Isabella Rossellini creates “Mammas” for Sundance Channel

Sunday, May 12
Sundance Channel, 5:30pm ET

Usually when someone I’m interviewing excuses themselves for a minute, it can really interrupt the flow of the conversation. That extra time it takes to get back on track could lead to me missing out on some great nugget they were about to throw my way.

But when it’s Isabella Rossellini, and you overhear her speaking beautiful Italian to her son, it’s just a pleasure to sit and listen.

I called the actress to learn more about her new series of short films, Mammas, premiering on Sundance Channel on Mother’s Day. It follows the format of her previous efforts Green Porno and Seduce Me in cheekily exploring the ins and outs of the animal kingdom. But far from being a standard nature documentary, Rossellini — who writes, directs and stars in each segment — makes the whole thing feel like a fun, breezy night out at the theater, using colorful sets and intricate costumes to weave personal-essay narratives that explain what animals do, how humans view their behavior, and what those views say about us.

She’s not some dilettante actress just trying to be weird here either. Rossellini is currently working toward a master’s degree at NYU in animal studies, so the science in her films is sound. Still, she has another goal beyond educating the viewer. She talked about that and, oh, lots of other stuff in our chat:

Channel Guide Magazine: You’ve tackled mating rituals in the animal kingdom with Green Porno and Seduce Me, so what made you want to take on motherhood?

Isabella Rossellini: I’m taking classes on animal behavior, ethology, and I came across a series of books by some female scientists that were quite interested on defining maternal instinct. Because it wasn’t really well-defined. Everybody thought they knew what it was, but what they basically thought it was — actually Darwin himself thought it was altruism and generosity — and if you look at the origin of it from a biological standpoint you can imagine that maternal mothers sacrifice themselves to take care of their children. So you imagine this tendency to be stretched over others who are not your children, or your babies, and so that’s what the maternal instinct was. This scientist became quite alarmed that the essence of femininity would be self-sacrifice. So they looked to find confirmation if it was true in the animal kingdom that this was something that was seen over and over again, and of course you don’t. Some of the mothers you see in my film are quite naughty. I thought that  writing was so interesting, so intelligent, so thought-provoking that I thought I would do a new series and call it Mammas.

CGM: Having done the other films, was it easier to get people to understand what Mammas was going to be? They’re not the easiest projects to explain.

IR: It was easier not because it’s conceptual. My films are always very scientifically accurate, so I put a lot into research. But a lot of them are just made to be comical films, so I hope that the audience’s first reaction is to laugh, and then maybe to say, “Oh, I didn’t know that!” But that’s a second reaction that I wish them to have. What I’m really after is entertainment, and to amuse people with science.

CGM: What sort of feedback do you get from these projects?

IR: We have been invited to David Letterman, and then there was Jon Stewart making fun of me. The New York Times, National Geographic, also Playboy wrote about them, which I found amusing. At the Berlin Film Festival, I was awarded the Kamera Berlinale, and I was very flattered by that. … They’re niche for sure, in the sense that I’m not in a big mall. But for what they are, they have been more accepted and more successful than we had hoped. We started as an experiment, and they really have now a life of their own. They’re self-financed, they get their money back. Before I would always have to rely on grants. They walk on their own legs.

CGM: So you don’t mind it when people like Jon Stewart make fun of you?

IR: Of course it’s in the right spirit. We were very flattered, because it was an experimental film, so we were very flattered that they even noticed. For us, it was a tremendous boost for viewing. That also was very helpful, so I can only be grateful.

CGM: You mention your own mother in one of the shorts. What went into that decision?

IR: Every film has a little format. It starts with a woman who’s a mother doing something. The piping plover is an animal that pretends to be wounded to attract a predator away from her nest. So my little films always start with a woman in some sort of distress wishing to be an animal, and then explains why she wishes to be that animal, then the film ends going back to this woman. So for the piping plover, I imagined an actress who is a bad actress, and she’s having tomatoes thrown at her and being insulted by the audience, so she’s wishing to be as good as the piping plover who acts, pretending she’s wounded to take the fox away from her nest. Then when it comes back to the actress concluding it, I say, “If I was as talented as Ingrid Bergman.” I chose my mom. I said Sarah Bernhardt because everybody knows Sarah Bernhardt, but of course I hope everybody knows my mom, too, so I used both names.

CGM: Despite being short films, there seems to be a lot involved in the productions, with research, costumes, writing and such. Talk about what goes into getting these made.

IR: The writing is the hardest part, because exactly, I have to read a lot of books. Not only the reading and the finding of the information, but translating it into comic things. I read about an animal, and then you have to translate this into a comical costume, a comical line, so that takes me the longest. It takes about maybe six months to write 10 episodes. Then another three months to develop the costumes, they’re very elaborate. But then the shoot goes very fast. We generally shoot one episode a day. Mammas we shot in nine days. The actual shooting is frantic, with long days and lots of people, but if you’re very well-organized, you work very fast. So the longest is really the thinking about it, and all the problem-solving and the realization of the costumes and set. Then of course there is post-production, which might take another four or five weeks after we’ve edited and composed the music. So it’s a whole year. It takes out a whole year, a little film like that.

CGM: What fascinates you so much about the animal kingdom?

IR: I’ve always liked it since I was a child. I read about animal behavior. If I could choose where to go on a holiday, I would go on a safari or go snorkeling. So it was always a passion of mine, and then recently when I started to work less as a model, and my children are grown up so they need less my presence at home, I decided to go back to finish studying. It was something that was interesting to me, and at the same time to evolve my work into writing and directing.

 CGM: Are you planning more films on this subject?

IR: Oh yes, I have 10 more films on parenting I’d like to do. I have also written a theatrical monologue based on animal reproduction, so right now I am booked until next March on a full tour, so I don’t know if I can realize this film until 2014. I can write some when I’m traveling, but I really have to finalize them when I’m at home, where I can talk to my scientist friend, when I can draw costumes. If we’re lucky we can shoot in 2014 and maybe it’ll be ready by 2015.

Isabella Rossellini Mammas Sundance Channel

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Channel