From early YouTube sensation to critically acclaimed feature, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On has gone the distance. The eponymous anthropomorphic shell, in fact, covers greater distances than ever in the achingly charming A24 film, which arrives in theaters June 24. It’s a magnum opus from Dean Fleischer-Camp, who is credited as director, producer, co-writer, co-editor, and co-star as well as Jenny Slate, who delivers one of the most hilarious yet heartfelt voiceover performances in animation history. (Fleischer-Camp and Slate’s offscreen marriage, which ended after the original short films became a hit, lends the full-length Marcel a subtle meta-layer of poignancy, as The A.V. Club review notes.)
The film’s blend of live-action and stop-motion animation may be small scale, but it was no small feat, as Fleischer-Camp reveals to The A.V. Club. The filmmaker also goes deep on his and Slate’s shared approach to sentimentality, the imaginative challenges of directing, and why creating comedy doesn’t always mean being a fan of comedy.
The A.V. Club: I cried a lot while watching this film. It should come with some kind of warning to drink water before seeing it.
Dean Fleischer-Camp: [Laughs] “Stay hydrated, guys.”
AVC: We have to cover how this film was made. Could you explain how you did what is clearly a semi-improvised voiceover that then adds stop-motion animation?
DFC: One thing that I really was committed to preserving from the originals is the sort of authentic, loose-sounding audio and that kind of documentary texture. And so we kind of had to invent a new production model in order to do that. The shorts were like, it’s so much easier to imagine how that comes together because you write some jokes and you just figure out what works. But I knew that a feature requires so much more orchestration. We wanted to make a very personal film that’s emotionally pretty ambitious. And so you have to figure out, Okay, how do I keep that spontaneity but also structure a thing in that classic screenplay structure? And so we invented this production model whereby Nick Paley, our co-writer, and I had an outline, we’d write for a few months, and then we would record, like, two days of audio with Jenny and then later with Isabella and the rest of the cast. And we would record all the scenes that we’d written, but then we’d figure out, oh, actually this line’s not working so well. And Jenny and I would work off of one another and figure out, how do we improvise a better line or do you have a better joke? And also sometimes, intentionally, I would try to set up situations that would unfold naturally and that we could just record.
And what afforded us that flexibility is that Jenny can stay in character all the time. I even heard her answer a phone call from her sister in Marcel’s voice by accident. It really is an incredible gift. And to do those two days in between the writing is just so generative, especially working with somebody who’s as great at improvising as Jenny is. Then Nick and I—who both come from editing, we actually met editing on a TV show together—would pore over all the audio we recorded, figure out the gems, figure out what we liked, what we didn’t. And then that would get folded into the next few months of writing the screenplay. And then we did that process, that sort of iterative process, over and over again for two and a half years, basically. I think in total, we probably recorded 10 or 12 days, but it was split up over the course of that time.
AVC: I’ve never heard of such a production model. How does the stop-motion animation process then factor in?
DFC: So towards the end of that process, I started storyboarding with Kirsten Lepore, the animation director, and she and I drew every storyboard shot in the entire movie. Then we prepped and shot the live-action “plates,” we were calling them, which is essentially the whole movie that you’re seeing, but without any of the animated characters in it. Part of what made our process possible is that our stop-motion cinematographer [Eric Adkins] was on set every single day of the live action, taking incredibly meticulous notes about the lighting. You should see his iPad, it’s just like, every time I glanced down at it, it was like A Beautiful Mind scratchings of equations and measurements.
So that’s step one, the live action. Step two is the animation portion that all takes place on the animation stage. And [Adkins] is recreating perfectly the conditions that existed in live action. So that when we isolate Marcel and comp him into that place, it works perfectly. I have been describing it sort of as, everyone knows how in Marvel movies, they’ll shoot the movie and then they add the special effects and a computer. And that’s all CG-modeling and everything. Ours is like if you didn’t have a computer over here; you just had another shoot which was an animation shoot. And so all of the lighting, you can’t do that in a computer in budget, since it all has to be matched perfectly. Some of his notes were like, “Marcel is standing four inches from a Coca-Cola can, which might bounce light.”
DFC: And then, you know, that gets incredibly complex when you think about some of the interactive elements. Like when Marcel goes out in the car, we’re driving by trees and there’s shadows passing. And each one of those flickers are a shadow passing. So he’s got his light that’s replicating the sunlight, then he’s set up a flag that moves just an inch at a time, because it has to move frame by frame so that we can animate. So there’s a flag moving by that is perfectly timecode-matched to when we passed the tree. [Laughs]
AVC: And this is all so Jenny Slate and Isabella Rossellini, for example, can bounce dialogue off each other organically? It’s sometimes a bummer to learn that voiceover actors don’t in fact record together.
DFC: Oh, yeah, I was totally against that. I was always in the position of trying to give us as many documentary constraints as possible, which, logistically, I’m sure gave our producers a million headaches. But it’s part of the reason it sounds so authentic. And so, for example, I was like, “We’re never recording in a studio.” Almost nothing is recorded in a studio except a few lines towards the very end that we had to pick up. So everything is in a real location and all the characters are in a real location together that is not so dissimilar from the actual location of the scene … The path most Hollywood projects take is: you write a screenplay and then you make the movie. I’ve always felt like that robs us of so much that can happen in the way that people interact non-verbally. So [with Marcel The Shell], you can hear it in the audio. You would never write certain lines if they hadn’t been in the same room.
AVC: I also want to ask you and Jenny about earnestness, writ large. Is sincerity in fashion these days? How do you approach balancing earnestness versus irony?
DFC: I’ve always, in my work, tried to embrace earnestness. But also … when you’re saying “I’m being earnest,” it’s easy for it to trend towards cloying or feeling saccharine. I grew up in a family that really used sarcasm as a self-defense. [Laughs] And I think maybe a lot of our generation did. You know, The Simpsons and Daria—and I mean, I love those shows—there is a sense of humor that is very much sarcastic. But what sarcasm hides is vulnerability. And I’ve always tried to make work that speaks to that and tries to bust through it a little bit. Just in terms of whether it’s in fashion, I think it’s a little more in fashion than it used to be, with movies like Paddington kind of breaking through. I know people are in love with Ted Lasso, which I think attempts to do an earnest thing. But yeah, I always just felt like by being so committed to sarcasm or cynicism, you are sort of closing yourself off from some of the real beauties of life by not being honest.
I know this is not going to make it in the article, but there’s a French filmmaker-philosopher named Isidore Isou who had this theory that I always think about, and it’s exactly what you’re saying—he said any cultural movement, any political movement, can basically be broken down into amplic phases and chiseling phases. A paradigm is set, and the cool thing to do is to amplify it. And it eventually reaches its apex, at which point there’s nothing interesting to do with it anymore. So the only interesting thing to do is to chisel away at it. And then eventually, once it’s been chiseled to dust, there’s a new little paradigm that gets set. That is the case with a lot of things in culture, definitely the case with sincerity. It also might have to do with—you know, I think people felt safer 20 years ago. They felt like the world was not such a precarious place and so there was kind of room for more sarcasm and cynicism. Whereas people do feel a little more vulnerable now.
AVC: How do you as a filmmaker think about what you want the audience to feel? How consciously are you amplifying or chiseling, or calibrating the bitter and the sweet?
DFC: I think that’s like a director’s sole job, to calibrate that. There’s a lot of theory and garbage out there about how to be a director. But it all boils down to that, to what you’re hoping to express or what you’re hoping to make an audience feel in each particular moment. And I think the main challenge of being a director is that you have to be there in-person on set, and you have to be in touch with what that audience is going to be feeling in that moment of the film. But you’re almost always in very different circumstances—you’re sitting on a set. Or, for example, I’m sitting on a set watching an empty space where there’s going to be a couple of shells talking to each other or whatever. And I have to think about, Okay, so this is going to be an incredibly emotional moment where he’s saying goodbye to his grandmother. And sometimes it can be hard to divorce yourself from your current reality in order to try to sympathize or empathize with what your audience will be feeling in that moment.
AVC: Going off of that, how do you approach comedy? In the case of Marcel The Shell, are you and Jenny just goofing around? Or is it that thing where comedy only results from putting yourselves in a story’s circumstances and taking it deadly seriously?
DFC: I sort of come from a comedy background, but have always been just a fan of films that happen to be funny. I’m not really a fan of, like, comedies! Even though I’m such a student of them. But my brother is a standup comic and my oldest brother is like one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and so there’s definitely a shorthand that Jenny and I have about comedy in general. But in terms of screenwriting and telling a story in a movie with a character, I am always disappointed when I’m watching a movie that could be good, but it’s prioritizing jokes over its character’s reality. When you sell a character’s reality out for a joke, it’s funny for one second and then there’s no more stakes to the scene. For us, I think it’s apparent immediately that if we think of a funny joke but it breaks the rules of Marcel’s world or it breaks the stakes of the next scene or emotional moment, it’s never worth it. So I always try to take characters seriously. And Marcel, for sure, it’s important to tell his story with a sort of dignity.