Of all the performers to get fired from Saturday Night Live, Jenny Slate might have both the best on-air slip-up (she let an f-bomb slip during her very first show) and the most inspiring post-late night career. Ever since departing SNL after its 2009 season (she’s since said she was let go not for the live gaffe but because she “didn’t click”), Slate has turned in hilarious performances in everything from television’s Parks and Recreation to Big Mouth to starring roles in the features I Want You Back and Obvious Child (the latter of which was pegged as “the abortion romcom” during its release in 2014, and deserves a serious rewatch today).
But it is Slate’s more outside-Hollywood, DIY creation that has turned her career upside-down, in all the right ways: Marcel the Shell. Initially conceived as the star of a short film made with her then-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp, the stop-motion animated character is a one-inch-tall talking mollusk with a googly eye and doll shoes, voiced by Slate with adorable panache. After the pair’s 2010 short film went viral, Slate and Fleischer-Camp produced two more shorts, a children’s storybook, and now – after a painstaking seven-year production process – a feature-length film, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, that is earning rave reviews for its tender story of community, and which might be the not-so-secret family-film success of 2022.
Ahead of the film’s Canadian release this weekend, Slate spoke with The Globe and Mail about professional triumphs big and small.
Congratulations on the movie. I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by so many grown men and women crying their eyes out during a film.
I hope that was a useful experience, and not disconcerting in any way!
No, no, it was kind of cathartic.
Well, that’s what we all want, that gentle kind of catharsis.
It made me wonder, when you were conceiving the film, even the original short, who did you imagine your audience to be? This works for adults as well as it does children.
It happens that in a lot of the art that I make, the first person it’s for is … me. Much like making lunch. For Dean as well, the two us were carrying a bunch of feelings that were precious and worth examination, and also that needed to evolve. Like, what do you do when you remember a life, like Marcel does with his nanna in the film voiced by Isabella [Rossellini], and is starting to let go of it and forget? What happens when you’re together, but moving apart? I also want to do comedy, but I’m starting to feel sad about having to separate comedy from large, soft, kind emotions. We wanted to see how much of that could live in this space of this small character.
On that not of being together yet moving apart: Between the short and this film, you and Dean divorced. Most former partners wouldn’t be able to stay in a room together, let alone make a movie.
I think that Dean and I are an excellent creative match, and we knew that we wanted to focus on that. This character is so precious and defining to both of us. We were dedicated to this, and I take it as a point of pride that this was a positive experience for me. A lot of Marcel’s fullness as a character is a gesture to the fullness that Dean and I have as a creative partnership.
Do you see that partnership continuing to future projects, including more Marcel productions?
If Dean asks me to work with him, I always will. It’s really hard to trust people with comedy. The Daniels, who I worked with on Everything Everywhere All At Once, I trust them. [Obvious Child director] Gillian Robespierre, I trust her so much. I’ve actually been really lucky to work with all these people.
In a previous interview, you said it was difficult when seeking financing for this movie. Studios wanted you to have Marcel fighting crime alongside John Cena or something. What was the relationship with non-profit production company Cinereach, especially because making this took so long?
It felt like a gigantic blessing, and we put it all on the line for them. If you’re doing your own work, you have to be honest about what you need. For instance, right now I have a young baby and my husband and I live in a small town in Massachusetts, so in order for me to go work on a film set, I need to tell people I’m going to need your help with child care. It was the same with Cinereach. We said we wanted to be able to improvise, that we needed to have room to reroute our story if we needed to. And they took that risk on us. I don’t think now if that would be the same thing today. I’m confused about what’s being made, who the decision-makers are. I don’t understand much of what’s happening, but that’s best for me. It’s my job to show up, and do my work.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On opens in Toronto and Vancouver July 1, expanding across Canada July 15.
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