‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On’ Director Explains What It Took to Pull Off One of the Year’s Most Charming Movies

Dean Fleischer Camp discusses making an A24 family film and working with stop-motion legends the Chiodo Brothers

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” the micro-budgeted, partially animated indie starring Jenny Slate as the voice of an andromorphic shell (with shoes on), is a mega-watt charmer that has also become one of the summer’s sleeper hits. Now in over 800 theaters, it feels like a balm for these troubled times – it is gloriously cute but not totally sanded down. (This is an A24 family movie, with everything that that implies.)

The plot of the movie, as much as there is one, concerns Marcel (Slate) and his attempt to reunite with his family, who were hastily whisked away after hiding in a sock drawer. (When the couple whose house they live in splits up, it leaves the creatures that inhabited it in disarray.) Marcel forms a connection with a documentary filmmaker who is renting the house (played, off-screen, by the director Dean Fleischer Camp) and that’s … pretty much it. From this simple premise, one of the year’s most beautiful (and most unexpectedly moving) features emerges.

TheWrap talked to Camp about the movie’s seven-year journey to the big screen, resisting the urge to make Marcel edgy and how his next feature, a big budget retelling of Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch,” came about.

The original “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” video premiered in 2010. Have you been working on the movie for 10 years?

No, we weren’t continuously working on it for 10 years. We worked on it for seven years.

Yeah, let’s start when we first started pounding the pavement trying to get independent financing for it. If you include all those steps, any movie might take that long, I don’t know. But this one was a long time, partly because of financing it independently and partly because we made it in a way that is pretty unique. I’m not so sure that a movie has ever been made this way before. There’s a sense that we had to finish and lock a certain phase of production before moving on to the next one. Whereas a movie that was made with a more traditional route, you’d probably be doing all these things simultaneously.

For example, we essentially wrote the screenplay and recorded the audio simultaneously. And at the end of that process, we had a locked radio play that we were happy with. And we’d play it for producers, and they’d be like, “Oh, this drags or whatever.” And that was two-and-a-half years. And then towards the end of that, we moved into storyboarding with me and Kirsten Lepore, the animation supervisor. We literally just sat down and spent a year storyboarding the whole movie and testing it with audiences.

Once you have the boards in there, you can show it to people and see if it was working. And then once we were happy with that, we moved into the live-action production. And after live-action, we then moved on to the animation. There wasn’t a lot of rolling into the next production phase.

Did you have the ability to adjust the different sections as you went along?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think the reason that animated films that Pixar, Disney make now have such a high hit rate is because animation is a long process. It allows you to constantly vet different pieces of it and change it if it’s not working. It’s essential to making something good that has such a technical process involved because something might really work in the audio, a joke might really land. And this is the most heartbreaking part of this process… And then when you film it, for some reason it doesn’t work anymore. Or maybe it really worked when it was storyboarded. And then it doesn’t work necessarily the same way when you get it into the right final.

Can you talk about working with the Chiodo Brothers? They are truly legends in the world of stop motion/creature design, with “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” or “Critters” or whatever.

They brought such a wealth of info and experience and creative instinct to the stop motion on the film. I found my people when they tweet at me like, “Oh, my God, The Chiodo brothers were involved.”

But the reason that we initially got hooked up with them was that Kirsten Lepore went to CalArts to get her masters in stop motion. And one of her teachers was Stephen Chiodo. And so that was when we were touring around different animation studios looking for who to make this with and it was just very clear that they had a pre-existing relationship. She really loved him. And I knew that I would too and so and the way they work is Eddie is kind of more of a producer and Stephen is more of the animator but Stephen just has such a wonderful velocity to his curiosity and to how much he loves stop-motion. He’ll explore any weird lark with you because he’s just a lifelong student. And he’s curious. He knows how they’ve done things in the past but he also knows that this is a different type of movie and so he was really, really helpful. I think sometimes people who have an iconic status in their field are not willing to do something different or new. But they always were.

This movie does have a very specific look – it’s got this lovely soft-focus feeling, it’s got a boxy aspect ratio, very naturalistic. How did you land on this visual aesthetic? 

A lot of it was a collaboration between me and Bianca Cline, our cinematographer. And I think it was a lot of exchanging references and watching movies, specifically the 1:55 aspect ratio decision came because I just felt like when you’re shooting Marcel, he kind of it like, if you just outlined him, he is a little square. That felt like it was proving difficult when we were just scouting around the house. When we were scouting areas and taking photos, it just felt like, Wow, there’s all this wasted space on the left and right, that wasn’t really helping the story. And it was harder to appreciate how small he was because it was so horizontal and not vertical. But I felt better with a lot of the compositions when you could see space above his head it worked better and seemed to contextualize him better.

Jenny has talked about, not wrestling control, but like trying to maintain a certain amount of control. What were the things that you guys talked about or insisted on that could absolutely not be compromised in terms of bringing the story to the big screen?

The project originated as a short that I made and that Jenny and I wrote together and as this character that, you know, we really did it ourselves. When you have a viral video, you get all the meetings at the studios, but at these big studios, they’re not really interested in working with a 24-year-old kid who made a viral video. They’re not gonna put him in the director’s seat of a large franchise. They were really more interested in, even if they had been willing to hire me as the director on it, trying to figure out how they could graft Marcel into a more familiar tentpole franchise.

And that forced me to start thinking about well, what, it was clear that that wasn’t the right move. I was grossed out by what was being pitched in terms of how to expand this character. And I knew that it wasn’t right, because it was emphasizing the wrong things about Marcel in a way, like, he’s small and cute. I’ve always felt like those are secondary. Those are things that are appealing about him, but it’s secondary to who he is and the complexity and the heartbreak that is inherent in his life.

And I knew that those weren’t things that a studio who wants to partner him with John Cena, is really going to be interested in pursuing or exploring. And so that process of going to the studios really refined my sense of what I liked about the character and what drew me to want to tell his story.

How did you manage to get Lesley Stahl?

We got really lucky that our producer Liz Holmes, a wonderful producer, happened to have a friend at “60 Minutes” – Sheri, who plays herself in the film, she’s a real “60 Minutes” producer. We were able to get a very early cut of the animatic in front of Lesley Stahl. And I think she related to the grandmother/grandchild relationship in it. She’s a grandmother herself ad wanted to do it. We were like, This is never gonna happen to us. And it happened.

People are loving this movie. How are you feeling like? What’s it like seeing people have this response?

It’s been amazing. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked on something that was just sitting on a hard drive for seven years or for a very long time. But letting it finally opening to, sure, criticism or whatever, but also the expression of it in a wide way and to get to hear laughter at a theater and hear other people’s reactions to it has been totally moving and life-changing in the corniest way possible. It’s really, really special to me. And it’s been wonderful to release a movie that I feel good about, like so many people have said, you know, it’s like the perfect movie for this moment. And we started making it seven years ago. It’s not like we intended to do that. I don’t know that any movie is the perfect movie for the moment. But I have thought a lot about, Wow, I’m really glad I’m not releasing “Human Centipede” at this moment.

It’s a movie completely free of cynicism or “edginess.” Was it hard to not try and make it “cooler?”

I think we’re probably close to the same age and we grew up with cynicism and sarcasm as the dominant artistic comedic form. The “Daria” years or whatever years. And I obviously love those things. But I do think that at a certain point, I started feeling like I was a very sarcastic, cynical child growing up. And my brothers and I are constantly ragging on each other. And at some point in my life in adulthood, I think I really matured when I felt, this is actually a crutch. This is actually a self-defense mechanism from making yourself vulnerable, which is what irony is. And it’s why it feels so good to do it when you’re in high school and you’re at your most vulnerable and awkward.

I feel like we made this movie knowing that hat Marcel wasn’t really a part of his world because he’s confident and self-possessed. And he doesn’t shy away from saying how he actually feels. It’s not like he’s totally Pollyanna or cheesy. He’s actually just blunt. And when he gets pissed off about stuff like when he’s like talking about not liking the commenters on the internet. He has that sarcastic tool, it’s not his first instinct and he definitely doesn’t use it to hide his real feelings.

Congratulations on “Lilo & Stitch.” How did that come about?

Honestly, it’s so early, I think I’m not allowed to talk about it at this juncture. It got leaked, I don’t think that wasn’t an intentional announcement. But you know, I’m a huge fan of the original and it means enough to me that I will work so hard to make it to get it right and to do it justice. But it is so early in the process. Like I don’t even know how to answer a lot of those questions.

Stitch will probably not be stop-motion. Are you looking forward to working with computer animation? 

Yeah, totally. I mean, we did use a little bit of CG in “Marcel” – the bugs are actually CG, which blows my mind every time I see it. The spiders, we went more stylized, but like the ladybug, for example, it’s so incredibly convincing and lifelike. I’m a friend of all different formats, but they’re all a tool. I wasn’t a strictly stop-motion person before Marcel. And I don’t intend to be after. They’re all tools in storytelling. And that’s the basis by which you have to make those decisions, I think.

Are you going to consult with Chris Sanders?

Oh, of course. The man has to be involved. I don’t know him personally, but obviously, it’s his creation.

“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is in theaters now.