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Sun October 6, 2013
Digital Life

Isabella Rossellini, Getting Animal Again With 'Mammas'

Originally published on Sun October 6, 2013 4:06 pm

Film star Isabella Rossellini has a fish on her head.

She is a mouthbrooder, she explains, helpfully — meaning a fish who incubates her eggs in her mouth.

Rossellini's newest Web series is Mammas, an unconventional look at the natural world and our accepted notions of it.

"My films are comical films. They are made to laugh at," Rossellini tells NPR. "They are comical — and scientifically correct."

That was true, too, for her previous series for Sundance, Green Porno — which despite the provocative title was a scientific look at sexuality in other species and the threats they face. Green Porno won two Webby Awards in 2009.

Mammas, which Rossellini wrote, directed and stars in, deals with animal mothers and what they do for — and to — their children.

When Eight Is Enough, What To Do About Baby No. 9?

In addition to becoming a Web star for a new generation, the actress and filmmaker — star of Blue Velvet and White Nights, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini — is studying for a master's degree in animal behavior. She discovered that female biologists have been questioning long-held conventional wisdom about mothers' being universally self-sacrificing.

"They looked back and looked at all the animals to see if this was consistent behavior in all the species. And of course it isn't," Rossellini explains. "And I found that research to be fascinating, but also quite amusing. And that was the beginning of Mammas."

She enlisted author Marlene Zuk, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, as an expert consultant on the project.

"She wanted somebody who would check on whether she was portraying an animal as having wings when it didn't or the wrong number of legs or something like that," Zuk says. More important, "and what I thought was so wonderful about the films, is that she wanted someone to make sure that she really got what the animals were doing — that she was really true to their essence, as it were."

To get at the essence of hamsters, for example, Isabella Rossellini dons a furry suit and pulls little babies from between her legs.

"How will I feed them all?" Rossellini asks as her hamster-mother alter-ego. "This one is so small and skinny, what will become of it?"

Then she eats it, declaring that eight babies is enough. (Welcome to nature, which isn't always fluffy and kind.)

'I'm In A Leotard All Day Long'

The cheeky informality of the Mammas shorts, as well as their homemade look, is intentional.

"Isabella always says, 'I like to do films that, when my audience sees them, they can think they can do them themselves in the kitchen,' " says Italian filmmaker Gregorio Franchetti.

Rossellini describes Franchetti as her strong right arm on the series, which employs a tiny crew. She believes the small size of her team is essential.

"You know, I'm in a leotard all day long with a fish head," she explains. "I can't have 150 people look, make comments, embarrassing me.

"It's very important that we work all together, like around a table, and you see everybody's face and everybody's collaborating. It really helps on shyness and embarrassment."

It is hard to think of Rosellini as shy, of course, especially if you've seen her in Blue Velvet or in the experimental work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, who Rossellini says encouraged her current work.

"She's bawdy sometimes," Maddin tells NPR. "At other times she reminds you of old movie stars, of contemporary glamour, of some potty-mouthed kid." These films, Maddin says, are Isabella Rossellini.

"She's so relaxed about the way the body works, the way our libidos work. And she's finally decided to make it the subject of her own work."

Maddin notes that both he and Rossellini share a closeness to their mothers. She says her mother, the Oscar-winning star of Casablanca and Notorious and Intermezzo and more, was often criticized in the 1950s as insufficiently maternal.

"This film made me think of my mom, because of course she had a very big career at the time where women didn't have a career, and she was really criticized for it," Rossellini says.

"And I thought, oh, I wish she was alive so that she would know that this idea that women are made to sacrifice and to be servant of their children or their husband or their family — it's not something that is proven to be natural, but is maybe culturally induced. And maybe she would have been also relieved from any guilt."

As for the influence of her father, the great Italian neo-realist director? Well, Rossellini's next series, she says, will be about paternal instincts. How realistic it will be is anyone's guess.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Film star Isabella Rossellini is also a star on the Internet. "Green Porno," her series for the Sundance Channel and sundance.com, won two Webby Awards in 2009. Now she's back with another series of short films that she's written, directed and in which she stars. Like "Green Porno," the new films take an unconventional look at the natural world and our accepted notions of it. The new series is called "Mammas," and it deals with animal mothers and what they do for and sometimes to their children. Pat Dowell has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: In one episode of "Mammas," Isabella Rossellini appears on screen with a fish on her head.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "MAMMAS")

ISABELLA ROSSELLINI: I'm a mouthbrooder. I incubate my eggs in my mouth.

DOWELL: She swims through a stage set ocean and deposits her eggs, which look like little oranges, on a rock. Soon, she gets hit in the face with silly string.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "MAMMAS")

ROSSELLINI: My films are comical films. They are made to laugh at. They are comical and scientifically correct. They are only these two things.

DOWELL: It turns out that the actor and filmmaker is studying for a master's degree in animal behavior. She learned that women biologists are questioning the conventional wisdom that mothers are universally self-sacrificing.

ROSSELLINI: And so they looked at all the animals to see if this was consistent behavior in all the species. And, of course, it isn't. And I found that research to be fascinating but also quite amusing. And that was the beginning of "Mammas." And I contacted my Marlene Zuk.

MARLENE ZUK: Sure she wanted somebody who would check on whether she was portraying an animal as, you know, having wings when it didn't or, you know, the wrong number of legs or something like that.

DOWELL: Marlene Zuk is an author and biologist at the University of Minnesota.

ZUK: But I think a lot more of it, and what I thought was so wonderful about the films, is that she wanted someone to make sure that she really got what the animals were doing, that she was really true to their essence as it is were.

DOWELL: To get at the essence of hamsters, Isabella Rossellini dawns a furry suit and pulls little babies from between her legs, a litter of 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "MAMMAS")

ROSSELLINI: How am I going to feed them all?

DOWELL: She decides she can't.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "MAMMAS")

ROSSELLINI: This one is so small and skinny. What will be of it?

DOWELL: She eats it and another one.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "MAMMAS")

ROSSELLINI: Eight is enough.

DOWELL: The cheeky informality and the homemade look of the films are intentional, says Gregorio Franchetti, a young Italian filmmaker whom Rossellini describes as her strong right arm on the series.

GREGORIO FRANCHETTI: Isabella always says, I like to do films that when my audience sees them they can think they can do them themselves in the kitchen.

DOWELL: It's a look that characterized Rossellini's previous series for Sundance, "Green Porno," which, despite the provocative title, is a similarly scientific look at the sexuality of other species and the threats they face. Her films all employ a tiny crew. She considers that essential to the way she works.

ROSSELLINI: You know, I'm in a leotard all day long with a fish head. I can't have 150 people look, make comments, embarrassing me. It's very important that we work all together, like around the table, and you see everybody's face and everybody's collaborating. It really helps on shyness and embarrassment.

DOWELL: It's hard to think of her as ever being shy if you've seen her in "Blue Velvet" or the experimental movies of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, who Rossellini says encouraged her current work. For his part, Maddin says the short films are Isabella Rossellini.

GUY MADDIN: She's bawdy, sometimes. At other times, she reminds you of old movie stars, of contemporary glamour, of some potty-mouthed kid. She's just so relaxed about the way the body works, the way our libidos work. And she's finally decided to make it the subject of her own work.

DOWELL: Maddin notes that both he and Rossellini share a closeness to their mothers. She acknowledges her mother, film icon Ingrid Bergman, was often criticized in the 1950s for leaving her children to go make movies.

ROSSELLINI: You know, this film made me think of my mom because, of course, she had a very big career at the time where women didn't have a career. And she was really criticized for it. And I thought, oh, I wish she was alive so that she would know that this idea that women are made to sacrifice and to be servant of their children or their husband or of the family, it's not something that is proven to be natural but is maybe culturally induced. And maybe she would have been relieved from any guilt.

DOWELL: Isabella Rossellini's father was legendary Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. Paternal instincts will be the subject of her next series. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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