Nick Paley faced a quandary. How could he help write a script based on the wildly-popular short-film series “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and make it into a feature-length movie without sacrificing the tone and quality of the originals?
“It’s such a gigantic pressure to check all the boxes of what you want the movie to feel like and how you achieve that,” said Paley, who grew up in Huntington. “You could run away from yourself and your taste in order to satisfy some sense of what a ‘movie,’ quote-unquote, should be.”
He and his co-writers solved that problem by taking the fantastical story of an inch-high talking shell and infusing it with real life.
“It sounds so corny, but the things that are in the movie are things that we love and think about a lot and were thinking about a lot when we made it,” said Paley, who wrote the movie with “Marcel” creators Dean Fleischer -Camp and Jenny Slate and producer Elisabeth Holm.
At the time they created the story, Paley’s grandmother was going through dementia, and he helped her pursue gardening to make her life more fulfilling. The script for “Marcel” features Nana Connie, a shell voiced by Isabella Rossellini who is named for Slate’s grandmother and whose storyline is similar to that of Paley’s grandmother.
“It’s just about finding a specificity of your love,” according to Paley, “and using that as your sword.”
Success at New York University, Sundance
Early signs are that taking a personal approach to a whimsical concept is working well. “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” was screened at film festivals over the past few months and has a 100% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the online film-review aggregator. The movie opens June 24 in New York and Los Angeles; Paley has arranged for an early (and free) screening in Burlington on Sunday, June 26.
“What you’ll scope out in this small marvel of a mockumentary is how Marcel copes with loss of family, loneliness and sudden media fame,” according to a Wall Street Journal review at Rotten Tomatoes.
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The road to “Marcel” began for Paley when he made small films as a student at Mount Mansfield Union High School. The Burlington Free Press in 2003 profiled “BlackOut Jack,” Paley’s 30-minute film that he screened at the now-defunct Burlington teen club 242 Main. The teenaged Paley spoke then of taking a day off from school to pound out a 30-page screenplay.
“That’s the way I usually work,” Paley said in 2003. “I have a problem completing a project piecemeal.”
After graduating from MMU, Paley attended New York University to study film. “NYU is very ‘screw Hollywood, we’re like artists,’” he said. “I love that spirit and carried it with me.”
His success at NYU led to a short film, “Andy and Zach,” that premiered at the prominent Sundance Film Festival in Utah. But Paley had to figure out how to stay true to his artistic inclinations while earning a living, so he began editing films. He also wrote, made short films and strived to create independent features that he called “aggressively non-commercial.”
Incorporating the short ‘Marcel’ films
After premiering in 2010, the “Marcel” short films became huge hits online with their improvised cute-but-philosophical approach to the life of a diminutive, talkative footwear-clad exoskeleton. That success led to plans for a feature film, and Fleischer-Camp asked Paley to help with the script.
The two had connected and become friends at a short-film festival in California before Fleischer-Camp and Slate created “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” They collaborated on other projects and “developed a language together,” according to Paley.
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He met with Fleischer-Camp, Slate and Holm. That trio had a few ideas for a “Marcel” film but weren’t satisfied with them.
“I’m a real A-plus homework student so I’m like, ‘I’ll come in with a million ideas,’” Paley said.
One of those ideas stuck. Marcel is in a house with his grandmother but lost most of his family members when the couple that lived in the house broke up and accidentally took all the other shells with them in their suitcases. Marcel sets out to find his family from him while striking a balance between adventure and caring for his aging grandmother.
“The idea was, ‘Well, we like the idea of Marcel being alone but having a community, and we like the idea of the shorts being part of the story,’” Paley said. The short films are incorporated into the plot partly as a tool that helps Marcel in his search for his family of him.
Work with Amy Schumer, ‘Broad City’
Slate provides the voice for Marcel, and the filmmakers worked with her to improvise lines they would build the story around. That helped them achieve what they saw as a unique tone for a film, one with the loose feel of a documentary but the structured cohesion of stop-action animation.
“We wanted to find a way to have a real contradiction in the style of the movie,” Paley said.
That approach, though, left the filmmakers with lots of improv scenes but too many plot holes. They spent years rewriting, rerecording and reediting scenes for what would become the final version of the film.
“This process is so crazy and time-consuming and cool and very hard,” Paley said. “I basically went broke.” He and Fleischer-Camp had to take breaks to work on other projects to earn a living. Paley has worked on shows including “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Broad City,” both of which earned him Emmy nominations, for producing “Broad City” and editing on “Inside Amy Schumer.”
If the film works for people, Paley said, it’s partly because he and his fellow writers left enough spaces in the story for viewers to let the movie affect them rather than be told how to feel. If that happens, according to Paley, “we’ve earned their trust. We have set up a world where people feel, ‘We are in good hands.’”
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The early reviews are encouraging for Paley. Because the storyline is built in part on personal experience, it feels to Paley as if those praising the film are connecting with him.
“It couldn’t be received any better,” he said. “Who knows whether it’s going to be business-wise a success. Personally it would be lovely to make a dime from this movie.”
He’s looking forward to Sunday’s screening in his home state. “I feel most excited about showing it to people who knew me in Vermont starting out,” Paley said.
He said he can’t reveal much about his next project. He’s just wrapping up a pitch for an original TV show that would be semi-autobiographical and, as a result, set in Vermont.
if you go
QUE: “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 26
WHERE: Main Street Landing Film House, Burlington
ADMISSION: Free, though tickets can be booked in advance. www.vtiff.org
Contact Brent Hallenbeck at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck