yeah, during the last year, Kirsten Lepore, who was our animation director, and I sat down and basically just boarded every shot in the film ourselves. Then we could watch the movie, essentially, and show it to people and make changes. After that was all locked, we had a live action shoot. We shot plates in the traditional way that any Marvel movie would shoot them. Everyone knows how Marvel movies are done—they shoot the plates and then they have a VFX team modeling Spiderman in a computer and comping him into the scenes. So imagine if instead of that second step, which is all in the computer, you have another shoot that’s on an animation stage. And all you are shooting are the animated characters, but what that necessitates is perfectly recreating the lighting scenario for every shot on the stage so Marcel matches perfectly when he gets comped in. When the camera is moving, it becomes insanely complex. Like when [Marcel] is on the car dashboard and we’re driving by trees, every time you see a tree shadow flicker across him, our stop motion DP, Eric [Adkins], has to be watching the live action plate, looking at the time code of exactly when we pass that tree, and then programming a flag to pass by the light at just that moment, frame by frame. I don’t think anyone’s ever made a movie this way.
Filmmaker: What about older films, like Ray Harryhausen films?
Fleischer-Camp: There were bits of [this approach] in Terminator and Robocop. And then also Jason and the Argonauts, but I want to say that Harryhausen [used] back plates that are live action. I don’t think there was any integration, although I might be wrong about that. People have done scenes this way, but I could find almost no precedent for an entire film. The only one we could find was, weirdly, Monkeybone, the Brendan Fraser movie from 2001. But even that was done so long ago that the technology had changed. We were kind of on our own in terms of figuring out how to do this.
Filmmaker: I’ve read in other interviews that after making the short you had done a so-called water bottle tour in L.A., and you met with producers who had all sorts of ideas of how the short could be expanded—Marcel paired with Ryan Reynolds was one. You turned these down because you had a core idea of what Marcel represented, but were there reasons other than artistic integrity ones that caused you not to go down these roads?
Fleischer-Camp: I probably couldn’t have described it this way at the time, but I think I implicitly understood that I was a new director, super green, and that I was going to get put through the wringer. [Studios] were happy to trust this character with an investment of money, but they weren’t going to trust me to actually steer the ship. I just sensed I was in over my head, and if I wanted to make this in a personal way, or in a way that was holistic to what we made before, and what this character meant to me, it was going take a little longer, and I was going to have to get my sea legs a bit more. So, yes, there were all those “blah-blah-blah” creative integrity reasons, but also, Jenny and I hadn’t figured out what the alternative would be. The [Hollywood approach] was the only thing being presented to us, and we knew that was a “no,” but I didn’t know what “yes” was, and it took us many years to figure that out.
Filmmaker: How do you think the character of Marcel has changed from the original short to this film?
Fleischer-Camp: I think he’s definitely matured. I think he’s grown more complex. I think those original shorts were just a beginning exploration of a character and a sensibility. Now I think Jenny and I know that person as if he’s a friend in our lives. I guess that could be me changing more than him changing [laughs]. But [the process of making the feature] has been this slow accumulation of detail and specificity about him and his backstory.
Filmmaker: I understood that you worked with the 60 Minutes crew to shoot those scenes. What was it like integrating what they do with what you needed in order to do the animation?
Fleischer-Camp: I was very committed to getting it to look exactly like a 60 Minutes piece. You know, there are so many decisions that go into the aesthetic of [any film or video] that you can’t be aware of unless you’re inside of it. When we started trying to mimic their style, it was clear that we needed them to do it. They have a film grammar that’s embedded in their memories that even they might not be able to explain. Like, “We don’t shoot Leslie [Stahl] from below eye level,” or, “We always shoot Leslie from this side, and this is the light she likes.” We just nagged them enough until they were like, “This is too annoying, stop asking those questions, we’ll just shoot it ourselves!” [Laughs]. But in terms of integrating it with animation stuff, it was the same sort of handholding between departments that we had to do anyways. Basically our live action crew just got replaced with the 60 Minutes crew for a couple days, and we were doing all the same things. We had the stop motion DP on set every day so we could take notes about the lighting.
Filmmaker: In addition to everything else, the film is a great breakup movie. I read an interview with Jenny where she said that you guys never really talked about that element. But you are talking about it in the film itself. She’s voicing a character who is asking you questions about the breakup that you’re not wanting to answer. Tell me about including this kind of meta dialogue in the film and what the experience of having those kind of coded conversations was like.
Fleischer-Camp: Maybe I can’t help but write from a personal place, because this is true of everything I’ve made, but I think I’m making something that’s not at all personal. It wasn’t until several years later [in the process of developing Marcel], that I go, “Oh, it’s about my divorce.” My friends were like, “Are you kidding me?” [laughs] But in fact, the pitch for this movie predates us getting divorced by a couple years, and I was already [in that pitch] playing a guy who was divorced, rootless after a heartbreak and looking for a new apartment. That all happened in my life after we had written it into the film. I guess I’m writing from a place of just “no idea is off the table,” and the things that I’m attracted to end up being these things that probably subconsciously I’m already thinking about. In terms of working with Jenny, both of us, I think, never doubted that we should go in a personal direction. An original cut of the film was even more personal, more about the human relationship. It didn’t work, but not because it was too personal.
Jenny and I met working together, and we worked together for at least a year before we became romantically involved. It’s very easy for us to shift gears into that creative collaborator mode. I would say that we’re much better collaborators than we were life partners for one another. I also think that sometimes those things that are bedrock differences between two people and that can grate on a daily life together can enrich a creative project, and I think that our movie benefited from that a lot. There’s a great gift to changing your relationship when it works out this way, where you sort of have these circumscribed boundaries for how you’re going be in each other’s lives. What we maybe lucked into is that now we have a relationship where we only are in each other’s lives in the ways that work really well. Jenny and I met at such a formative time that we’ll probably always have this creative, common ground, and this [shared] comedic sensibility never changed when our relationship did. I think both of us value Marcel so much that we never even thought of it as oversharing. And, you know, I come from editing, and I’m merciless with my own work, to a fault. I don’t think I would ever let it go to place that was self-flagellating or masochistic.
Filmmaker: I never felt it went in that direction or that it was oversharing. The way you handle this material is very subtle, and a relatively small percentage of the big number of people who will see this movie are going to pick up on it. But it does add an emotional texture I appreciated.
Fleischer-Camp: This movie took seven years to make, and [I have experienced] a lot of growth and changes over the course of that. By the time we were finalizing the edit, I felt like I had a distance from it, and that [the film] actually helped me through this life change. Having the movie as this trellis we were kind of growing a beautiful garden around was rehabilitative, in a way.
Filmmaker: Marcel went famously viral in 2010, which was an earlier incarnation of the internet. How do you think the concept of virality has changed? Would Marcel go viral again, or is the short a representative of something that we have lost?
Fleischer-Camp: I don’t think something like Marcel would become viral now. It could just be that I’m older and not as in touch with internet culture, but I think that the way a thing went viral back then was much more democratic because, first of all, there were only a couple of video sharing outlets. There was YouTube and Vimeo, and everybody that watched that video watched it on my YouTube channel. Not that I ever made any money from it — maybe a few hundred bucks here and there — but the way that things used to go viral really favored the creator. You were aware of who the creator was, you were at their channel, and they were able to monetize it. Now going viral really only favors the platforms. Usually you can’t even find out who the hell made something on TikTok because it’s been chopped and screwed and screen-grabbed. It seems really bleak. I think now the stuff that goes viral is like one second of a Kardashian falling down, it’s not a four-minute short film. What do you think?
Filmmaker: I agree with you. I think of the film as representing a historical moment, or as an outgrowth of a specific historical moment.
Fleischer-Camp: We did have to think about how the internet has changed. We didn’t want to place the movie in a specific period, but we wanted it to be contemporary enough. Luckily, Marcel has kind of persisted. Even before the movie came out, people were still doing [Marcel] lift ups on TikTok and stuff like that. So we were able to see at least what it would’ve looked like if he had gone viral now.