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This article is from the In-Depth Report Science at the Movies

A Bug's Sex Life: A Q&A with Isabella Rossellini

Green Porno—a humanized view of invertebrate love



© Sundance Channel

Isabella Rossellini, well known as a supermodel and movie star, is now making short films for mobile devices that illustrate the sex lives of dragonflies, earthworms and other creatures. But they are not like standard nature shows. In these films, which she researched with the help of Wildlife Conservation Society experts, she not only details unusual aspects of the critters' biology but also dresses up as them and mimics sex with paper cutouts. We asked Rossellini what she hopes to accomplish with the films on invertebrate love, dubbed Green Porno, which premiers May 5 on the Sundance Channel’s Web site. A version of this story will appear in the July issue of Scientific American.

How did you get started making these short films?
Sundance was interested in experimenting and expanding the definition of film, and nowadays there is the new possibility of creating content for what are called the third and fourth screens—the third screen being your laptop, the fourth screen being your mobile.

Sundance said, "Would you be interested in making films for the mobile?”  Because the mobile not only has a small screen in comparison with television or cinema, but also you're not looking at it when you're sitting at home in a comfortable chair as you would watching television. You're looking at little films on your cellular phone while you are waiting for somebody or for the bus. So we thought short films would be something that people would dedicate two minutes to watch, but longer would be difficult. [watch Isabella talk about making the films]

You call these shorts Green Porno—what’s the story behind the name?
Sundance wanted, if possible, content that was environmental, because the channel and Robert Redford [the creative director of the network] are very dedicated to it. It’s part of their mission.

And then they said, "Because this is new media, can you make it flashy and funny?" But when I heard these three words—short and green and flashy—flashy to me translated into sex, so it's great to do a very short little series about the life of bugs.

Was it hard researching the sexual behavior of bugs?
It was difficult. I was always joking with some of the scientists I called that, when it comes to insects, you can go through pages and pages and pages of how their mouths work, and I kept on saying, "I want to know how the genitalia work." There are great descriptions about mouths and not much about sex.

When I read scientific books that have a lot of terminology that is hard for me to understand—because I'm an actress, I'm not a scientist—sometimes I have to say, "What does he [the bug] do? He doesn't have teeth to chew food, so he spits. So it's as if I spit my gastric juices to the food so I can then suck it in. So instead of an internal digestive system, I have an external one." When I'm trying to understand the behavior, I bring it back to humans. That's the process I tried to illustrate when I did Green Porno.

I was terrified of making mistakes. I'm a very big supporter of the Wildlife Conservation Society, so I kept calling them, and their scientists are very kind.

How far did you go with the costumes?
Often I had the bug eyes. Once I have the eyes on, I can't see anything. Sometimes I'm led like a blind person to the set, and then I'm told to turn a little bit to the right so it looks like I'm facing the camera. But the earthworm was the worst, because the costume is 35 feet long. [watch earthworm video clip] Once I was in the costume I couldn't come out, and then my arms were along my body, so I was completely strapped, and it's very constrictive.  I almost broke out of it one afternoon after being there for three hours while they were still fiddling with the lights for some reason—"Ahh, I can't wait, I'm going nuts!"

They were fragile. Once I humped them, they came apart [laughs]. [watch behind the scenes footage]

You also play the males quite often—for instance, you play a small male spider that sneaks up to mate with a large female to avoid getting eaten.
Obviously, there are lots of species of spiders, and I had to generalize there—spiders have the most incredible sexual rituals. [watch spider video clip] If I do another series [of films], I might have to add more spiders—they do things that are very funny. But with the generalized spider, we made the female very big—the huge cutout just looked funnier—and it was easier for me to play the male.

You also played a male drone bee that lost its genitals in the female after sex.
In a lot of species, males do that and die. In a lot of species, males don't do anything else but sex. Some males don't even have mouths—they just live to mate, and that's it.

So why focus on insects as opposed to the rest of the animal kingdom?
It was easier to stay away from mammals for the moment, because maybe mammals would look too pornographic. With the bugs, they're so strange and far out, they're comical. If a human being behaved like a bug, he or she would be arrested.

Also, when I was little or a teenager, I always regretted that I lived in an urban environment, and I always said I should have been born in Africa or been like Jane Goodall. That was my dream. And then when I moved to live in the country—now I live in Long Island—I discovered all these bugs in my backyard, I discovered you can do your own safari. Animals are everywhere. Some are more romantic, like tigers and elephants and chimpanzees, and some are less romantic, like earthworms, but they are just as interesting.

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