Marcel the Shell, the internet’s favorite clam, had a voice before he had a body.
Actor Jenny Slate was with friends in a hotel room for a wedding when the voice came to her—a high-pitched, childlike inflection that would later become the key to the animated character’s identity.
“I felt very squeezed into the room and started talking softly,” Slate said. Her voice amused her then boyfriend, future husband, and now ex, director Dean Fleischer Camp.
Camp then interviewed Slate as he did the voice, and later assembled items he found in their home—a seashell, googly eye, and stolen shoes from a fake Polly Pocket doll—to create a body.
Thus was born Marcel, a shell an inch high. And soon after, a stop-motion came short film of Slate and Camp which they uploaded to YouTube.
That was in 2010. Now, over a decade later, the duo — married from 2012 to 2016 — are finally bringing Marcel to theaters, with A24’s “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” which opens nationwide July 15.
Marcel quickly became one of YouTube’s first beloved viral stars in the early 2010s, with the original short amassing over 32 million views. The juxtaposition of her sincere candor and his small body made him an instant internet phenomenon that many people perceived as a refreshing change from the lack of authenticity that often characterized other social media influencers.
Slate said he really “doesn’t know” how Marcel shaped the internet. However, he has said that he believes his popularity may come from his authenticity.
“Marcel is an example of a good person who is trying to have a fulfilling life,” she said.
A long trip to the cinemas
Many internet stars aspire to make the leap into more traditional mediums, but Marcel is among the few to achieve the feat.
The beloved character first made his way into the publishing world, with two books written by Slate and Camp about Marcel published in 2011 and 2014.
In 2014, Slate and Camp announced they would be making a feature film with Marcel at the helm, but fans had to wait another eight years before they could see the little clamshell on the big screen.
We really tried to put detail and richness and thoughtful consideration into not just the plot and the performance.
Throughout that time, Slate, Camp, co-writer Nick Paley and producer Elizabeth Holmes slowly contributed to the project, jamming audio, writing and rewriting the script, recording live footage and stop-motion animation. — all while working on other TV shows and movies.
“We really tried to put detail and richness and thoughtful consideration into not only the storyline and the performance, but also into the look of Marcel and his world,” Slate said. “It wasn’t like we were sitting around thinking, ‘What is the movie supposed to be about?'”
The film, directed by Camp, follows an adorable thumb-high seashell Marcel (Slate) and his grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) as the two attempt to rebuild a life together after their family’s mysterious disappearance.
Last weekend, the the film earned a total of $170,000 after coming out in limited release.
A ‘sweet and kind’ film, but also ‘funny and complex’
Slate said the film would always be about Marcel and his mission to find his loved ones.
She and the team wanted to create a film “sweet and kind enough for kids to engage with, yet fun and complex enough for adults to watch for themselves.”
“I like doing things that say there’s something miraculous here,” Slate said of Marcel. “There’s something that shows the many different ways we can feel our feelings and have our experiences, and it’s incredibly valuable, and it’s also available to you in this world right now.”
It’s also not lost on Slate, a ‘Saturday Night Live’ alumnus, that Marcel’s secluded home paralleled nearly everyone else’s in the entire world during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has upended lives and forced millions to flee their homes, prompting many to begin “feeling isolated that they have suffered a shocking loss and to feel lost that they have no control over what has happened,” he said. said Slate.
These themes of isolation, loss, and overwhelming pain were already present in Camp and Slate’s film when the two began recording in 2016.
The timing of the film and the pandemic was “pretty unnerving,” Slate said. But he hopes a tiny object and its quest to find community in a time marked by uncertainty will provide a “useful” balm for those seeking the same.
“You really, really want to do your best to stay alive as long as possible,” Slate said. “But as Marcel says, you don’t just want to survive, you want to have a good life.”