Twelve years ago, the internet fell instantly in love with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, the adorable stop motion mollusk voiced by Jenny Slate. The little shell with one googly eye and a pair of pink tennis shoes was the creation of Slate and her then romantic partner, director Dean Fleischer-Camp (The two got married in 2012, but divorced four years later). Marcel was an early YouTube sensation for his can-do attitude and his remarkable resourcefulness. (He uses a Dorito to hand glide, for example). After two equally popular YouTube videos and as many best-selling children’s books, Marcel is now making his long-awaited big screen debut in Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, in select theaters on June 24. (The A24 film will get a wider release on July 15.)
The world has changed a lot since Marcel first went viral in 2010, but so has the anthropomorphic shell. “When Dean and I first created Marcel, we were kind of stunned by his confidence in his own smallness,” Slate tells TIME. “The novelty of that has worn off. Now we see his life philosophy.”
Marcel’s ability to soldier on, even through the most difficult of times, is at the center of his rather poignant full-length feature. “I tend to use him as an example for myself of what to believe in during times that are unsettling or strenuous or stressful,” Slate says.
The heavily improvised documentary-style film, which took seven years to make, follows Marcel on his journey to find his family, who disappeared while Marcel and his grandma, Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), were watching their favorite show, 60 Minutes. That show’s legendary anchor Lesley Stahl plays herself in the movie and becomes an important player in his search for his lost loved ones. Below, Slate discusses how they got Stahl to agree to be in the film, the surprising familial inspiration for Marcel, and why a divorce couldn’t stop her from finishing this movie.
TIME: In 2014, when you started working on the Marcel the Shell with Shoes On movie, you and Dean Fleischer-Camp were married. Two years into the process, you separated and later divorced. What effect did that have on your working relationship?
Slate: Strangely, I don’t really feel that our working relationship changed very much. That was something we both really needed [at that time]. Working together was our best bet to have a healthy relationship. It was such a long process, one that neither one of us wanted to give up on. Everyone’s different, but I think in terms of our own disconnection, it was not acrimonious or salacious. It was two people who were like, “Well, one thing does not work, but this other thing does and we don’t have to give up on the other thing because this one thing doesn’t really function.” Marcel was the thing that kept us connected and I’m really proud of it.
I read that your grandfather was an inspiration for Marcel. How so?
Marcel’s ability to be resourceful, to make all of these inventions that help him and Nana Connie survive, you know, part of that is in my family. I went and visited the farm where my grandmother hid during the Holocaust. Her first cousin told me that when they went into hiding they were people from the city and they didn’t know how to farm. By the time the war was over, this farm that had basically been pretty fallow was plentiful. They didn’t need to make the farm actually function, they could have just tried to get by, but instead they did more. All of my grandparents have a little bit of that resourcefulness. It’s something that I really admire. I’m interested in how you become something that you really don’t know how to be, but need to be in order to stay alive.
Isabella Rossellini, known for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, plays Marcel’s grandma Nana Connie. How did you go about pitching this film to her?
We were pretty bashful about it—what a long shot that we’d get this incredible legend to sit around in a rental and have a microphone taped to the middle of her head and do this crazy project with us. She said she wasn’t aware of who Marcel was, but that her children knew [who he was] and were like, “Oh, you have to do this!” That’s why she ended up doing it. She was also very curious about the improv process and just had a lot of enthusiasm for the newness of it all. I think you do really need that if you’re doing something like what we’re doing here.
You also got 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl to play herself in your film. How did she become such an integral part of Marcel’s story?
I think we always knew that Marcel and his grandmother were on a trip to the TV when their family got moved, but we hadn’t really planned for what they were watching. I also believe that it was an improvised moment [to include 60 Minutes], but I can’t exactly remember how it came up. What I do know is we were like, “Oh no, now we actually have to get Lesley Stahl.” Our producer, Elisabeth Holm, ended up knowing [60 Minutes producer] Shari Finkelstein and Liz just on her own time talked with Shari and convinced her to join in. Luckily, Lesley was into it, which was just incredible.
She said that doing the movie made her very popular with her grandkids.
I think with Isabella and Lesley we wouldn’t have them if it weren’t for their kids telling them they should meet with us.
There is such a kid-like innocence to Marcel, but he’s not a child.
He’s definitively not a child, but you can’t really describe him as an adult. He’s really in his own zone. He’s just so straightforward. He doesn’t perform his identity for anyone, which is something children tend to do and even though he’s not a child, I think it’s incredible to watch him do it. He manages to show people he exists just by existing and it’s touching, but it’s also really sad. I think he can remind you of what you lose by trying to fit in.
How did your experience with social media influence Marcel’s journey in this film?
Marcel experiences what is and is not available [through social media] and how random that is, but how impactful that is. Dean and I were really keen on showing a version of that without making other people feel ashamed. Our intention isn’t to be like, “You’re gross! You’re being bad on the internet!” But more like, “The internet actually is complicated and we all know it, but are we really talking about it?” So this movie is at least how we want to discuss it.
To switch to a very different topic for a moment—the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, striking down the constitutional right to an abortion. Your 2014 rom-com Obvious Child, in which your character chooses to get an abortion following a one-night stand, may feel rather quaint given the Supreme Court’s decision. What does that film mean to you at this moment?
That film is really personally significant to me because it was the first time I was ever handed a part that was driving the film. I felt really empowered as an artist. I had a sort of feminist awakening—I realized I hadn’t really been taught to be a feminist before that. When we made that movie I never would have thought that we would be in the situation that we’re in now. I thought it was bad enough already back then for women and their access to abortion. It’s just nightmarish now.
In a world that can be nightmarish, what do you hope viewers take away from Marcel the Shell With Shoes On?
I think once you make art and you put it out, you give it away. It belongs to everyone now and it kind of takes a weight off my shoulders. It’s done, it’s complete. You can see it, you can be with it as much as you want. Even though I’ll be with you in spirit as the person who helped to create it, it’s for you. It’s about you.
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