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Jenny Slate on why ‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’ is making people cry

The actress and comedian, who voices the tiny googly-eyed shell, and director Dean Fleischer-Camp talk about creating Marcel’s world for their feature film.

Dean Fleischer-Camp as "Dean" with the character Marcel the Shell, voiced by Jenny Slate, in a still from "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On."A24

Jenny Slate came up with the voice for her stop-motion animated character, Marcel the Shell, at a wedding more than a decade ago. She and filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp were bunking with a group of friends, and space was tight.

Slate began speaking in a tiny voice as a joke about the cramped arrangements. It was the sound one might make if they were a small creature, about an inch tall.

The bit was adorable. She kept it going.

Later, Fleischer-Camp gave that voice a body made with supplies from an art store. He attached a shell to a big googly eye and two shoes.

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Marcel, an optimistic shell with a unique personality, was born. “We share a bridge between our two psyches for sure,” Slate said of Marcel during a recent interview. “I think like him a bit. I feel very connected to him.”

What followed were two animated, documentary-style shorts directed by Fleischer-Camp and voiced by Slate, released in 2010 and 2011, in which “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” describes his life as a small creature in a big world.

“Guess what I use as a bean bag chair?” Marcel asks Fleischer-Camp, playing a documentarian, in the first Marcel short. “A raisin.”

Marcel explains that he’s too small to have a dog, but he has a pet piece of lint he drags around by a hair. “You know what they say,” he says, “lint is a shell’s best friend.”

The two videos, both under five minutes, have more than 40 million views on YouTube.

Slate, who’s from Milton, and Fleischer-Camp have long been asked about the possibility of a Marcel movie. This weekend marks the release of the feature film, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” It was green-lit without a script; lines and stories were developed over time with improv. They brought on friend Nick Paley to help craft the story, and worked with artists to design a whole world for Marcel, who sleeps on pieces of bread and uses a hollow tennis ball as a car.

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Slate said the basic plot for a Marcel movie was clear, since those short documentaries never explained where he was or how he got there.

“We were always wondering, ‘Why is he alone?’” she said.

Slate, Fleischer-Camp, and Paley came up with a story answering the question. Turns out, he’s a shell living with his grandmother Connie in an Airbnb. They used to live among a big family of shells, but one day, everyone else in their community disappeared. Not just Marcel and Connie’s family, but also a human couple who lived in the house.

Marcel the Shell in the garden with his grandmother, Connie. The characters in "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" are voiced by Jenny Slate and Isabella Rossellini.Courtesy of A24

Fleischer-Camp, who plays filmmaker “Dean” in the movie, chronicles Marcel’s daily routine with Connie, voiced by Isabella Rossellini, as they survive together in a large space, occasionally terrorized by a cleaning service’s vacuum. The story gets meta when Dean becomes more involved with Marcel’s journey and helps him search for his lost tribe. As Dean introduces Marcel to an even larger world that exists outside of the rental, Marcel learns that Dean is staying in the Airbnb because of a breakup.

In real life, while making their Marcel projects, Slate and Fleischer-Camp got married in 2012 and divorced about four years later. They remained friends and collaborators. More than once in the feature, Marcel asks Dean to open himself up to connection. Marcel assures Dean he will find another love.

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Also meta: Connie is inspired by Slate and Fleischer-Camp’s own grandparents, though Fleischer-Camp said the Connie character also became more like Rossellini as they went along.

“The benefit of doing that weird writing process is that we got to cast our actors and then write to them,” he said. “So much about Isabella is what’s great about Nana Connie.”

The actors had small microphones attached to their heads, secured with sweatbands. At one point, to make outdoor sounds more authentic, they recorded at Rossellini’s New York farm.

The relationship between Marcel and Connie is also a story about caregiving and what it means to help an older loved one while still learning from them. Slate, who recently had her first child with her husband, author and artist Ben Shattuck, says the film works for both kids and for grown-ups who might relate to some of Marcel’s more mature responsibilities.

“I have a really large library of children’s books. They have stories that are pared down and are simple but still engage with really important emotions,” she said. “We tried to make this movie so that if you’re a child, you can engage with pretty much everything and feel that you belong. But if you’re an adult, you also feel that it’s probably entirely for you and that it’s like a good crucible for your own personal experience.”

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Even though this story was conceived before COVID-19, it serves as a metaphor for the isolation many experienced after March 2020. Marcel and Connie develop self-soothing routines — gardening, skating on a vinyl record, and watching “60 Minutes” and worshipping Lesley Stahl (the broadcaster plays herself in the film) — that make their days more pleasurable, even when they’re lonely. They learn to live with less, and how to do more on their own.

The feature film version of "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" was written by (from left) Nick Paley, Jenny Slate, and Dean Fleischer-Camp.Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post

“When you really write from the heart and you write something that’s so specific to you, eventually it’ll come back around and become universal,” Fleischer-Camp said. “It’s sort of evergreen because people see whatever time period they’re watching it in. Marcel’s little routines — he’s so optimistic about them, but in a way they’re sort of sad because they are a protection against change and disruption. COVID shrunk our world down, and we did the exact same thing.”

Slate recently brought the film to a local audience at the Coolidge Corner Theatre for a screening with the Independent Film Festival Boston. There was a lot of crying in the audience — the cleansing kind. That’s been happening a lot as she brings the movie to more people, she said.

“It makes me feel good when people tell me that they had an emotional encounter with this film,” Slate said. “I think there’s nothing wrong with a gentle but, you know, thorough catharsis.”

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.