Isabella Rossellini is back at it. After the success of her Webby-award winning Sundance Channel series, Green Porno and Seduce Me, tackling the eccentric mating habits of the animal kingdom (gay gang-banging deer and masochist snails to name a few), the model and actress now turns her attention to the peculiar habits of mothers and chats with us about her deliciously surreal new show Mammas debuting this Mother's Day on the Sundance Channel and SundanceChannel.com. Below, we chat with Rossellini about the series. Above, watch an exclusive clip about the resilient oil beetle and the horny male bees who love them.
When did you first become curious about animal behavior?
I was always interested in animals and always thought they would make funny films. But, you know, as an actress and a model I never really thought about writing or directing. Then a few years ago, to celebrate my father [Roberto Rossellini], who would have been 100 years old in 2006, I made a film about my dad that Sundance purchased and liked very much. They contacted me again when they had allocated some money to experiment in making a web series. At first, I thought I didn't know what to say, I didn't know what to write and then thought it might be really fun to do little short films about animals. This is how the first three episodes of Green Porno came about. When I showed them the pilot, Sundance commissioned eight more. It was a huge hit! Since then we did another 10 Green Pornos and then we did a series called Seduce Me - it was difficult to find sponsors for something with porno in the title - so we changed the name but the format was pretty much the same. Then recently I did Mamma's, focusing on maternal instinct.
Why did you decide to focus on sexual behavior when you first started? Was it important to show that sexuality is just as complex and diverse in the animal world as it is for humans?
I didn't do it to change people's point of view. They were really just meant to be comical films - not propaganda in any way. Of course when they came out, for example recently they found out that homosexuality exists amongst several animal species - and I made an episode about it. The gay community was like "Oh by God then we are not against nature" -- something they have been accused of. In fact it does exist in nature, so they felt relieved. I didn't do it particularly as a statement but I think it is natural for us to think about ourselves when observing the animal world. If it exist in nature than why not? It questions your set of beliefs.
Did the same happen with Mammas?
Yes it did. When I first read the research from several women scientists that question maternal instincts trying to figure out if its true that women are inclined to self sacrifice - making it a common denominator in all species and defining us as women. They looked into other animal species and couldn't confirm that. I was actually relieved to know that we are not all self-sacrificing because I'm afraid that would throw us back into the kitchen.
Stills from Mammas courtesy of Sundance Channel.
How do you go about choosing the animals you feature in the show?
First of all it's about diversity. When talking about motherhood, I would find examples of ten different species that either don't get pregnant in the belly but in the mouth or back. Or species that abandon their children all-together so that I don't tell ten stories that are too similar. When I did Green Porno, I chose male and female species, hermaphrodites and homosexuals to show all the wonderful diversity that exists. Once I choose the types, then its really dictated by the humor and the costume.
How did you come up with the look of the show?
We had a very small budget, so we devised the first two series to be done with paper. Also, since they were conceived for the Internet and the small devices we view these in (like cell phones, iPods, etc); we thought that the image had to be very clear and graphic so that they would marry well with small screens. The latest was co-produced with a French television station called Arte and because of this co-production I had to shoot these in France. Of course the French didn't want to give visas to my American collaborators, so I had to hire a whole French crew. So I changed the concept from paper to clothing. I knew several couturiers and artisans through my work as a model, so I worked with them to create costumes that were very fantastic. You have to sort of adapt your style to the team you are working with.
Have you learned about any animal maternal behaviors that you wish human mothers could adopt?
Not particularly. Again it was a feeling that our culture sometimes gives us so many constraints when actually nature is so much more fantastic, much more elastic and much more possible than what we believe. For example, some believe that women should stay home and take care of their babies and yet it's not something you see in all species. A woman who has a career doesn't mean she's not fit to be a mother. Or again the example of a gay guy or girl being accused of being against nature or that sex is just for procreation, but then you see sex is used in nature for many other purposes: for pleasure, recreation and to socially bond. Sex doesn't have just one role its something we've seen through many species.
What is the most challenging part of making Mammas?
The hardest part was to film the opening monologue for this particular season because I wanted to explain some of the science behind it - I thought people would enjoy it more if they had a bit of an explanation. The first episode was hard to write. I did the episode in two languages, French and English, six pages of dialogues in languages that are not mine. My maternal tongue is Italian. It was very difficult to make it fun and simple. It's a difficult thesis to explain. If you expose a theory it is harder. The hardest part was to translate something that is serious into something that is fun and lighthearted. Playing the animals is the easy part -- it's a puppet show.