Isabella Rossellini is a dauntless actress and a famous beauty descended from film royalty, which makes it all the more wonderful that her work as a director has been so delightfully silly. Partnering with Sundance Channel, Rossellini has produced several memorable series of nature-themed short films for the web and other outlets, all starring herself enacting animal, fish or insect behavior. She began with 2008’s “Green Porno,” in which she acted out the mating rituals of a dragonfly, spider, bee, praying mantis, worm and others creatures using DIY costumes and props.
More seasons followed, taking on marine and environmental subjects, leading to a sequel of sorts about wooing rituals called “Seduce Me.” Rossellini’s newest installment in her ever-expanding series is “Mammas,” which looks at maternal practices as seen in hamsters, spiders and other forms of life. “Mammas” is now live on Sundance Channel’s website following a premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February — you can watch all nine installments, plus an introductory video, online here. Indiewire caught up with Rossellini by phone to talk about the evolution of the “Green Porno” idea.
Is motherhood the natural follow up to explorations of mating?
I think so. [laughs] It is a natural extension. Sundance and — it’s a co-production with a French company, Arte — when they asked me to do more of these films, I tried to find a theme, because of course there is so much in nature, so we tried to do ten episode series around one subject, whether it’s reproduction or seduction. This time we thought of motherhood.
It seems like these films challenge our idea of motherhood by highlighting examples from nature that are far from our cultural stereotypes about maternal behavior.
Right — what made me think about writing “Mammas” was a series of books that I read, and one in particular, it was written by Marlene Zuk, a biologist. They were all women biologist who are interested in maternity and family. Their books challenged our culture that sees mothers as inevitably sweet and, most of all, self-sacrificing. When they looked at different species, they didn’t find this characteristic that women are more inclined to self-sacrifice than males. In fact, sometimes even males raised their babies.
There’s an enormous variety, and raising children isn’t always linked with a sense of self-sacrifice. They felt it was more linked with good management of their own resources, which sometimes may translate to something as cruel as a mother, like in the hamster case, culling her litter because she maybe had too many babies.
Though the spider film is about self-sacrifice, just a rather grim kind.
I wanted to give the example of this spider, though she’s an exception, because I thought it was incredible that she makes herself into mush to feed her babies — and I thought it was amusing. [laughs]
Tell me about the introductions to each animal scene, which feature you voicing some human maternal issue.
All of my films start with me imagining being an animal — “Green Porno” always started with the sentence “If I were…” “Seduce Me” started with a hand or several hands coming and caressing me, and by the way the hand would caress me, I would wonder “What is this kind of caress? What do you think I am?” With “Mammas,” I thought I’d use a series of stereotypes about women — you know, “Oh, my belly is so big! I’m getting so fat! If I were a fish, I would not have this belly, I would actually lose weight because there are some fish that keep their fertilized eggs in their mouths, and while they’re brooding them they don’t eat.” Or there’s the woman in jail who says “If I were a hamster, I would have been justified in eating my baby.”
Are you still working with the same artists who made the costumes and props for “Green Porno”?
This time I had to work with a French crew — “Green Porno” and “Seduce Me” were done in America. But this is a coproduction that required me to work in France, so I decided to take advantage of the fact that in France there’s a big tradition of fashion. The other costumes were all done in paper, but when I was in Paris I contacted people in the fashion world to realize these costumes. When I write my script, I design them all and draw them all — I storyboard it — but I don’t write many details, just basic solutions for the costumes.
I say, I’m a bird that’s flying, there will be cardboard clouds and I will have a sweater on my arms like wings, maybe a hat with a beak — and that’s as much as I need. Then I discuss with the costume designer — are the clouds made of material, are they wood cutouts that have been painted? Are the wings paper, or are they feathers? It’s a lot of work to do all this — the costumes are quite elaborate.
I know biology is a particular interest of yours — how did you find the animals you chose this time around?
Once I select a theme, I try to give 10 examples of different ways, so that when talking about motherhood I don’t do all mammals. I try to give a wide range of different behaviors. With seduction, for example, I didn’t do only songs or battles, but I might do tails and colors. And if I decide to do a species that serenades, within that example, why I do a frog rather than a bird? It’s based on the costumes, whatever will look more fun and more colorful, the jokes it allows to be made.
Did any of these behaviors come as a particular surprise to you when you were looking at candidates?
A lot of them came as a surprise! I’ve always been interested in animal behavior, and I keep reading about it because it’s so surprising all the time — so many things are happening around us that we neglect to look at. Part of the passion I have for biology is based on this wonderment.
As someone who comes from a film background, what are your feelings on making things that primarily play online and the increasing importance of these smaller screens as a viewing platform?
Definitely we are in a period of changes as deep as that of silent movies to talkies, so it is a historical moment, and we don’t really know exactly where it’s going to settle. It has to settle at a certain point — there has been a tremendous abuse of copyright, and a lot of things have been made available, but also a lot of artists are not paid anymore. Their work might be seen by many, but many don’t pay. So the monetization of the internet to artist has been, to me, one of the biggest problems to be solved.
Still, my films are financed by television stations, but if they were to become obsolete, how do you make that money that allows them to pay for films? Right now, YouTube is all about you investing your own money, and you might have a video that goes viral, but for the moment, besides sometimes having an advertisement attached to a video, it’s not the best solution. Once advertisements are the only source of money, it skews the content — you can see the difference in America between cable television and commercial television.