(CNN) - In "Welcome to Marwen," Steve Carell plays a photographer who funnels the pain of a personal tragedy into art using dolls.
But Carell didn't get to keep the doll made to look like him.
"It was too expensive," he told CNN. "It's locked away in a vault somewhere."
Fortunately for audiences, Carell's performance hasn't been tucked away but will be on full display when the film premieres Friday.
The actor and Robert Zemeckis, the film's director and co-writer, talked to CNN about the drama, which is about imagination and which took a great deal of it to get made.
The movie is based on the real life story of artist Mark Hogancamp, who, after being brutally beaten by a gang of men, constructed an imaginary Belgian town, Marwen, using dolls -- including one that allowed him to be Captain Hogie, a heroic World War II fighter pilot.
The story was the subject of the 2010 documentary "Marwencol," which caught Zemeckis' attention.
The director of such classic films as "Forrest Gump" (1994) and "Back to the Future" (1985) said he was intrigued both by Hogancamp using art to heal and the stories in his mind's eye that the photographer shared in the documentary.
"I thought, you know, a movie could bring that to life," Zemeckis said. "That's what movies do better than anything."
The movie could be viewed as "in the moment" -- hitting on subjects such as the power of women, post-traumatic stress disorder, community, substance abuse, the need for healing.
Carell said he found Hogancamp's story to be "life-affirming."
"It stirred a lot of things up inside of me, and it was something I couldn't get out of my head," the actor said. "The fact that he endured such suffering, such pain, such a traumatic experience but didn't lose his sense of humor, his decency.
"He never became bitter, and he never became cynical," the star added. "I think that aspect of his personality really stood out to me."
The film flips between the real world and that of the Belgian village, where the dolls come to life with motion-capture animation.
Carell said using such technology was different from his usual acting gigs that have included his starring role on the comedy TV series "The Office" and other dramatic films such as "Foxcatcher" (2014).
"Imagine wearing a light gray Lycra jumpsuit for a month and a half that clings to all of the worst parts of your body," he said of filming against a plain background as part of the stop motion process. "It was an exercise in humility."
But it was also an exercise in creativity, with much of the action imagined by a cast that includes Leslie Mann, Janelle Monaé and Diane Kruger.
Carell said he had some trepidation acting in a mostly empty room with only instructions from Zemeckis and his team, but the challenge turned out to be fun.
"I was afraid at first because I'd never done anything like that, and you know actors like to have costumes and props and things to rely on that way as reference points," he said. "But even taking those away, it was fun to just imagine that they were there."
An even bigger challenge for him and Zemeckis is to get audiences to come see their movie.
They both acknowledged that the film might be a tough sell, especially given that it's not the type of movie that a trailer can easily capture.
If you think of a trailer as being an easy-to-thumb-through comic book, "Welcome to Marwen" is an engrossing novel.
"I would like people to see the movie and enjoy the movie," Zemeckis said. "I hope they have an entertaining experience, and I hope they come away feeling what I felt about the story from the beginning, which is 'Gee, it's kind of hopeful.' "
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