As the child of famed Italian director Roberto Rossellini and Swedish film star Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini was famous before she was born. She hardly shrank from the spotlight; she became a supermodel while still a teenager, and over the years, she’s bloomed into a bestselling author, a risk-taking actress, and an all-around creative muse to people like Martin Scorsese (her husband for three years) and David Lynch. At a time when many actresses her age are settling for the few roles Hollywood is willing to offer women over 50, Rossellini sometimes seems like she’s just getting started: In addition to taking on challenging parts in Guy Maddin’s latest films (including an unforgettable performance in The Saddest Music In The World), she’s indulged a rarely seen but always effective comic side by playing Alec Baldwin’s ex-wife in episodes of 30 Rock. She’s also taken her first forays into writing for the screen (collaborating with Maddin on “My Dad Is 100 Years Old,” a documentary short about her famous father) and directing. She recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Green Porno, a charmingly surreal shorts series commissioned by the Sundance Channel, for which Rossellini is writing, directing, and starring in movies about animal sex. The first season, in 2008, focused on invertebrates; the second season, this time featuring sea creatures, premièred on April 1.
The A.V. Club: Green Porno is certainly one of the oddest things to turn up on television in recent years. Was it a hard sell, even to an adventurous network like Sundance?
Isabella Rossellini: It actually came about because of a conversation I had with Robert Redford about the lack of short films in cinema today. He was looking for an opportunity to relaunch the short-film format, and he thought the Internet could give them the popularity they needed to revive. They were very popular at the beginning of the last century, and all the way through the ’60s, when they were shown before features, but then they sort of disappeared. When the Internet started, and we began to see the number of people who would go to see a short film on YouTube, we thought, “Well, this is a new format we should experiment with.” And Redford and Sundance, you know, they’ve also always been interested in the environment. So when I came to them with the idea, I already had those two elements, and I molded them with the fascination I’ve always had with animal behavior. I knew that not everyone is interested in animal behavior, but everyone is interested in sex! [Laughs.] So I thought, “If I focus on that aspect of animal behavior, the way that they mate—we have Green Porno.”
AVC: Was it difficult getting the concept out of your imagination and onto film?
IR: I did the scripts first, and then we did three pilot films. Sundance liked it and commissioned five more, and those eight films became the first series. And now we have six more coming up in April, and then in the fall, we’ll have a third series—Green Porno: Bon Appétit—about food animals that we eat. So it wasn’t difficult getting the ideas! And I didn’t really have to sell it; Sundance came to me with lots of ideas about formatting it, and gave me a little money to finance the costumes once we’d decided on the look, and when the first series was popular, they gave me a little more, so it’s really grown organically. We’re even going to be doing a Green Porno book. It started out in my head very small, but now it’s grown into a whole business.
AVC: Back when you were modeling and living with Martin Scorsese, did you imagine that 30 years later, you’d be dressed in a giant bug suit, pretending to have sex on the Internet?
IR: [Laughs.] Well, I did and I didn’t! Ever since I was a little girl, I have always loved animals and been fascinated with them. And when I was a teenager, my father gave me a book by Konrad Lorenz, who was the scientist who founded ethology, the study of animal behavior. He was a Nobel Prize-winner, and he wrote this book called King Solomon’s Ring, and that book hit me like a revelation. Ever since I read it, when I was 14 or 15, I always knew I wanted to make films about animals—but the other thing is that animals always make me laugh. So I knew I didn’t want to do a plain old documentary, and I didn’t want to make movies like the Mickey Mouse cartoons, where the animal behaves like a person—I wanted to make comical movies about real animal behavior. But I grew up, and I became a model, and I became an actress, and life took me in a different direction. But here I am now, funny enough, doing exactly what I wanted to do back then. It was my dream for years, and now, in my late 50s, it’s come back to me.
AVC: Although Green Porno deals with sex in an adult way, the way it’s presented is reminiscent of some of the better children’s programming.
IR: Well, there isn’t anything adult about it. I just tell it like it is. Those are the things you should learn when you take basic biology courses. It’s absurd, in the sense that I become the animal and behave as I would if that was the case—that’s part of the surrealism that allows you to laugh about it—but there’s nothing adult about it. The only thing that’s porno is that it’s called Green Porno.
AVC: When it became obvious that Green Porno was a hit, was there a lot of pressure to turn around a second series quickly?
IR: No! Most of the time was spent with me just sitting at home writing. When you’re working on something like this, what is basically an experimental film, there’s very little money involved, so there’s very little pressure to get it done right away. You don’t do an experimental film to become rich, so the people who are involved are involved because they enjoy the creative aspect of it. But I have to say that because we were so successful last time, we had a slightly bigger budget this time. I wouldn’t say it pays as well as a Lancôme contract, but we paid everybody pretty well, and that also made me feel pretty good. Unfortunately, it’s a big problem in the arts—you feel like you’re taking advantage of people in the name of the project. With the first series, we paid everybody, but we paid them what we could. That’s the main reason I was so happy it was a success, because this time around, we could pay them pretty good salaries.
AVC: So is there still hope that Green Porno’s success is going to spark a renewed interest in short films? Can you foresee a renaissance of short subjects at the theater?
IR: I know that some of the Green Porno shorts have been shown in theaters—IFC shows them at the beginning of some of their theatrical releases. It’s largely thanks to Sundance and IFC and the support of the independent circuit that if a short film is funny or engaging it can be seen on the big screen at all. But the big advantage of doing Green Porno was that it was first put out on the Internet, and that allows you to track exactly how many people are watching it over time. I really think that’s the question not just theaters, but also television and newspapers are asking themselves right now, is “How do we live with the web? What lessons can we learn from it, and should we adapt those things that are successful on the web?”
AVC: You’ve had a career that’s included acting, modeling, music, photography, and even costume design, but you’ve only started writing and directing in the last few years. Is that something you want to continue?
IR: Yes, I would love to! I have the most fun writing and directing. And I always choose myself as the lead actor. [Laughs.] It makes it a lot easier, so I don’t have to learn how to tell someone how to play the role. “You’re a worm, which is a hermaphrodite. Don’t worry about it.” It’s easier to just do it myself. But yes, I’d love to do more films, and hopefully if this series is as successful as the previous one, Sundance will be open to continuing it, or doing another project with me. I have lots of ideas—I put aside this whole summer for writing, because for me, the writing and the research take longer than anything. Shooting each animal takes about a day, so the most difficult part is doing the writing and the research, and translating it from this very dry, boring, scientific language into something funny. Then, of course, you have to make it visually funny as well, which takes some time, and then try and pack all that information into a minute and a half of film. And that’s just the first stage of the process! Then I bring it to [production designers] Rick Gilbert and Andy Byers, who do such a wonderful job on the costumes and the set design—so much of the success of Green Porno is the visual aspect, and it usually takes them four to six weeks to finish the design. Then when we shoot, we shoot in a week, and we edit very quickly. But so much of the writing revolves around research.
AVC: Do you have specific sources you use for research purposes?
IR: Yes—I especially like to go to the Bronx Zoo! A lot of the animal keepers and the researchers and scientists there have been really helpful and generous with their time. It’s not an official collaboration—it’s just based on friendship—but they’ve always been very kind.
AVC: Have you gotten feedback from scientists on the series?
IR: Yes, and most of it has been quite positive. I think they mostly react the way anyone else watching it would react, with laughter. More than anything else, Green Porno is meant to be comical. But with a general audience, I also want to communicate the wonderment I have about animals. People will ask, “Well, what do you like about this so much?” And I always tell them, the more you know about animals, the more fascinated you will become by them; there are always so many incredible things to learn. Even about worms—they’re hermaphrodites! You can cut them in pieces and they grow back! It’s so wonderful. And that’s something that scientists already know, so I generally get a very positive reaction from them. I’m actually working with a marine biologist on the second series who will also be acting in the films.
AVC: Have you given any thought to doing something longer, perhaps a feature-length film?
IR: Right now, I want to continue doing Green Porno, but we have thought about expanding it to a half-hour and doing a TV show. We have a very tight little unit right now—we’ve gotten quite good at cranking out these short films, and I’m very happy with the way they’ve turned out. But the reason I think about television is that right now, we’re doing the series on the Internet, and it’s completely unregulated, which in some ways is beneficial, but it doesn’t offer us a way to give the workers any protection. If we were to do this as a half-hour television show, it would allow us to pay them better salaries, give them health insurance and union protection, and things like that. So that’s the main reason we’d look at doing a longer version.
AVC: Was it at all difficult to make the transition to directing, or was it easier because you’ve spent so much time around directors?
IR: I think in a way, it was having success early on as a model that gave me the confidence to become an actress—I remember I was so scared to start acting, but you are already showing emotion in front of the camera; all you have to do is add words. And then I took the confidence I gained from having success as an actress and began writing, and I got to the point where I was doing storyboards for my directors to help set up scenes with my characters, and I thought, “Well, perhaps it’s time to do directing!” But obviously, there was still a lot to learn.
One of the biggest lessons was that when you write, you have a very specific vision of what you want to see onscreen—but when that gets into the hands of actors and set designers and camera operators, all of them can interpret that in a different way, and see a different vision. And of course, I knew that as an actress—I was taking the script and using my own interpretation to create a character based around those words. But I didn’t really realize how many instructions you have to give as a director to everyone involved to make sure the vision makes it to the screen. You think it’s all in the script, but it isn’t—you have to explain to everyone what you already know. It’s incredible what the brain can do in a flash—and how many words you have to use to decode to other people the image that you understood instantly in your head.
AVC: Now that you’re a writer and director and filmmaker on top of all your other careers, is there anything you haven’t tried that you’re still keen to?
IR: I would love to be a field biologist. I would love to do what Jane Goodall did, just totally immerse myself in the life of one specific species for years and study every aspect of its behavior until little by little, all of these patterns become clear. That would be great, but I don’t know if I have it left in me.
AVC: A number of great biologists kept doing field work well into their 50s.
IR: Well! I’d better get moving, then!