After roughly a hundred hours of manipulating her voice into an irresistible throaty-nasal combo, Jenny Slate still isn’t sick of speaking like Marcel the Shell. In fact, it’s a voice she tends to slip into at home. “Marcel has always been around the house telling people that they’re not doing things right,” Slate tells Vanity Fair. “If my husband, Ben, is trying to put the wrong lid on the peanut butter jar, I just come up behind him so close and say [in the Marcel voice], ‘That’s never going to work.’”
Marcel is a voice Slate has been doing since 2010, back when she was on Saturday Night Live. It originated during a weekend at a friend’s wedding, when she and several others were sharing a hotel room. “I started doing this voice as like, I feel like a tiny person in this room.” The voice never made it to air during Slate’s one SNL season, though it came close during a Thanksgiving episode. “I wrote a Weekend Update piece where I was playing an old woman who didn’t want any turkeys to be pardoned because she thought they were all assholes,” Slate says with a laugh. “I guess I’m lucky that I didn’t do it there, which is weird, because at the time if you had told me, I would’ve used anything that I had [to stay on the show].”
If you remember when a college email address was required for Facebook, had a digital camera that was not connected to a phone, or ever used the filter “Clarendon” on Instagram, chances are you’re familiar with Marcel the Shell’s trajectory. To recap: In October of 2010, Slate and her former partner, director Dean Fleischer-Camp, released “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” a three-and-a-half-minute stop-motion video that followed a day in the life of a shell named Marcel. He said he wore a lentil as a hat and spewed cuteness out of every pore, if shells even have pores. Today, the video has more than 32 million views. The short took home prizes at the AFI Fest, the New York International Children’s Film Festival, and was an official selection at Sundance. Slate and Fleischer-Camp put out two more shorts on Youtube and landed a book deal with Penguin Random House.
With Marcel’s fame came the natural progression of Hollywood chatter. But the idea of a TV series didn’t sit well with either Slate or Fleischer-Camp. “Without being too precious,” she says, “We were just like, ‘We love doing this if we can just keep doing it on our own.’” The two had interest from film studios, but there were no outright offers. “There were discussions like, ‘How ’bout Marcel paired with this six-foot-tall comedy actor?’ But he doesn’t need anything else but himself, and it was really hard to convince anybody that Marcel himself could carry an entire film.”
Eventually Elisabeth Holm came on board as a producer. Holm and Slate had worked previously on 2014’s Obvious Child, as well as Landline in 2017 and Slate’s Netflix special, Stage Fright, in 2019. Fleischer-Camp would direct, and they found funding from Cinereach. “It’s a huge risk to tell two people who have never made a feature before that you’ll fund their film, and they don’t even have a script for you,” says Slate.
Slate has always had an affinity for inanimate objects. “I’ve always projected way too much onto everything. I can apologize to almost anything,” she says. “A house plant that’s barely making it, that breaks my heart.”
Slate and Fleischer-Camp chose to focus Marcel’s feature-length debut on the shell’s quest to reconnect with his family, with the help of 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl (yes, the actual Lesley Stahl). The film bursts with heart, delving into themes like aging, loss, and grief without losing Marcel’s essential enchantment. “It’s deeply touching. It’s deeply affecting,” says Slate.
Just as they’ve always done, the dialogue in the film is largely improvised. Slate and Fleischer-Camp worked with cowriter Nick Paley on a script treatment that was more than 40 pages, which Slate would then improvise from. They’d record and edit, record and edit, creating new plot structures along the way. “For a comedian, I’m actually a pretty bad joke writer,” says Slate, who was grateful for some prewritten one-liners in the script. After the audio was fully locked, the stop-motion began. “There is so much that goes into stop-motion. Everything is a decision.” The entire process took about seven years.
In the meantime, Fleischer-Camp and Slate—who got married in 2012—got divorced. But while working with an ex wouldn’t be most people’s first choice, Slate wouldn’t have it any other way. “I truly do not think there’s anybody who even comes close to Dean,” she says. “In terms of his skill set, his style, and the stories he likes to create, there just isn’t another director like him. His talent is so vibrant and so unique.” When the two worked together as husband and wife, they were completely focused on the project, she says; the same is true even today, six years after their separation. “I feel like doing this work has helped us to have the connection that’s the best one for us to have. We were trying to do something really delicate, while we ourselves are living people. I will always keep that as precious, and something to marvel at.”