Isabella Rossellini is a complex woman with a diverse resume. Throughout her career she’s taken on many roles, all with creativity, style, heart and originality. She’s been an actress, a model, a filmmaker, an author and and activist, and tackled many different disciplines of each. Last month she stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about one of her recent projects, MAMMAS, which she made with the Sundance Channel. Although the projected aired weeks ago, you can still view it on the Sundance Channel website. Excerpts of the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: I get so skeeved out watching these sketches that you do. They are so uncomfortable because so many strange things happen in nature.
Isabella Rossellini: (laughs) Yes, they do, don’t they? I’m amused by it.
Ron Bennington: You love it!
Isabella Rossellini: I love it, I am amused by the variety. It makes me, I don’t know, it makes me laugh. Animals always make me laugh. And in fact, when I decided to become a filmmaker and write my own films, though I have tremendous admiration for David Attenborough or National Geographic, I didn’t think that the humor was caught. And animals make me laugh. So, that’s how I started to make my comical film about them.
Ron Bennington: There are so many things that happen in nature, that it’s amazing that we’ve even gotten around to figuring out how many different things happen.
Isabella Rossellini: Yes, it is, isn’t it? And sometimes we are biased. Sometimes our culture doesn’t allow us to see what’s in front of us very explicitly.
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Ron Bennington: I remember being a kid, and all these shad came up to Chesapeake Bay and went back up this little stream into this lake. And I said to my dad, “How could that happen?” And he goes, “instinct.” And that was the end of it, but that instinct is the key to the entire universe. We just use the one word for it, but it’s incredible that something could find its way back to do something like that.
Isabella Rossellini: Of course, it’s incredible that animals can migrate for thousands of miles. That animals – like the fish you were talking about – might grow into a little stream, goes into the sea, changing their respiratory system from water to salt water. Then, at the end of their life they go back where they were born to mate, before they die, and leave eggs and their future generation. Yes, nature is full of incredible things. We do say instinct, and of course instinct exists, but now we are questioning also these instincts. Before we always thought that animals were instincts, or they were like machines, computers. They were born with this behavior, and – boom, boom, boom, boom – they were doing that. And instead, we had rationale. So, we had maybe some instinct, but they could be overridden by our ability, our will. Now, we’re questioning that. And we’re saying, do animals have instinct like we have instinct? But in fact, animals also have the ability to think, to make choices. And those are the studies today that are quite interesting.
Ron Bennington: The instincts that we have are to breathe – right away we know how to breathe, no one has to teach us that. But beyond that, it seems like we’re kind of born dumb compared to other animals.
Isabella Rossellini: (laughs) Well, we don’t know. We are so complicated, it’s so difficult to compare us to animals. We understand animals very little. We have languages to communicate, though we can lie with languages, so we communicate, but we don’t know if we get always the right information. And, we don’t understand what animals communicate among themselves. We understand some. Sometimes we are unable to even hear – some animals communicate at different frequencies. So, it’s really a wonderful – the nature is infinite, and it has an infinite expression. And it’s really interesting to learn and study it. Do we have definite answers? I don’t think so. I think it just opens new questions.
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Ron Bennington: Yeah, well you do bring up something that I guess we are instinctual about – is that there’s a maternal feeling.
Isabella Rossellini: Well, I’m sure that every species wants to perpetuate themselves, and that’s why they mate, to have offspring. Actually, my film sort of contradicts the idea of maternal instinct as this basis of self-sacrifice. Maternal instinct, according to Darwin, he was wondering how in evolution altruism came about. Because if it is the fittest that survive, how can you sacrifice the individual for others? And so, he looked at – he said, “Maybe the answer is in mothers.” Mothers are ready to sacrifice themselves for their babies, but you can imagine that this is expanded to others beyond their family, and that may be the origin of altruism. And so, contemporary scientists went out to look if it was true, that the common denominator among all females is self-sacrifice, and they say that there isn’t. They show that some mothers are making their litters smaller by eating some babies, because they have too many. That some mothers abandon their eggs into another bird’s nest so that that bird will take care of her eggs. That some mothers don’t even get pregnant just with the belly, but they might get pregnant with the mouth. They keep the baby in the mouth so they lose weight, because while the babies are in the mouth maturing, they can’t eat. So, all this variety. But of course, all my films are comical and they are meant to laugh, and to give you glimpses into the variety of solutions that nature has offered.
Ron Bennington: But, you love the fact that you don’t know all the answers. You love the fact that there’s still so much mystery? That’s part of the fun.
Isabella Rossellini: I do, yeah. I do. It’s part of the fun.
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Ron Bennington: When you make films for Sundance, are you the one who picks what animal you’re going to be doing?
Isabella Rossellini: Yes. I write the scripts, and then send them to Sundance. Generally, they approve of them. I’ve never had a – but I do submit a script. And then I direct them too and then act. And I act by – I act all the animals. I transform myself into these animals with very elaborate costumes. I worked for many years as a model, so I have all the good addresses to get people to make these elaborate costumes.
Ron Bennington: They are incredibly elaborate. And, only to use for a couple of minutes here and there. There’s a lot that goes into that.
Isabella Rossellini: Yes, my films are very short, but very dense. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: Yeah, and they also don’t feel like something we would see on American television. There is, I think kind of a European flavor.
Isabella Rossellini: Well, I’m European. (laughs) I’m European, and also Sundance I think has – Sundance and Robert Redford really, they were at the core of creating the independent film, which is an alternative to the big Hollywood studio. Of course, people go from independent film to a big film, so there is not such a distinct – but you really do – the idea from Redford was to allow everybody more voices. Because, in America, the great gift of America is the enormous diversity. But, film-making has become very expensive, and you need a lot of people. Because you need musicians, and actors, and directors, and technicians. So, making films has become very expensive. So, Redford created and supported, fostered really, the independent film, which became so important. And he also then fostered, at least with me, the web. The web is yet another way to distribute film, and he identified that maybe the short film format was the one that was best for the web. And in fact, my film started to be just filmed for the web. We won several Webbies, they became very popular. And now they are seen a bit of everywhere. So now they are also on Sundance Channel, the TV, they are sometimes shown before long feature films in theatrical distribution – especially at ICP in New York City, that shows a lot of documentaries, foreign films, alternative films. So, then you find millions of ways of distributing that are shaping up nowadays. They are completely new ways of showing films.
Ron Bennington: And, I think what’s also cool, if you’re using it as an educational tool, since it’s short, people can grab onto that one concept right away. It kind of whets their appetite.
Isabella Rossellini: Yes. You know that when cinema, moving pictures started, the silent movie, they were very short. And people always liked it. I don’t know what happened on television, around the ’60s, the short film format disappeared. And now the shortest film format you can do for television is half an hour. And if you want a theatrical distribution, you have to be a minimum of an hour, or over an hour. Because people are not ready to pay 13 dollars, 15 dollars if something is 45 minutes. So, it became a convention. But, of course, there are many stories that can be told very fast. And the Internet, I think, allows this. You can, again, tell stories that are a minute, two minutes, five minutes. So, it opened up another way of storytelling.
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Ron Bennington: Well, a lot of models don’t pay attention to everything that’s going around. But, when you were modeling, you were watching the way everybody else was working and that was a big part of it. Was it difficult for you to go into film knowing, such a pedigree name, and -
Isabella Rossellini: Well, in a certain sense it was difficult psychologically. Because my parents were so – my mother is Ingrid Bergman, a very, very established Hollywood actress, and my father is Roberto Rossellini, who was the experimental filmmaker par excellence in Europe, but also quite known in America. So, I was intimidated. So, fashion to me, and modeling, was a way to be – because there are a lot of things in common with filmmaking – but it was also my own, it was different – it was my own thing. But, after the success that I had in fashion, I think I felt the courage to say, “But fashion has so much in common with film.” You know, modeling – you still have to show emotion. You may not have a dialogue, you may not have a film that is an hour long, but you still have a scene, a mood to portray. So, I could see that it wasn’t that far away from acting. And so, that gave me the courage to evolve from modeling into acting, and then from acting into directing and writing.
Ron Bennington: And also you, like your dad, were attracted to the experimental side of things.
Isabella Rossellini: Yes. Because again, I think as I said before, we like the journey more than the destination. So, if you were concentrating on the destination, you’re concentrating on the success. And, if you don’t make something that is successful, I think it’s an enormous blow. But some people, like me or my dad, or even my mom, really like the process of storytelling or making film, like an artisan enjoys needlepoint or crafting a piece of wood. There is a pleasure in being hands-on.
Ron Bennington: Well, like you said when you brought up your mother, that was a very daring move for her to leave one style of filmmaking, where she was thought of as this Hollywood starlet as high as you could go, and she thought, “Now, I’m going to Europe,” and –
Isabella Rossellini: Well, my mom was European, was Swedish. And she came to America, and she was very successful. And for nine years, she made a legendary film, like “Casablanca”, or “Notorious”, or “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. But, because she was European, she was also interested in what was happening in Europe. And when she saw my father’s films that the critics labeled neorealist, they were very real. There wasn’t anything that was entertaining and fantasy. They were very real and about the war. These films came out just at the end of the second World War. She felt really attracted to them, and so she contacted my dad and they started working together. But, they also fell in love, and before my mom could get a divorce from her husband, she became pregnant. And that created an enormous scandal, and she was not allowed back to the United States. And that was very painful for her. I don’t think that she did all this just for the love of independent film. She would have liked to make a film that was different than a Hollywood studio film. She didn’t know that she was going to fall in love with my dad, that she was going to be chastised out of Hollywood, that she couldn’t come back here for nine years, this would have – she paid a higher price.
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Ron Bennington: And then of course is your acting. Meeting David Lynch and doing “Blue Velvet”, there you go off into a place that no American filmmakers were doing at the time.
Isabella Rossellini: Well, I don’t know. Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan, they’re all American. David is American, Dennis Hopper is American. I was the only foreign actress.
Ron Bennington: But I mean, in sensibility, that film still -
Isabella Rossellini: Yes, I don’t know. For me, I don’t know. I don’t see myself – I’ve lived in America for 42 years, and so I feel very integrated in America. But of course, there is part of me that is also European. But I don’t know that this is why I make eccentric films. I don’t think the justification of it is because I’m European. I think that it is the way I am, you know? Maybe I’m just a little bit eccentric. But, I can’t help it –
Ron Bennington: Right. And I don’t think there’s any better calling than to follow your own curiosity. Whatever you happen to be curious about.
Isabella Rossellini: Yes, I agree. It’s really great to follow your own curiosity and to learn more. In fact, I’m back at school learning animal behavior, taking a masters degree in animal behavior, and it’s filled my life with such interest, in a moment when it could have been really sad. Because, my children are grown up, and I have really felt very strongly the empty nest. And also, your career is less, because I’m in my 60s so I don’t have a modeling career anymore. I do some acting, but still, it’s not so strong when you’re my age. So, doing my own films and going back to university has really gave my age, not a sense of “Oh, life is dwindling away. It’s becoming not interesting.” It doesn’t make me nostalgic, it feels always full.
Ron Bennington: And new. Things are still new.
Isabella Rossellini: And new. Exactly.
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Ron Bennington: What a pleasure, the one and only Isabella Rossellini.
Isabella Rossellini: Thank you.
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You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.