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Rossellini's 'Seduce Me' Looks At Animal Courtship


FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

When you hear the words bisexual, transsexual or even asexual, I'm betting that lizards or deer or dolphin are probably not on your mind. But sexual variety plays a big role in the animal kingdom, and animal mating behaviors are a lot weirder, a lot weirder than you might think.

And if you're not convinced now, you might be after watching the videos made by my next guest, model, actress and filmmaker Isabella Rossellini, who has turned biology into art.

Her Web series, "Seduce Me" and "Green Porno," they're short films, a series of short films, on the mating and courtship of animals. It's about the birds and the bees and also the spiders, the cuttlefish, the ducks and even bedbugs, yeah.

But this isn't your average educational video. In the film, Rossellini is costumed, and she acts out - acts as the creatures from across the animal kingdom, and her co-stars are bright paper props and cutouts.

The videos have been a huge hit on the Internet. So if you haven't seen them, surf over to the sundancechannel.com, sundancechannel.com, and you can watch them from there. You can also go to our website at sciencefriday.com.

A warning: We'll be talking about some PG-13-level biology here. So if you have any young animals listening, you might want to put them back into their crates.

Isabella Rossellini is a writer, director, star of "Seduce Me" and "Green Porno." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. ISABELLA ROSSELLINI (Writer, Director, "Seduce Me"): Oh, thank you for having me.

FLATOW: How many science shows have you been on so far?

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Not too many. We were delighted when my first series came out, "Green Porno," that I was in the same week interviewed by Playboy and Science magazine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Wow, wow. That's got to be the first time for that, I'll bet. How did you come up with the idea? I'm sure everybody wants to know that first.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Yes, well, it was a combination - I personally always loved animals, and so I always read about animals, especially animal behavior and occasionally took courses on biology and zoology. I live in the country. I'm a bird-watcher, an oyster-raiser. You know, I'll do anything that - raise dogs for the blind as a volunteer. So, you know, that has been always an interest in my life.

I have collaborated with the Sundance Channel, and Robert Redford, who is at the head of it all, had the idea to make a series of short films specifically for the Internet.

Now, we did it three years ago, still this question of what is the life of the internet. It's just a recycling bin of what's in television or things specifically to the Internet will be produced by companies such as the Sundance Channel?

So he wanted to re-do the sundancechannel.com just as something different. But he thought that short films - and also he reminded me that if you work for the Internet, short - small screens are also something to take into consideration.

And so that gave me the idea of doing these very colorful costumes.

FLATOW: Beautiful.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Yes, with - because I had a friend, two friends, Rick Gilbert and Andy Byers, who are marvelous artists with paper. And so they created the sort of origami, very complex paper sculptures for my film.

FLATOW: And you star in them. You produce them. You write them. And just to give our audience a flavor of what we're talking about, so we can talk about them a little bit more, we have a clip from one of your episodes. And before we play it, tell us - this one is about the spider. Tell us what's going on in this one?

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Oh, the spiders. They are so - when you say spiders, we all have in mind one, but we also know that there are many spiders, and each one of us knows because they've seen small spider, big spider, colorful spider, hairy spiders. There are so many spiders, and their rituals, their mating rituals, their courtship ritual, can be very, very different.

But a friend of mine, who is actually a specialist of spider, said you can make a difference between two wide categories: the spiders that don't see very well, in spite of the fact that they have many eyes, would rely very much on smell and vibration; but the ones that see very well, those are the spiders that would be very colorful, and they see beyond the range we see.

And so I tried to portray this in the film that now you're going to hear.

FLATOW: Well, here - and it comes across very well, also, but it's such a gorgeous film. Unfortunately, we only have the sound for it. But it's still incredibly beautiful to listen to.

(Soundbite of film)

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Some spiders don't see very well, like the stegathis leniatis(ph). If the male plays my web well, like a cello, I can be seduced. My web is vibrating. Is it a love message, or did I catch a fly? Oh, it's a serenade. Come on, my little husband. Don't be afraid. I wouldn't eat you. Come on, let's make love.

FLATOW: And of course, you watch it on the sundancechannel.com, you get to see the beautiful costuming and whatever.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Yes. Most of the time, the female spiders are very big and very aggressive. So the male spider has to have all different sort of strategies not to be taken for a fly or, you know, and eaten.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And how did you decide which one in the animal kingdom you were going to choose?

Ms. ROSSELLINI: I think the varieties, you know, that's what I wanted, it was not only to do animals that were only mammals. In fact, I think there's one or two mammals. But I wanted to do animals that are hermaphrodite. There are animals that have both sexes. There are animal that reproduce asexually just by cloning themselves. There are animals, such as fish, that change sex during their life. They are born male, but they will change sex and become female as they grow older or vice versa.

And all this seemed very fascinating. So I made these categories of animals, and then according to the science I understood, and according to how beautiful we can portray these animals with our paper sculptures, that was the ultimate decision. But the first sorting out is diversity.

FLATOW: Right. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, if you'd like to talk to Isabella Rossellini about her animal portrayals on the website at the sundancechannel.com, "Green Porno" and "Seduce Me."

One followed the next year, but I guess they wanted to change the name a little bit from year one to year two.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Well, when - the Sundance Channel really commissions me groups of seven to 10 films. They are about a minute and a half each. And the first group we did were under the name of "Green Porno" because the Sundance Channel had so many programs about green - green house, green food, green transportation. So it was obviously that mine would be called "Green Porno."

They were immensely successful on the Internet. We won five Webbies, which is the big award for the Webs.


Ms. ROSSELLINI: And sponsors solicited us. But they couldn't have the name porno. So then we did a whole new series, very similar to "Green Porno," what we called "Seduce Me" but that really concentrated more on the seductive strategies rather than the mating. And this is the new series that is out on the Web right now.

FLATOW: Did you find that you had to research about these topics?


FLATOW: Who - did you consult with, any one group in particular?

Ms. ROSSELLINI: The first time I did them, anytime I called any scientist, and I would say I'm making a short film called "Green Porno," blink, the phone came down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROSSELLINI: But the interview that I've done, actually, with the journalist from Science magazine - his name is John Bohannon - he became a very good fan and friend, and "Seduce Me" I wrote with him. Which was tremendously useful, because I didn't have to do this massive research. I've always had a little bit of the doubt because, I mean, I've taken courses, and I'm an animal lover, but I am not a scientist.

So it's wonderful to have the support of two major scientists, John, who is a genetic biologist, and a marine biologist called Claudio Campagna.

FLATOW: And let's get a flavor of another one. Let's see if we can listen to another one, and this one is the praying mantis. Tell us a little bit about the mating rituals.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: The praying mantis...

FLATOW: Oh, we don't have the praying mantis one? Tell us anyhow about it.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: I'll tell you because it's terrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROSSELLINI: The female, while she's being made love, she eats up the male, a cannibal. It's one of the worst.

FLATOW: It's tough for men to watch that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We do have the one, which is in the news a lot, the one about the bedbugs.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Yes, one is a big news because in New York, it's infestated(ph) by bedbugs, and Jon Stewart took my little episode and made fun of it but in a very charming and very wonderful way until "Bedbug," my film, went viral on the Net. So it was a big success for us.

FLATOW: All right, let's listen to a little bit about the bedbug.

(Soundbite of film, "Seduce Me")

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Bedbugs have penises like knives. Females don't need any genitals to mate. Zap. Chase me. Mate with me. Seduce me. So strong and sharp.

FLATOW: Wow. A little risk, you took a little risk on that one.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: You took a little risk, but it is surprising because of all the animals that I've read, especially if there are two sexes, male and female, one way to know which one is male and which one is female is by their sexual characteristic.

But the female bedbug doesn't have any genitals at all, and the male penetrates her and leaves his sperm in the wound and she has a blood system, a circulatory system, that would carry the sperm to the ovaries. But she doesn't have an organ to collect the sperm.

FLATOW: Right. Wow.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: It's extraordinary.

FLATOW: I would think that these were perfect teaching materials for schools, you know...

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Well, you know...

FLATOW: ...who want to get their kids just - you know, because it has that age to it, and yet it has the educational value.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Well, they were meant to be entertainment.

FLATOW: They certainly are. Yeah.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: They were meant to be fun. And I'm glad that you say they are fun. But I do also want people to say to laugh and then say, ah, I didn't know that.

My son, who is 17, is a big fan and actually appears in some of the film, or has helped me when we created the film, brought them to school. And his science teacher adopted it, and then other science teacher(ph) out of that. So I do know about four or five teachers that are using it as material, at least for teenagers in, you know, in high school.

FLATOW: Yeah. And do you have another series anticipated?

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Right now we don't have another series anticipating. I'm just finished with this one. But I have collaborated with Sundance so many years. And I'm sure we'll think of something next to do together.

FLATOW: All right. Let's go Jim(ph) in Mountain View, California. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi. How are you guys doing?

FLATOW: How are you?

JIM: I'm doing fine. Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

JIM: Yes. I just wanted to say, I don't have any questions here. But, you know, I remember when I was 10 years, I was a huge fan of Senora Rossellini's mother, Ingrid Bergman, you know. And then when she passed away, I was I mean, my whole family, they were so sad.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Oh, so sweet.

JIM: And we really miss her, miss her very much.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Oh, that is so kind of you.

JIM: And when I saw Senora Rossellini for the first time, you know, she exactly reminds us from her mother, you know. I mean, she I dont know. Every time I see her, I see Ingrid, you know. I mean, this is this is incredible.

FLATOW: All right.

JIM: And I just called to say, you know, I dream to someday, somewhere, I could see Senora Rossellini and just shake her hand, kiss her hand, actually, (unintelligible) a huge fan of her.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Thank you so much. You're just so kind.

JIM: And I hope everything good for you, happiness.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: For you too. Happy holidays too.

FLATOW: Thank you. The next best thing is to go to the sundancechannel.com and watch these videos, because she does look just like her mother. I'm sitting here thinking...

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Well, I have to explain. You know, my mom...

FLATOW: Let me remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow with Isabella Rossellini. I'm sorry to have to interrupt you. Go ahead. About your mom, you're going to tell...

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Oh, no. I was just saying, my mom is Ingrid Bergman, an actress that unfortunately died many years ago. But she was very known for films like "Casablanca" or "Notorious." She had a huge career in Hollywood, but she was Swedish. I am half Swedish, half Italian, and delighted that people still remember her and are so attached. And we do look very similar, my mom and I.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's true. One of the NPR folks love Italian names. In fact, NPR has I'm not going to say her name because thousands of people will want to hear who she is. There's a reporter in Italy that NPR has. And we have a lot of fun with her name.

So I just so you're going to finish up this series and...

Ms. ROSSELLINI: This series is finished. We've done 28 episodes on animal courtship and animal sex. It could be you know, these films, they were very successful. But they were really thought to be an experiment on format for the Internet. So it's up to Sundance to see if this format has been successful. So far it has been successful. Will they continue? It's all part of the new talk about...


Ms. ROSSELLINI: ...what is the destiny of the Internet. It seems to be changing every day. And also how to monetize the Internet...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: ...because we expect everything from the Internet to come in free, and that's one of the problem of producing.

FLATOW: So why aren't more people doing these short form, small budget films?

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Because the Internet has not found a way to monetize it. So artists, you know (unintelligible) the money because Sundance locates(ph) some money to experiment.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: But if you do a film, you get the money back because you sell the ticket. If you do a film for television, you have advertisers or you have cable, so you pay monthly installment.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: The Internet is for free. Of course you pay installment every month to get a signal, but none of this money goes back to the artist. And that's why it's very difficult to create a Web industry...


Ms. ROSSELLINI: ...that makes film.

FLATOW: Do you think this is a new business for you? Is this something new...

Ms. ROSSELLINI: It's a new business for me to be a filmmaker.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: But in fact, my next project is with Discovery Channel, but it's a much more traditional format, an hour-long special television, which is, again, about animal. It's called "Animal, Distract Me." And they will probably have a component for the Internet. But this was specifically thought out to create a viable business...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: ...for the Internet.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Some of you people want to know the Italian name. I'm thinking, of course, of Sylvia Poggioli...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...who is such a popular name on NPR - located in Italy for so many years. She gets more mail because of her name.

1-800-989-8255 is our number. Do you - did you have any agenda? People want to say, why suddenly are you going to do something like this? Do you have some social message? Do you have an agenda? Or is this just something you found fun to be?

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Well, you know, I think the agenda was to experiment in film. I always loved experimenting in film. And also as an actress I think you can see that I make more independent film...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: ...whether I work with David Lynch in "Blue Velvet" or Guy Maddin in "The Saddest Music in the World," that my personal taste tends to be on experimental filmmaking. I found that to be creative and...

FLATOW: So you're a risk taker.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: But I don't see it as risk taking...


Ms. ROSSELLINI: I find actually that if you have to be very successful and maintain that success, that's very risky, you know, to make a film that it is 80 million, 100 million dollar...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: ...and really make sure that people like it and that you get the money back, it seems to be a much higher risk than do a small, less expensive film that are experimental. And if they don't go well, it's okay. You know, nobody loses their homes or...

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: ...loses money.

FLATOW: Well...

Ms. ROSSELLINI: So I prefer - I find it all very light and wonderful to be experimental.

FLATOW: Well, we wish you great luck, and we thank you for your taking us(ph) - they're wonderful films.

Ms. ROSSELLINI: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: And I wish everybody would take a look. Isabella Rossellini, writer, director and star of "Green Porno" and "Seduce Me." That's on the Sundance Channel. Also you can see it at the Sciencefriday.com arts fair. We'll send you over to there.

We have to take a break. We'll be right back. Don't go away. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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