Actress Jenny Slate’s relationship with her beloved seashell character, Marcel, began, most appropriately, in a bit of an awkward situation.
She, then-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp and a few other friends shared a hotel room during a wedding and were cramped up in the small space. Slate, fully embracing the awkwardness of it all, started speaking in a sweet and soft sounding voice. At the time, she didn’t picture what this character looked like, only that its voice served as a way to fun and sweetly poke fun at the people in the room.
“The voice is small, but the comedy is big and apparent,” Slate said by phone recently.
What she never expected was the life that voice would take on. She and Fleischer-Camp would go on to create a few documentary-style short films starring Marcel, a seashell outfitted with a single googly eye and sneakers (Fleischer-Camp came up with the design). The shorts show the tiny creature apologizing for the messy state of his house, explaining how he wears a lentil for a hat and uses a man’s toenail for skis, and sweetly showing the world how he goes through life in this big world. The videos went viral on the internet and led to children’s books and became the feature length film Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, that’s been nominated for and won several animated film awards.
“I could not have predicted this at all,” Slate said. But adds upon further reflection, “I do think now as a performer and a writer, when something feels good, it’s not that I’m saying to myself, ‘Oh, wow, you’ll probably have some sort of gigantic shining moment about this.’ But I can say to myself, ‘Yes, this is right, this is what you’re supposed to be doing.’ … I definitely had that feeling when we were beginning to make the short.”
The film, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, expands upon the short film character that charmed millions around the world. Following a similar documentary-style format, a fictional documentarian Dean (Fleischer-Camp) discovers Marcel and his grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) in an Airbnb and films them going about their day-to-day life. Marcel shows off his ingenuity by demonstrating how he gets oranges off a tree (thanks to a stand mixer and very long rope) and how he scales the home’s walls using honey, while Nana Connie takes refuge in her garden. They live a peaceful life (except when Dean’s dog is around), but the two are dealing with the loss of their family due to a mysterious exodus. Dean later tries to help little Marcel reunite with his loved ones by spreading the word online.
When Slate and Fleischer-Camp teamed up again on the film, they both were keen on keeping the documentary form, she said. They were inspired by films that focused on one extraordinary individual and felt that Marcel was “a unique enough character that we could just start to explore what his life was like.” To be fair, who wouldn’t want to watch a film about someone who hang-glides on a Dorito?
The 90-minute film also gave the two and co-writer Nick Paley more time to stretch their creative muscles when it came to navigating Marcel’s life and getting into his mind. Slate gave kudos to Fleischer-Camp and Paley for coming up with many of Marcel’s inventions, while she said her strengths were in describing his emotional experiences.
Marcel has also taken on some of Slate’s personality traits. They both are wildly optimistic about the world, but also doubtful at the same time, she said.
“I feel my emotions in a lyrical way, and I tend to really want to talk about them. Just as Marcel is down to be interviewed and explore it, I am that way as well,” Slate added. One foot up that he does have on Slate is that he’s much more resourceful and inventive.
Another creative partner on the project was Rossellini, who “stunned” the three when she agreed to join the film. Slate said the Blue Velvet actress is someone who is “incredibly generous,” “really courageous” and a “no-nonsense person” who is fully committed to doing whatever is asked of her, even if playing shell creatures might seem silly. Rossellini also added to the strength and richness of Nana Connie, Slate added, and even lent her own garden for the film.
After immersing herself in Marcel’s world for 10-plus years, Slate said she views him in a different way now that she’s a parent. As Marcel is challenged to use every bit of his development to get through difficult and painful situations, Slate believes there’s a lot of that in parenthood too. To help her through those moments as she guides her young daughter through the world, she looks to him and tries to model his behavior, like his ingenuity and drive to move forward.
What hasn’t changed is the pride Slate has for Marcel and the way his story has connected with people. Most importantly to the comedian, she’s able to be funny without hurting anyone in the process.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s really not worth it,” Slate said. “I don’t want to be part of anything that makes anyone feel even just a little bit worse, but I do want to be part of something that tells the truth about what it’s like to be alive and that sometimes to be alive can really hurt your heart and it doesn’t mean that it’s bad.”