Playing the mating game: Interview with Isabella Rossellini

Isabella Rossellini’s acclaimed short films about animal sexual behaviour are being shown at the Wolfsonian


Miami Beach

As the daughter of film director Roberto Rossellini and screen star Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini would be expected to have grown up entrenched in the mainstream film industry. But it hasn’t stopped her taking experimental leaps and in her recent series of short web-films the actress dresses up in carefully crafted costumes to act out the sexual proclivities of animals. The series “Green Porno” and “Seduce Me” have both met with critical success and are being screened at the Wolfsonian-FIU this week (1-5 December) as part of an installation designed by Andy Byers, who helped create the costumes and sets for the films.

The Art Newspaper: Your videos are very amusing, how did you come up with the idea?

Isabella Rossellini: Two or three years ago I was contacted by the Sundance Channel. They wanted to do specific programming for their website and I was told that if the films were on an environmental subject they would be more inclined to finance them. I have always been interested in animal behaviour, and I know a lot of people are interested in sex. That’s how it came about. Since the films are for the internet, they had to be colourful so they can be seen on small devices like iPhones. So that affected the aesthetic.

TAN: Is that why you also chose to film very stylised set pieces?

IR: I was lucky. I asked my friend Rick Gilbert, who is an art director, to help me because we had a very limited budget, so we decided to do the sets in paper. Rick has this fantastic friend, Andy Byers, who is hugely talented, and the two of them helped me realise the incredibly beautiful sets.

TAN: What is the installation at the Wolfsonian going to be like?

IR: The exhibition at the Wolfsonian is really dedicated to the art of Andy Byers and Rick. I’m going to bring my films and some of the sets and costumes. But they are designing something specifically for the exhibition. The museum commissioned them and then asked me if I could do the benefit dinner and introduce the films. I said: ‘Of course!’ because the Wolfsonian is a great museum and I want people to recognise Andy and Rick’s work.

TAN: Are there plans to make more films in the series?

IR: I think the Sundance Channel is seeing how it goes. They have already commissioned four seasons of “Green Porno” and “Seduce Me”—it’s really the same series, we just changed the title because we’re exploring the seduction strategies of animals rather than just the ways they have sex. There were some sponsors who were interested in backing the films but they didn’t want to be involved with anything that had the word “porno” in its title. I would love to make more if Sundance wants me to.

TAN: Do you have a lot of input in the design of the films?

IR: Yes. I mean, I write, direct and act in them and I come up with the basic idea.

TAN: Do you sketch out your ideas?

IR: I sketch them out and then I sit down with Andy and Rick and we work on the details. Now, because we’ve done so many episodes, we know what doesn’t work. I’ve noticed that if you watch the early “Green Porno” films and then the latest series, you really see an incredible evolution, which is due to our collaboration. You know, the more you collaborate with people, the more you grow. In the last films we made I think the sets are better than ever.

TAN: Yes, the last series is much more intricate. The costumes in the “Salmon” episode were particularly wonderful.

IR: The part where I’m decaying was done by a film make-up artist who does special effects. We sat down with Andy and the make-up artist like on any regular film and discussed the colour scheme. Making films is always collaborative. I have to say that part of the success of “Green Porno” and “Seduce Me” is not just the subject, but the look of the films. So I owe a lot to Andy and Rick.

TAN: You collaborated in a performance installation with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at the Guggenheim last year. Are you particularly interested in working with visual and contemporary artists?

IR: Yes. I mean, I also consider film-makers and directors as artists.

TAN: Yes, absolutely. But have you done many multidisciplinary projects, crossing over between visual and performance art?

IR: No, not that many. Obviously there are some directors I work a lot with, like Guy Maddin, who also seems to be a favourite of museums. His work is a little bit like an art installation or media art.

TAN: Do you collect art?

IR: No. To collect art is to have money, to have walls and space. I’m not an art collector, nor was anyone in my family.

TAN: But I read that your family was involved with the De Menils in Houston?

IR: My father worked for the De Menils. He wanted to make scientific films but he never finished them because he died.

TAN: So is this interest in combining science and art something you grew up with?

IR: Lately, people have been making those parallels but I haven’t thought about it. Maybe it comes from always hearing as a child that it is strange to separate art and science. When I was making “Green Porno” I didn’t hear the voice of my father, saying: ‘That should be the way of the future.’ I didn’t make the films with my father in mind. If “Green Porno” is the result of my education and I didn’t feel anything was wrong with making comical, entertaining films based on science, all the better.

TAN: Have you been to many art fairs?

IR: I went to the biennale in Venice many years ago. I don’t go regularly but I do go to a lot of film festivals—I assume they are a little bit like art fairs.