Photo: Courtesy Sundance Channel
There aren't many actresses -- make that "artists" -- that would slip into a Cuckoo bird outfit in an effort to illuminate the lesser-known facts about the animal kingdom, but thank goodness Isabellla Rossellini is up for it. It's just one of the many things that makes Mammas, which debuts Sunday on the Sundance Channel, so captivating. The other thing is just how well the award-winning director and actress showcases motherhood in her new series of shorts.
This wouldn't be the first time Rossellini gave birth to something so deliciously artistic. She turned heads a few years ago after unveiling the unconventional mating and scandalous sex lives of animals in her Webby Award-winning, internationally acclaimed short film series Green Porno and then, with Green Porno: Seduce Me, too.
Mammas may be a hoot, but watch how well--and humorously--Rossellini actually takes on the roles of various creatures, wearing colorful costumes and reenacting a gaggle of "motherhood" scenes found in the animal kingdom. The roster of featured creatures includes a spider, wasp, hamster, toad, Cuckoo, oil beetle and several others. Inventive, surreal, quirky and downright imaginative, Mammas is insightful, yes, but it's also a wonderfully playful demonstration of Rossellini's artistic verve. She's the quintessential "artist."
I recently caught up with the actress, who conceptualized, wrote and directed the outing. Read on:
Isabella Rossellini: In some of my courses on animal behavior, I ran into several books written by credible, contemporary women biologists who wondered: ''What is 'Mother?' What do we really mean?" It wasn't really studied very closely. The general maternal instinct--everybody has a general idea in mind ... of a creature that is ready to sacrifice their own life for their babies. The women biologists wanted to see if that was true. But if that was true, then it worried them that the essence of femininity was inclined to be self-sacrifice. And they felt that that was maybe tinted by all cultures--a maternal instinct so dramatically self-sacrificing, that they didn't feel very comfortable with it. They went and verified if that was the case.
Greg Archer: And their discoveries showed ...?
Isabella Rossellini: They looked at many different species. And in fact, they verified that there is a very very different behavior. But most of the time, if one has to characterize motherhood it is the absolute ability to manage their resources. So, if a mother has too many pups, she might eat a few--not only to make the litter smaller but also to recoup some vitamins. They are very practical. So, these examples of these behaviors, I found very funny, and also, somehow, very encouraging. You know, I didn't like the idea that the essence of femininity might be self-sacrifice. I don't know what would be the consequences of it on my life. Should I be locked back in the house and sleep and take care of everybody? [Laughs] So, this analysis of the maternal instinct gave me a feeling of, 'Oh yeah, I can identify with being a good organizer,' because mothers have to be very practical and organized around the family. Much more than self-sacrifice.
Greg Archer: So, what is about the animal kingdom that fascinates you? I mean, you looked into mating habits in Green Porno and now, this?
Isabella Rossellini: I always liked animals since I was a little girl. I always went to the zoo. I had animals. I would go bird watching. It remained my own hobby, if you will. I never had a possibility to lay out my interests until I, myself, became a writer and a director. Because most of the time, I worked on other people's texts--whatever a writer wrote; whatever a director directed. I never really expressed my own personal interests. When I became older, and there was less work for me as an actress and a model, I decided that I would go back to school and study my hobby--the one thing that I was always interested. And that started the idea to make short films. They were originally meant for the Internet, and Robert Redford produced. I had, of course, known him, having worked at Sundance. Redford had reached out to people like me and others to experiment on a short film series for the Internet. This is how Green Porno came about. I did 18 episodes of Green Porno originally. And we did another series, Seduce Me, which was very similar to Green Porno. And now, Mammas is a co-production with a French-German company and the U.S., and there was a little more of a budget, because now it has become like a "career." Before it was just an experiment. Now, it's a real thing. I am also preparing a monologue for the theater based on myself. So, there are many destinations of Green Porno.
Greg Archer: Was there any particular animal or insect that stood out to you? What Mamma stood out the most? I found the Cuckoo Bird interesting.
Isabella Rossellini: Wasn't it? I feel very similar. I didn't know much about maternity or how they express it. Because I don't think anybody knew. You think 'mamma,' and it's thought that they are all the same. But not at all. They are quite different. And the Cuckoo is surprising, isn't it? It has a murderous baby. The baby [after it is left in another's nest] comes out before the other birds are hatched, and so he kills the other babies in the nest to be the only one to compete. And if there is any other one, he will make sure the mother starves it to death. The Cuckoo is quite extraordinary. And the baby, too--this murderous baby born with this instinct to kill right away.
Greg Archer: How resourceful and downright clever. This must have been enjoyable--creating all of it and even stepping into all those costumes and characters, which you do so well. What did you enjoy most?
Isabella Rossellini: Thank you. The fun part is that--the "characters." The hard part is to trying to extrapolate the animal behaviors and then make it funny. I draw all my sketches and we have a basic idea of the costume, and how to become these animals. I don't say to a person, "Make me a bird, I want to fly." I do draw the basics but hardest is to write them. Once I find the basic solution and the script is there, it's incredibly fun to work with the crew and add details to the costumes and do the set. I love most the pre-production. And also the editing and the music. It brings so much life to the films.
Greg Archer: And what makes you a unique mother? I guess all mothers are "unique," but what has motherhood taught you about life?
Isabella Rossellini: It's very difficult to make this film and then correlate it to my life. Of course, we are talking about species and then individuals, and there is a difference. But in terms of animals, I would say I am a mammal, I breast fed, I carried a baby in my belly. But I have two children, both are adults. One is about to be 30; the other is 19. The 30-year-old is married and independent. The 19-year-old is also independent and taking photography course. I love being a mom. But I think, right now, I have a little bit of the empty nest feeling. It's a new chapter in life. My son wants to go and live in New York City next year, so that will be a new chapter in my life--not to be "daily" mamma.
Mammas premieres at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 12 (Mother's Day) on Sundance Channel and sundancechannel.com.
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