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Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp talk their most beloved creation, Marcel the Shell

Marcel the Shell is having a bit of a moment right now. The self-loving, pint-sized mollusk with one eye, pink sneakers from a doll and a pipsqueak voice has, over the last four years, become one of the most darling cult figures of the Internet. He’s starred in YouTube videos that have amassed over 23 million views and is the subject of a New York Times best-selling picture book that chronicles his life in and around a potted plant in the home of actress and comedian Jenny Slate and filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp.

We’ve been told in his videos, which are usually framed by a series of questions posed by an off-screen Fleischer-Camp to Marcel, who is voiced by Slate, that: his bed is a piece of bread; his pet is a piece of lint dragged by a string; one time he nibbled on a piece of cheese and his cholesterol went up to 900; and now his dreams are bigger than ever.

So, in the wake of Marcel’s third video release and second book, “Marcel the Shell: The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been,” we talked to husband-and-wife team Slate and Fleischer-Camp from their home in Los Angeles about how Marcel came to be, where his massive imagination and sense of self-confidence come from and what they see in his brighter-than-ever-before future.

Which came first, the shell or the voice?

Slate: The voice came first. I had never done that voice before which is pretty amazing because I do a lot of voice work. It came up when we were at a wedding and I was feeling really small. Dean had promised his friend that he would do a little video for his show in Williamsburg and once I did the voice we both loved it so much and thought it was so strange that he knew that he wanted it in the video.

And then how did that voice get linked up with a mollusk?

Slate: We were trying to think of an attitude to go with this voice.

Fleischer-Camp: I was scraping together what I could feasibly make in two days for this film and I think we had a shell in our home and I bought a bunch of other things. I remember one prototype was a cotton ball. I was looking for small things to match the voice and the shell worked because it was more organic and the one eye came from wanting it to look cute. I remember reading this thing about youthful features and one of the cutest things are big eyes that are spread apart. It’s like a defense mechanism and apparently it encourages mothers to protect her kids because they look vulnerable.

Slate: That’s the thing that I really adore with him. He’s so handsome. I went to lunch and when I came back, Dean was like, “He’s here!” And there he was, just sitting on the counter. Then we just improvised the name Marcel because it rhymed with shell.

Is Marcel the character inspired by anyone or any type of person in particular?

Slate: I think it comes from an assertion of self-love that I felt like I needed at that time and that calm wisdom and bright intelligence of Marcel is something that is with him all the time. I think it comes from a wish that I could be always be comfortable with myself. 

There really is a meditative quality to it because he’s so, so pleasant.

Fleischer-Camp: I also think it’s honestly just as relaxing to watch as it is to make. His self-love and confidence is something that everyone aspires to. Jenny and I don’t naturally have these things.

Slate: It’s interesting because the energy of Marcel feels really good and it’s very invigorating. What I love about making it is that Dean has a very unique intelligence. The videos could be very cutesy but they’re patient and calm. Like in the third video, when you watch Marcel stand under that leaf in the rainstorm. Dean has a real knack for simplicity and a sense of humor that is really necessary and can be overlooked in comedy. Simplicity and stillness can be the kiss of death. You know, the quiet during a stand-up makes you feel like oh, god, I’m absolutely failing, but people could be listening and laughing at the same time.

Fleischer-Camp: Everything’s so loud all the time that filming Marcel always ends up being the best thing we do all day.

Slate: It kind of affirms that maybe if you’re funny for a living, you’re still worth something when you’re not trying to blow the top off of everything. A character that is small and still can still get the performance just right.

A lot of the time, Marcel goes from talking really sweetly and then hits you with something totally devastating. In his latest book, he talks about his Nana Connie who traveled here in a pocket, where she met her husband, and now her husband’s gone, but she still sleeps on the left side of the bread. Is that balancing of extreme lightness and extreme darkness something that you’ve been conscious about doing?

Fleischer-Camp: Exploring the highs and lows in life is one of my favorite things. I think the comedic intention of Marcel in general is one of this bizarre absurd character speaking very dryly about his own world.

Slate: I know that as a performer, I feel both things at once while I’m performing. I feel a huge excitement to be in front of people and I feel a great strength in my comedic abilities but then the potential for my heart to be broken is extreme. That’s the general vibe of my life.

If you’re both open to guest voices coming in to voice a new friend or character, who would you love to have in Marcel’s world?

Slate: My fantasy voice for a Marcel friend would be Yoko Ono. [Laughs] I feel like they would really get along and learn a lot from one another.

Fleischer-Camp: Or Ricky Jay, the magician. We do actually have plans for more Marcel friends.

Slate: Then there’s always James Earl Jones. Oh, and maybe Andrea Bocelli! They could duet! 

As far as the production for each of these shorts, I know it’s stop motion animation which takes an extremely long time. Each short is around three minutes long so how long does it actually take to construct?

Fleischer-Camp: I think for the most recent video, we probably spent three weeks on it. Two weeks was shooting and creating audio and it is painstaking and I don’t know how to do it very well. I’m sort of an amateur animator, if you couldn’t already tell. I always end up somehow making an image up and  backing myself up into a dusty corner and it’s always a lot of these weird side bends to maneuver Marcel around.

Slate: I always thought a scene in a corner of our house with a lot of dust bunnies would be like the elephant graveyard in “The Lion King” for him. [Laughs]

Fleischer-Camp: [Laughs] See, I actually think the most terrifying thing he could ever experience is going to the beach. It would be like the most terrifying graveyard in the world.

I heard somewhere that a lot of Marcel’s lines are actually improvised, is that true?

Slate: Yeah, we keep it really open. Dean is the one that talks about the pacing and then he’ll be like in this amount of time you can say this and this and he’s generous enough with his time that when I improvise a line and it’s the many layers, he’ll go back. Like the “Life’s a party, rock your body” quip. We’re constantly bouncing ideas around in our heads.

Fleischer-Camp: She actually thought of that one when we were in bed. Jenny has a lot of great pick-up lines that she likes to use on me.

Slate: And it fit Marcel so perfectly that we did everything we could to use it. 

He’s blossomed into such a beloved little cult figure over the years. Do you two feel like his proud parents?

Slate: I’m definitely proud that we discovered and created him and I’m really happy about the amount of people that have found such joy in him. I don’t feel like his parents since I mostly feel like him.

Fleischer-Camp: I’d say I am most proud of the way that we’ve developed him. We just released his third video and it seems like we’re a lot closer and that’s a result of us not pimping him out as much as we potentially could have. It’s led to a real intimacy between us and Marcel.

Slate: And it’s nice because I can talk in Marcel’s voice by myself and sometimes I do but he’s really not Marcel if Dean isn’t there. You know the show “Captain Planet”? It’s like they sit next to each other and grow stronger from each other and win the world and that’s what it’s like to work with Dean and Marcel. Our powers combined make it all happen.

Since he is so very special, where do you keep Marcel in your home when he’s not busy filming?

Fleischer-Camp: We keep him in a little piece of Tupperware with little cotton balls and other sort of, like, ugly stunt doubles that we use when he falls or does a stunt. They’re his stunt doubles. He sleeps with his stunt doubles.

Slate: We do have a tendency to check on him sometimes and cradle him sometimes just to make sure our little buddy’s doing all right.