Isabella Rossellini Previews Gold Coast International Film Festival

Actress/filmmaker screens new films, answers questions on career and love of animals

By , Columnist
Film festivals are cropping up everywhere these days, but Long Island's North Shore, home of Theodore Roosevelt and The Great Gatsby, can claim more High Society pedigree than most aspiring centers of film culture. The inaugural run of the upcoming Gold Coast International Film Festival (June 1-5, 2011) received a dose of real Hollywood royalty when Isabella Rossellini, who has a home on Long Island, appeared at a pre-festival event in New York City to screen her own films and answer questions.

The actress and model, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini, has had an eclectic career, to say the least, from her breakout role in Blue Velvet to Wild at Heart to appearances in Alias and 30 Rock. She may be most familiar to today's younger generation from her Green Porno series of short films, in which she dresses in outlandish costumes to portray the mating rituals of various animals for the Sundance Channel.

Isabella Rossellini.jpgAt the Gold Coast event she treated an audience to a viewing of My Father is 100 Years Old, the short experimental film she made a few years ago with director Guy Maddin about coming to grips with her famous father's legacy, and the brand-new Animals Distract Me, her debut as a longer-form director. That film, designed to fit in a TV hour, is a quirky exploration of Rossellini's lifelong interest in animals, which has led her, among other things, to a side career raising guide dogs for the blind.

It's "a day in my life," Rossellini said of Animals Distract Me, but, not surprisingly, hers is no average life. While her "day" may include glamorous photography shoots with Fabrizio Ferri and personal tastings with Mario Batali, the actress is constantly distracted by the animals she sees and thinks about. Taking the animals' perspective, she imagines everything from how her dog perceives a human conversation to how the microscopic demodex mites in her eyelashes might be reacting to the approach of a mascara brush. She wanted to make a film about animals since she was a girl, she said, and now, with modeling dried up and acting jobs intermittent, she finally has the time to "make the film I wanted to do when I was a teenager."

Citing inspiration from her work with Maddin, she eschews the Hollywood hierarchy (it's "like Louis XIV") of big-budget filmmaking. "You can't even look at the stars, you have to lower your eyes or they'll get distracted." Her humor and down-to-earth attitude pervade her work; Rossellini is completely unafraid to dress up in silly costumes, to look foolish, or mannish, or really anything her vision requires. Asked where her playfulness comes from, she simply said, "I like to laugh."

Of course, it took a lot of research to make films that present scientific information, and she finds the research and the writing to be the hardest part. But "then when you start working with the others, it's great. Once the film is written and we put together the costumes, actors, dogs, all that is great fun. Editing, music - and you are with people, you are with your friends. I have a lot of fun making films," she added.

She works "to make it informative and scientifically correct, but funny...I'm always thinking to find the joke." Of course, when the science is about the mating habits of animals, and she can push a cork up an animatronic rat's vagina to demonstrate male enforced-faithfulness tactics, finding the funny isn't always so hard.

Being a famous model-actress doesn't guarantee anything when it comes to producing. "It was very difficult to get any scientists to help" with the first set of eight Green Porno films, she says. "I was a model making a film called Green Porno, and they'd just hang up the phone." Budget was tight, too, which led to the series' signature paper-set look, developed by Andy Byers, who went on to create the miniature Manhattan and other sets found in Animals Distract Me. "When I met him, he was doing windows for Victoria's Secret."

Rossellini also reflected on her Neo-realist father's legacy. Roberto Rossellini believed that the advent of cinema "was as important as the discovery of fire by primitive man...All of a sudden, culture, information, was available to everybody. He used film to inform, to denounce, to seek out, to have other voices heard," she said.

In a way, she's continuing that tradition, giving "voice" to the animals who can't talk to us. But in a way she's also echoing the preoccupations of her father's onetime assistant Federico Fellini, whose filmic interest in fantasy and sex caused a split with his "prudish" mentor. Isabella said she can only hope that her dad would approve of her own uninhibited projects.

Whatever the subject matter, "Telling stories is at the base of everything - if you are a director it's storytelling, if you are an actor it's storytelling, if you are a producer." And wearing those multiple hats isn't just fun for Rossellini, it's a matter of survival. "I have so many friends who are just actors - especially at my age - who are destroyed psychologically because they don't do anything, they just feel the rejection...I get rejected [too] but I'm not suffering from it because I do my own things. Even more now. You evolve, and you adapt, and you go on," she stated.

Upcoming? "In Green Porno I talk about how animals mate, and I'm doing a series called Seduce Me, and the next one I would like to do is about motherhood. There are many ways to be a mama. Many. Not all very pretty." Rossellini sympathetically portrays her own mother, Ingrid Bergman, in My Father is 100 Years Old. She herself has two children, Elettra, who has followed in Isabella's footsteps as a Lancôme cosmetics spokesmodel, and Roberto.

"Fundraising is getting harder," Rossellini continued, "because [although] new opportunities are opening, there's no new tradition, it's a little bit like the Wild West...the pie is being divided" in more pieces "so it's a little bit harder to produce. But it's also very exciting. And I think television will change more than films," she added. "Going to a movie and together watching a film, that will remain."

As evidenced by the bumper crop of new film festivals, it looks like she's right about that. For the Gold Coast International Film Festival, senior programmer Sean McPhillips, former vice president of acquisitions at Miramax, has selected 40 features. There will be panels, parties, outdoor screenings, and other special programs, all just a short commuter-rail ride from New York City. Visit the Festival's website for more information.

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