‘Welcome to Marwen’: Robert Zemeckis, Steve Carell bring dolls to life in inspirational film

Originally posted by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Robert Zemeckis, creator of classic films such as “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away,” has never been a man drawn to conventional stories done in conventional ways.

So it’s no surprise he came up with a way to tell the real-life story of Mark Hogancamp -a hate crime victim whose memory was wiped away - in a way that seamlessly melds reality and fantasy using dolls set in a World War II Belgian town. Called “Welcome to Marwen,” the film opens December 21, promoted as an inspirational tale suitable for the holidays.

Zemeckis saw the 2010 documentary “Marwencol” on PBS and was intrigued by Hogancamp, an artist who lost his ability to illustrate in 2000 after five men almost beat him to death after he revealed he fancied wearing women’s shoes. 

Hogancamp, to deal with the trauma and come up with a way to convey his art, built a miniature fictional village where he turned a doll version of himself into a war hero named Captain Hogie. Hogie fights off Nazis with his band of female warriors, representing women who were helping him in his real-life recovery. He then took photographs of the action. 

“I thought it was an amazing story, a powerful story,” Zemeckis said at the Waldorf Astoria in Buckhead last week. “I was taken by the idea of the healing power of art. This guy Mark Hogancamp through his own necessity figured out a way to process what was going on by creating his imaginary world and photographing it.”

And given Zemeckis’ eye for making the imaginary cinematic, he thought Hogancamp’s story could be transformed. “A movie can do better than anything to tell that story, to go into his imagination and bring his doll world to life. That’s to me what movies can do.” 

Zemeckis, who co-wrote the screenplay, convinced Steve Carell ( “The Office,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,”  “Foxcatcher”) to take on this challenging dual role. As Hogancamp, he plays a man trying to grapple with his new reality while still recuperating from his physical injuries and taking pills to alleviate the pain. But as Hogie, he can be a swash-buckling, confident fighter. 

For Carell, the challenge was doing the fantasy scenes dressed in a super unflattering gray leotard.

“Things were hanging in all the wrong places,” Carell cracked. 

He said each day he was doing a fantasy shoot, “we would enter a chamber and they’d connect us with all these sensors. We’d then go through a regimen of different configurations and poses.”

Zemeckis said “we thought about putting the actors in some kind of weird plastic wardrobe suits and try to plasticize their faces.” Instead, they used an advanced motion capture system with a digital avatar, which was more practical.  

Carell and the others - including Leslie Mann (“This is 40,” “Vacation”), Janelle Monae (“Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures”and Merritt Wever ( “Nurse Jackie, “The Walking Dead”) had to act in a bit of a void.

“We all relied on Bob’s imagination to pull us through,” Carell said. “We had to imagine what we were wearing, who was in front of us.” 

As Hogie, Carell fashioned himself not as an actual World War II fighter but how movie stars such as William Holden, James Coburn and Steve McQueen portrayed such characters in 1960s-era war films. “The action sequences are not historically accurate,” Zemeckis said. “They are accurate to Hogancamp’s imagination.” 

As the film progresses, the line of demarcation between Hogancamp’s day-to-day life and his imaginative one begin to blur as he’s asked to appear in court to face the men who nearly killed him. 

“It’s a reflection of what’s going on in Mark,” Carell said. “I love this sequence in the courtroom when Hogie shows up. Your mind as an audience member starts to click into the fantasy world, then instantly, you’re back in the real one.”

Before production, Carell and Zemeckis flew to Kingston, N.Y. to meet with Hogancamp in person. 

“He’s a very generous, wonderful guy,” Carell said. “Has a great sense of humor, self deprecating. He understands how other people can find this whole thing odd. He has a high degree of self awareness.”

All this publicity has helped Hogancamp sell his photography. But Carell said it’s clear he’s doing it for “art’s sake, not anything more than that.” 

The fact this film doesn’t fit into any neat categories makes it a challenge to market. Trailers are pushing its uplifting elements. (Reviews? Not great.)

With an estimated budget of $39 million, “Welcome to Marwen” faces a tidal wave of competition, from family-friendly “Mary Poppins Returns” to big-budget superhero film “Aquaman” to “Transformers” spin-off “Bumblebee” to rom-com “Second Act.” Then there are popular hold-overs like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” 

“From what I hear, gee, we’re tired of seeing the same movies over and over,” Zemeckis said. “So let’s see something different. Well, they’ve got a chance to see one. We made a different movie.”

Paul Degarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore.com who follows box office trends, said, “it’s generally unusual for a high-profile, wide release film with a well-known star and legendary director to not be easily described and explained to audiences.” But if it receives good word of mouth, he added, it “could enjoy playability into 2019 and thus distinguish itself over time and achieve success in a very crowded movie marketplace.” 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.