If it wasn’t obvious that Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp — the creators of the super-endearing and charming cult figure Marcel the Shell, star of video and bookstores — were an adorably married couple in real life, Fleischer-Camp gave it away during an October interview at the Flavorwire offices where he just gazed at Slate while she explained her comedy: “My jokes are usually really gross things said with an open heart and a smile, and if you take away the open heart and the smile it’s just me being, like, stinky butt!”
It’s the open heart and smile that makes Slate wildly charming as an actress, as best displayed in this summer’s smart, quietly radical movie Obvious Child and in a slew of comedy guest-star roles (Kroll Show, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99). This attitude also extends towards Marcel the Shell, which is a lovely piece of serendipitous collaboration between Slate and Fleischer-Camp. A shy, honest little mollusk with shoes from a doll and one goggly eye, Marcel is the stop-motion animated star of YouTube videos, where he’s voiced by Slate, and also the subject of the beautifully rendered paintings that characterized Marcel books — including the new Marcel the Shell: The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been, the second Marcel book, where he leaves his home (a slice of bread), and ends up on a big adventure, flying across a living room.
To create the books, Slate and Fleischer-Camp split up the writing, and Fleischer-Camp takes photos that are eventually made into paintings by artist Amy Lind. Painted Marcel came about, according to Fleischer-Camp, “because we made a poster for one of the first Marcel videos for Sundance. We had a friend do an oil painting, and that was so funny and perfect.”
Slate adds, “I get frustrated with what the color palette is for kids these days. It’s all these really saturated, unnatural colors, and the message is if we use primary colors, if we get too rich or deep, the kids might look away. For us, we we remember books from our childhood where the art was beautiful and deliberate. We thought it would be really nice honor for Marcel to have an oil painting.”
Slate and Fleischer-Camp can rattle off a series of inspirational kids’ books that played a part in Marcel’s look. Bernard Waber’s Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, William Steig’s Sylvester and the the Magic Pebble, and anything by Robert McCloskey, including One Morning in Maine and Blueberries for Sal. Slate loved authors like Bill Peet, and “the Barbara Cooney books were really on my mind when we started this because she wrote Miss Rumphius, and Ox-cart Man, and there are beautiful, beautiful paintings in the books.” Fleischer-Camp wanted the scale of Marcel’s apartment to feel like a Chris Van Allsburg drawing.
Slate’s grandparents were particularly inspiring for this round of Marcel. The oil painting of Marcel is reminiscent of an oil painting of Slate’s “Papa.” Fleischer-Camp says, “The comedic tension of Marcel is that he’s talking about these wild things but he’s talking about then in a dry, off-handed way. That is definitely based off your grandfather.” An aside about Marcel’s wife is a combination of real life stories about Slate’s grandmother.
But ultimately, Marcel is a world full of mystery. “There’s a lot of unanswerable questions in Marcel’s world, like how old he is, or where he was born,” Slate says. “He has a gender, he’s male, but it’s important for these other questions to remain unanswered. Just like how in our world, we don’t have an answer for everything.”
Fleischer-Camp and Slate actually met collaborating on projects when Slate was a working actress based in New York City. They moved to Los Angeles recently, and Slate is pursuing the life of “an American movie actress,” as she puts it. There’s another film on the horizon with Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre, and another season of work on Comedy Central’s Kroll Show.
Meanwhile, Fleischer-Camp and Slate have continued to collaborate beyond just Marcel — as seen in their 2013 web series Catherine: A Story in Twelve Parts — and Fleischer-Camp is working on a script for a feature that he’d like to make with Slate. (“I spent enough time on that casting couch,” she jokes.) Slate describes Catherine, a series that couldn’t be written about without mentioning David Lynchian strangeness and Twin Peaks (memo to David Lynch: Slate would be happy to be cast on the Showtime 2016 reboot, and she is a brunette), as “a game we were playing when we tried to figure out what it’s like when things are just what they are.”
“You don’t want your work to be the clanging ghost of your ambition. You don’t want people to see how effort it took,” Slate says. “You want it to be light, and skipping through, and then for it to be gone and people saying, ‘Oh! I want to see that again. I hope it comes back.'”
Whenever Marcel the Shell appears, in books and videos and who knows what else, I know that I’m happy to see him, and it appears that the thoughtful and human work that Fleischer-Camp and Slate are pursuing is leaving its mark on a new generation of curious kids.
Remembering a specific reading from the first Marcel book tour, Fleischer says, “there was a kid who had made his own Marcel and very shyly came and showed it to us. You were like, ‘Are you going to show that to everyone?’ He turned around to the whole audience. It was so beautiful. I felt such a connection to that little kid because he seemed so shy, and now he’s going to go home and be like, ‘Oh, I’m good at art, that’s my value.’ He’s going to be an awesome painter in 15 years.”