Film & TV

“Welcome to Marwen” an Escape Into Real-Life Fantasy

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A doll-like Steve Carell bouncing around the cockpit of a World War II fighter plane sweeps across the big screen, and a combination of shouting and gunfire greet audiences’ ears. The camera soon pans to reveal artist Mark Hogancamp (Carell) photographing his dolls, and the unique storytelling of “Welcome to Marwen” takes off into its nearly two-hour runtime. 

During their press tour for “Welcome to Marwen,” The Phoenix chatted with Carell (“The Office,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) and director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”) about the filmmaking process and art of film photography.

Sitting casually on a sofa with Zemeckis in The Peninsula Chicago (108 E. Superior St.), Carell admitted, laughing at the honesty of his answer, the film’s opening scene was one of the most difficult to film, which elicited laughter from Zemeckis.

Based on the true story of artist Mark Hogancamp, originally portrayed through Jeff Malmberg’s documentary “Marwencol” (2011), “Welcome to Marwen” was released in theaters Dec. 21. The film uses animated and live-action scenes to bring to life the inspirational story of Hogancamp.

“I liked his journey of healing, and I loved the idea of being able to bring his imaginary world to life,” Zemeckis said. “It’s a thing movies can do better than any other art forms.”

A resident of Kingston, New York, Hogancamp was brutally attacked by neo-Nazis outside a bar. The artist, who sometimes wore women’s shoes and clothing, isn’t gay but was attacked on this assumption, and his life was shattered as a result. 

Once an illustrator, Hogancamp lost all motor skills, could barely write his name and had to relearn to walk following the attack. With hand tremors leaving him unable to draw, he relied on film photography and dolls as therapy.

“I think it was just something he needed to do,” Carell said. “He’s very cognizant of the fact he needed to keep going, so there was an undaunted aspect to his persona that I found really compelling and admirable.”

His fantasy world, Marwen — located in Belgium and named after himself and Wendy (Stefanie von Pfetten), who aided Hogancamp after the beating, is populated by doll versions of Hogancamp (Captain Hogie) and the people in his life. Captain Hogie, the village’s fearless leader, fights an army of Nazis to protect his village and its women — Captain Hogie is Marwen’s only male resident.

Through Marwen, Hogancamp released anguish and hatred for his offenders and slowly began to regain strength.

“He’s a very self-deprecating guy, and he’s extremely humble and to this day doesn’t understand what the big deal is about him and his life,” Carell said. “He doesn’t want to take up any more space than he’s been given in the world. He’s just such a wonderful guy.”

Hogancamp’s dolls — which he painted and costumed himself — stole him away from the hardships of his life to one where he was strong, in control and surrounded by beautiful, supporting women. Carell said he related to Hogancamp’s tendency to live in an alternate reality and thought most people also could.

“I think everyone, whether they admit to it or not, tends to do things like that — imagine a world in which they live where they are maybe a more powerful, self-confident version of themselves,” Carell said. “What [Hogancamp] was able to do through his art, through this little town that he created … [was to] become stronger and to get better and to bring himself back from a really terrible situation.”

The mere imagination of Marwen wasn’t Hogancamp’s only form of therapy. Using a Pentax film camera as his weapon of choice, he created vignettes with his dolls in action — in a bar, in an aircraft fending off Nazis, stitching wounds.

The artist didn’t use a tripod and instead stabilized the camera on a box or brick, adding to the rawness of the moment. His use of a film camera rather than a digital one adds to the art of Mark’s creations. With digital photography, Zemeckis said a part of the artform is lacking — alchemy.

“There’s sort of a supernatural element that’s missing now that everything is digitized,” Zemeckis said. “I think he was just learning as he went. … He wasn’t doing it to create a work of art, he was doing it because he just had to do it. It’s not like he was concerned about what the final product would be.”

Zemeckis seamlessly switches between Hogancamp’s life and his fantasy in Marwen. Known for his masterful use of blending live action and animation, Zemeckis was the most suitable choice for director. Throw Carell into the mix, who imbued his charm and humor to Hogancamp’s character to delivering a top-notch performance, and the film was destined for greatness.

Hogancamp’s female entourage is portrayed by an impressive cast, including Leslie Mann (“This Is 40,” “The Other Woman”), Diane Kruger (“National Treasure,” “Inglorious Bastards”), Janelle Monáe (“Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight”) and Merritt Wever (“Nurse Jackie,” “The Walking Dead”). Leslie Zemeckis, the director’s wife, also makes an appearance as a star of a movie Hogancamp watches.

The many women in Hogancamp’s life are seen in their doll forms throughout the majority of the film. They’re introduced as actual human beings in brief scenes to establish their doll counterparts in Hogancamp’s fantasy world.

Hogancamp has deep affection for the women in his life, and it’s for this reason they’re awarded a spot in Marwen. Carell said he was fortunate to end up in one of Hogancamp’s vignettes after telling him a story of the first time he and his wife attended the Academy Awards.

“I was so flattered to be included in his world, and I think everyone who is in his world feels the same way,” Carell said. “It’s a badge of honor.”

An element of the film focuses on Hogancamp’s tendency to wear women’s shoes — espadrilles, specifically. He characterized the shoes as “a woman’s essence.” It’s a pillar in the film, but one not over-emphasized, and lays the groundwork for Hogancamp’s individuality. The film’s trailers failed to include anything about this — despite it being the reason for his brutal beating — and received backlash from critics.

“Our feeling was that there was no reason one way or the other to hang a sign on one thing or another in the marketing,” Zemeckis said. “It’s a universal story, and it shouldn’t be branded that it has to be for a certain community.”

Carell echoed Zemeckis’ reasoning and said “Welcome to Marwen” is a hard film to promote.

“You don’t want to sell it as just this overly sentimental thing because it is about this story of a guy coming back and healing himself, but it’s also a fantasy adventure and there’s a lot of comedy,” Carell said. “I think when people see it, they get it.”

“Welcome to Marwen,” rated PG-13, is playing in theaters nationwide.

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